The Head Architect

February 3 would have been Hermann Henselmann’s 110th birthday. The head architect behind Strausberger Platz, Karl-Marx-Allee and Berlin’s TV Tower would have been a star in another time and place. Now it is up to us to honor his work.
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image courtesy of jock+scott / photocase.de and Ringo Paulusch

Time and place are everything: had Hermann Henselmann not been active on the “wrong side” of the Berlin Wall in the 1950s, we would be talking about him today in the same way that we refer to Mies van der Rohe and Hans Sharoun. But an East German address and his monumental communist buildings were simply unacceptable. Were. Until the wall came down, no one except insiders were even familiar with the name Hermann Henselmann. And then, as the anti-fascist protection wall became porous, the first few discovered an Allee at the heart of the city.
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image courtesy of Ringo Paulusch

The ensemble of 16 buildings erected during the second construction phase between 1951 – 1958 form the centerpiece of Karl-Marx-Allee and Strausberger Platz. Architecture that evokes unmitigated reactions. “Gingerbread houses” and “Fat Cat Palaces” – Karl-Marx-Allee has never been given an easy ride. Hermann Henselmann, who acted as head of the architecture committee, was naturally the center of attention. The fact that the last few years have seen a swing of opinions in favor of the Allee has meant that he has finally earned the respect he was always due. He would have celebrated his 110th birthday this February. Under the Nazi regime this German of Jewish ancestry was allowed to run his own office. He was a carpenter who completed his studies immediately after his first apprenticeship. A thoroughly German biography: shaken by an evil dictatorship and the Second World War and given only one choice in the aftermath: rebuild.

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image courtesy of jock+scott / photocase.de

Hermann Henselmann drew from his experiences and dedicated himself to the things he believed were the only way to create a better world. A world with vision, a world of workers and farmers, in which everyone is truly equal. An experiment that rightly failed as the GDR collapsed after 45 years. But through his architecture, Henselmann has left a monument to this vision. Approaching from Alexanderplatz, with the TV Tower on your left, to the right you will see the Haus des Lehrers (House of the Teacher). The mosaic fascia depicts craftsmen and scientists. The facade has been renovated and the white tiles at the base of the building’s frontage reflect the evening sunlight as if it were silver. “Why shouldn’t workers and farmers have the finer things in life?” Henselmann may well have asked himself. He was, after all, a bit of a playboy. He fathered eight children with his wife Irene, who shortly before her death told me that the nights filled with intense conversation (and a glass or two of wine) could never be long enough for him.
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image courtesy of Ringo Paulusch

Hermann Henselmann was a strict man, above all, strict with himself. His goal: to create housing and urban spaces for a traumatized population. His approach: create a contrast to modernism. Which is exactly what you see at Strausberger Platz: tiles, inlays, projections and reliefs are not incorporated simply as decorative flourishes, they are there to make this large space – sorry to say it – cozy: an absolute taboo for his western contemporaries. Pure, naked architecture had to be functional. It’s not that one was better than the other; it is simply a matter of two quite different approaches to the task.
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image courtesy of jock+scott / photocase.de

The fact that Hanselmann’s approach has never been duly honored is down to a simple historical burden: he was – as mentioned earlier – on the wrong side of the Wall. Even today he is not always viewed in relation to his work but often as a slavishly loyal assistant to the power struggles of his day. Of course, we can (and actually should) consider the context in which architecture is created. With Zaha Hadid’s commission from the dictatorship in Azerbaijan, even if it ends up being the most beautiful building she has ever created, there is nevertheless a sense of bad taste involved. Hermann Henselmann – in his defense – lived at a time when the scars of the Second World War were still fresh. The serious vision to which he dedicated himself was twisted into a state of injustice by a corrupt system. A system that classified Henselmann as a “decadent bohemian with a chaotic private life.” And the bohemian dared to discuss things! “Tired and formulaic pronouncements such as Architecture in the West is a slave to capitalism and is therefore bad´ orEverything that emerges from a right angle is formalist´ don’t bring us forward,” he wrote. Brave. And yet he still sought to define a kind of socialist architecture. In February he would have been 110. And his definition of socialist architecture is little by little gaining the recognition it deserves.

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