Origins Of Modernism: Ceilings & Skylights

Picture11By COD 2013 Berlin Conference Scholar Sarah Corbitt, Assoc. AIA

Ceilings close and contain a space – they are the sixth surface of the cube that is a building. This article shows examples of some ceiling schemes that the Committee on Design saw during the Origins of Modernism Conference in Berlin, September 2013. Details in Modern and contemporary buildings demonstrate the aesthetics that Germany is known for – clean lines, technologically advanced finishing, and parts that are well-functioning. The ceilings we saw in Germany include an historically important coffered ceiling, new coffers, lots of cast concrete and gypsum board, and very careful detailing.

Where ceilings include skylights, daylight and darkness become more important elements in the experience of a building. This article includes some notable skylights seen during the conference.


We saw many examples of highly designed ceilings, with both acoustic and aesthetic effects. The craftsmanship of these ceilings is extraordinary.

The Neues Museum, including a restoration by David Chipperfield, 2009, and the existing building by Friedrich Stüler, 1843 – 1855, has a new, round-brick coffered ceiling in its exterior colonnade. The round brick is unusual. Columns are original to the building, and show pock marks from bombing during World War II.

Inside, another original ceiling was badly damaged during World War II. This was carefully stabilized for long-term preservation, demonstrating the terrible effects of that war.

A new, heavy timber ceiling in the Neues Museum was redesigned and installed in the stair hall. The ceiling recedes, a grid of dark, monumental orderliness.

At the Philharmonie, by Hans Scharoun, 1956 – 1963, concrete columns resembling heavy timber members support the performance hall above. The geometry of the ceiling shows changes in seating levels above.

Large construction members are a part of the Velodrome, by Dominique Perrault, 1992 – 1997. With its enormous steel construction, the Velodrome is Europe’s largest steel roof.

The smooth, structural elements here give way to smaller, intricate, metal structure in the main room of the velodrome. The white region in the background of the photo is the bicycle track.

Brighter ceilings show up in the modern Kanzleramt (Chancellery Building), by Axel Schultes and Charlotte Frank, 2001. The German penchant for automotive, slick details is evident in the security building; the smooth ceiling hangs low where visitors enter. Once visitors are searched and cleared to enter, they move to the sides, where the ceiling lifts and becomes brighter.

The main Kanzleramt building has graceful lines, and dramatic soffit work.

Stairs influence the shape of the ceiling above.

Beautiful, sharp lines form the edges of the ceilings in offices.

A lighted soffit above the meeting table in the conference room sculpts sound as it travels in the room, allowing what’s said at one end of the table to be heard at the other.

We also saw use of strong color. At the Umweltbundesamt, Sauerbruch / Hutton, the underside near a main entry was painted to coordinate with bold accent colors throughout. The look is happy and clean.


The Origins of Modernism conference offered another treat: skylights. In a similar construction language as the atrium shown at the Umweltbundesamt, one of the most famous buildings we visited offers a wide expanse of faceted skylighting. The extensive glass of Frank O. Gehry’s DZ Bank creates an enclosed courtyard with two non-orthogonal shapes inside.

The interior, second skylight ceiling here is thoroughly gasketed for thermal and acoustic separation. Glass sculptures below mimic cloud formations.

Another of Berlin’s most famous roof openings is shown in the small, classically-inspired, porticoed building named  Neue Wache, or ‘New Guardhouse.’ The building was the first major commission for the famous, German architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, and was finished in 1818. The open oculus was installed during a renovation in 1931, when the barracks were repurposed as a memorial . The repurposing was the first of several renovations which altered the meaning of the memorial. Its current symbolism, with a reproduction of a statue by Käthe Kollwitz, honors the victims of war and dictatorship (The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape, Brian Ladd, The University of Chicago Press, 1997, pages 217-224).

More round ceiling openings are in another famous ceiling, by Charlotte Frank and Axel Schultes. The ceiling is concrete, with embedded beams. Concrete columns with steel intersect with the ceiling. Careful coordination with the structural engineers allowed for the reveals around each column.

The conference visited an oval, rammed-earth building with a square skylight that accents the alter, the Chapel of the Reconciliation. It was designed by the architects Peter Sassenroth and Rudolf Reitermann and opened in 2000.

A brand new, not as famous, round skylight accents the angular, concrete stair at JOH3 Apartments.

As part of the tour of current residential projects, the skylights at Fat Koehl office & apartments are surrounded by an extensive green roof, a rooftop bench and an open skyline.

Both images show the surrounding residential fabric – where skylights, rooftop solar thermal hot water, solar electric, ‘green roofs’ and rooftop terraces are common. And when the roof becomes the floor, on a lucky day your ceiling is a sunny vista.


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