Missed Opportunities Berlin's Architectural Wasteland

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Part 2: 'Historicism and Capitalism'


Who does the public sphere belong to, who owns the inner city, who can even afford an urban environment, and how should people live in this city? What are the social conditions, and how are they reflected in architectural aesthetics?

Here again, Wowereit is not responsible for everything. But a mayor should have a vision for his city that he can convey to its inhabitants. He should show what he wants and what he doesn't. Wowereit's most memorable architectural statement remains a fit of rage over the Alexa mall, which crouches like a red scaly lizard on Alexanderplatz, a major transport and shopping hub in eastern Berlin. "How ugly!" he exclaimed in disgust, as if it wasn't his city and his job to have a creative impact on its design.

The debate on the city of the 21st century has taken place elsewhere. Instead, ever since the 1990s, urban planners in Berlin have grappled with questions such as the ratio of glass to stone on facades (40/60, according to the Stimmann guideline). In 2013, for instance, people are still seriously discussing whether the entire Marienviertel, a historic quarter near the site of the old imperial palace, should be rebuilt.

"Historicism and capitalism," says Hanns Zischler, "there's nothing else in this city." The 65-year-old essayist and actor describes the coarseness that has always been part of the nature of the city in his newly published book "Berlin ist zu gross für Berlin" ("Berlin Is Too Big for Berlin"). In it, he contends that this Berlin has always been an illusion, "a mirage over the region's sand and swamps." Furthermore, the "rapid, even boundless expansion," writes Zischler, was "out of necessity combined with a downright habitual destructiveness."

They can demolish a palace, as they did in the former East Germany, and they can tear down the Palace of the Republic, the old East German parliamentary building, as they did in post-reunification Germany. But when they decide to build something new, all that comes to mind is 1900.

Zischler, 65, is a friendly, well-educated individual -- rather a rarity in this city, which has yet to recover from the loss of its important Jewish middle class, just as the Nazis wanted it. Indeed, Germany's capital has essentially never had its own middle-class traditions. What remains is the pretentious, parvenu and proletarian Berlin, a mixture of intemperance and inferiority complex, of megalomania and mediocrity, which has long since become business as usual and the benchmark for architectural aesthetics.

The 'Russification' of Berlin

Take the "Yoo," for example, a luxury apartment complex "inspired by" by French designer Philippe Starck. It rises 10 stories high behind the tiny Brecht statue at the Berliner Ensemble theater, like some kind of pyramid without a top or a pharaoh. Its future residents have a great deal of money -- though whether they have taste is another question. Starck has come up with four furnishing styles to make the wealth of cluelessness less apparent: "Classic," with wooden floors and fireplaces and a modernistic Eames chair; "Minimal," with a few brown tree trunks against a sea of white, "Nature," with a red lip-shaped sofa and wavy brown walls; and "Culture," with white, gauze-like chairs that are vaguely reminiscent of the unfortunate "English patient" and a few chandeliers, as if Mary Antoinette could drop by for tea at any moment.

This is architecture as it was before the revolution -- and the same impression conveyed by the other new luxury project in the city. The apartments in the "Kronprinzengärten" ("Crown Princes' Gardens"), at a prime location between Unter den Linden and Gendarmenmarkt square, appear to have been planned for oligarchs. Indeed, the Russification of Berlin's central Mitte district has just begun. Anyone who will live here in the Lego Classicism of the "Kronprinzengärten," which so far only exists in a promotional video, simply won't have time to deal with interior decorating between stopovers in Monaco, St. Moritz and St. Barths.

The "Yoo" and the "Kronprinzengärten" are merely the most spectacular examples of something that is difficult to express with the somewhat hackneyed word "gentrification." At a purchasing price of up to €10,000 per square meter ($1,200 per square foot), it would be more accurate to call this a progressive anesthetization of the inner city.

A City Enthralled by Developers

The true problems facing this city have long since begun to emerge: Between now and 2030, Berlin will grow by an estimated 250,000 people, and these new inhabitants will need places to live. Rents in the city are already skyrocketing. Why, one might ask Wowereit, has Berlin halted all investments in subsidized housing during the 10 years in which his city was declared open for the trophy hunting of high earners?

Regula Lüscher, the Berlin senator in charge of urban development, chooses her words carefully. The Swiss native says that the city's poor financial position puts constraints on public building projects. She prefers to rhapsodize over private developers, who are actually becoming more important and more visible. She might call them an "avant-garde," but they are still no substitute for social housing.

Over the next four years, 30,000 residential units will have to be built. Lüscher says that the next International Building Exhibition (IBA), scheduled for 2020, will revolve around the question of how "urbanity can be expanded." She explains that the main theme of the IBA is "Draussenstadt wird Drinnenstadt" (or "outside the city becomes inside the city"), adding that it has to do with the "perceived periphery" and the "pressure on the inner city." For the time being, this is all just urban-planning-ese. Lüscher still has to demonstrate what it means in concrete terms.

Hopeful Signs of Change

The projects being planned and approved today will have a lasting impact on the next decade and era. One possible indication of this upcoming period in history is already standing north of the main railway station. It's a new high-rise designed by Berlin architect Barkow Leibinger, a self-confident solitary structure like the ones soundly rejected by Stimmann's vision for Berlin.

These are the exceptions to the rule. Indeed, the "Urban Development Concept for 2030" currently being drafted by Berlin officials also lacks a commitment to break with past practices and take a different aesthetic, political and social approach to the city. One example of this is the Holzmarkt, a particularly attractive piece of property located directly on the Spree River. Last year, the city made the surprise decision not to sell the land to a conventional investor, but rather to supporters of Bar 25, a typical haven for Berlin subculture that the initiators hope will add a new dimension to urban development.

The premises are slated to become the home of the "Eckwerk," a kind of business incubator, where living and work spaces are mixed. A public park is planned, the "Mörchenpark," and the entire ensemble is intended to be laid out in a village-like manner. This is more of a collective approach to an urban environment, a neo-hippie response to the question of who the city belongs to, and one more along the lines of sharing than owning. "We assume," says Mario Husten, one of the initiators, "that something is changing in people's relationships with each other."

The Holzmarkt project has also been successful because direct citizen involvement was possible -- even though the transaction was handled according to the old policies for auctioning off city-owned land, and this property was also sold to the highest bidder. Meanwhile, the city government has revised its policy and decided that aspects of urban development have to be taken into consideration when awarding such purchasing contracts.

What Berliners are venturing with the Holzmarkt project is basically a classic citizens' movement to take their city back. They have the self-confidence. They are the fiber of this city. These people are changing their city as they see fit and establishing their own rules. They want to institutionalize the dirt trail.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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Kofi 03/25/2013
1. Gelungenes Todquatschen
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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