Berlin is extremely proud of being a showplace for the prestige buildings of today’s international star architects. These trophies, from embassies to executive towers to museums, have reclaimed many of the bare spots left by the city’s Cold War divisions. Nor does Berlin stint on the temporary. In advance of the 2006 World Cup held in Germany and culminating in Hitler’s Olympic Stadium a giant soccer ball was dropped next to the Brandenburg Gate. This Fussball-Globus welcomed visitors into its high-tech interior with a pair of David Beckham’s shoes in a glass display case.
Any number of provisional “boxes” have been introduced into the cityscape over the last decade, the most recent of which is the Humboldt University research cube which stands near to the city cathedral. The Humboldt folly is blue and wonky and an eyesore, whose main visual merit is that it is temporary. The box also stands guard over a huge barren lawn where once stood the Palace of the Republic, the Capitol of the German Democratic Republic, and before it the old City Palace. Finished in 1976, that brown glass, burnished steel, and white stone socialist structure was removed between 2006 and 2008 under pretext of asbestos contamination, but really for symbolic reasons. Especially in this city, bombs and politics have shown that no architecture is truly permanent.
The cathedral, city palace, and the Humboldt “box” share an island in the Spree River in the center of Berlin with an ensemble of museums to the north, most of whose buildings have been restored over the last several years. On this Museum Island, one can commune with Johann Caspar David Friedrich’s lonely paintings in the Old National Gallery—another Greek temple perched on a massive pedestal and approached by a triumphal staircase—and next door come face to face with the bust of Nefertiti alone in a soaring chamber in the recently rebuilt and reconceived New Museum.
The next building to the north is the Pergamon Museum, built between 1910 and 1930 to house the reconstruction of one of the wonders of the Ancient World, the Pergamon Altar. It was excavated by German archaeologists between 1878 and 1886 on a promontory above the Turkish city of Bergama, brought back to Berlin and pieced together again. The Pergamon Museum itself replaced a temporary building, built on the same the site in the first decade of the 20th century to display the tremendous find to the German educated classes, devotees of the glories of antiquity.
It is hard to imagine a more hulking structure than the permanent building finished in 1930. Its enormous central hall, in which the altar now looms, is guarded by a massive windowless wall that brings to mind both a bunker and a mausoleum. Two wings, nearly as imposing as the central façade, house the Middle Eastern collections (including Babylon’s Gate of Ishtar). These extend at right angles from the Pergamon Altar hall and form a large square that fronts the branch of the river.
Since September of last year, this square has been filled up by the latest and greatest of Berlin’s temporary showpieces: the Pergamon Panorama. This structure will remain in front of the museum for a full year until September of 2012. With its grid of steel beams on a circular footprint, the Panorama resembles a 19th-century gasometer. It is the work of Yadegar Asisi and his team. Born in 1955 in Vienna to Iranian parents, Asisi was educated in Germany and has been active here as an artist, architect, and professor for the last thirty years. For the last two decades he has dedicated himself to huge panoramas. He calls them panometers, a word that neatly combines panorama and gasometer, both crucial developments of industrial and entertainment culture of the 19th century.
Asis’s panometers are about 30 meters high and 100 meters in circumference. His first panorama for Dresden in a 19th-century gasometer breathtakingly depicted this most beautiful of German cities in 1756, some two centuries before its destruction in World War II. Currently the elegant Dresden building presents his view of Rome at the time of Constantine. Asisi’s vision of the Amazon Rain Forest just closed in Leipzig. But so quickly do Asisi and his team work that Mount Everest will appear in the Leipzig panometer and open to the public by the 28th of this month, a mere three weeks after the Amazon show closed.
Asisi’s current Pergamon Panorama, close in size to his exhibition spaces in Dresden and Leipzig, has been hugely popular, with long lines running across the bridge to the museum in good weather and bad. What makes the whole event so popular is not only the visual representation of the ancient acropolis of Pergamon and the city at its foot, but also the fact that the remnants of the famed altar can then be visited in the adjacent museum. Within a few minutes the imagined glories of the past can be compared to the real thing, transported from Asia Minor to the German capital.
The climb up the steel staircase of the Panorama seems longer than the structure would suggest when viewed from the outside, perhaps because the Pergamon Museum is particularly adept at dwarfing all things that come near—including the trains which rush by within a few feet on an elevated track over the Spree. At the top of the stairs the sky, blue with cumulus clouds and a few seagulls flown in from the nearby coast, opens dramatically above. You find yourself on a square viewing platform seemingly one hundred feet above the highest point of the Pergamon Acropolis with its complex of temple and squares. Set back from the edge of the Acropolis, the Trajaneum sits on the highest of plinth. Closer to the viewer is the Doric perfection of the Temple of Athena housing the gargantuan statue of the goddess, unseen within; the original statue can also be visited in one of the large halls of the Pergamon Museum. From this plateau a steeply raked theater descends towards the water of a mountain river raging whitely. Men and women in brightly colored robes peer over the parapet and mill about in front of the colonnades.
The topography and flora recall the Los Angeles Hills and basin, except that on top of this rise is a one of the great sights of the Ancient world at the high point of its civic splendor 129 years after Christ. On a somewhat lower shoulder of the hill is the altar itself, the base in high relief depicting an epic battle between the giants and gods. It is this relief, about 85 per cent of which survives, that was brought back to Berlin by the Germans. The backside of the Altar is not visible to panorama viewers from their platform, but the parts that are depicted had to be filled in by Asisi, drawing on his artistic creativity, knowledge of classical sculpture, and virtuosic ability at delightfully deceiving the eye. In the panorama, the relief is given back its bright colors, rather than left in the museum’s naked marble. Even from the 21st century aerial perspective the twisting, muscle-flexing, figures locked in mortal combat can be picked out and admired for their contorted physiques and for the sweep of the battle in progress.
Continuing clockwise around the platform cypress trees descend the hill to the valley floor and the Roman theater, the stadium with the dust of chariot races rising above its cloth shade-makers, the amphitheater, the villas and farms, burial mounds and river leading to a perhaps just-visible Aegean. Asisis’ mastery of three-dimensional space attains almost god-like power. He has created a whole city, and therefore a whole world.
Night falls on the wrap-around tableau and ten minutes later day returns. A dog barks, and the hub-bub of voices on the Acropolis fills the panorama. This ambient sound would have been more than sufficient to summon the civic energy of the Ancients and to add sonic encouragement to the flights of the eye. But the exhibition-makers decided that this wasn’t enough and engaged Belgian film composer Eric Babak to provide what the leaflet refers to as “subtle background music.” Among Babak’s credits is the music for the Russian bid for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. On these films he proves himself to be adept at that cheap manipulation required of musical ad-men: the pseudo-symphonic writing meant to imply seriousness and made up of delirious harmonic moves that achieve their goals all too easily. The larger sweeps of the bogus heroic strivings are meant to underscore the release of Russia from Soviet bondage and the demise of fully state-funded sport training, into the contingencies of capitalist freedom and athletic freedom. Baka’s painfully obvious and opportunistic approach is the musical equivalent of a montage of winnerbs crossing the finish line. His music gives itself gold medals at every turn.
In spite of the preemptive adjective of the leaflet, Babak’s music for the Pergamon Panorama is anything but subtle. It is both bad and loud. Choral swells and synthesized orchestral sweeps accompany the fall of night. Ponderous descending bass-lines evoke the weight of history, the gee-whiz magnificence of the antique. An amorphous antique quality and feast-day devotional seriousness is conjured not only by the ritual choruses but also by the smudged avoidance of the obvious resolutions favored in the Russian Olympic trailer. At the break of day flute melodies above rustic dance rhythms and faintly Celtic harmonies have nothing to do with Hellenistic culture, but are merely a cinematic grope at exoticism. The exactitude of the panorama’s visual sweep is paired with souvenir-shop historical mood music.
The notion that we need the help of a soundtrack to be drawn into this encompassing vision of a famed city, its monuments and ceremonies belittles Asisi’s accomplishment. With its crude colossal strides and chirpy dances, this music attempts to create a sense of movement, which was mistakenly thought to be required of this panorama, whose figures and buildings do not move. The strength of this panorama, one executed with such breathtaking control, is that it alternately focuses the gaze on particulars and pulls the eye across the tremendous city- and land-scape.
Exiting the base of the Panometer, one can hear the faintest trace of Babak’s music escape the exhibition. A short traverse of the gift shop leads to the huge hall where the real Pergamon Altar stands. Long may it remain unmolested by a bad soundtrack—indeed, by any soundtrack at all.