Columbus Haus (2006)


Notes on the tryptic “Columbus Haus: Prozession am Potsdamer Platz”

© John Diebel, 2006

Collage Drawing- India Ink, Felt-tip Pen, Gouache, Metallic Paint, Graphite, Letraset Transfer Type, Vintage Paper, Cardstock, Tracing Vellum, PVA Adhesive on Remnant Black Paper

3 Panels. Total length approximately 115 x 25 inches (292 x 63.5 cm)

This tryptic collage concerns itself with the life of a building, the land upon which it stood, and the people who passed through it. The figures that march past the various structures represent a wide cross-section of types which have composed the whole range of society in Berlin between the years 1890 and 1990. Although the building in the central panel, Erich Mendelsohn’s modernist Columbus Haus, is the focal point of the narrative, the parade of hundreds of individual figures (representing a cast of millions) creates an organic, snaking creature within each panel which envelopes the depicted man-made constructions, giving each its historical context. (Complete Tryptich)

My interest in Columbus Haus was deepened when I read about the possibility that the most modern structure in Berlin in the 1930s may have been used as a Gestapo prison while simultaneously serving its intended purpose as an infinitely adaptable commercial structure. Later research has shown that the Gestapo likely did not use the upper stories as a prison, but there is ample evidence that part of the administrative department in charge of the Nazi’s euthanasia program against the mentally handicapped, known by the code name “T4”, had offices there. My direct references in the center panel to the Holocaust and the internment of other “socially undesirable” elements in the Third Reich is supported by the view that the T4 program was the proving ground for the extermination of the Jews and other so-called “undesirable elements” (Center Panel)

Additional to the diagrammatic depictions of the three main structures which once occupied that corner of Potsdamer Platz, I have made situational drawings showing the structures in the broader context of their surroundings, including a synthesized copy of Mendelsohn’s own initial sketches for Columbus Haus and a view of the interim construction that was erected after the initial financing for Columbuis Haus fell through due to the world economic crisis of 1929 (Left Panel).

Columbus Haus survived the Second World War relatively in tact but was burned during the East German workers’ uprising of 1953. Shortly thereafter it was razed by the Communist authorities and the entire area became a vast wasteland, later constituting the widest section of the notorious death-strip or no-man’s-land following the construction of the Berlin Wall (Right Panel).

Today at Potsdamer Platz there is little to indicate the past. Heavy traffic has returned and skyscrapers crowd the square with shadows and glaring reflections. A thin line of bricks in the pavement indicates the former path of the Wall, as does one segment of the concrete barrier. The octagon of Leipziger Platz is still apparent, but some of the historic streets which culminate at Potsdamer Platz before it have had their paths altered by new property lines. None the less, a reconstruction of the old traffic light (the world’s first) stands just about where it did in Mendelsohn’s time, albeit now as a decorative relic without function; the traffic island that it once occupied has been swallowed up by a pedestrian plaza.

This tryptic, while girded with documentary content, represents my deepest attachment to the place and the idea of Berlin as an engine for creativity and a lesson against destruction. Wherever one goes in that city, whether to centers of traffic, culture, and history like the Potsdamer Platz or to quiet neighborhoods far away from any apparent excitement, there is a palpable stream of energy flowing through every street and every building. So much has happened there and under such heightened emotional circumstances that the absence of many historical structures, destroyed in the war or afterward, can hardly weaken the strong grip that the past maintains on the present.

For more information about Mendelsohn’s Columbus Haus please visit:
Columbus Haus at (English)
Columbus Haus at (Deutsch)

For a general history of Potsdamer Platz please visit:
Potsdamer Platz at (English)
Potsdamer Platz at (Deutsch)