A building with history

The circular-angular face of the future

When the Haus des Lehrers was constructed in the early 1960s, it wasn’t just a building – it was a vision of the future: a strategically positioned symbol facing out onto Alexanderplatz that aimed to demonstrate that the GDR was a progressive state that was more than capable of keeping up with the West. A “herald of the future” that was visible from afar: the high-rise tower and the accompanying congress centre occupied an extremely prominent position – right at the point where Stalinallee (now called Karl-Marx-Allee), a monumental boulevard extending from the east, met Alexanderplatz, the city’s up-and-coming centre. The prestigious property was intended as a work of architectural art that paved the way for international modernism (for this reason, it is now a listed building).

Interestingly, the GDR government, either because of or despite this ambition, allowed the architect Hermann Henselmann a relatively free hand when it came to designing this cultural centre for teachers – in stark contrast to his earlier housing blocks on Karl-Marx-Allee in what became known as Zuckerbäckerstil (“confectionery style”). Moreover, no expense was spared when it came to the construction of the prestigious building. Henselmann incorporated cutting-edge production techniques, highly refined craftsmanship and a work of art into the construction: Walter Womacka’s striking monumental frieze gave the building a unique appearance and genuine personality.

The Haus des Lehrers and Berlin Congress Center (bcc) form a four-part complex: the tower, the domed conference centre, the section connecting the two buildings and the cellar. Henselmann’s architectural collective created building shells using simple geometric forms in relations of tension: high and low, horizontal and vertical simultaneously complement and contrast with each other. 

Das Haus des Lehrers und das Beriln Congress Center im Rohbau.
Building site, 1963.  

The foundation stone was laid on 12 December 1961 and the Haus des Lehrers was opened on 9 September 1964 following three years of construction. It was the first high-rise building in the GDR to be constructed with a steel concrete shell and a curtain wall facade. The 12-storey, rectangular tower is 54 metres high with a base area of 44 x 15 metres. The entire structure is supported by columns on the ground floor. However, due to problems with static, they had to be made thicker than originally planned. The idea was that the main body of the building should “float” over the fully glazed ground floor. The aluminium and glass curtain wall facade that gives the building its clear visual structure was a technical innovation that became a popular export to other socialist states. In contrast to the rigorously geometric structure of the facade, Womacka’s huge mosaic (popularly known as the “abdominal bandage”) is wrapped around the third and fourth storey. Originally, the cultural centre’s library was located behind the mosaic. The other rooms were used for teaching and conferences. The building, which was formerly open to the public, also used to contain a cafe. One special feature of this 1960s building is the exceptionally high storeys: today, the offices have clear ceiling heights of over three metres.

Henselmann juxtaposed the rigorously rectangular tower with the circular form of the domed congress centre, which is set slightly back from the tower. The GDR architect paid particular attention to ensuring that the centre’s function hall, with a capacity of approx. 1,000, had excellent acoustics. Since 2003, the building has housed the “bcc” (Berlin Congress Center). Standing on a square base, the exterior shell of the building features transparent glass so as to show off the central cylindrical form of the circular dome to best effect. The diameter of the hemispherical dome is exactly the same length as the sides of the square, namely 38 metres. The circular form hence disrupts and contrasts with the angular shapes: the architectural principle is “circular-angular”! Henselmann consistently extended this play of forms. Inside, he designed large, curved staircases, used patterns featuring rectangular and circular elements, and installed semi-circular door handles. The entire design refers to the dome. The main hall of the congress centre was equipped for international conferences but was also used for concerts, balls and other functions. In addition, the discreetly designed section connecting the congress centre and the Haus des Lehrers contained a “yellow hall” with a capacity of 300 and a “white hall” with a capacity of 250 and a stage.

Das Haus des Lehrers und die Kongresshalle sind fertiggestellt.
Berlin, 1967.  

The formal style of the architecture also continues on the outside: the interplay between the pools, raised beds, outdoor glass cabinets, flagpoles and the individual elements of the building complex creates a distinctive, expansive architectural landscape typical of the early 1960s.

For his overall concept for the Haus des Lehrers complex, Hermann Henselmann drew on the full range of post-war modernism’s International Style. He repeatedly referred to the contrasting forms that were so central to his design: “The energetic and extremely active division of the spaces in the building has created something like a common musical chord. It is also sustained in the design of individual elements of the building. The accentuated verticals of the facades contrast with the mural and dome mounted on the outside. The transparent glass of the walls contrasts with the large closed-off spaces. The square of the [congress] foyer contrasts with the circle of the congress hall,” wrote the architect.

According to architecture critic Bruno Flierl, the Haus des Lehrers marked “a transition from the national to the international reservoir of images.” It quickly became one of Alexanderplatz’s architectural landmarks, and images of the Haus des Lehrers were soon popular icons among the public. In 1964, the year of the building’s completion, an elegant, angled image of the tower won first prize in an official photography competition. Third place went to a dazzlingly illuminated nocturnal photo, The Tower and Congress Centre Viewed from Alexanderplatz, in which the deepest yearning of that period can be discerned: to finally move beyond the endless fields of rubble and enjoy a dash of cosmopolitan flair! After the old-fashioned stuffiness of Stalinallee, these clear, spacious, gleaming buildings which were now being created by Hermann Henselmann and, in his wake, Josef Kaiser, such as Kino International, Hotel Berolina and the Ladenpavillon shops, were a breath of fresh air. Indeed, they were powerful enough to inspire an entirely new perspective on life in the people who used them: the future was possible after all!

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Haus des Lehrers und Berlin Congress Center vor blauem Himmel.
© Michael Lindner, (c) WBM