Some buildings have become such icons, that the name of their architect has vanished. Who remembers the designers of the Empire State Building or the leaning tower of Pisa? After a while, these constructions become symbols for a city, an epoch or a style. One such creation has turned into a famous Berlin postcard: the KaiserWilhelm-Gedächtniskirche, built by Egon Eiermann between 1956 and 1963.
A few hundred metres from the Zoo Station, it has long been the first thing that tourists see when arriving in the city: a ruined tower accompanied by a modern one standing on a rectangular platform. Here, a new Germany was born, grey and blue, geometric and minimal, but clearly showing where it came from: the ashes of the Second World War. At night, its stained glass softly illuminates the reconstructed district. Now an Eiermann retrospective at the BauhausArchiv in Berlin attempts to connect a name with this overexposed, and therefore overlooked, building.
Born in 1904, Eiermann was too young to be one of the first Moderns. His career started in the late-1930s with private houses and factories in and around Berlin. There he developed an interesting position, in not being too advanced in his aesthetic to be bothered by the Nazis but bringing inventions of Modernity to the plan or detailing.
The Vollberg house (1938-42) is a brilliant example of what could be seen as a rejection of the Modernist dogmas of the Weissenhof without becoming regionalist; using traditional materials, bricks and ceramics, but also dealing with Eternit and a thin metallic structure to help plants grow on the facade.
At the same time, Eiermann developed several factory buildings whose simplicity and construction methods, using concrete and metal, shunned the architectural gesture. But the true qualities of his architecture only appeared after the Second World War.
In a land of destruction, where most of the famous architects had flown to America, he carried the torch for Modernism. With the pavilion for the World Exhibition in Brussels (1958) and the Deutsche Olivetti offices in Frankfurt-am-Main (1967-72), the exterior structure became light as never before. The buildings stand on a central core, allowing the facade to bear only its own weight. It is one of the most elegant uses of steel in architecture of that time, and produced a symbol for a country in need of a new image, in opposition to the architecture of the Nazis.
The Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche is merely one of Eiermann's buildings - but it turned into a postcard of Berlin. It is not just a masterpiece but a social phenomenon.
Eiermann had initially proposed to erase the bombed church entirely, but received huge protests from the inhabitants and had to change the project. It probably became symbolic too because at that time there was a strong concern, both in Eiermann's works and German society in general, with death.
A large section of the exhibition is devoted to churches and sacral works, emphasising a deep relationship to human tragedy.
The design of the exhibition is unarguably ugly. Too many elements in too small a space and ridiculous displays (curved Eternit and models on tilted bases) go against the pure Classicism and brilliant proportions of Eiermann's drawings. But his architecture, its rigour and simplicity, survives the affront of post-Post-Modernity.
Thibaut de Ruyter is an architect and writer in Berlin. Hatje Cantz has published an excellent book in English, Egon Eiermann, 1904-1970:
Architect and Designer