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Photos by David Neff
A new international program took graduate architecture students (lower left) to Berlin, where they toured new buildings-in-progress like this one, the Federal Chancellery, with the architect, Axel Schultes (on far right in lower photo).

Berlin serves as laboratory for U.Va. graduate architecture students

By Jane Ford

Berlin is a city that has been built, rebuilt, divided and reunified. Today it is a city in transition, in the process of reshaping itself. Political events of the past decade have effected the urban landscape -- making Berlin the largest and most publicized urban renewal project in the world. Renowned international architects have been drawn there to help recreate the city and its skyline. Architecture students, in turn, are looking to this city of new ideas to shape their thinking on design.

Twenty-five U.Va. graduate architecture students were privy to an insider's view of Berlin's transformation on a recent visit to the city.

"Seeing everything in context, all together as part of a fabric rather than isolated buildings, you begin to understand a broader context," said graduate student Rachel Gleeson.

"The experience helped me crystallize my idea about what architecture is and isn't and should be," said Roxi Thoren, a second-year graduate student.

"Berlin is the greatest museum of new architecture in the world today. ... The city is the focus of an impressive urban experiment and [provides] exhaustive examples of new design ideas."

Karen Van Lengen
dean of the School of Architecture

'The architecture there is more imaginative and daring than architecture here. ... We were able to see that our dreams, the kinds of designs that we create at school, can actually be executed."

Sidney Griffen
second-year graduate student

As an extension of the School of Architecture's foreign programs, the students visited Berlin in February to research old buildings, renovations, new construction and design, as well as to consider the influence of the German culture, history and politics on the built environment. They also are using the city as a site for their semester-long design studio projects. Some of the students are designing museum space, some libraries and some a mixed housing-and- office complex in a bombed out department store that has been claimed by a group of artists.

"Berlin is the greatest museum of new architecture in the world today," said Karen Van Lengen, dean of the School of Architecture. "The city is the focus of an impressive urban experiment and [provides] exhaustive examples of new design ideas."

Prior to the trip, Van Lengen and professors Edward Ford, Charles Menefee and John V. Maciuika led the students in an intensive introduction to the history, politics and culture of Berlin and to the grand plan to create a new capital for Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification.

Menefee, an associate professor of architecture, believes that East Berlin provides the students a view of how to build a capital, how to build a city and how to build a building.

The opportunity for the students not only to see works of so many of their favorite architects but also to see many of those designs under construction is unprecedented. "Because of building cost and the way we finance construction in the United States, many of the cutting-edge construction techniques being used there are not being used here," said Ford, a professor of architecture. "Also, German building codes require the use of natural light and natural ventilation in public and institutional building."

"These kinds of requirements foster different design solutions," said Derek West, a student in Menefee's design studio. "There's a different quality of light there ... the buildings appear to be more open and transparent. The guidelines push in that direction. There's more awareness of how design affects how you feel, think and work in the space."

Ford, Menefee and Maciuika accompanied the students to Berlin and provided on-site discussions of design, construction, history and politics. Maciuika, who specializes in 19th- and 20th-century European architecture and recently did post-doctoral research in Berlin, arranged for the students to meet both formally and informally with architects and artists, local faculty and students, enabling the U.Va. students to glean an insider's view of the city's transformation.

A tour of the Neues Museum, damaged in WWII, provided a platform for discussion of reconstruction issues by Lothar Fehn, an architect for the city of Berlin. Other sites included the DG Bank, by well-known American architect Frank Gehry, at Pariser Platz near the Brandenberg Gate, and a tour of housing in the East, by Berlin architect Inken Baller. The students also visited the recently renovated Reichstag, the new home of the German parliament, with its glass spiral ramp and dome.

"This was the first time I saw buildings by Aldo Rossi, Helmut Jahn, Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers, Norman Foster, Daniel Liebskind and Axel Schultes," said Gleeson. "It was an incredible opportunity to see the construction site of Schultes' Chancellery complex and how it is going together."

An on-site tour of the Chancellery complex led by Schultes was one of the highlights of the visit. His discussion of the design, construction and political process and the role they played in shaping the project even through the construction phase was invaluable, according to Menefee. He said he believes the students will continue to feel the effects of this on-site research on their work for many years.

"The architecture there is more imaginative and daring than architecture here," said Sidney Griffen, second-year graduate student. "We were able to see that our dreams, the kinds of designs that we create here at school, can actually be executed."

Funding for this extension of the school's foreign program was provided by the Dean's Forum, special initiatives supported by a generous and loyal alumni group through annual membership contributions.

"I look forward to growing this kind of program," Van Lengen said. "I want our students to have an opportunity to experience the diversity of our environment throughout the world."


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