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Outrage: developers’ hoardings should bear some responsibility for the imaginaries they nurture

The pixellated trompe l’oeil images depicted on scaffolding are inventing a misleading Potemkin architecture in Berlin and abroad

Potemkin buildings, scaffolding as statement of architectural intent, have quite a history in Berlin. The controversial reconstruction of its Prussian Palace began as a giant awning, parked unceremoniously outside the GDR’s moribund Palast der Republik in 1993-94. Last year, Schinkel’s red-brick Bauakademie (1836), destroyed in 1945, was slated to graduate from the scaffolding form it has taken since 2004 to brick reality by 2023. Cutting-edge architecture in both material and design when first built, despite attempts to channel its spirit with a new building, the facade will now be a copy of the original – which has long graced the hoarding.

Eradication and/or resurrection of certain histories in the name of ‘conservation’ by conservative pressure groups aside, the qualities of the 1:1 approach have not gone unnoticed by other developers, especially if combined with snappy neoliberal nomenclature. And just as their conservation-focused cousins seem content to co-opt and reconfigure idealisations of what has gone before, so too are new developments turning to specious Berlin narratives to preordain not just the use of space but also perceptions centred around it.

A ‘shabby chic’ Berlin aesthetic has proliferated around the world and been sold back to the city for years now, as what Kyle Chayka has described as ‘International Airbnb Style’ (said company is now regulated in Berlin). With fewer ‘ruins’ to renovate, the visual and textural language used to justify breakneck (typically luxury) development has shifted. The ‘poor-but-sexy’ trope has given way to, literally in some cases, the ‘myth’ of Berlin: its state of permanent becoming, a city in constant flux. 

‘The upcoming building, which won a competition just last year, looks very similar to its nine-year-old scaffolding predecessor’

Examples can be seen in Andreas Wilcke’s fascinating-if-horrifying 2016 documentary Stadt als Beude (city for sale), which explores the forces driving the Berlin housing market by interspersing footage of the crane-dominated cityscape with interviews with investors and residents. These include: ‘Wandel ist kein Programm, sondern ein Prinzip’ (change is not a programme, but a principle) – lofty italics, developers’ own. My bêtes noires include the invoking of Wim Wenders’ seminal film title by a new high-rise near Zoologischer Garten, the great views, great feelings and sublime working conditions that arise in the Himmel über Berlin (literally: heaven or sky above Berlin), or the frustratingly succinct ‘Living the Berlin Dream’, spotted at Friedrichstraße (no one seems to know what that actually comprises).

Why rage, then, at what seems such evidently inept communication and fake construction? Surely that’s easy to disregard? Not necessarily. It was recently confirmed that the last empty plot at Leipziger Platz is to be built on, the final piece of a hexagonal circus adjoining the mythos-marketed Potsdamer Platz. (The double square is the site of a failed attempt to create a high-rise Berlin downtown.) Deconstruction work has begun on the trompe l’oeil hoarding that has occupied the spot since 2009. In recent conversations, I have been met with surprise that the ‘building’ is fake. That’s largely, one suspects, on account of flatness of the real architecture surrounding it. Leipziger Platz is also home to the huge Mall of Berlin. Completed in 2014 (often referred to as the ‘Mall of Shame’), it too first occupied the site in Potemkin form.

‘We run the risk of a shazam effect, where the aesthetic of rendered futures self-replicates and we are unable to imagine alternatives’

British designer Tobias Revell has written eloquently about how the render as a medium of communication should be regarded as a site of resistance, noting that: ‘it is largely used to prop up an existing aesthetic hegemony that makes imagining alternative futures hard. We run the risk of a shazam effect, where the aesthetic of rendered futures self-replicates and we are unable to imagine alternatives’. (From a paper ‘The Potential for Radical Politics in Rendering’ delivered at Between Paper and Pixels, 2016.) The effect seems, if anything, amplified, when renders occupy space in life-size, interim form.

Another moment from Stadt als Beude supports this thesis and points to the exclusion it engenders. An investor is seen discussing plans for other plots in the vicinity. Responding to a question about housing provision, he replies ‘Is it necessary for a benefits claimant to live near Potsdamer Platz?’. Incidentally, the awning at Leipziger Platz has only ever existed as a projection of a building with (pixellated) shop fronts on the ground floor, nondescript, decidedly non-residential looking windows above, and two vast billboards on each side. The upcoming building, which won a competition just last year, looks very similar to its nine-year-old scaffolding predecessor.  

Said imagery is not unique to Berlin; suggestive visualisations abound in Dubai and the persuasive prose that adorns them has been a hardy perennial on walls worldwide for years – though in the UK it seems to gain a greater level of audacity. If the encroachment of this genre onto the surfaces of the German capital was inevitable, one might have hoped the co-opting and flattening of histories wasn’t. The expectation that developers’ hoardings should communicate the real history of a place is unfair. But as a frontier between the public and architecture, they arguably bear some responsibility when it comes to the architectural imaginaries they nurture – or eradicate.

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The Lichtblick Kino, an independent cinema on Kastanienallee in Prenzlauer Berg, with an awning covering the upper storeys announcing in Denglish: ‘Chestnut Paradise Quartier’ (kastanie = chestnut), a ‘luxus Townhouse mit Urban City Landhaus Charme’ (luxury townhouse with urban country house charm) and ‘the place to be’. But all is not as it seems; the provocative banner was the handiwork of Andreas Koch, together with Carola Grimm and Barbara Klinker from k77– a housing project that began life in the building as a squat in the 1990s – who had commissioned it to celebrate their 25th anniversary at the site, in protest against gentrification at the expense of community. That several interested parties phoned up with price enquiries demonstrates how convincing such imagery is and why we should do anything but take it at face value.