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  • Christian Hain

Building Bridges, Among Other Things: Art and Architecture at Haus am Waldsee

(Berlin.) Remember that movie The Cabin in the Woods? It got kind of a cult following among horror/comedy fans, but rest assured: Berlin’s Haus am Waldsee – literally “House at the Lake in the Woods” (it sounds less odd in German) has nothing to do with it. It‘s merely named for what it is, analogue WYSIWYG. HaWs also looks nothing like a cabin, even the term “house” seems much too modest for this bourgeois mansion in a wealthy Western suburb where the streets are (comparably) less littered and crowded than elsewhere in Berlin.

Getting here by car – this is a borough where you may still drive without having to fear at least disparaging glances of self proclaimed climate saviours, only the traffic lights are still red, each and everyone of them, which it a political measure to make you suffer for your obstinacy -, following down an avenue, you pass the US embassy, the actual one, not that fancy showroom at Brandenburg Gate: a huge complex that was once home to many marines. Almost across the street, an “Allied War Museum” appears deserted, despite the impressive airplane parked in its driveway. Pull up at Haus, and discover the next door neighbours to be a “House of Youth”, apparently some boy scouts outfit proudly announcing their 70th anniversary.... you cannot help but calculate, but no: after the war, already!

The estimated 19th, actually early 20th Century, manor is set on an imposing property with immediate access to – you guess it: a lake, yet in this case, the term sounds a tad exaggerated, while on the other hand, “puddle“ would be too derogative – a “pond” maybe?

It’s definitely not Lake Geneva, despite the residents’ social milieus overlapping... (ok, that’s also exaggerated). At the gates, we’re hailed by art, a pair of sculptural LED neon somethings, not Othoniel but Susanne Rottenbacher. The water is there – behind the villa, the woods... rather not. Unless you count the (cherry? they do have a thing for literature too, at least there’s a signpost for a “book table”, pointing nowhere in particular) orchard in the front yard. Past more art - where Kreuzberg got crack, Zehlendorf has Cragg,.. Tony is arguably the most famous name on the premises, we continue through a narrow corridor of freestanding stone walls (no, not “stone wall”, even it’s your “pride month”!) with inset dragon eggs, i.e. unhewn boulders, to ultimately reach the door (don’t worry about “social distancing”, or only old-fashioned claustrophobia: you can easily circumvent it, there’s more than enough space), possibly a first work of today’s artists - or not actually ”artists”, but architects, as we quickly remind ourselves.

Habitually showing art and artists – habitually not the most famous ones, but promoting “local talent” (which can hardly be the fault of Haus’ circle of benefactors, there should be at least some collectors in the neighbourhood... fine, it’s still Berlin, so you’d rather find a collection of flat screens on their walls), the villa occasionally invites architects, too. Today, Barkow/Leibinger have the honour, a – strictly work! (...?) – couple based in Berlin that besides designing buildings all around the world, gives lectures at Princeton, and - wait, isn’t he the guy, who‘s just overtaken me in an open British sportscar?! No, must be a double... - they express themselves much surprised by all the things they’ve unearthed in three different storerooms when preparing the retrospective.

Art and architecture have always been neighbouring disciplines, and today still enjoy closer ties in certain “less democratic” regions than in the “free world”, where everything’s more about “form follows function, and - increasingly - ideology”. You wonder, what they really think about that metal construction glued onto the beautiful mansion like some parasitic mushroom, adding fire escape and lift for security and “accessibility’s” sake (isn’t it funny how society gets ever more “accessible”, the less war invalids wa- wheel around Europe?), but we didn’t dare to ask. I know a bar in Mitte with a mysterious cubicle of movable walls taking away much space from the centre of the small business. Asking the barkeeper, what they were hiding in there, he shrugged: “It’s the handicapped restrooms” (regular ones are downstairs, only two!), they’re obliged to have those, even though nobody’s ever used them as long as he’s been employed there. No comment. Anyway, where have we been? Indeed, art, or: architecture.

Entering the villa, it all feels artistic indeed, as we leaf through a heap of posters on a windowsill, reading descriptions like “...The showroom is spanned by eleven laser-cut steel trusses, approximately 45 metres long...” - now, aren’t that some serious Lawrence Weiner vibes?! Sadly, somebody in charge quickly took them away, to post them in the vicinity of corresponding design models. Maybe that’s one difference: more model, less imagination.

We decide to take another breath of fresh air, and step right through the show into the garden where we nevertheless fin art, too, a swirling metal ribbon by not-Richard-Deacon-but-Jo-Schöpfer, a totem pole/spinal column (Frida?!) by of-course-not-Hans-but-Karl-Hartung, a black stele by not-Richard-Serra-(or Stanley Kubrick)-but-Katja-Strunz - that’s her work, isn’t it?! There’s also a black metal table observing roughly the same distance to that “label”, and this, in fact, gets annoying: All metal signs on the lawn are placed with a rather generous social distance to “their” artwork. In one case we even fell for the stale old joke, seeing a burial ground of kitchen appliances hidden almost by the fence, we hesitate: dump or installation? Maybe the gardener – or butler! – hid some bodies here?! But no, another sign on the grounds far far away reveals the truth: Art, by Thomas Rentmeister.

Beyond a stylized amphitheatre with stonen steps, another almost-Richard-Serra catches our attention, now even the rusty colour fits the assumed name! This is architecture by Frank Barkow and Regine Leibinger: A wooden structure with a bench to sit on (nobody dared to, but that may have been owing to the weather – it doesn’t look exactly waterproof), which was shown in a metal incarnation at the Serpentine before, where it apparently “established a dialogue with the Kent House in Kensington” (not to be nit-picking, but: The internet places that manor in Knightsbridge, and you’d be surprised how many Kent Houses there are, from Hammersmith to Bromley, and even Louisiana, USA!). From one angle at least, the sculpture” (may we call it that?) resembles a bird welcoming passers-by with wide open arms.

At the waterside, one idyllic postcard cliché follows the other, as a remarkably trusting duck keeps waddling around our feet, and some white-headed black bird (grebe? coot?) is playing D-Day, strategically searching that perfect place for a landing. Vainly trying to enthuse a baby toad for art and architecture, we contemplate smoke on the water that emanates from a hidden fog machine, not sure whether it’s meant to commemorate the still Corona-closed Berlin clubs, or to evoke more classical tunes and send greetings to Bregenz. In any case, not-Oliafur-Eliason-but-Markus-Jeschaunig is responsible. Turning back, the Strunz-stele now looks almost like a portray of that bird, long, thin and black, if only the pigeons keep working on that head a little longer.

Back inside, the curator explains: “How comes anything new into the world? Only by recombination of the old!”. That seems perfectly fitting for the surroundings, old money indeed. Certain wannabe revolutionaries in Kreuz-kölln might beg to differ though, and even conservatively spoken: whatever happened to “genius”? The exhibition’s title by the way is Revolutions of Choice. Later, hearing the magical words “Venice Biennale”, we’re briefly confused, but yes, of course: there’s one for architecture, too!

Art and architecture, it’s all entangled, seeing the sketches of Barkow/Leibinger, we cannot help but think “Christo”, and when they relate: “We’ve got an office and family in Berlin, but we rather build (read: sell) abroad” – that’s sooo artist!

Their models even reveal a refreshing sense of humour that art too often lacks: those toy people inhabiting them must pose an ever present temptation not only on “take your kid to work” days, but for every architect on another gloomy Tuesday afternoon... There’s even an armadillo, and a gator (or dinosaur?!) lurking around the humans’ enclosure! Saying this, Barkow/Leibinger have a thing for cages, it’s airy, certainly, but would you really want to live, or work, in them? Maybe they’re just hardened MMA fans.

Exhibits crowd in shelves and boards, on ground and first floor, giving rise to multiple associations from pyramids to polders, pottery and terracotta, but also baking forms and tp rolls in bird’s view. The forms repeat themselves, but that must be the trademark “B/L” style. The more time we spend here, the more we realize: Often, only context makes the art. If exhibited for “Art”, many a gallery would be interested in these objects, yet that’s possibly true even for the deceased fly inside a double pane window – readymade, or maybe as a photograph (spoken like a true philistine)? Finally, a roomtaking metal maze reminds us, we wanted to check, which gallery has picked up Chiharu Shiota after that recent bs with B/S!

It’s always refreshing to see something new, or different, and a duo of architects makes no exception to the rule. We are, however, curious to know how the initial contact was established – was it a neighbour, a member of the benefactors’ circle, who’s lately commissioned another company HQ, or holiday home?

Barkow/Leibinger, Revolutions of Choice, 18 July-4 October 2020, Haus am Waldsee

World of Arts Magazine – Contemporary Art Criticism



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