Berlin’s Divided Identity

Nicolai Ouroussoff is The Times' architecture critic

All cities are intricate historical recordings, their buildings repositories of happy and failed lives, of national ambitions and personal hopes. But in Berlin, the scars of history reach an operatic scale. Nineteenth century imperial ambitions, the chaotic freedom of the Weimar Republic, the horrors of Hitler’s Third Reich, the fractured culture of the Cold War--all are forever embedded in the city’s collective memory.

For a decade, Berlin has been trying to mend that fractured past. More than $120 billion has been invested in an effort to transform this city into the symbolic capital of a new Europe. Now, on the 10th anniversary of the demolition of the Berlin Wall, hardly a trace remains of the scar it carved across the city. In September, the German parliament moved into the Reichstag for the first time since 1934, the renovated structure’s assembly chamber capped with a new shimmering glass dome. Potsdamer Platz--once a no-man’s land between East and West of weeds and barbed wire--is now dense with sleek, corporate towers and trendy shopping malls. Even in the more distant ghettos of the former Eastern Bloc, the drab gray blocks of prefabricated housing are quickly disappearing, their facades re-clad in more cheerful colors. Berlin is on the verge of becoming the metropolis of the future.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Oct. 30, 1999 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday October 30, 1999 Orange County Edition Metro Part B Page 10 Metro Desk 2 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Conference sponsor--A story Sunday about preservation of Space Age architecture misstated which organizations sponsored a three-day Orange County history conference where the issue was discussed. The conference was sponsored by Cal State Fullerton and the Orange County Historical Commission.

But the dizzying speed of this transformation has also awakened deep insecurities over Berlin’s changing identity. Can Berlin look to its own history for architectural inspiration without evoking chilling images of German nationalism? Or does the city’s relentless effort to turn over a new page reflect a secret desire to erase uncomfortable historical memories? In short, how does one move forward without forgetting the past?

At the center of the debate is Hans Stimmann, the city’s powerful building director during the critical years after the 1989 demolition of the Berlin Wall, when the city’s redevelopment plans went into full swing. Stimmann’s aim was to reestablish Berlin’s prewar urban fabric-- its density, pedestrian scale and traditional blend of residential and commercial functions. To that end, he set up international competitions for the key commissions, inviting most of the world’s leading contemporary architects. But he also created a series of rigid guidelines, often rejecting schemes that didn’t conform to his vision of the city. “The guidelines were really very simple,” Stimmann says. “I was dealing with the tradition of the European city, of what is the feeling of the man when he walks through the street.”


To Stimmann’s critics, which include many architects who saw the city’s boom as an opportunity to experiment with new visions for the contemporary city, the guidelines have led to the worst of all possible worlds, a climate in which the creative imagination has had little room to flourish. Worse still, the attempt to turn back the clock to an earlier time seemed to mask a more insidious desire to erase the physical memories of Berlin’s difficult past. “It was about going back to a time that was nice and safe,” says Daniel Libeskind, the architect of Berlin’s new Jewish Museum, “as if history after 1934 wasn’t there. It was simply a rush to forgetting.” The result, Libeskind says, is a collection of sterile new developments and whitewashed neighborhoods lacking in the complexity that marks a vibrant city.

In fact, despite the overwhelming mediocrity of many of the new developments, Berlin remains a city littered with ghosts. In Mitte, for instance, a once-decrepit East Bloc neighborhood that is now overflowing with trendy galleries and restaurants, it is still possible to find the occasional townhouse whose dirty facade remains pockmarked by bullet holes from when Soviet troops invaded the city in 1945. In the upscale neighborhood of Charlottenburg, Hitler’s imposing Olympic Stadium--designed by Werner March for the 1936 games and the backdrop for Leni Riefenstahl’s famed film glorifying Nazism, “Olympia"--will be resurrected as the home of the 2006 World Cup. Even the surreally over-scaled, Neoclassical apartment buildings of the Karl Marx Allee are now being renovated for wealthy new tenants.

Moreover, how many cities can boast such a list of architectural luminaries, all working in one place at one time? Sir Norman Foster, whose 1986 Hong Kong Shanghai Bank building remains one of the great towers of the 20th century, designed the renovation of the Reichstag. Frank Gehry, whose Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, has been celebrated as a masterpiece of contemporary design, is completing a bank headquarters in Pariser Platz. Renzo Piano, the co-architect of Paris’ famed Pompidou Center, was responsible for Potsdamer Platz’s master plan, as well as three of its most important buildings. It remains to be seen if these works will rank among these architects’ great achievements. But if they have failed, not all of the blame can be placed on Stimmann. Clearly, any attempt to redefine a city’s identity in a single decade is an ambition verging on foolhardy.

Much of the debate has centered on Potsdamer Platz, the symbolic heart of the Berlin of tomorrow. The development was forged out of the kind of corporate muscle that one finds in the recently booming cities of the Far East. Together, Sony, DaimlerChrysler and Asea Brown Boveri Group invested a total of $2.5 billion in the site. But here, following Stimmann’s guidelines, Piano established a tight urban street pattern to blend the new buildings into the city around it.


Still incomplete, the development is a cluster of sleek corporate high-rises, shopping malls and movie theaters set in a field of towering yellow construction cranes. The towers--many with sharply angled corners and rising 20 stories into the air--converge on Marlene Dietrich Platz, a small, semicircular public plaza. Stairs lead up to an internal housing court; alleyways dead-end into an immense glass-covered shopping mall, all designed by Piano. Nearby, Rafael Moneo’s design for the Hilton Hotel is more restrained, tucked behind an arcaded walkway. Together, these projects make up a model city of congestion, more akin to New York’s Rockefeller Center than Berlin’s somber urban blocks.

“I was personally very interested in expressing a sense of lightness, a sense of color, a sense of maybe even happiness. And why not?” Piano says. “Cities are about density. They are about meeting people.”

But even the new Potsdamer Platz is shaped in part by the history of the Cold War. The site rubs up against Berlin’s Culture Forum, a group of buildings built in the 1960s but designed by architects whose early careers were fostered by the openness of the Weimar years. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s 1968 New National Gallery, Hans Scharoun’s 1967 State Library and 1963 Philharmonic Hall--these buildings still rank among the city’s most stunning architectural landmarks. But these monuments, situated in the former western sector, were built at a time when Berlin’s divisive wall seemed a permanent structure, and Potsdamer Platz was a devastated expanse guarded by East German patrols. As a result, these buildings turn their backs on the historical center. Scharoun’s State Library, in fact, straddles what was once Potsdamer Strasse, the area’s main thoroughfare.

The two schemes--the Culture Forum and the new Potsdamer Platz--embody the changes that the city has undergone in the intervening years. As architecture, both Scharoun’s library and the philharmonic are more inspired than any of the new structures nearby. The library’s main entry, for instance, is a bustling microcosm of urban life. Its giant interior hall, with low steps that sweep through the structure to a series of cantilever balconies and reading rooms, functions like a public plaza. But as a whole, the Culture Forum is reminiscent of many failed ‘60s-era planning strategies. The buildings, set amid vast open plazas, are strangely isolated from the city around them.

The density of the Potsdamer Platz development is a stark rejection of these earlier planning strategies. It seeks to reestablish the pedestrian city, with all its urban frictions. To connect his vision to Scharoun’s, Piano added a new entry to the back of the State Library building. Still incomplete, the entry’s main axis will extend between the casino and theater and connect directly to Marlene Dietrich Platz. The idea is to preserve the density of the site, to allow the energy of the public plaza and of the library to feed off each other. Whether or not the two will ever fuse into an urban whole will say much about the city’s ability to resolve its many historical contradictions.


If you want to see Stimmann’s vision in full force, however, you must follow the path of the former wall a few miles to the North, to Pariser Platz, whose Brandenburg Gate is a symbol of the old city. Citing the weight of history here, Stimmann was intent on re-creating the plaza’s original historical fabric, which in this case meant that architects were forced to take their cues from earlier historical styles. “Pariser Platz was an absolutely unique situation because of the Brandenburg Gate,” Stimmann said. “It is the symbol of the process of unification. It is the only area where we decided to give restrictions in architectural terms--the scale of the windows and the color of materials.”

Even Stimmann is not wholly pleased with the results. The Hotel Adlon, for instance, one of the city’s most luxurious meeting places until it was destroyed during the war, has recently been reconstructed, but the new building’s overwrought decor makes it a garish replica of the original. “I am against these Postmodern buildings,” Stimmann says. “I am interested in working with the vocabulary of European cities, but not in Mickey Mouse or Disneyland architecture.”


He is more proud of the twin bank buildings that flank the Brandenburg Gate. Designed by Josef Kleihues, one of Berlin’s most politically powerful architects, the buildings are marked by an abstracted modernity of stone geometrical blocks and cutout windows. Since architecture in Berlin is never politically neutral, some feel that the style of these buildings echoes the abstract monumentality of Nazi-era architecture. In fact, the road that leads from here through the Tiergarten park was a major feature of Albert Speer’s plan for Germania, the proposed capitol of the Third Reich. In 1938, Speer moved the Victory Column from its position near the Reichstag and set it on axis with the gate, giving the site of many of Hitler’s military parades an oppressive sense of discipline and monumentality.

“Half the city wants to rebuild the 19th century, and it doesn’t work,” L.A.-based Gehry says. “For me, even the work of [conventional] developers is more real and believable than a historical pastiche.”

In his design for the DG Bank, just south of the Brandenburg Gate, Gehry was forced to literally turn his normally exuberant designs inside out. The building’s exterior is surprisingly low-key, clad in beige sandstone and punctured by large uniform windows. The fireworks are hidden inside, where the narrow atrium’s glass floor bulges up like the arched back of a whale. Along either side, twin ramps lead up to a stainless-steel-clad conference room whose form has been likened to a horse’s skull.

In this context, Gehry’s building--with its dynamic forms trapped inside its stoic frame--evokes the Sisyphean struggle to free the creative spirit from oppressive conventions and bureaucratic restraints. Whether the building represents the taming of that spirit or its ultimate irrepressibility is left ambiguous--an apt metaphor, perhaps, for Berlin’s own struggle to free itself from the most oppressive parts of its past.

Stimmann’s penchant for historical mimicry extends to the nearby Friedrichstrasse, once the main shopping thoroughfare for Berlin’s haut bourgeoisie. While the wall was up, this was part of the eastern sector, but it has since been gobbled up by Western commercialism. Here, both renovated and new buildings conform to the scale and design limitations set by Stimmann. The area’s only truly inspired project is the Galeries Lafayette department store, designed by French architect Jean Nouvel and dominated by a cone-shaped glass atrium. The atrium functions as a Panopticon-like lens, where shoppers can observe themselves in a perpetual swirl of consumption.

The real life of Friedrichstrasse, however, is buried below the city. From the Galeries Lafayette’s underground food halls, you pass through an enfilade of increasingly crass shopping malls of mixed architectural styles--a Postmodern mall complete with a swirling grand stair and a piano tucked underneath, a dull glass modern box dominated by escalators. Up above, the street remains eerily bland, a monotonous series of blank facades. To East Germans raised with few luxuries, this string of garish shopping malls must make for a startling spectacle, final proof that an empty narcissism drives much of Western culture.

Berlin’s most difficult challenge, however, has been in dealing with the architectural legacy of Nazism. Along with the Olympic Stadium, several other Nazi structures are being carefully restored, although they will now serve different functions. Hitler’s Reichsbank, for instance, will become the new foreign ministry. Goering’s former Luftwaffe headquarters building will reopen as the finance ministry. Tempelhof airport, built by Hitler and the scene of the Berlin airlift, is still a landing spot for local European flights.

Of these, the Reichsbank is the most significant in terms of architectural history. It is here, in a national competition held in 1934, that Hitler chose the architectural style for his new Reich, rejecting designs by such Modern masters as Mies van der Rohe. More than half a century later, is the building’s history irrelevant? Or is this another example of Berliners hiding from their past? Is there something embedded in the building’s architecture that reflects the language of oppression?


“You cannot just clean up these buildings,” Libeskind says. “You have to show the radical changes of German history. Why would you preserve them without cutting through them, without showing the presence of a new generation? You need to show that these were evil buildings done by an evil regime.”

If there is a place in the new Berlin where the theme of cultural loss is addressed, it is in Libeskind’s design for the Jewish Museum. The museum is not a Holocaust memorial. Instead, it traces the entire Jewish experience within German culture, culminating with a submerged garden of concrete pillars that is emblematic of the birth of an independent Jewish state in Israel. Images of pain are also inescapable: The building’s facade is marked by scar-like cuts that symbolize the absence of those who were killed in the death camps. Inside, a dramatic concrete cell, rising 90 feet and pierced by a thin slot of light, evokes the void left by the Holocaust in the life of the city.

But the museum is also an articulate statement about the inability of any one building to contain the history of an entire culture. "[The government] started with the idea to create a Jewish department in the Berlin Museum,” Libeskind explains. “I saw that as a pratfall. You cannot tear the Jewish experience out of the whole. Jews were never part of a department except at the moment of tragedy.”

Such observations make it impossible to accept change here without some ambivalence. The Berlin Wall, now almost entirely gone, has been reduced to a curious tourist attraction. The few remnants that remain have often been displaced to make room for the new developments. Checkpoint Charlie--the epicenter of the conflict between two competing ideologies bent on destroying each other--is now marked by a cheesy museum and a crumbling guard tower. In Mitte, the Jewish synagogue that was vandalized during Kristallnacht is now a museum guarded by armed policemen. Its main worship space, never reconstructed, remains a gaping void.

“Berlin is about forgetting,” Piano says. “It is about the desire to forget that terrible past. And at the same time, it is very nostalgic, Berlin. So it is a very funny situation, because you have this contradiction. And those two things will always be mixed together, sometimes even in the same person.”