Is Everything New in Berlin?

Article published on May 19, 2003
community published
Article published on May 19, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Berlin: population 3.4 million inhabitants, 5 times the size of Paris. The symbol of a divided and reunited Germany, the capital now aims to again become the crossroads between 'new' and 'old' Europe.

14 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the city's face never ceases to change. Today still bulldozers gut the centre. The gaping holes, the buildings under construction, the cranes and the vans carrying concrete and gravel are omnipresent in this city of eternal change. The some 150 theatres, 300 galleries and 170 museums at the last re-count are the fruit of an efficient policy of subsidisation and investment, destined to increase the cultural standing of the reunified city. And it was a success: the cultural and artistic dynamism of Berlin needs no mention, even if certain theatres are today closing their doors following a substantial fall in State aid.

Public services have concentrated their work on social urbanism and the restoration or modernisation of the old quarters in the city centre. The construction of new housing as well as the renovation of commercial and industrial buildings culminated in 1997. Considerable funds were also invested in improving living environments. Local management schemes which, by combining subsidies, programmes and other projects, aimed to improve sustainably the quality of life, were set up in 15 sensitive urban zones. Between unique architectural projects and participatory urbanism, what is happening today in this constantly simmering European city?

'Participatory urbanism' you say?

Last February the 12th Paris-Berlin urbanism seminar took place in Paris, one of the strong points in the co-operation agreement between the two cities. The Mayors of the two cities (Klaus Wowereit and Bertrand Delanoë), elected representatives and experts gathered to discuss the theme of dialogue with residents in the field of urban planning.

In Berlin the participation of residents has been codified for nearly 20 years in the principles of urban planning. Therefore, it is not unusual to see local management policy supporting projects initiated by the residents themselves. The current artistic and cultural dynamism in Berlin owes much to these urban initiatives, which often bring together culture, urbanism and social commitment. Spaces entirely out of the ordinary can be found (especially in the East): empty industrial plots or abandoned buildings transformed into cultural centres housing exhibitions and / or cinemas, theatres, cafés, night-clubs...

A good example is the particularly successful renovation of the Helmholtzplatz, at the heart of the Prenzlauer Berg (the north-east quarter of Berlin). This quarter had been losing residents for several years because of its unattractiveness. In two years, a renovation project initiated by the residents of the quarter and carried out by a private renovation company had been completed. Residents, associations, urban agencies, local representatives and park services worked together to pump life back into local life. Meetings were organised where all could express their ideas via a group spokesperson. A chair moderated the debates. Finally, 60 long-term unemployed people were mobilised and a budget of 3 million Deutsche Marks (DM) was freed. The result of this mobilisation was a complete renovation of the square: a garden and children's play area, benches for older people, space for a crèche, a football pitch, lawns... A model of success for the partisans of participatory urbanism.

But with dreadful savagery, my dear!

Since 1990, reunified Berlin has been confronted with deeply changed conditions of urbanism. Urban repair projects were started in all the quarters and in all the zones bordering the East and West of the city. Buildings destined for the federal government and the Bundestag were re-built in the Berlin-Mitte quarter. Through knock-on effect, numerous private investors were encouraged to build housing and commercial buildings throughout the city.

The result of this savage urbanism is a real juxtaposition of styles, which makes the town so particular. Buildings from the 19th and 20th century nestle alongside modern constructions conceived by German and foreign architects.

The most obvious example is the Reichstag: among the most important buildings of German history under fire from the press in 1999, the Reichstag beats all the records of historically important sites. Conceived by the architect Paul Wallot in 1884, it became first the witness of the proclamation of the Weimar republic, burned down by the nazis in 1933, bombed during the Second World War, trampled by the Soviets in 1945, bordered by the Wall of Shame, wrapped by Christo in 1995, then adorned by a glass dome by Norman Foster. Today, the Reichstag is like Berlin: supple integration of architecture that normally should clash. It marries stone, glass, and steel. After a century of historical developments, the Reichstag has almost become 'in'!

Another example is the famous Potsdamer Platz (host of the Berlinale 2003). This square has always merited all the superlatives: in the 1920s it was the most animated crossroads in Europe; after the war and the construction of the Wall the most deserted 'no-man's land'; today, after extensive works by many including the Italian architect Renzo Piano, it has become one of the most animated urban centres of the city. It is a space privileged by multinationals, which envisage a platform for exchange between East and West, gathering offices, housing, cultural and commercial institutes.

But in the end there's a limit to everything!

Good things have come from this random urbanism. For example, for several decades the city suffered from a real lack of housing. Now, more than 145,000 have been built over the last 10 year (there now exist more than 1.85 million dwellings in Berlin). This intense activity in the construction sector combined with a stagnant population level has resulted in a real relaxation in the Berlin housing market (unlike the Parisian one!).

However, the city of Berlin has planned to quieten down its 'savage' urbanism between now and 2010. In the name of aesthetics and demographic and economic dynamism, Berlin must become an ordered and defined city, stripped of its chaotic structures inherited from East Germany and its derelict spaces...

Even the gigantic Alexanderplatz, nicknamed the 'Alex', symbol of communist architecture, was replaced with a group of skyscrapers interspersed with lawns. Other poignant structures are threatened, especially in the East. A perspective which hardly pleased certain Berliners, attached as they are to the highly symbolic places, to the spaces which obey no law, so many cradles of identity that give the city its vitality. All in all, an area of 30 km2 is affected by this 'convalescence project'.

This is a project which divides Berliners and incites a real debate over the city's identity. Some make noise about the energy deployed to wipe out the stigmata of past division. Fourteen years after reunification, the Wall has been pulverised, the street names changed, the statues of communist glory torn down.. You can't really raze the whole of Berlin!!

Others denounce the hypocrisy of the politicians accused of praising the Berlin sub-culture to attract investors, all the while signing its death warrant. One example, the fate of Mitte, the old quarter of East Berlin, sacred refuge of sub-culture in 1990: the buildings were renovated, the hip cafés opened, whilst the Tacheles, a mythical artists' squat, became a tourist museum.

The same fate threatens the new artery of Berlin sub-culture along the banks of the Spree. Night-clubs have been asked to find new locations in order to make room for three glass buildings destined for office space...

How far will the perpetual metamorphosis of Berlin go? Not far enough for it to lose its soul...