A long weekend in Berlin with David Chipperfield

The British architect offers Gisela Williams a private tour of his favourite haunts in a city of outstanding art, monuments and passionate farm-to-table cooking

David Chipperfield admires the secret garden at design atelier BuchholzBerlin
David Chipperfield admires the secret garden at design atelier BuchholzBerlin | Image: Celia Topping

A lot of people just don’t understand Berlin on their first visit. Of course, younger people love it here, but those from an older generation who come for the weekend tend to go home and say, ‘Well, I was in Berlin the other day and it’s pretty ugly, isn’t it?’ And they can miss the point totally.

So when I want to convince first-time visitors that this is a fascinating city – maybe not a beautiful city, but a fascinating one – I take them on an east‑west drive through it. We start at Karl-Marx-Allee. The communist architectural landscape is powerful; it’s an area that against all odds, against the notion that large-scale housing blocks don’t work, somehow does work. We continue on to Alexanderplatz, anchored by the city’s landmark GDR-era TV tower, then the Berlin City Palace, currently being restored, with the Museum Island – which I obviously feel great affection for – on the right. My office has been working on the Museum Island master plan for the past 20 years, and it’s why I spend so much time here and bought a flat. I live in London, but Berlin feels like my second home.

Alexanderplatz is known for its GDR-era TV tower
Alexanderplatz is known for its GDR-era TV tower | Image: © Shutterstock/canadastock

We then drive down Unter den Linden, through Tiergarten park, and down Ku’Damm, the main shopping avenue, and then out of the city, ending up in Potsdam and the Schloss Sanssouci. So you go from this incredible communist avenue to Frederick the Great’s 18th‑century rococo summer castle, and on the way you slice through the whole history of Berlin; it’s remarkable. There’s a saying: ‘Every city has history, but Berlin has too much.’

In Potsdam, I always tell people to see Schloss Glienicke, the neoclassical summer palace of Prince Karl of Prussia, built by Karl Friedrich Schinkel in the 1820s. I was the runner-up for the Schinkel Prize in 1981, when it was the 200th anniversary of his birth. It was still a divided city then and both sides were putting on exhibitions. As part of the prize, we were invited to come to tour all his buildings, and the Schloss Glienicke was one of the places that impressed me most when I first came.

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Berlin is full of unexploited and under-visited major collections. The Gemäldegalerie is not my favourite building, but the collection is stunning and there are often very few people there. I also always recommend the Bode-Museum – which is part of the Museum Island complex and has an outstanding European sculpture collection spanning centuries – for the same reasons: it has beautiful art, yet is surprisingly quiet. In terms of galleries and private collections, the Boros Collection is fantastic, a second world war bunker reinvented as a five-floor private art museum and home. There are works by Ai Weiwei, Wolfgang Tillmans and Olafur Eliasson and others. I also recommend Johann König’s contemporary gallery at St Agnes. The thing I like is that it’s quite difficult to appropriate a church – especially one that’s been designed by a good modernist architect like Werner Düttmann – but I think König, along with his architect Arno Brandlhuber, did the renovation with great care.

The theatre scene in Berlin is unique. My wife and I recently saw our friend Lars Eidinger in Richard III at the Schaubühne. The Schaubühne is a true institution; it’s a great company. And I always recommend visitors go to the Berliner Philharmonie, one of several buildings clustered together in a central area called the Kulturforum, which also includes the Mies van der Rohe-designed Neue Nationalgalerie and the Berlin State Library, designed by Hans Scharoun. These are three great works of 20th-century architecture – absolutely extraordinary each one. My office is currently restoring the Neue Nationalgalerie and we are dedicated to putting it back to pristine condition.

Museum Island houses many of the city’s most impressive institutions
Museum Island houses many of the city’s most impressive institutions | Image: © Sabine Lubenow/4corners

We don’t do much shopping in Berlin, but if you do, you must visit Andreas Murkudis, a beautifully curated shop with ceramics, fashion and accessories, home decor, even notepaper, located among art galleries on Potsdamer Strasse. We sometimes take visiting friends to the gourmet floor of KaDeWe, the city’s famous department store just off the Ku’damm; the display is exceptional and it’s also a nice place to eat something light. And, just down from my office, there is BuchholzBerlin, the recently opened design atelier of a former employee of mine, accompanied by the small café Laden. It has a lovely secret garden in the back, and sells the communal dining tables, knives and cutting boards – all made by hand from local wood – that they use in the café.

We almost always recommend our friends stay at the Hotel de Rome, partly because it has such a great location right off Unter den Linden and is within walking distance of Museum Island. Over the years, despite the fact that my wife and I now have an apartment in Berlin, we’ve actually stayed at a few hotels in the city. We really like Das Stue, a hotel on the Tiergarten that was formerly the Danish embassy and looks out over Berlin Zoo. Its scale is just right and it has a sense of place and modern identity. The lobby and bar, designed by Patricia Urquiola, form one of the few hotel public spaces in the city that you feel inclined to spend some time in. All the friends of my children stay at Soho House. You can’t not like it; it captures a certain energy. There are two busy restaurants open to the public on the ground level – one a Cecconi’s and the other a healthy lunch spot in a concept store – and it’s really vitalising this part of the central Mitte district.

The hotel Das Stue used to be the Danish embassy
The hotel Das Stue used to be the Danish embassy

Berliners are sometimes a little confused that all of a sudden their city seems to have captured other people’s imaginations. Before it was full of gaps and opportunities, very much a sketch of a city as opposed to a finished thing. In London, to start a little shop or open a little bar, you need £1m – whereas in Berlin, to some degree, young kids can rent a space, paint it white, the girlfriend who’s a fashion designer can hang dresses up, and on Tuesday it’s a shop.

But it’s changing and becoming more international. Take Maren Thimm, co-owner of Lokal, who’s running one of the best little restaurants in Mitte out of pure enthusiasm, dedication and hard work. In London she would have needed a financial backer to even think about doing it; in Berlin, she helped us open a little coffee bar and café in our office complex [Chipperfield Kantine] where we serve lunch. There are now 200 people coming here for lunch every day for the changing menu of comfort food made from local ingredients and homemade breads.

König Galerie St Agnes is a modernist former church
König Galerie St Agnes is a modernist former church | Image: Courtesy and © König Galerie, Photo: Roman März

There are a few characters in Berlin who you have to admire for making things happen here for the past 10 years, such as the Grill Royal guys, Stephan Landwehr and Boris Radczun – still there, in their restaurants, almost every night. I would say Grill Royal is about the most reliable restaurant in Berlin, because it has a certain robustness in the food, whether you order the beef tartare or the lobster bisque. Borchardt is also quite theatrical, like a legendary bistro in Paris, with a big, open space, low lighting and superb people-watching. Essentially, I think that a city needs a number of restaurants that are just good, reliable public rooms to go to; that’s why I like these two.

Of the newer restaurants, I send people to Dóttir. It was developed by Victoria Eliasdóttir, a passionate chef who is the younger sister of the artist Olafur Eliasson, and unsurprisingly the food has a Nordic emphasis. The intimate space, with its mix of chairs and vintage tables, feels very Berlin, but the tasteful artwork and lighting elevate it to another level. I like the fact that Dóttir is very ‘local style’ in one way, but very grown up in another.

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And in fact, Berlin has resided for a long time in a sort of hippy atmosphere, a bit improvised, dishevelled. Mismatched chairs and repurposed materials – it’s a recognised aesthetic here. The question is, how does Berlin move to the next phase without losing that nice, improvised quality? That’s the thing I think is interesting about so many of these new projects, whether it’s Dóttir or König Galerie. It’s related to the fact that they are doing it entirely out of passion, not as a way to make a lot of money. That’s the spirit of Berlin, in a way. 

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