Missed Opportunities: Berlin's Architectural Wasteland

By Georg Diez

Photo Gallery: Urban Planning without Vision in Berlin Photos
DPA

Klaus Wowereit, Berlin's mayor since 2001, has watched his city become one of world's coolest artistic meccas. But under his guidance, the city has devolved into a backward-looking architectural wasteland in which urban planning only favors the rich.

There's a dirt trail running from Berlin's main railway station, and it demonstrates how this city works: First, someone comes up with something; then everyone does something completely different; and, finally, the whole thing goes haywire.

In the summer, the dust of eastern Germany's March of Brandenburg region whirls through the air, making people cough. In the winter, tourists wrestle their wheeled luggage through a sea of mud, as if they had just landed in Lagos at the height of the rainy season.

Of course, there actually is an official path. It extends from the main railway station -- which still looks angular and inelegant, as if it had dropped directly out of the sky -- toward the Chancellery, which seems almost touching in its structural presumptuousness. What giant, one wonders, left these huge chunks of concrete lying about?

The properly laid out path meanders pointlessly in various directions -- or, in any case, not directly where the travelers want to go with their wheeled suitcases. The pedestrians remain stubborn on this point -- just as stubborn as Berlin's urban planners, if they really exist, who will be damned if they are going to alter the layout to allow people to enter this city in a civilized manner.

The dirt path's message is that anyone looking for civilization would be better off looking in Florence, Salzburg or Prague.

But this is Berlin, the harsh capital of the northern barbarians. Everything here is too large or too flat, too distant or too close. Here, they can only manage vacant lots and demolitions. This was a garrison town; here was the Kaiser, and here was the war. Nothing is light and lively; everything is somehow off the mark.

This explains how somebody could come up with the idea of placing an anemic, monolithic hotel with windows arranged in robot-like monotony right next to the main railway station. Indeed, it affronts the senses just like the vile breath of a drunk who pushes his way toward you to bum some change.

And this also explains why the square in front of this railway station -- which could be a landmark location for Germany, with the democratic dynamics of the railway behind it and the democratic troika of the Chancellery, the Paul Löbe parliamentary building and the Reichstag before it -- is now suddenly surrounded by two, three, four of these boxlike structures. They form a small, sad ensemble of hotels, constructed at lightning speed and initially concealed behind huge tarpaulins. These were removed at a certain point, but without any noticeable difference seeing that the materials are so cheap and the facades so insipid.

Berlin 's Couldn't-Care-Less Architectural Vision

This is the style of contemporary Berlin, a style characterized by compulsiveness and fear, a style forged from economic calculations and returns on investment. It has produced buildings with the charm of a cash register, such as the O2 World indoor arena in eastern Berlin. And, in the west, there are wobbly papier-mâché variations of a self-assured Chicago style of capitalism, such as the 32-story "Zoofenster" high-rise, which is home to the city's new branch of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel chain. In between, there are countless facades of overwhelming cowardice.

The result is an urban wasteland that leaves observers baffled by or enraged at the couldn't-care-less attitude with which this city is being sold off cheap. And this couldn't-care-less attitude has a name: Klaus Wowereit.

The mayor's urban-planning legacy is a city in investor style. It is his Berlin that can be seen here and that has taken shape since he began to govern this city-state back in 2001. The turn of the millennia was a period marked by inexpensive urban lots and cheap construction. Wowereit is not responsible for absolutely everything in this city, but the aesthetic opportunism of construction projects over the last 10 to 12 years is a reflection of his lack of vision and his let's-party pragmatism.

Wowereit's couldn't-care-less attitude also has a political dimension: This mayor, a member of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), allowed his city's urban planning to slip out of his hands. Likewise, it was his SPD, in cahoots with the far-left Left Party, that accelerated sales of government property to the highest bidder at a time of rising land prices -- thereby robbing Berliners of a chance to adapt their city to their own needs.

"Stadt als Beute" ("City as Booty"), a 2001 play by René Pollesch, already described what was happening to Berlin over a decade ago. But even Pollesch couldn't have imagined a farce like the one that is being played out around the East Side Gallery today. There, a roughly 22-meter (72-foot) part of the longest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall was to be dismantled to make way for an access road to a rather chic luxury apartment complex. It took massive protests and demonstrations to convince the district mayor -- a member of the environmentalist Green Party, no less -- to reconsider his open-arms approach to investors.

Forward into the Past

The debacle surrounding Berlin's failed new international airport is only the most blatant example of everything that can go wrong in this city. Yet there is nothing really surprising about this multibillion-euro fiasco which organically evolved from the backroom bargaining that has always characterized construction in this formerly divided city, and primarily in its over-subsidized western half.

Indeed, slipshod quality and inefficiency have a certain history in Berlin. For instance, there was a high-rise known as the Steglitzer Kreisel. Work began in 1968, but the building wasn't completed until 1980, after construction costs had nearly doubled and Berlin's city-state government had to pick up the tab for millions in cost overruns. The scandal was made worse by the fact that a number of key players had close connections both to the government and the private sector.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall came the era of the city's new building director, Hans Stimmann, who adhered to the principle of "critical reconstruction" -- which essentially led Berlin back to the past instead of giving it a sendoff to the future. This engendered the bewildering architecture of Potsdamer Platz and a fantasy notion of an urban landscape, which degraded the city to a backdrop and indiscriminately combined bits of scenery and models to create an imaginary 19th century.

Even today, this regime of aesthetic compulsion, fear and cronyism continues to have a decisive impact on tendering and contracting. Thanks to Stimmann's doctrine, practically no leading architect has built anything exhilarating in Berlin, the most notable exception being Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum. Architects either had to turn their creativity inwards, such as Frank Gehry with the atrium of the DZ Bank building on Pariser Platz, or they were condemned to the side streets, such as I. M. Pei was with the extension of the German Historical Museum. Nevertheless, Prussian narrow-mindedness, as it is celebrated on Berlin's famous Unter den Linden boulevard, could definitely use a jolt of the contemporary.

In an era when other cities have been zapping themselves awake with shock architecture, Berlin has been dreaming of rebuilding the old Baroque city palace and embracing a retro architecture vaguely evocative of the imperial era under the Kaiser. This anti-modern, indifferent view of aesthetics has ruled the day. Nevertheless, the city has become a mecca for several generations of artists, nightlife revelers and optimists from around the world.

Indeed, it's a paradox: Berlin, which is internationally recognized as one of the hottest cities of the 21st century, remains intellectually and architecturally waist-deep in the 19th century.

This contradiction has given rise to a new era that is the direct result of Wowereit's policies during his nearly 12 years at the helm of the city -- an era that has been dominated by key questions about the future of the city, yet without any concrete answers from the mayor's office.

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1. Gelungenes Todquatschen
Kofi 03/25/2013
Ich finde das Kronzinzenpalais extrem gelungen, weil es sich in den Raum gut einfügt und wertig aussieht. Der Bahnhof befindet sich im ehemaligen Mauerstreifen. Da ist noch nicht viel gebaut worden, es ist aber auch gar nicht so wichtig. Wichtig ist, dass wir fort kommen vom Betonbrutalismus. Dass wir fortkommen von einer menschenfeindlichen modernen Architektur. Die Gebäude wie das Kanzleramt tragen noch den Stempel der 90er, da ist noch nicht viel Berlinstil drin, jener Stil, der sich in den letzten 15 Jahren ergeben hat.
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