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Berlin’s "Pregnant Oyster" Gets New Guts

The time has come for the Haus der Kulturen der Welt to bridge past with present.
Photo by Sabine Wenzel

The unique mid-century silhouette of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, or, House of World Cultures, has become a landmark in Berlin’s cityscape. The building was erected in 1957 as a gift from the US government, and was originally the city’s Congress Hall, a venue for international dialog.

“The construction of the building was a daring venture from the very beginning,” explains Bernd Scherer, the director of HKW. “The American occupying forces wanted to build the Kongresshalle in Postwar Germany in the 1950s to be a place for free speech, as the foundation of democracy in Berlin. This freedom was also meant to be reflected in the architecture of Walter Gropius’ American student Hugh Stubbins.”


Stubbins wanted the building’s curved roof to resemble wings, symbolizing limitless possibilities for the activities that would take place there. Unfortunately for Stubbins’ symbolism, the roof collapsed during a conference in 1980. During the building’s construction, German building supervisors had in fact expressed concerns about structural inadequacies, but they were ignored. 23 years and a handful of corrosion-induced fractures later, the Kongresshalle paid the price.

Despite its problems, the building did not shed its distinctive shell. It was rebuilt, reinforced, and reborn, opening its doors in 1987 as a venue for contemporary art. Today, it continues to offer a wide-ranging program of interdisciplinary works of art, but the building’s aging interiors are posing restrictions. The Haus is eager to bridge the gap between its programming ambitions and the current state of its interiors and technology, and will get to do just that, thanks to a $10.6 million renovation grant recently approved by the German parliament.

“The house and its formally modernist interior spaces have always confronted us with the challenge of harmonizing a great variety of artistic and academic formats with the architecture, which is repeatedly itself the theme of many exhibitions and individual art works. Until 2006, hardly any work was done to renovate the interior of the building,” says Scherer. “The chief objective of the renovation is to maintain and preserve the existing 1950s design for the long term, while at the same time updating the event spaces to comply with the latest technological standards, thus carrying the building into the 21st century.”


HKW plans to work closely with the landmark conservation agency to ensure that the original aesthetic remains unchanged as floors, ceilings, and furnishings are repaired, and new technological infrastructure is installed in the auditorium. With its new digs, however, it hopes to become a place where ideas are hatched, not just presented—as Scherer says, a place for “curating ideas in the making.”

In our exchange with the director of the Haus, we had one final question. As soon as the building was unveiled in 1957, Berliners were quick to nickname it the “pregnant oyster,” and we wanted to know: Do they still call it Schwangere Auster? “Yes, they do,” says Scherer, “because it is still seen as the pearl of the city.”

To learn more about the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, go here.


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