In the first of a new series looking at influential housing plans, Alison Brooks picks OMA’s proposals for Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin
I came across this drawing while a student at the University of Waterloo, Ontario probably around 1983. It was published in journals documenting the Internationale Bauaustellung Berlin (IBA Berlin). This competition was probably the first time I understood that urban housing design could evolve beyond modern movement archetypes or the subsequent Brutalism – both of which seemed to fill all books on architecture.
OMA’s Checkpoint Charlie bisected isometric drawing was startling, it appeared as a kind of opened sandwich, simultaneously revealing the underbelly of the building and the ingredients of the ground floor – a sort of public space for the military security zone. Above this strange world housing typologies (categories) were unceremoniously stacked; maisonettes, flats, penthouses. Its architecture was a collage of modernist architectural devices; strip windows, pilotis, a street in the air, expressed vertical circulation. I could see these devices overlaid the proto-military public space with an acute sense of irony and wit. The isometric drawing communicated the building’s rebellious personality, it was simultaneously didactic and critical of its own position in architectural history, but also coolly urban.
The isometric drawing communicated the building’s rebellious personality
What I found exceptionally helpful as a student was the way in which each element of the building’s ‘programme’ was articulated as a piece of architecture in itself. When architecture is conceived as a collection of autonomous devices it is easier to compose and comprehend, easier to design than carving space out of mass or moulding form into function. It represents a strategic approach to architecture operating within suprematist or constructivist compositional rules. I found that the strategic, 3-dimensional assembly of elements relieved the pressure of perfecting a final composition, and became a useful design methodology for a few of my academic years.
Checkpoint Charlie’s wit and lightness of touch conveyed by the infamous isometric was probably my most significant encounter with a published architectural drawing, matched only by Madelon Vriesendorp’s paintings in Delirious New York. Its impact has informed much of my work since, underpinning my belief that architecture can and should convey political intention, urbanity and wherever possible, wit.