City Lab: Berlin – Norwich University’s International Campus

The micro-campus set in a city renowned for its experimental architecture and design offers students an outstanding study abroad experience.
By Christian Dengler, 
Director | City Lab: Berlin

October 22, 2015

Contemporary Berlin is experienced as a dynamic superposition of disrupted layers of history, unfolding on it’s way back as a global capital and intellectual and artistic center. Berlin is one of the few UNESCO cities of design and a prototype of radical urban and architectural transformations. It‘s urban form is a collage of contradictory urban typologies reflecting it’s volatile urban history: from Baroque, Classicist, 19th-century Historism, 20th-century Modernism and Avant-garde to Post-war Capitalist developments of West Berlin, communist housing blocks of East Berlin and late 20th and early 21st-century reconstructions, when Berlin became the capital of a unified Germany.

City Lab: Berlin, an international campus of Norwich University, provides an overview of the urban spaces, buildings, architects and theories that have shaped Berlin’s identity. Classes are organized with coordinated site visits that familiarize students with the historical background of the city and help them develop a critical and personal approach to looking at architecture. The buildings and urban spaces we visit have been selected for their architectural significance, as well as their reflection of the different periods of Berlin’s complex history.

As a laboratory for design experimentation, Berlin acquaints students with the production of a wide range of contemporary and iconic modern architectures within the process of rebuilding in a key European city. In the city’s inspiring and fascinating context, students combine site analysis with their talent and intuition to experience and design. Berlin offers students a wide variety of spatial, visual and cultural encounters, from the collections of images housed in its numerous museums and galleries to its breadth of architecture that has shaped Berlin’s controversial identity. As the site of a number of movements in arts and architecture, from Expressionism to Dada, Modernism to Rationalism and photomontage to film propaganda, it is a perfect place to explore the role of architecture as a form of visual production in cultural understanding.

City Lab: Berlin provides an outstanding study abroad experience, balancing a well-structured curriculum with individual independence and comprehensive experience. In its first year of operation, it has attracted students from Carnegie Mellon University and Hobart William Smith College as well as Norwich. The program demands concentration and dedication, as students learn to negotiate between the experience of living in a foreign environment (as avid consumers of knowledge) and the time they spend in studio (as diligent producers of architectural design). Students must show an open attitude towards learning in a new environment and a special commitment to producing rigorous academic work. Students will also have extensive independent time to explore Berlin, Germany and Europe on their own.

For those unfamiliar with Berlin, the encounter with a rather green city often comes as a surprise. The city’s green public spaces are found everywhere, both as large planned parks and informal public spaces scattered across the urban fabric. Not all of Berlin’s green spaces, however, are the product of innovative city planning, but rather the result of war, destruction and division. In a short period of time, the city became the focal point for migration and a melting pot for hundreds of thousands of different peoples, lives and cultures. Berlin faced the ecological problems of industrialization and damage caused by the city’s uncontrolled growth, resulting in the extreme density of its urban architecture and the apparent complexity of modern everyday life.

The superposition and layering of contrasting sounds, aesthetics, solids and voids, smells and different speeds of the city soon became the myth of Berlin and one of the most powerful symbols of Modernity itself. The complexities and damages of the city‘s uncontrolled growth necessitated professional planning to develop new urban concepts and strategies. New housing forms, known as Mietkasernen, or “rental barracks,” came to define the urban context. But it was the appearance of a new industrial architecture inaugurated by Peter Behrens’s AEG Turbine Hall in the Berlin district of Moabit in 1909 that opened the door for Modernism. During the unstable Weimar Republic, Berlin experienced an architectural renaissance fueled by the collective talent of such vanguard architects as Eric Mendelsohn, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Hans Poelzig and Bruno and Max Taut, who gradually steered design away from Expressionism towards a “new objectivity,” or Neue Sachlichkeit.

The Bauhaus, founded in 1919 and given an iconic home in Dessau by Walter Gropius in 1926, spawned a generation of architects and designers eager to advance new forms, materials and methods. Adolf Hitler’s ascent to power in 1933 forced the avant-garde underground or into exile, and the Nazis established their own reactionary design agenda. Albert Speer’s plans for a new capital called “Germania,” built within Berlin, were only partially realized before WWII began. Allied bombing raids and Soviet invasion left Berlin in ruins, and capitulation brought about a Stunde Null, a “year zero,” in the city’s—and the nation’s—political and cultural life.

With the establishment of two German states after WWII, reconstruction assumed different guises on either side of the Wall. The erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961 transformed vast areas of what had been part of a dense urban fabric into devastated border zones. In Communist East Berlin, Soviet-sanctioned historicism was eventually replaced by the functional modernism of the prefabricated Plattenbau, while in West Berlin international building exhibitions attempted to address the physical and infrastructural deficiencies facing a city made an island by the Cold War.

The fall of the Wall in 1989 was the beginning of a new and exciting era of economic, cultural and social change. Physically, it revealed the scars left by a gruesome object brutally planted in the midst of the cityscape. Though most of these open lots have since been filled with office and apartment buildings, the future of many remains uncertain. After reunification and the German Parliament’s vote, in 1991, to move the capital from Bonn to Berlin, the world watched with fascination as the city began forging yet another identity. The (re)installation of government institutions in the heart of Berlin, along with the huge commercial complex grouped mainly around the Potsdamerplatz have given the city a new image. Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum, Norman Foster’s renovated Reichstag and Frank Gehry’s DG Bank are among the most high-profile projects, but many other less publicized works have emerged by talented local designers.

The shift of modernistic and hierarchic planning of cities and buildings towards the development of sustainable strategies of heterogeneity and complexity is a great challenge and commitment for future designers and architects. Art critic and early German historian of modern art Karl Scheffler said, in 1910, that “Berlin is condemned to always continue to be and never to be,” giving us a chance to reflect on how the many changes have affected the character of Berlin as a laboratory and to what extent the city is a model for urban development in the 21st century.