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Learning from Berlin

Berlin Study Trip Cityscape Skyline Lh

We believe in looking at the broader picture, taking inspiration from examples of best practice in building design and placemaking from around the world. A big part of this is taking the opportunity to conduct research visits at home and abroad to inform our thinking.

Recently, two of our studio teams returned from study trips to Berlin. I asked those involved to summarise the lessons they had learnt during their trip. The respondents were hugely impressed with what they encountered. Here's what they said:

It’s all in the detail

“A lot of the places we visited, or even just walked past, were an eye-opener on how things should be done“, said Associate Technologist, Iain Stephenson. “Every building was impeccably detailed and the attention to detail was amazing. The scale of some of the buildings made this even more impressive, as there was a level of consistency throughout.”

Associate Architect, Peter St. Julien, agreed: “The lampposts lined up with the trees in the landscape, the dry riser inlets were precision cut into the walls; it was all effortless. But those little details add up to create the bigger picture, a sense of care and pride in the built environment that filtered down to every trade on site.”

One example of this stood out amongst all of the others for Architect, John Kemp: “The masterclass of the visit for me was the Neues Museum. A tapestry of lost, preserved, restored and rebuilt details have been woven together in a tapestry of spaces that revive the ruins of the old, and enhance the experience of the whole. The historic details blend with restored and crisply detailed modern interventions that are a delight to behold.

Experiencing this quality of detailing first hand, led Architectural Assistant, Alice Langstaff to reflect on her own experiences during her first year of professional experience: “This trip highlighted to me, why deliberating details in the studio is so important. It reinforced how a pedantic approach can not only make a difference to your first impression of a building, but also to how you react and behave when inside, lifting a design from being ‘good’ to ‘outstanding’."

An expression of history

As well as leaving the individuals with an appreciation of the technical aspects of the city’s architectural sights, the trip clearly had a more profound impact on the study groups.

For Associate Architect, Jeroen Roumen, the cities fascination is closely linked to its recent history: “It was the epicentre of major, world changing events and trends in the 20th century; 1st and 2nd world wars, National Socialism, the Holocaust, Cold War, collapse of Communism and the Modernist Movement, among others. Berlin absorbed these influences and gave them an expression.”

Senior Associate Architect, Mark Titherington, found it impossible to escape these poignant reminders: “Pock-marked buildings, patched stonework and thought provoking installations, from simple brass name plates on the ground and family name plaques on buildings recording former residents, to the sensory drama of walking between the rectangular blocks of Peter Eisenman’s memorial. Berlin is a city of thoughtful architecture and public realm capable of moving the heart and soul.”

Architectural Assistant, Jake Feeney, was impressed at how different approaches to architecture can help manipulate and evoke particular responses from audiences in response to the same tragic event. “Two contrasting examples include the Jewish Museum and the Topography of Terrors. The first created a much more sensory engaging experience, incorporating mass volumes, echoes and cold surfaces as a method of translation. The latter however, acted much more as a backdrop to the horrific facts and accounts of the Nazi regime, relying on them to evoke personal responses amongst visitors.”

It’s better when we share

One thing that was common amongst all the responses was a sense of delight in the opportunity to share the experience with their colleagues.

Architect, Justin Moorton, said: “During our visit to Berlin, the city became an interactive springboard for the sharing of knowledge and ideas, in which every moment; from the smallest architectural details to urban design decisions, came under a collective lens, inspiring discussion, critique and debate. I feel we came back with a better understanding of other studio member’s personalities, professional viewpoints, areas of special interest and expertise.”

Senior Associate Architect, David Bamforth, agreed: “It was good for the studio to be able to take a step back from the demands of project work and spend time away in a fascinating, diverse city that is still evolving and developing”.

It wasn’t all positive feedback of course. Reflecting on the strictly regulated reconstruction of the city following the collapse of the Berlin wall, the trip left Jeroen questioning whether the stringent rules for city planning had led to the proliferation of boring homogenous solutions in some areas: “Just iconic buildings can’t save the day. There has to be room for ‘accidents’ to happen to create spaces which are intriguing. A city that developed in a unique way and had the chance to be identifiable in this globalising world, chose to conform. The further away we get from the point of reunification of East and West Berlin, the more Berlin becomes a beautiful average city.”

Edward Shanks