The Haus der Kulturen der Welt is located in the middle of the new government district of Berlin, at the old Unter den Zelten square, in the Tiergarten. The square has an interesting history. In the 17th century, it was the site of the game preserves and pleasure grounds of the Brandenburg Electors. During the March Revolution of 1848, Unter den Zelten became a synonym for heated political debates. The festival halls and the district around the square were devastated during the Second World War. In the 1950s, a new chapter began with the construction of a congress hall on this site. From 1956 to 1980, international conferences, cultural events and exhibitions were held in the new building, which is one of Berlin’s architectural landmarks. In 1989, the House of World Cultures revived the tradition of holding international encounters at the former Congress Hall, which is now a prominent centre for cultural exchanges.
“In the last 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the world has changed fundamentally. In these 30 years, HKW has consistently developed new formats and content that deal with these changes – often as a trailblazer.” Bernd Scherer on the HKW jubilee
It is now than ten years since the Wall fell. In this time, the House of World Cultures has moved from its once peripheral position into the political centre of the city and the new government district. The new Federal Chancellery was erected next door. The Reichstag is only 1000m away.
The Haus der Kulturen der Welt was founded in recognition of the growing role played by culture in international relations. Its home was the newly reconstructed Congress Hall. A venue for international encounters, the House of World Cultures presents exhibitions, readings, symposia, workshops, dance and theatre performances, films and festivals.
On 21 May 1980, the Congress Hall roof collapsed, burying a journalist under the debris. Following extensive reconstruction and renovation, the building was re-opened in 1987 for the festivities celebrating the 750th anniversary of the City of Berlin.
The Congress Hall was completed in the autumn of 1957. From the very beginning, it was conceived as an international meeting place. The opening event on 19 September 1957 combined theatre, symposia and concerts, with participants coming from many different countries.
On 25 September 1957, only a few days after the Congress Hall had opened, a symposium was held bearing the title: ‘The Old and the New Worlds’. Participants included Willy Brandt, Eleanor Dulles and the author Thornton Wilder.
The square was destroyed during the Second World War. In 1957, at the height of the Cold War, the Congress Hall was erected near to the Reichstag. The building was a present from the US government to the City of Berlin. As a venue for international encounters, the Congress Hall was designed as a symbol of ‘freedom’ in the ‘island city’ of Berlin. Because of its special architectural shape the Berliners are quick to call the building "pregnant oyster".
On July 6, 1919, the doctor and sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld and other physicians opened the world’s first Institute of Sexual Research on a section of the site of today’s HKW. During the seizure of power by the National Socialists in 1933, the institute was looted, closed and then destroyed in the Second World War.
Unter den Zelten had become a permanent attraction for Berlin’s pleasure-seekers, and a popular destination for excursions. Countless pubs, cafes and restaurants catered for the physical well-being of their guests.
By the time the government of Friedrich Wilhelm IV (1795-1861) came to power, the square had already become a scene of public political debates. From 6 March 1848, when the March Revolution started, popular meetings were held at the Zeltenplatz. However, barricades were not ereced on the square.
From 1847 on, Bettina von Arnim lived close to the square, in the house at In den Zelten 5.
Under Frederic the Great (1712-86) the Tiergarten - the Court game preserve and pleasure ground situated at the gates of Berlin - was redesigned by the architect Knobelsdorff. From 1745 on, the entertainment of guests was permitted in marquees on the square during the summer months. This pleasure ground near Berlin soon came to be known as the Zeltenplatz or Unter den Zelten (‘Marquee Square’ or ‘Among the Marquees’). From 1786 on, vendors providing food, drink and entertainment were allowed to erect permanent buildings on the site. As a result, Frederic William II (1744-97) was now able to invite the ladies to a wafer on the „premiere promenade de Berlin”.