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Becoming Berlin


Since the fall of the Wall, the city has transformed itself from a divided, stagnant anomaly into one of the most exciting capitals in the world

When I moved here 23 years ago, Berlin was still very much two cities: the former West, for all the infrastructural investment in the ’50s and ’70s, was little more than a provincial lacuna notable for its sleepy suburbs and rather dated commercial infrastructure. Much of the Mitte district – the capital’s former heart and then in the former East, along the former border – was a backwater; the Palast der Republik and other representative buildings of the former GDR stood empty or were quietly being demolished. The Neoclassical masterpiece by Schinkel, Stüler, Messel et al that is the Museum Island was shabby and dirty, its walls pockmarked with the scars of snipers’ bullets and shrapnel from the war, and the bombed-out ruin of the Neues Museum sported full-grown trees where its grand entrance hall once stood.

During the Second World War, 50 per cent of the city’s fabric was destroyed and in the former East this was still painfully, yet rather beautifully, obvious. The neighbouring area around Hackescher Markt was a combination of crumbling, gap-toothed, 18th, 19th and early 20th-century street fronts and despondent-looking GDR prefabs. Jungles of weeds and yet more unchecked trees filled the empty plots between the buildings. Makeshift metal doors concealed basement entrances to semi-illegal clubs, bars and galleries. On autumn mornings in the Scheunenviertel (the former Jewish quarter), the foggy air was thick with the smell of coal smoke from the stoves heating the old buildings; the pavements here were risky to negotiate; and finding a decent eatery involved a trip to Kreuzberg or Schöneberg in the former West.

In the summer of 1995, I used to cycle from Charlottenburg through Berlin’s central park, the Tiergarten, to the Goethe Institute, then located near Checkpoint Charlie, for German lessons. My route took me across Potsdamer Platz, a triste wasteland cleared of ruins and waiting for the local government (the Senat) and initial investors, Daimler-Benz, to stop arguing over the masterplan (and a highly dodgy land deal made with the then ruling SDP) and let loose building on what was shortly to become the largest construction site in Europe. In Wim Wenders’ 1987 film Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin), an old man named Homer goes looking for Potsdamer Platz and finds nothing but a field and a wall. That’s pretty much how it looked when I first saw it – except the wall was missing. But a few blocks away, just the other side of the Brandenburg Gate, something extraordinary was happening that summer.

Mies p66

Mies p66

Mies van der Rohe’s unrealised Friedrichstrasse skyscraper project, 1921. Image courtesy of DACS 2017

The Reichstag, one of the city’s most potent pieces of architecture, now the absolute built symbol of reunified Germany, was awaiting reconstruction and a new cupola by Norman Foster to replace the one destroyed by the 1933 fire which led to the Nazis seizing power over parliament. Before works started, the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude were permitted to realise a massive project in the planning since 1971: the Wrapped Reichstag. They covered the entire carcass of the building – and symbolically with it all the painful mess of the city’s history – in shimmering silver fabric and for two brief weeks the people of Berlin celebrated a wake of gargantuan proportions. Each evening after class I stopped off there and wandered among the crowds, listening in to citizens earnestly and intensely debating politics, art, architecture and Goethe, and realised I had found my new home. This was a city whose citizens cared deeply about its history, about the lessons of the past, about politics and about its architecture. This single artistic – and architectural – gesture, it seemed at the time, did more for the reunification of a divided people than any other.

After that summer, the mood and energy in Berlin seemed to shift: the wake was over and the task of knitting the divided city back together could begin, in particular across the broad scar of cleared land where the border had once stood. Building work at Potsdamer Platz started at last with an internationally bland array of high-rises by Renzo Piano, Hans Kollhoff, Richard Rogers, Helmut Jahn, Arata Isozaki and Hilmer & Sattler among others. The huge building site was exciting though: floodlit divers pouring concrete underwater in the ongoing battle to lay foundations below Berlin’s very high water table was a favourite late-night spectacle. Scaffolding went up around the Reichstag; architects Axel Schultes and Charlotte Frank were handed the commission to design the massive new Federal Chancellery building next door; and the planning for a huge band of government buildings along the Spree included Stephan Braunfels’ Marie-Elisabeth-Lüders-Haus and Paul-Löbe-Haus to accommodate the government’s planned move from Bonn in 1999.

L2 v330944 958 480 480 13

L2 v330944 958 480 480 13

Image used on book cover of Modelle für eine Stadt (1984) by Vittorio Magnago-Lampugnani. Image by Aldo Rossi

It wasn’t long before the construction sites became so numerous that a constant film of building dust covered everything – indoors and out. This renovation frenzy was not just about doing up a few buildings, this was the modernisation of the infrastructure of an entire country: roads, motorways, water pipes, cables, street furniture, pavements, landscaping, public and private property (once it had been decided who actually owned it) included. The entire urban fabric of East Germany needed modernising and it was an enormous task that is still going on to this day.

In Mitte, as well as other central former East districts, a sense of change was also in the air: young galleries such as Kunst-Werke, Wohnmaschine and Eigen + Art began to establish themselves in the small side streets and a growing international community of artists (myself included) started to settle in the picturesque, but decayed and freezing, old buildings. The first renovations by the cash-strapped local housing association – the Wohnungs-baugesellchaft Mitte (WBM), which owns many of the buildings in the area – were under way, and a tiny handful of canny investors were slowly beginning to develop some of the overgrown gaps. Gentrification wasn’t really a word then, but former residents left the area in their droves heading for newer apartments with central heating, fitted kitchens and their own bathroom, leaving the artists to their ‘bohemian’ ruins with minuscule rents. 

Perhaps the first really exciting new building in the city (love it or hate it) was Daniel Libeskind’s Deconstructivist Jewish Museum, close to where the Wall had been in Kreuzberg. The building design had won a competition in 1988, but was not completed until 1999. It completely broke with all previous building styles in the city – of which there are many – and at the time, there was a strong belief that Berlin would once again prove the perfect melting pot for many exciting architectural innovations. But this was not to be.



Friedrichstrasse epitomises the linear uniformity of much of Berlin. Photograph courtesy of Novarc Images/Alamy 

The city’s building director between 1991 and 2006, Hans Stimmann, along with a clique of influential architects around him, set the stringent and deeply conservative building codes that have shaped the evolution of the city to this day. By fixating on facades, this set of codes laid emphasis on the physiognomy of the city, rather than its morphology and, as a result, created one of the most monumental missed architectural opportunities in modern history.  

Under the principle of ‘critical reconstruction’, Stimmann defined a style of building that was governed by (largely mythical) historical precedent, whereby new buildings had to follow pre-war street patterns, be limited to single blocks, and have stone or ceramic exteriors in preference to glass and steel or other materials. He also set building heights at 22 metres. The result is perfectly exemplified in the current crop of sterile, nondescript, unilevel cubes, with punched window facades growing up around the gmp Architekten truncated glass and steel Central Station. Libeskind told me in an interview for uncube magazine that Stimmann had proudly told him, ‘If he had been in power just one month earlier, the building would have never received building permission’. 

Some of the 100 or so new and refurbished embassy buildings, completed around the end of the 20th century as part of Berlin becoming the capital once again, managed to avoid or circumvent these regulations and provide a few early architectural highlights in the reunified city, in particular Rem Koolhaas’s Dutch Embassy (2002), Serrano and González de Léon’s Mexican Embassy (2000), the Nordic Embassy complex by Berger + Parkinnen (2000) and Diener & Diener’s Swiss Embassy (2001). Michael Wilford’s British Embassy (2001) tweaked the rules as well by adding curves, contemporary materials and colours behind its facade, as did Frank Gehry’s DZ Bank building around the corner, adjacent to the Brandenburg Gate. 

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Screen shot 2017 11 03 at 12.18.03

David Chipperfield’s Berlin office fits into the existing streetscape. Photograph by Simon Menges

Germans, and Berliners in particular, are very sensitive when it comes to history, and understandably so. There are many buildings and sites in Berlin with a highly compromised past, and debate has raged long and hard about how to approach this legacy. There are a couple of examples that illustrate the issue well. The German government did not just build new buildings when it returned to Berlin, it also re-appropriated old ones, with the attitude that denying the past was not a way forward. One of those buildings was the former Reichsbank from 1940 whose design, by Heinrich Wolff, Hitler chose as a representation of the Third Reich. After the war the bank was adapted and taken over by the Central Committee of the Socialist Unity Party and became the place from which the Politburo controlled the lives of GDR citizens.

So it was a building with a severely compromised past, that in 2000 was renovated and extended to become the new German Foreign Office (Auswärtiges Amt). The extension – all glass, transparency and light – was designed by Berlin architects Thomas Müller and Ivan Reimann, but the job of banishing ghosts in the old one fell to Hans Kollhoff, a supporter of Stimmann. Kollhoff developed a three-layered ‘onion skin’ approach to the task for the interior: he retained the two construction layers of the 1930s and ’50s as far as possible (right down to two faded patches on the wall of the conference room where portraits of Marx and Engels once hung) and added a third contemporary layer. All three historical phases of the building were stripped right down to an alternating interplay of materials held together by vast monochromes by the artist Gerhard Merz and Kollhoff’s own chandelier designs. It worked, acknowledging and embracing the past, no matter how ugly, and incorporating it into the present. It was somehow very ‘Berlin’ and demanded far greater intellectual engagement than skin-deep facade regulations.

This onion-skin, or ‘complementary restoration’, approach was also adopted by David Chipperfield and his team when tasked to restore and rebuild the bomb-damaged Neues Museum on the Museum Island (1859) – a UNESCO World Heritage site of great architectural sensitivity for the city. Chipperfield and his team went to painstaking lengths to decide which elements of, not just history but also of ruin, to retain, restore or replace. Their choices varied from room to room, from column to column, and from cornice to lintel. New elements, where they have added them, are extremely minimal, almost neutral, yet stand up shoulder to shoulder with Friedrich August Stüler’s war-scarred original – Chipperfield’s new staircase in particular. ‘We have been criticised for memorialising damage’, said the architect when the building was reopened in 2009, 12 years after the commission, ‘but in fact we tried to push it back as far as possible – to compete with the damage where in some cases it was only structure that held rooms together’.



Reappropriated by Berliners as a recreational site, Tempelhof Airport’s former airfield now welcomes a range of activities, including an annual kite festival. Photograph courtesy of Michel Meijer/Alamy

The debate that raged over the reconstruction of both these buildings pales in comparison to the one over the reconstruction of the Berliner Stadtschloss, the Berlin Palace. It is a topic guaranteed to have Berliners at each others’ throats if you even mention it. Demolished by the GDR after the war, the former residence of the Kaiser first made way in 1973 for the new Palast der Republik, which was both seat of government for the GDR and house of entertainment and culture in one. This was in turn demolished in 2008 by the critical reconstruction faction to make way for the Humboldt-Forum by architect Franco Stella. The actual function of the new building was quite hazy at first, but it will now house the Ethnological Museum and the Museum of Asian Art under the directorship of Neil McGregor, former head of the British Museum. Currently nearing completion, the Humboldt-Forum is a pastiche of epic proportions that combines a contemporary frame dressed in a faux historical skin. It represents everything that is bad about misguided historicism: the disneyification of the city at the expense of GDR Modernism and a massive slap down to the architectural legacy of the former GDR – and its people.

Another subject of hot dispute concerns Berlin’s airports. Tempelhof airport (Ernst Sagebiel 1936-41), a Nazi building that is still one of the biggest in Europe, was closed in 2008 as part of a plan to consolidate all air traffic at one single new international airport on the outskirts of the city in Schönefeld, on the site of the main air hub of the former East. Tempelhof’s massive airfield became an informal and much-used recreational space. The plan was to develop the inner-city field for housing, but the citizens revolted and voted in 2008 to keep it as it is. This was as much a protest response to growing development encroachment on their city and its structures as anything else. The building is so big, nobody really knows what to do with it, so it currently functions as a site for trade events, performances and temporary refugee housing, and the former airfield is so huge it really wouldn’t make much difference to its size if some much-needed social housing were to be built around its periphery.



Thorough testing under way in 2012 for  the Berlin Brandenburg Airport’s ‘imminent’ opening– yet the terminal is still under construction, with no end in sight. Photograph courtesy of Agencja Fotograficzna Caro/Alamy

Construction began on the Berlin Brandenburg International Willy Brandt Airport (BER), 18 kilometres south of the city centre, in 2006. A contemporary glass and steel structure, relatively easy on the eye, yet not outstanding in any particular way either, was designed by gmp Architekten and due for completion in 2010 at a cost of €600 million. But shortly before the grand opening, the building failed its fire inspection and, on even closer inspection, it turned out to be failing in quite a few other respects as well, from doors that didn’t open properly, to missing fire walls, cables and pipes so ill-fitting that they failed to function at all, and so on.  A bitter furore ensued and the whole tale of incompetence and corruption became a source of great embarrassment to the citizens of Berlin. Seven years later, with costs over €2 billion, the airport has yet to open: if you come to Berlin, don’t mention the airport.

Meanwhile, Berlin’s other airport in Tegel, interestingly the first-ever built project by Meinhard von Gerkan and Volkwin Marg (yes, gmp Architekten again) in 1975, which was due to close and be replaced by BER, has just won a stay of execution thanks to another local referendum in which citizens voted to keep it open. It is not hard to understand why, its rather brutal octagonal terminal design with a loop-the-loop circulation scheme is amazingly efficient and passenger-friendly, and at this stage nobody actually believes any more that the BER will ever get off the ground.

F40e7 bar25

F40e7 bar25

Bar 25, on the bank of the River Spree, was considered to be a symbol against gentrification. After opening in 2004, it closed just a few years later following a party that lasted for five days. Photograph courtesy of

So what of the rest of the city nearly 30 years after reunification? The empty spaces, low land prices and cheap rents that made this city such a place of creative opportunity are now all but gone. Its gap-toothed smile has been replaced with expensive cosmetic dental work, in the inner city at least, and property is mostly in the firm grip of speculators and investors. The population, which in its pre-war heyday was almost 4.5 million, fell dramatically after the war and has now reached an estimated 3.5 million, but this number is massively swelled by tourists. There were nearly 13 million visitors to Berlin in 2016, according to the tourist board. It is now the third most popular destination in Europe after London and Paris. This means that a lot of development is catering to hordes of visitors to the ‘party city’. There have been 400 new hotels built since the early 1990s, and innumerable apartments turned over to Airbnb-style short-term rents, not to mention all the new shopping centres, restaurants and bars.

A lot of people come to Berlin for the infamous nightlife, which grew up in the ruined and abandoned spaces of the ’90s. A sort of post-apocalyptic-style hedonism evolved in former bank buildings, department stores, factories and power plants (Cookies, Tresor, E-Werk, Berghain, and so on). These spaces spawned a post-industrial ruin aesthetic that grew out of necessity, opportunity and accident, rather than careful planning. As the developers encroached, the clubbers shifted to more informal, shanty-like self-built constructions made of salvaged materials, particularly on rooftops and along the banks of the river (Bar25, Club der Visionäre, Kater Holzig). But mass tourism has now turned these places into pastiches of themselves and what was born of necessity has now become a style, complete with fake pallet furniture, that is aped the world over.

Many of these temporary, recreational structures are cheek by jowl with new developments in the former East, occupying, drawing interest and adding ‘soft value’ to land before development – gentrification in action in real time. One of them, Kater Blau, situated on a part of the river behind the longest remaining stretch of the Wall (now preserved as a ‘museum’ for tourists), is part of a development by the former club owners of Bar25 called Holzmarkt, that has attempted to counteract the usual shiny investor prestige constructions with a mixed-use development including spaces for artists and a kindergarten. It may look alternative and ‘cool’, but it has been created with a hard-nosed business model behind it. Strung along the river around it as part of the MediaSpree investment project, hotels, luxury lofts, HQs, conference centres and offices are springing up like mushrooms. 

Graft hospitality and residential eckwerk (2) 44

Graft hospitality and residential eckwerk (2) 44

Eckwerk Holzmarkt has been conceived to address contemporary ecological, social and economic issues. Image courtesy of GRAFT Architects and Kleihues+Kleihues

Where once there was so much empty space, housing has become the big issue. To accommodate the rising population, the city needs to build 194,000 new apartments by 2030 – right now it is short of some 77,000 living spaces. Despite government controls, rents have risen by 40 per cent since 2010 and house prices by 94 per cent; this is hitting ordinary citizens hard and the lack of social housing is a particular problem. One potential solution is an increase in cooperative housing projects, which combine public and semi-public facilities within their schemes to encourage diversity and community building. The Spreefeld project, for example, also tucked in between the commercial riverside developments, is a collaboration between three Berlin architecture offices: Silvia Carpaneto, fatkoehl and BARarchitekten. The development contains 44 apartments in three buildings, dotted loosely over the site to provide as many units as possible with a direct view of the river. In Kreuzberg, the R50 co-housing project by ifau und Jesko Fezer + Heide & von Beckerath meets similar aims.

The architectural evolution of Berlin in recent years has been a parallel one: a tale of giant civil structures and hard-fought planning battles, of commodification through investor developments – that at times appear to have passed unchecked through the border controls of planning regulation – and of evolving informal interventions taking advantage of disputed, unclaimed or ignored spaces: the city’s special variety of urban commons. At the beginning, this took the form of squatting or occupying vacant buildings for little or no rent, then it began to include vacant gaps and spaces, the Baulücken

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Screen shot 2017 11 03 at 12.36.28

R50 – Cohousing by ifau and Jesko Fezer, Heide & Von Beckerath. Photograph: Andrew Alberts

Now the ‘architects’ of the informal city have become even more outspoken critical participants in civic enterprise, and with increasing local support are challenging local government and commerce with well-structured and ambitious alternative planning concepts, questioning and confronting the paths that the city’s growth is taking. 

As well as clubbers evolving into mixed-use real estate pioneers and alternative mixed housing models based on shared ownership and shared authorship, landscape architects – such as atelier le balto with their ad hoc approach to urban gardening – have influenced larger civic projects and spaces such as the new Gleisdreieck Park. Meanwhile, back on Museum Island, architects realities: united have been battling for years to convert a disused arm of the river Spree, using natural reed-bed filters, into a public swimming space with its Flussbad project, and it actually appears like it may happen. 

It’s now 2017, Stimmann is gone, his iron regulations relaxed, and there is a little more hope for more interesting typologies. Investment has shifted to include the former west of the city; the area around Zoologischer Garten – the oldest zoo in Germany – has a fresh crop of huge skyscrapers (albeit still with punched stone facades) and new retail projects that may or may not endure. Berlin is still evolving, still changing, and people from the world over are attracted to it in their millions because of that. It is a living entity with citizens that care, participate, complain, raise their voices and vote. There is a well-worn, yet highly appropriate quote by art critic and historian Karl Scheffler who wrote back in 1910 that: Berlin is a city ‘condemned forever to becoming and never to being’. He meant it as a curse, but this is very much its blessing.