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.
'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.