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  • Writer's pictureFrancesca Ramsay, MA

A Brief History of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin

What is the Haus der Kulturen der Welt?

The Haus der Kulturen der Welt, or House of World Cultures in English, is a vibrant forum for international culture and debate built in 1957 and nicknamed ‘the pregnant oyster’ by Berliners.

Haus der Kulturen

Haus der Kulturen der Welt translates as ‘House of the World’s Cultures’, a name that says it all. This is Germany’s national centre for the exhibition and debate of international contemporary art. With a special focus on non-European cultures and societies, the centre gives diverse voices a forum in which to ask challenging questions and provoke discussion. Its exhibition and events programme showcases an interdisciplinary blend of visual art, film, theatre, dance and concerts, as well as academic debate on visual art and contemporary culture.

Haus der Kulturen der Welt History

Nicknamed ‘the pregnant oyster’ by Berliners, the Modernist structure built in 1957 was first known as the Kongresshalle conference centre. The building was designed by American architect Hugh Stubbins as part of the Interbau, West Berlin’s International Architectural Exhibition. It was offered by the United States of America as a gift, a symbol of friendship between the US and Germany.

On the 21st of May 1980 the building’s iconic gravity-defying roof turned out not to be quite so, well, gravity defying. It collapsed, severely damaging the rest of the building. Restored in the mid-1980s, the building reopened as part of the celebrations of the 750th anniversary of the founding of Berlin, and in 1989 the Kongresshalle was renamed the Haus der Kulturen der Welt.

The 750th anniversary also saw the construction of the bell tower, which still stands, 42 metres tall, to the southeast of the centre. Inside this tower is the fourth largest carillon in the world, a musical instrument comprised of 68 bells, the largest of which weighs an enormous 7.8 tonnes. Listen out – you may be lucky enough to catch a concert. It’s played every Sunday at 3 p.m. (from May to September) and on selected public holidays throughout the year.

Just like the bell tower’s roof, Henry Moore’s spectacular Large Divided Oval: Butterfly, also appears to be floating. This bronze sculpture is right in the middle of the pond in front of the centre; notice how its undulating curves complement the building’s form. It was Moore’s last major work, completed just before he died. In fact, though it was initially on loan from the sculptor, the West German government wrote to him asking whether he would like to donate it. The letter went unanswered, and after the artist died, the government bought the sculpture from the Henry Moore Foundation for the enormous sum of 3.5 million Deutsche Marks (or around €2.5 million in today’s money), and was regarded as the most expensive work of art in Berlin’s public space. You’ll find two more large-scale Henry Moore sculptures in the city: Three Way Piece No. 2: The Archer outside the Neue Nationalgalerie, and Reclining Figure by the entrance of the Akademie der Künste.

The centre is the only event venue in Berlin that has a riverboat stop – certainly the most stylish way to travel around the city! But if you’d prefer to stay on dry land, make sure you visit the restaurant, the ideal spot to relax and watch the boats float past on the River Spree.

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