An Architectural Gem in Germany is Reborn
August 13, 2008
For architects Winfried Brenne and Franz Jaschke, restoring the 80-year-old ADGB Trade Union School, in Germany, was a case of subtraction. “The building was not in worse condition than others we had worked with,” Brenne says, “but it was more hidden under changes made over time.”
For three decades, their Berlin-based firm, Brenne Gesellschaft von Architekten, has been restoring and adapting Modernist structures. Their first job, in 1978, entailed renovating social-housing complexes designed by Bruno Taut. They have since worked on buildings by Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, and Erich Mendelsohn, among other influential architects.
In 1999, the firm won an invited competition to renovate the ADGB, a yellow-brick complex designed by Hannes Meyer—who, from 1928 to 1930, served a controversial stint as the director of Bauhaus—and his colleague Hans Wittwer. For their work in sensitively resurrecting the structures for contemporary use, the World Monuments Fund (WMF) recently awarded Brenne and Jaschke its first-ever Modernism Prize, a new prong in its two-year-old Modernism at Risk campaign, cosponsored by Knoll. In a statement, WMF president Bonnie Burnham called the project a “superb restoration” that she hopes “will inspire the preservation and restoration of other great Modern buildings.”
Located in Bernau, Germany, ADGB was designed for the Federal School of the German Workers’ Unions and completed in 1930. “We discovered a new combination of materials and colors,” Jaschke says of the functionalist design. Built on a 12-acre site, the school comprises a network of buildings containing administrative, dormitory, classroom, meeting, and gymnasium spaces, as well as a dining hall with a glass-block ceiling. The complex’s two flanks are connected by five dormitory volumes that step back from one another; this series is edged by an external corridor fabricated of glass and red-painted steel.
The campus operated for only three years as a trade school before the Nazi party claimed it for SS training. After World War II, the East German Trade Union Federation—a union group—took it over for educating its members, and made significant alterations and additions: a wooden parapet substituted glass in the external corridor, for instance, and a suspended ceiling concealed the cafeteria’s glass blocks. These modifications made the original design unrecognizable. “We know of colleagues that went there,” Jaschke says, “and said they didn’t find it, because it was so hidden under changes they hadn’t even imagined.”
The campus was off-limits to the public, and historians didn’t even know it existed until the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. A decade later, in 1999, Brenne Gesellschaft von Architekten won an invited, Europe-wide competition to restore the complex, which over the years had been vacated and neglected. The Province of Brandenburg and the Handwerkskammer Berlin (Chamber of Crafts) agreed to reopen it, once again as a trade school. The crafts organization paid one-quarter of the €28 million project cost, while the remainder was funded publicly.
The design team focused on restoring the most important features in the original design. For instance, a stairway lined with trapezoidal windows, which had been walled off in concrete, was returned to its original exuberant condition. The architects also demolished a masonry addition, replacing it with a semicircular winter garden that had been there in 1930. They made code updates, and left their own creative mark in places like the lobby, where the yellow-brick walls were too damaged to restore. There, they overlaid the old surface with integral-color cement panels whose green, yellow, blue, and red stripes reference the palette of the dormitories.
ADGB reopened in January and is now filled to its 109-student capacity. WMF executive vice president Henry Ng says the greatest threat facing Modernist buildings is a “lack of public will,” and this project shows how valuable these structures can be. “There are buildings that people think may be obsolete,” he says, “but with a commitment on the part of the owner, they can be returned to leading viable, sustainable lives. We’re hoping this encourages people to make that happen.”