1956: The "Hall of Congresses" and INTERBAU versus Stalinallee

Eleanor Dulles’ and Hugh Stubbins' vision - Laying a Foundation Stone in Sahara Sand

21 March 1956, Workers clearing the building plot by the river Spree. Since then the lane ‘In den Zelten’ has vanished under the basis of the Congress Hall, lawns and a car park next to the Federal Chancellery., Photo: Landesarchiv Berlin/Bert Sass, 1956

Things moved very quickly. It took only about eighteen months – from the initial idea to the finished plan – before the foundation stone of the USA’s great gift to Berlin was laid. “American swiftness” – as the West Berlin media put it.

Documents and newspapers with the day’s date – 3 October – were entrusted to the earth at the edge of the “Sahara”. The nick name “Sahara” was coined by the Berliners in the early nineteenth century for a desolate manoeuvre area, where the Reichstag would later stand. In 1956, the area was again desolate. The Nazis and their Germans had seen to this with their war: the allied bombers of 1943, the final battles that Soviet soldiers fought over Berlin, with such heavy losses …

1,200 piers are driven into the sand a little to the west of this quasi-Sahara. Sand is then piled up to create a raised stage for the symbol, the Congress Hall. Its remarkable contours shall be visible from afar, and are literally intended to have an impact everywhere. The winged roof is intended as a “Beacon of Freedom”, shining its rays into Soviet-ruled sector of Berlin, which starts just the other side of Brandenburg Gate. This was how Hugh Stubbins, the architect of the Congress Hall, and Eleanor Dulles, the Berlin commissioner at the American State Department, summarised their vision. They stand alongside the governing mayor, Otto Suhr, as the foundation stone is laid. A message from President Eisenhower is read out. It describes the Congress Hall as a symbol of elementary human values that must be defended and as tool for realising them. In 1948, Suhr had experienced how urgent this was when Communist demonstrators broke up a meeting of the freely elected city parliament, which he chaired, paving the way for the division of Berlin. Eleanor Dulles had also experienced Stalin’s drive for power when she was working in Austria – then divided into four zones.

The woman who first learned to assert herself in the “man’s science” of economics, and then in the field of politics, was part of a family triumvirate. Her brother John Foster Dulles had been US Secretary of State since 1952, while the other, Allen, had been head of the CIA since 1953. Eleanor immediately accepted the invitation to submit an American contribution to the INTERBAU exhibition, which the West Berlin Senate came up with shortly after work began on the major development project in Stalinallee (now Karl-Marx-Allee) in East Berlin and following the workers’ uprising of 17 June 1953. The INTERBAU in the new Hansa district on the edge of the Tiergarten was intended to show what international, western architecture had to offer. Disregarding rather abstruse contributions such as “typical American food” and a youth club, Eleanor Dulles and Hugh Stubbins pressed ahead with their project for a Hall of Congress. Soon, the young architect, who, at the age of twenty-eight, had been Walter Gropius’ assistant at the Harvard School of Design, had developed both his plans for a building designed for communication and his roof concept – from sketches of tents, wings, spheres and domes. He can be seen in photographs of the construction of the Congress Hall: lanky, casual, viewing the building site in the sand of the “Sahara”.
Axel Besteher-Hegenbart

Berliner Morgenpost 19.9.1957
New York Times 4.10.1956
Berliner Morgenpost 4.10.1956
Der Tagesspiegel 4.10.1956
New York Times 21.7.1957