Expo / Berlin
Cold war modern
With its vast lobbies and unfussy functionality, the concrete-and-glass Deutsche Oper building was considered an audacious statement of democratic ideals when it first opened in 1961 on the western side of the Berlin Wall. Today it remains a monument to the postwar era’s dream of a progressive, culturally rich future.
In 1961, just weeks after the Berlin Wall has been erected, a new cultural landmark in the well-to-do neighbourhood of Charlottenburg opened its doors for the first time. Its modernity and dextrous use of glass and concrete marked it immediately as a symbol of a Germany that is determined to shake off its Nazi past and take a stand against what is happening in communist-controlled East Berlin.
The low-slung grey façade of the Deutsche Oper looks out on busy Bismarckstrasse. Even today, the institution remains true to its postwar ideals of transparency and of looking forwards. “Our mission has always been to be very open,” its general artistic director, Dietmar Schwarz, tells monocle. The opera, he says, was originally founded here in 1912 in a baroque-revival-style building and it catered for the bourgeoisie of Charlottenburg, then an affluent independent city.
Yet its fate has always been linked to the zeitgeist and, after a couple of relatively uneventful decades, it became the property of the Nazi government in 1934. Joseph Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda knew the importance of putting on a show when it came to swaying public opinion and the theatre was used to stage nationalistic productions. A “Führer’s Box” was installed; Adolf Hitler, Goebbels and other Nazi leaders personally attended the opening of the redecorated opera house. Before the end of the Second World War, however, it was destroyed in a bombing raid.
In the 1950s, Berlin-born architect Fritz Bornemann was given the task of creating a new space on the same site. A smart figure who was often snapped wearing dark glasses, Bornemann had already worked on the Amerika-Gedenk Bibliothek in Kreuzberg by the time he was chosen. His Deutsche Oper building took on an even greater significance when the Berlin Wall sealed off the German capital’s two other opera houses – the neoclassical Staatsoper Berlin and the Komische Oper Berlin – in the Soviet-controlled East.
“The task [of the building’s architecture] was to show off transparency and democracy,” says the opera’s current head of dramaturgy, Jörg Königsdorf, as he leads monocle through the doors into the building’s airy lobby. To achieve this, Bornemann drew on its original 1912 layout and footprint but broke with the vernacular of collonaded, marble-clad opera houses. “Bornemann radically rejected the traditional dignified formulas of theatre construction,” says Frank Schmitz, a professor of architectural history at the University of Hamburg and the author of Spiel-Räume der Demokratie (“Playgrounds of Democracy”), a book on mid-century theatre design. He draws attention to the absence of allegorical representations of antiquity: no Apollo, no Muses. “The Deutsche Oper was the counter-image of the Staatsoper, which was faithfully restored on the outside after severe damage during the war, complete with its columns and gilded inscription,” he says.
Arriving at the Deutsche Oper Berlin today, visitors are instead greeted by an exposed concrete façade that serves as a sound barrier, shielding the performances that take place within from the hum of the Bismarckstrasse traffic. Königsdorf says that the decision to build such a robust exterior was also symbolic. “The purpose was to create what would now be a safe space for the arts,” he says.
In contrast to the solid concrete, other sections of the façade are glass – a nod to the theme of transparency but also useful for letting light in. Because of the building’s extensive use of the material, it is possible to see all the way through it, while floating staircases add to the feeling of openness. The same goes for the paper lanterns that glow like fireflies, casting a warm light that can be spotted from outside the building – a human touch in what is otherwise a busy traffic artery.
While Bornemann opted for a restrained and utilitarian palate of concrete, glass, wood and black linoleum, to dismiss these choices as postwar belt-tightening would be to misunderstand his intentions, says Königsdorf. “Only the highest quality of materials was used here,” he says, gesturing around the foyer. “Bornemann wanted to redefine luxury.” Königsdorf adds that this impulse extended to the building’s generous proportions.
Now funded by Berlin’s regional government, the Deutsche Oper runs a programme of 30 operas a year: a mix of favourites by the likes of Mozart and Verdi, as well as works by lesser-known composers. “I look to the traditions of the opera house and the city, and combine these with my vision,” says Schwarz of his post, which he has held since 2012, after previously serving as opera director at Theater Basel.
On the day that monocle visits, the building is humming with activity. Someone backstage is practising a French horn, its sound low and velvety. On the stage, singers are rehearsing, their voices rising through the empty auditorium. “In acoustic terms, the opera building is the best in Berlin,” says Anna Smirnova, a mezzo-soprano who is performing in several operas here this season. “My voice feels free and I don’t have to adapt it. It sounds perfect anywhere on the stage.” Sparkly costumes hang ready in the dressing rooms, waiting for that night’s soloists to arrive. In the cafeteria on the ground floor (which, in another gesture of openness, is open to all), employees gather for lunch and coffee.
The building properly comes to life at night, as guests bustle in for the evening’s performance. First, members of the technical crew arrive in the wings, where the words “bitte gröste ruhe” (“Please be silent”) are printed in big capital letters. The stage manager, ready to co-ordinate their movements, takes his seat. Then volunteer firefighters, who are present at every performance, along with a doctor, appear. Slowly, theatregoers emerge from the Deutsche Oper U-Bahn station outside and the lobby fills with chatter. Freed of their coats, they make their way upstairs into the foyer for a catch-up with friends or a swift drink at the bar. As the musicians tune their instruments in the orchestra pit, the audience settles in.
With more than 1,800 seats, the Deutsche Oper is one of Germany’s largest theatres. Like the original 1912 opera house, it has no royal box for dignitaries and forgoes the traditional horseshoe shape in favour of rows that are only slightly curved. “The seating arrangements in the postwar West German auditoriums were a subject of intense debate,” says Schmitz. “They were supposed to illustrate the democratic constitution of society.”
The boxes that do exist face the stage, rather than across the room, so no one needs to turn to face the performance. “The auditorium is democratic with full sight of the stage from every seat,” says Königsdorf, leading monocle along one of the highest rows at the back of the upper level. Indeed, even from there, the dress rehearsal that is taking place is in perfect view, never obstructed by columns or architectural finials and flourishes.
As in Bornemann’s time, the Deutsche Oper’s vast foyers are a place for Berliners to see and be seen. “Theatre buildings in the Federal Republic of Germany were spaces for social negotiation, places where society encounters itself,” says Schmitz. The large lobbies on the first and second floors stretch the full width of the building. Bornemann left them purposefully sparse. They are also regularly used to host exhibitions of contemporary art. During the interval, opera-goers mingle over glasses of champagne and Butterbrezeln in one of the building’s several bars, the headlights of the Bismarkstrasse traffic visible through the huge side windows.
The Deutsche Oper was a milestone in Bornemann’s career and it is where he celebrated his 95th birthday with a reception, surrounded by friends and colleagues. His later work included another Berlin theatre, the Freie Volksbühne (now the Haus der Berliner Festspiele), and the German pavilion at the 1970 Japan World Exhibition in Osaka. He received fulsome plaudits from the Berlin Chamber of Architects and the Association of German Architects (for which he served as chairman) after his death in Berlin in 2007.
“The view of postwar modern architecture has changed,” says Schmitz. “With the distance of two generations, it is now perceived as historical. A younger generation is looking at the elegance of the Deutsche Oper and appreciating its design.” Rather than bemoaning the building’s clean lines and concrete or comparing it to other older and grander opera houses, guests now tend to coo with appreciation as they pass through the space. “Nowadays, our architecture is considered cool again,” says Schwarz, as the Deutsche Oper gears up for the evening’s performance.