alan balfour
Alan Balfour

ART PAPERS Covering the Arts in the Southeast                                                    On Architecture

Volume 11 Number 4                                                                                           pp. 4-5

July/August 1987

Printing: Walton Press, Inc.

Published by Atlanta Art Papers, Inc., Atlanta, GA








Alan Balfour


The world seems in a state of glorious uncertainty from which architecture cannot escape.  In this regard it is healthy to reflect on the complex nature of the discipline and of the diversity of those within it.


1.  The idea of cultivation is important to understand the actions of architects.  The analogy to the garden is appropriate.  Architecture is the most obvious flower of a society's culture.  It evolves or revolves like wheat in the field.  It is in the process of continuous re-evaluation.  It is continually cross-bred to improve the strain.  Some flatter one crop more than another.  At its best it will comprise the exotic flowers that entertain and puzzle; the constants of beauty and form like the rose: the pragmatic and the utilitarian, and as in nature, a host of undifferentiated growth, whose character comes from the representation of the mass, like the forest or the meadow.  And there will be times of drought and disease.


2.  There are sexual dimensions to the architect's project; implicit in the desire is the creation of objects which will continually renew the cultural play.  The bridge is between desire, project, and reality.  Belief in the condition sought is directly proportional to the strength and clarity of the result.  The project is substantiated by past example, by metaphor, by circumstance, by imagination. 


3.         Architecture is frozen policy.

            Architecture is frozen philosophy.

            Architecture is frozen expediency, etc.


4.  The role of intelligence: based on biographical evidence, intelligence is not a major factor in the production of distinguished architecture.  Arrogance coupled with a sense of competition, and a pleasure in the fashionable and exotic, are much more important.


5.  The architect has been measured to reveal less connection between what he says and what he does than any other profession.


6.  The consummate mechanical engineer has been described as someone who considers a mechanical problem in his mind, conceives precisely the solution and then runs the machine in his imagination through time to anticipate probable failure.  The architect in a comparative example is someone who conceives in his mind's eye the stage for the many plays that will give life to the reality of culture.  His project through time is the only constant against the unpredictable nature of the future- endless variables.


7.  The architect sees in his mind's eye the places he desires, as clearly as the deaf Beethoven heard music.


8.  The architect's critical mind is continually making selections and judgments of moral value from memory.


9.  These judgments are based on an unpredictable mix of criteria.  They can be subjective, sensual, political and fashionable, and on and on. 


10.  On the first visit to the United States a delegation of Chinese architects and planners requested that the city of Pittsburgh be included in the itinerary.  The party was taken to a hill overlooking the valley where steel and manufacturing plants stretched as far as the eye could see.  The air was clouded by the smoke of industry.  The Chinese received this vision with smiles and deep satisfaction.  It was, they explained, exactly this view that had illustrated their textbooks before the revolution.  Yet, it had become for these new planners the epitome of industrial progress: in Pittsburgh they saw the future they desired for China.


11.  The Duke of Northumberland, in describing to John Woods his vision for the new city of Bath, sought the evocation of ancient Rome; not to promote imperialist aspirations but rather to stimulate a gentle hedonism in the new urban aristocracy.


12.  The ability to draw what the mind sees varies greatly between architects. 


13.  The cargo cults of New Guinea and other islands in the South Pacific offer a useful metaphor to the performance of architecture, at least in the minds of architects.  It was the great birds, the great aircraft carrying all manner of material that first inspired them;  the islanders built replicas on the ground hoping to tempt one down to mate.  Familiarity with American camp life made the refrigerator and object of particular wonder.  These things were always full, full of beer and sausages and good things.  So they went back to their villages and constructed very careful representations in the belief that if they got the shape just right they would open the door, and there would be all the beer and sausages they would ever need.  This is rather like the architect faithfully reconstructing the form of the temple from Greece in the hope that if somehow she got it right, her age might be given the wisdom of the ancients. 


14.  Pallas Athena, out there watching, feels more at home in St. Peter's than in the tragic, useless ruins of her temples.  If Christ's message was love, a Moslem asks, where is it manifest in his temples?  For the Arab, the city is a labyrinth; the only order comes from God. 


15.  For Rome the stage and play were one.  In the remote edges of empire the stage was fully set- amphitheater, theatre, circus, bath, temple- all the machinery of a mythical reality was essential to allow the play to proceed. 


16.  There is one English architect (there may be more) who sincerely believes that the classical orders of architecture, Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian were divine gifts to man.  Given him very much as the tablets were given to Moses, and no matter how man misuses them their divine presence transcends.


17.  There are those who may believe that in order to establish the kingdom of God on earth, the teaching of architects should be biblically based, constraining the project and desire of the imagination by biblical text; and the materials and places of the Bible. 


18.  There are those who sincerely believe that classical architecture both represents and encourages imperialism, war, and death.  As a corollary, there are those who believe that secular humanism requires an informal, non-symmetrical architecture to sustain its spirit in the culture.  Alvar Aaalto represents the desire of the secular humanist.


19.  There are those who believe that modern progressive society is only possible with a modern progressive architecture.


20.  Some believe there is no connection whatsoever between social order and architectural order.


21.  All architectural histories are random collections of objects from the powerful and elite, hence it can be deduced that architecture is simply the random product of power.


22.  There are those who believe that an implicit connection exists between social, political and philosophical ideals and the architecture used for their representation.  There are those who reject this.


23.  Does the demise of architecture threaten the reality of the culture?  There is a sneaking pleasure in visiting abandoned public and religious buildings in the cities of former colonies.


24.  There are those who believe that architecture is a text produced by the complex weaving together of desire and knowledge.


25.  There are those who believe that architecture offers the most powerful illusion of stability in an increasingly unstable world; the illusion of nostalgic and intimate remembrances.


26.  There are those who believe that the only knowledge critical to the making of architecture is the knowledge of architecture.


27.  There are those who believe that architecture must self-consciously reflect the order of the real world.


28.  There are those who believe that the removal of the single point perspective within the experience of reality is an essential step in the initiation of a new reality.  Architects have a fatal weakness for bourgeois metaphysics. 


29.  There are those who believe that only good Catholics can be architects, or is it Italians, or is it Jews or is it Japanese?


30.  There are those who believe that the secret of architecture lies in Finland. 


31.  There are those who believe that architecture is only as significant as the time implicit in its construction.  A building built to last forever contains everlasting significance. 


32.  There are few today for whom time matters.


33.  There are those who today believe that architecture has lost the power to speak. 


34.  There are those who believe that the most serious problem facing architecture is that no one is listening. 


35.  There are those who believe that essential architecture can only be derived from the application of technical and scientific knowledge.


36.  There are those who believe that only in a sympathetic and symbiotic with nature and nature's materials can a new reality be determined.


37.  There are whose who believe that the representation of ancient forms may result in the return of ancient Gods, and in the regression in the potential of reality. 


38.  There is one who says,  I am and architect therefore I cannot build.  And others repeat it.


39.  There are those who believe that architecture has already lost out to the movies in the confirmation of reality. 


40.  There is no one in architecture today who offers a clear, confident vision of the future.


41.  There are many today for whom architecture is exactly equivalent to fashion design and product packaging, massaging objects of necessity into pleasing, easy, and cheap-to-produce forms.


42.  Yet for some the architect is still courageous and omniscient; the conductor and enhancer of the many voices of culture's choir.


43.  For others the architect is a cipher an open receptive mind waiting to be stimulated by society's desires.  Suppressing his own project to that of the age.


44.  There are those who believe that the culture of architecture has degenerated into the production of expedient character masks, and so goes the culture.


And architecture is all of the above and much more...

Art Papers special issue:  Without Architecture

Produced with the Architecture Society of Atlanta

Volume 8, No. 4

July-August 1984

Published by Atlanta Art Papers, Inc., Atlanta, GA                                                    pp. 33-36







I cannot cross Karl Marx Alle without thinking of the buildings which so recently occupied this space.  Is this memory or wishful thinking?  There are so few traces.  Street names have gone.  New streets cancel the paths of the old.  Konigstrasse lies buried beneath the stones of this, the ceremonial and social hub of a nation.  There is, somewhere beneath these stones, something more than memory.  There are fragments: of peasants trading outside the wall, of horses, of tram cars, of combustion engines.  My imagination locates in the clay the blood and flesh of horses and men, and nails and nuts and bolts and odds and ends.

            It is not a threatening place.  Its character is its lack of character.  The only overt symbol is a great clock which gives the times of day in major cities of the world.  Its presence seems to signify a subtle influence of this place upon the rhythms of other places.  The space implies a certain kind of freedom.  There are no processional axes.  The arrangement of the buildings is informal, without symmetry.  This is not a place for armies to march, not a place for public demonstrations.  It is a stage for free association in a society that has forgotten how. 

            On the west side there is more than just a trace of the old order.  There is a reconstruction: the Weimar vision for a city platz, a place for the observing and being observed.  In the city of socialism nothing must be hidden.  There must be no secrets in the mind or in the place.  Private places breed injustice and anti-socialism.  In this regard, all of modernism is profoundly socialist, providing places without secrets, without sides, without layers, without privacy.  (Ulbricht comes here to shake hands with Tanzanians and Vietnamese.)

            Even the smells lack mystery.  There are no sexual smells in food, or drink, or flesh, although there is great deal of sweating.   A blind man could not map this place.  Bookshops, pissoires, and cafes are all the same.  The lack of stimulation dulls the mind.





            All buildings look alike in death.  The air has never smelt like this before.  It is by waves sterile and chemical and slightly acrid and sometimes loathsome.  Before, even in the bleakest days, there were people about searching for food, searching for conversation, searching for comfort.  Most died when a tram car was hit in the Alex.  When bombs fell on the tenements behind Tietz, many, many died - many who had nowhere to go, no money, no understanding.  When the rumor of Russian invasion rippled ahead, all became communist.  The Russians were unimpressed.  They sought to pulverize everything in a way that was somehow cathartic. 

            Every object, large and small, is mutilated.  Yet the mind persists in forcing an imagined wholeness over the reality, as in the way the brain at first refuses to acknowledge the loss of a limb.  A veil bright and sharp, not of what was, but of what has to be.  There is a terrible freedom here; moods swing from euphoria to choking terror.  Every fiber of every object is damaged.

            For a while I could not write.  I did not want to defile the surface of the paper.  I found one sheet, crisply cut.  It was perfectly white.  I laid it on the floor.  Its wholeness made me weep.





            Thoughts as I approach the Alex.  The gasoline reeks.  A blind man could locate himself by shifting smells.  Outside the Wiener Cafe the stale air is heavy with Turkish tobacco; Tietz in the distance.  Sweet scents perfume the air.  As I come by the S-Bahn, I am struck by the fragrance of a century of coaldust and soot, held in the shade.  As I look to the new buildings, these smells seem remote.  Beer, urine, spit, and straw, pounded through the cobbles by centuries of horse traffic, are vestiges of hundreds of years of city life.  The new buildings exude odors of science, of technology; new materials - rayon, aluminum, bakelite -, new channels for electricity in fans, radios, and neon lighting.  For the first time in history, bodies do not sweat.

            I remember (and D\0x00F6blin remembers better) the splendid cigar shop that stood on the right-hand corner yonder, the most fragrant corner on the Platz.  From under the charming awning jutting bravely from the imperial cartouche that transformed a doorway, full of ripe nature and snapping flags, wafted scents from Virginia, Brazil, and Cuba, and the Balkans.   Such memories!

            More horse cars there today.  The purpose of horses tends to be black and white - coal and milk.  And the old way is still present when the wind carries in odors from the breweries and slaughter houses in the east.  These buildings are not great, but they are clever.  There is a realization that electric light can change the city.  Two flanking columns of glass become walls of light in the evening.  They provide a gateway to an unrealized future.  There is an exciting tension between public light and its dazzling new use in advertising; hard, tough, sharp lettering: Weiner, Berolina, Berliner Kindl, Persil; orange, lime-green and Chinese red; no serifs.

            Remembering the other place, the genteel buildings that had sat for a hundred years.  Townhouses  for the rich and then for the petit bourgeois have become in recent years houses of the activities that seemed appropriate to the nineties; the offices and studios of photographers, opticians and tailors.

            In this work the play of modern man is asserted.  It says little of the 'New Sobriety' of the Weimar sober sides, and more of the cutting freshness of capitalism.  It is not a place understood or enjoyed by Hitler and his crowd.  Hitler does not belong in Berlin, let alone Alexanderplatz.  This has always been a workers' district, outside the walls, across the river.

            Bulowplatz has the same proletarian feel.  Exactly the right setting for the K.P.B.'s Karl Leibnicht House.  Throughout Mitte and in Kreuzberg and Prenzlauerberg, thousands live in tenements alongside industries that hold them captive.  So much is hidden in these mean streets which begin behind the smiling face of Herman Tietz.  Thalman and Ulbricht seemed natural leaders here.  Ulbricht's pleasure in Hochauser Berolina probably made this building unappealing to National Socialisten.

            The Karl Leibnicht House is now the Horst Wessel house.  Swastikas hang from the windows.  The mood on the Platz is harsh and eager - confident and hungry.  It is a very progressive time.





            It is spring in the Platz.  The city prepares for the Kaiser's twenty-fifth jubilee.  Konigstrasse is elaborately decorated.  Spanning the street, cables hold large crowns laced with electric lights.  From the spikes and rims of the crowns, gold and purple bunting is gathered in elegant swags spanning the roadway.  Beneath and moving to the east is the charming colonnade by Gontard, disfigured now in part by overzealous vendors of entertainment and soup, particularly entertainment and, more particularly, the panopticon.

            Konigsbruche proved to be the path of least resistance for the coming of the electric railway into the city.  So in place of water there now flow iron rails carrying the S-Bahn around the city.  Its great arched railway station has a strong urbane feel about it.  Baudelaire could have been happy here.  Neumann's kiosk does good business with the late afternoon crowds.  The track smells of horse dung mixed with the acid smell of the new electric trams.  The station has aged in its forty years.  The bridge across Konigstrasse is an effective gateway to the Platz.

            Out of the darkness the Platz presents itself: shabby, undistinguished, but warm and comfortable.  At this juncture one feels the pulse of the modern city.  Trains crank, clatter, and puff overhead; trolley cars squeal below, mixing, often untidily, with horses and carriages, and people wandering across the road. 

            It is irregular in form.  It has but one major feature: the Tietz Department Store.  Otherwise, is is an undistinguished conglomeration of bars and petty trades.  Many of these have a charm and character absent elsewhere in this changing city.

            Out from the railbridge, I notice the clicking heels of working women, highly colored and overwrought, in clothes that have not changed with the times.  Scent of garlic from street vendors, past Bodega, a wonderful pseudo-Spanish contrivance that has a bad name.  The first tenants of these buildings, the emerging petit bourgeois, have long since gone.  There are signs of what we once galled \0x2018genteel neglect.'  In formal drawing rooms, photographers and their assistants record the faces and places of the present without changing the wallpaper.

            Tietz, the quintessence of fin de siecle confidence, has not put Alexanderplatz on the map.  It is a peculiar building.  To my eyes it resembles a third-rate version of the Paris Opera House, its dome surrounded by clock and globe.  Such wonderful symbols of the new man and the new city!  The globe suggests either that the stuff Tietz sells comes from everywhere, or that everywhere somehow is touched by Tietz.  And the clock even more so; daily we check our watches with the Tietz time.  Tietz has become the drummer of the Platz.  'Is this,' screams the drunk on the corner, 'the house of mammon or of God?'  The Tietz does combine in confused parts some of the scared and some of the profane.  Mostly it offers a patina of wealth.  It is a mark of progress, providing a suitable backdrop for the great, if somewhat misplaced, goddess Berolina, and her consorts, the public toilets.  Almost bare breasted, Berolina extends hand and body generously to the people.  She wears a crown.  It is said that she weeps each time a virgin passes, and that she has never wept.  Somehow they're well matched, Tietz and she - both elegant affairs in third-rate rococo beneath cascading roofs of pink marble, black onyx, gold mosaic.  Tietz's actions over the last ten years suggest that the name may change to Tietz Platz.  Not a good name.

            I am suddenly aware that of all the Platzes in Berlin this is the only one with a department store in the place of the temple.  Somehow this is right for the twentieth century.  In the middle of Tietz is a great arcaded hall.  Under the arcades are layer upon layer of perfumes and hats and freshly made fabrics and, in the middle, like fish from water, great paradise carpets from Persia.  Lifts at the back rise to the Caf\0x00E9 Berolina.  In style it imitates Demels.  Compared with Messel's Wertheimer, this is a crass affair: eloquent Vers Sacrum gothic, humble in its omnipotence, enshrining the exchange of goods.  Rumor has it that Tietz had to leave Leipzigerstrasse because Wertheimer's was too strong.

            Back to the Platz.  Busy in the late afternoon, idlers wait for friends, trams, and carriages.  Flower sellers at the base of Berolina entertain conversation and rudeness.  An attractive woman across the street leans on an old pump where cattle once drank.  She is angry at being kept waiting.  Meeting people at street corners is a twentieth century thing.

            My mind is at peace.  I take in my surroundings.  There is nothing I must do, nowhere I must go, no one to see.  I am, without prejudice, the witness.  All exists simultaneously in me as in no one else.  I am the equal of the emperor in what my eyes can posses.  The orchestra is playing Sousa.  Martial music is not tamed by the violin, just made pathetic.  The Kaiser is the emperor for this time and much closer in style to the robber barons that to the Brandenbergs.  Autocratic expansionist capitalism: what I need to take.

            I try to see as a poet, as a philosopher, as an innocent, as a merchant.  Can I distinguish between what I see with knowing and what I see with feeling?  I feel the last winds of winter.  I know the flowers of spring.  Cold wind can kill the flowers.  If I knowingly act as a philosopher, my act distorts insight and I become the empty eye.  These things I can see exist, but only if I feel.  A man with a billboard is approaching.  He wants everyone to eat Unter den Linden.  A girl with her nurse pushing her little brother in a wicker pram loses her hat to the winder winds and runs after it, squealing.  A young man strolls across the traffic, jumps the curb and catches the hat.  He turns and meets a woman friend, rich and mysteriously garbed in grey veils and white silk flowers.  Behind the intricately crocheted lace, a drawn mouth can be seen.  A fox fur is draped over a silk jacket of burnet sienna crossed by ribs of gold thread and purple.  Her hat is an elaborate construction of black and green, wide brimmed and funneled and carrying the strange rough material I think is called chenille.

            As with the kings, so with the court.  There is abroad a subtle euphoria: a paradox of frustrated complacency boring and brutal, stagnant yet stimulating.  We conserve through fear.

            Grand Hotel looks at Berolina across the Alex from the east.  If I am someone else reading this yesterday, years from now it remains exactly intact, but the ambiguity of these words will lose meaning.  The text must be free of those prejudices that are of the age.  But as they are in me it is impossible to know.  It is a comfortable time.  Yet I am the subject.  I know my place; I feel that forces external to myself have positioned me.  Yet, it is like the positioning of a son to a father that our princely court manipulates its people.  WE are all in a familial bondage.  We are all working for a common good.  I am unsure about divine providence.  Too much has happened in the last fifty years.  The pattern that emerges is a difficult one, but it is that common man can shape his destiny almost as well as God.  There is so much relativity: between wealth and power; between power and progress; between poverty and progress.  I believe in progress as I believe in Germany.  I believe that progress must be the product of collective effort.  To harness the collective, however, I can see no alternative to autocratic arrangements of monarchy.  The insensitivity of the autocrats to the plight of the workers increases tensions, but it is a tension in anger that compels obedience.

            The Grand Hotel: not a new building but still young, brick of Berlin red banded by now dark sandstone.  Designed in an English manner, and exaggerated Queen Anne.  It is a business hotel, with good German food, and a concert hall.  There is excitement in the way its name is spelled out in tall letters across the gable: 'GRAND HOTEL.'  In the evening, little electric lights shine across the Platz.  The bar is crowded.  Cigar smoke, sawdust, beer and sweat smell around coarse, eager, thick conversation.  The concert hall is tres charmant ; it plays the best of the light operas of Offenbach.  Whether one is from Hanover or Hamburg, it is comfortable and comforting and somehow secure in the strengths and rightness of this changing, emerging, trading city.

            That is what we all enjoy about the Kaiser: although he could not be imagined in the car of The Grand (somehow beneath his dignity), one know he enjoys the same things as his people.


            Alan Balfour is the Director of Programs in Architecture at the Georgia Tech College of Architecture.  He is the author of Rockefeller Center: Architecture as Theater.  'Alexanderplatz' springs from research in progress for a book of essays on Berlin in the twentieth century.




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