If you walk along John-Foster-Dulles-Allee from the Reichstag in Berlin towards Bellevue Palace, you can’t miss the Pregnant Oyster and the Carillon – provided you know what to look for.
I admit, not every visitor to Berlin and not every Berliner can relate to the name Pregnant Oyster. But if you mention the “House of World Cultures”, most people tend to know what you’re talking about.
From the Congress Hall to the House of World Cultures
When I was a child, I used to talk about the Congress Hall and admittedly the new name often doesn’t come to mind when I talk about the Pregnant Oyster. But let’s start from the beginning:
Emergence of the Congress Hall
In 1957, the International Building Exhibition Interbau took place in Berlin. As a contribution from the USA, the Congress Hall in the Tiergarten was built on the initiative of those responsible for Berlin at the time in the American State Department. A foundation was set up especially for the construction (Benjamin Franklin Foundation), which acted as the client and which handed over the Benjamin Franklin Hall to the city of Berlin as a “gift” in April 1958. Whereby “gift” is not quite right. Among other things, the costs of the land had to be paid beforehand.
In a certain sense, the new building was a propaganda building of the West. The subject of building had become a contest between political systems, the Interbau building exhibition was to be the answer to the spacious Stalinallee in the east of the city. The new congress hall stood close to, indeed within sight of, the Soviet sector. It was built slightly elevated on a hill, the roof was given a bright white colour and night lighting was part of the building concept. So it was visible in the eastern part of the city. In addition, the building site was also chosen because it was expected that the future German government quarter would be built there. At that time, the Tiergarten had been cleared and the view to the Reichstag was unobstructed.
The roof of the Congress Hall
The architects drew inspiration for the roof from the Dorton Arena in North Carolina. There, the free-hanging saddle-shaped roof is supported by two round cables. The tensile force of these intersecting edge cables is connected at the ends of the steel arches by horizontal tension cables in the ground. In Berlin, this construction was built somewhat differently, and even a second roof was added in the middle. This construction, which a layman does not really understand, met with much criticism.
And there seemed to be something to the criticism. On 21 May 1980, the southern part of the roof collapsed in the middle of a press conference. There were injuries and one death. Later analyses revealed that the collapse was a combination of several causes: inadequate planning of the roof, poor construction, structural defects, material fatigue.
For many Berliners, this was a great shock – the city’s landmark, the Pregnant Oyster, had been destroyed. The discussion began about demolition or reconstruction. The conference rooms were no longer needed. In the meantime, there was a much larger congress centre, the ICC. It was decided that the Congress Hall was a “historical and political document” and it was rebuilt. In 1987, the Pregnant Oyster was once again standing in the Tiergarten with its beautiful roof.
How did the name “pregnant oyster” come about?
Where exactly the term comes from is not entirely clear. Some attribute it to the work of some journalists, others say the term is typical Berlin snark. What is certain is that the term pregnant oyster refers to the shell shape.
I think it’s a shame that the nicknames “Mrs. Dulles’ hat” or “Uncle Sam’s top hat”, which originated during the construction phase, did not survive. The protruding edge of the roof was also called the brim of the hat for a while.
Use of the building yesterday and today
Over the years, the Congress Hall has become a popular venue for meetings and congresses.
In 1957, the German Bundestag met in Berlin for the first time, followed later by several more sessions. These events were held in the Congress Hall, among other places. It was not until the Four-Power Agreement of 1971 that it was decided that no more plenary sessions could be held in Berlin.
Since 1989, the Congress Hall has been the seat of the newly founded HKW. This has also changed the programme within the building. In addition to the German-American focus, there is now also a multicultural programme. The new name of the Congress Hall reflects this perfectly: “House of World Cultures”. The HKW is supervised and funded by the Federal Foreign Office.
The Congress Hall appears as a filming location in some films. For example, you can see it in the science fiction film “Æon Flux” (2005) or in the ZDF series “Die Musterknaben”.
Tour around the building
Coming from John-Foster-Dulles-Allee, one first stands on a large forecourt with a large water basin spanned by a concrete footbridge. In the so-called reflecting pond there is a fountain and a bronze sculpture (Large Divided Oval: Butterfly) by Henry Moore erected in 1987.
If you walk over the concrete walkway, you come to a large staircase that leads to the terrace of the structure. The main entrance used to be up here, but today it is below the stairs.
On the terrace you can walk around the building. It’s impressive to see the roof from this perspective. From here, you also have a wonderful view of the Spree and can see as far as the government district.
If you walk around the House of World Cultures, you come directly to the banks of the Spree. Here you can sit in a café and watch the boat traffic and the strollers.
If you go back to John-Foster-Dulles-Allee, you will immediately notice a tall tower that you should take a closer look at.
A carillon is a hand-played carillon that has been around since the Middle Ages. Carillonneurs played before and after church services and on holidays. The carillon consists of at least 23 tuned bells, a console with keys and pedals. The bells do not swing. The carillonneur produces the sound by striking them with clappers connected to the keys and pedals of the console.
In 1987, on the occasion of Berlin’s 750th birthday, a large world-famous company donated 2.8 million Marks for the acquisition of a carillon. The state added another 2.2 million marks. The construction of the tower carillon was intended to commemorate the carillons destroyed in the Second World War in the Parchialkirche and the Potsdam Garrison Church.
The Carrillon in the Tiergarten consists of four individual towers that are placed together to form a square. Each individual tower is 42 metres high and clad in black granite. The Berlin carillon has 68 church bells and is the fourth largest in the world. The carillonneur can play pieces with a range of five and a half octaves.
Ideally, you should visit the bell tower at 12 noon or 6 p.m., when the computer-controlled tower chimes sound. On Sundays, small hand-played concerts take place regularly. From the beginning of May to the end of September at 3 p.m., in December at 2 p.m., live music is played here and afterwards you can take part in a small guided tour.