A New Berlin Rises from the Bauboom
By David Farley
From 24 floors up, this sprawling metropolis could be anywhere: a few moderately sized, glass-skinned skyscrapers loom in the foreground, a TV tower dominates the horizon, a church spire humbly points heavenward. Then, with the turn of a head, you see it: the Brandenburg Gate--that tiny-looking but huge symbol of the Cold War. Just beyond that, Sir Norman Foster's glass dome on the Reichstag-the German parliament-reflects the late-afternoon sun.
Welcome to Berlin--the new Berlin; the city of the 21st century; the capital of Europe's biggest and most sluggish economy. Despite an extreme makeover, they city's scars still show. Claiming to be 750 years old (it's been important for far less than half that time) Berlin encompasses the 20th century in microcosm: it's been overtaken by fascists, bombed to bits, and zigzagged in two. Then, after reunification, when it became the capital of a reunified Germany, it went on a shopping spree, hiring world famous architects to make the city whole again. But few corporations moved to the new capital, leaving it with a soaring office and apartment vacancy rate. As a result, the city is now broke.
But herein lies the great irony of the new Berlin. The Bauboom (post-reunification building boom) might not have lived up to the hype, but it's made Berlin better in a different way: Cheap rent in the outlying neighborhoods, particularly those in the former East, have created a buzz that's become a tourist attraction as much as remnants of the vanishing Wall. My goal, I decided--after getting one last peak at the skyline from the lookout point atop the Kollhoff building at Potsdamer Platz, the new ersatz city center--was to try to make some sense of this irony.
Potsdamer Platz was once the most bustling square in Europe. Razed during WWII bombing raids, the "square" (like Times Square, it's really just a busy street), was an empty field, part of the infamous "death strip" created by the nearby Wall. But just after the wall chipping party started on November 9, 1989, developers salivated over this empty lot, dreaming of a new post-reunification city center.
As I stood under the large bicycle-spoke-like canopy of the Sony Center (which makes up half of the Platz), I couldn't help but think that this brand new cathedral of commerce was like a perpetual Cold War victory celebration. Half enclosed, the shiny glass interior, a large flashing TV screen, and a slew of chic shops and restaurants help make up a perfect example of the 21st century square--public space co-opted by corporations (think LA Citywalk or every shopping mall that's ever existed). Still, there's something about the Sony Center that I liked: maybe it was the new-agey hum seeping from an unidentified place; maybe it was the pond in the middle that beautifully reflected the glass walls which reflected the white canopy and the blue sky.
I headed across the square to the Daimler-Chrysler portion of the Platz where I met Mark Munzing, director of public relations for Daimler-Chrysler. Designed by famed Italian architect Renzo Piano (along with contributions from Rafael Moneo, Richard Rogers, and Arata Isozaki), this small town within a town boasts a corporate headquarters, a shopping center, an IMAX movie theatre, upscale housing, fast food restaurants, and sushi eateries.
As Munzing and I strolled through the Richard Rogers-designed Potsdamer Platz Arcade, which is really just a fancy word for a shopping mall, I asked him if he thought Potsdamer Platz deserved so much criticism for being "too American."
"This is wrong," he said. "We wanted to create a traditional European city--one where you can find something going on 24-hours a day and near a mass transit hub." He paused to take a look around at the mall and said, "But if you think that all shopping malls are American, then you are right."
If the office of urban development had had its way, this shopping mall would have been a narrow European-like street with shops, rather than an enclosed space.
Enter "critical reconstruction." This term, which actually entered the Berliner lexicon before the Wall came down, is an attempt by the office of urban development to regulate the new shape of the city. In an effort to rebuild Berlin as a traditional "European city" (read: not a skyscraper-laden, mall-loaded "American city") the office attempted to eschew the avant-garde and the bold for the historically harmonious. They created a set of rules: buildings must be no higher than 22 meters (72 ft), streets would remain narrow, twenty percent of the building had to provide for apartment space, buildings could not take up entire blocks, but instead had to be broken up into separate connecting structures, and the office could veto any project.
The list of architects who signed up to put their stamp on the new German capital reads like a dream team of contemporary building designers: Frank Gehry, Daniel Liebeskind, Jean Nouvel, Rem Koolhaas, and Sir Norman Foster, just to name a few.
But just when you thought Berlin was going to be crammed with flamboyant Bilbao-like buildings competing for your attention, take a stroll down Friedrich Strasse in Mitte, part of the new center of Berlin and the area most affected by critical reconstruction. Here, shiny new boxy department stores and office buildings, all about five floors high, some designed by famous architects, mingle with older and duller boxy office buildings. Harmonious, it is; inspiring, it's not. On the corner of Friedrich Strasse and Franzosische Strasse, French architect Jean Nouvel's Galeries Lafayette is wrapped in glass--certainly the most daring this area gets. But like a lot of new buildings, the real innovation is on the inside. In this case, the department store's interior is dominated by a large downward-pointing glass cone in the center of the room. Tiny lamps reflect off the glass cone creating a perpetual light show from every floor. Meanwhile, tourists march past on their way to nearby Checkpoint Charlie without the faintest clue about what's inside.
Likewise, Frank Gehry's DG Bank is relatively plain on the outside and Cartesian-rationale-bending on the inside. Less a bank than a showpiece for the giant, glass horse-head-shaped conference room, this building sits quietly on Pariser Platz, just steps from the tourist mecca, the Brandenburg Gate. Few people pop in for a look.
Not surprisingly, many architects have not been pleased with the results and blame the office of urban development. Famed building designer Richard Meier, for example, has said the office of urban development's director, Hans Stimmann "single-handedly destroyed Berlin."
The previous day I had interviewed Hannspeter Hoffman from the office of urban development and he laughed when I told him what Meier had said.
"Richard Meier is an architect and for them, the most important part is the architecture itself. Mr. Stimmann has a different point of view: The idea of the town has to come first and the architecture has to fit in."
Hoffman paused to massage his gray goatee. "Frank Gehry also complained very much about the rules. But later he confessed that this was one of his most interesting buildings. He was given certain town planning conditions and they were a challenge to him."
Even for the seemingly uncompromising office of urban development, compromise was part of the process. "We didn't want shopping malls," Hoffmann said. "But investors insisted on some of these things and we eventually had to agree."
Having felt that I'd seen a sufficient amount of the "new" Berlin, I hopped on the U-Bahn for Oranienburger Strasse. This street and its tributary alleys made up the first nightlife mecca in post-reunification Berlin and, despite annual newly anointed "It" neighborhoods, the pubs and clubs around this street are still lively. After the fall of the Wall, this area, known as the Scheunenviertel, became a magnet for squatters, thanks to the bushel of buildings slated for demolition. One of these was Tacheles. Originally a department store from the turn of the last century, Tacheles was invaded by artists after the fall and has since become legendary.
Walking up the graffiti-laden stairwell, the structure had a ghostly post-apocalyptic feel to it. I slowly stepped past a closed cinema on the third floor, and finally on the fourth, found an art gallery (for lack of a more appropriate term). With dismembered marble statues and Berlin-in-ruins-themed collages strewn across the floor, I was fearful to move. Music, best described as the grinding of machines in F minor, churned from a stereo. That's when I met Iranian artist Resa Mashoodi.
Sitting on an old movie theatre chair while plucking on what was left of a cello, he looked up and said, "You want to buy tits?" He nodded to a group of six paintings in front of him, all naked breasts of various sizes. "I give you good price."
I wasn't really interested in his tits. But I was curious about a few WWII-era bombs scattered throughout the space.
After convincing him I didn't work for the CIA, he commenced trying to sell me a bomb. Eventually, however, he went back to the breasts. "Okay, so how about my tits. You want or not?"
I gracefully got out of there (but not without plunking a Euro coin in the gallery's donation box, which was actually a stand up urinal) and headed for Kreuzberg, a former West Berlin neighborhood that was also an early target for squatters and artists. There, I met Tory Lichterberg, an architect who moved here from Britain ten years ago to get in on the Bauboom.
Sitting in a sandwich shop, in a neighborhood known for its large Turkish community and great pubs and clubs, he told me what he liked best about the new Berlin (hint: it's not the new architecture).
"One thing about Berlin is that it always attracts the most curious people in Germany-the people who have wanted a different life have always gravitated here since the Wall went up. It was an island. You could come here to escape military subscription. And after the Wall, that tradition remains. If you think of it as the city where all these well-educated people have come and combine it with all the low rent space, you've got something interesting."
Case in point: Prenzlauer Berg and Friedrichshain. The former, Lichterberg tells me, has the highest birthrate in Europe-which is an anomaly considering that, overall, birthrates on the continent are going down. Low rents have given ordinary people and artists a chance to open up that boutique, bar, or restaurant they've been dreaming about for years. "Now," he adds, "those hip young people who settled there in the '90s, are having kids."
Before I took off for these neighborhoods myself, Lichterman added one more thing: "These vibrant parts of this city don't directly reflect on the Bauboom. They put so much attention and money on areas like Potsdamer Platz and there are other parts of the city where some really interesting things are happening."
I headed first to Friedrichshain, mostly because my hotel was a fifteen-minute walk. This district, which straddles the wide boulevard made for East German military parades, Karl Marx Allee, is the latest of the Berlin hotspots. My first stop was Mondos Arts. This shop, tucked away on a sidestreet, sells what's left of ostalgie (East nostalgia). Videos, tapes, clocks, shirts from the old DDR are on sale. But the big seller here is anything with the image of the Ampelmannchen on it. This little green guy graced the old East German street lights and as soon as the EU began replacing him with the standard walk sign, a fury of nostalgia rose up in the hearts of former East Germans. But it's not just the Ossis who frequent this shop.
"They come equally," said the man behind the counter. "It has a different meaning for both-for the Ossi, this stuff is a part of their past; for the Wessi, it's interesting to see the culture that happened from behind the Wall."
Next, I headed down Simon-Dach Strasse, the epicenter of Friedrichshain party life. Bars, trendy restaurants, and ethnic eateries lined the street and its tributaries. I had a hard time choosing where to go-they all looked so interesting. Finally, fitting with the theme of the day, I settled into Tagung, a bar crammed with relics from the communist days. Busts of Lenin, DDR flags, Club Cola (an Ossi soda) and socialist-era songs competed for the senses while happy looking young people quaffed cocktails.
I saddled up to three blond Berliners and bombarded them with questions about what they liked best (and least) about their town.
They agreed that diversity (both in terms of ethnicity and fun activities) was what Berlin had going for it right now, while Potsdamer Platz topped their least-liked list. "It's only for tourists and people outside Berlin," said Hana, pausing to take sip of her beer. "The only Berliners who go there are people with money. It's hip to go there for the rich."
The next morning, my last in Berlin, I had brunch with some friends. Anton, originally from Chicago, now permanently lives here with his Berliner wife, Yvonne. Robert, who normally splits his time between San Francisco and Amsterdam, tagged along too. Brunch is ubiquitous in Berlin and, according to my friends, an essential part of the Berlin experience.
So was our conversation, which jumped from scrambled eggs to the SS in six seconds. When I asked Yvonne how brunch became such a staple in Berlin, she mused that it probably started in one of the squatter neighborhoods after reunification, which somehow led us to a discussion about the scars of history on Berlin, which led to a discussion about how Germany--and other countries-represent themselves in history. It was, from what I understand, a very typical Berlin discussion. The past is out in the open, literally on display, in Berlin.
"Germany has done a good job of trying to understand and come to terms with what happened in WWII," said Robert between bites of veggie lasagna. "And this city from an architectural and topographical perspective is a living representation of that struggle. That's why I love it. It is, one way or another, an active interaction with the past in a way that seems to be productive."
After saying goodbye and heading for the subway, I pondered a previous visit to Berlin 12 years ago. Frankly, I had hated it. After being romanced by Prague and Paris, Berlin seemed a mess. And, indeed, it was. Potsdamer Platz was still a vacant field, the skyline was littered with cranes, and new entrepreneurs were selling rocks to tourists. All this has changed and, despite mixed results about the new Berlin, it seems that locals have created an infectious buzz about the city. I know I caught it, because as soon as I got to the airport, I started making plans to come back.
Beginning May 2nd Delta will fly direct to Berlin's Tegel airport from New York's JFK airport; Continental begins direct flights to Tegel from Newwark's Liberty airport on July 1st.
Where to stay:
Grand Hyatt Berlin (Marlene-Dietrich-Pl.; 011-49-30-2553-1234; berlin.grand.hyatt.com <http://berlin.grand.hyatt.com>) was designed by Raphael Moneo and is located near Potsdamer Platz.
Hotel Bleibtreu Berlin (Bleibtreustrasse 31; 011-49-30-88-47-40; www.bleibtreu.com) is a chic hotel offering cozy rooms and top-notch service. It's located in the former West Berlin, just off the upscale boulevard, Ku'damm.
Inn Side Residence-Hotel Berlin (Lange Strasse 31; 011-49-30-29-30-30) is steps from the Ostbahnhoff railway and S-bahn station. It's nicely located for enjoying pleasures of the eastside.
Propeller Island City Lodge (Albrecht-Achilles-Strasse 58; 011-49-30-891-9016; fax: 011-30-892-8721; www.propeller-island.com <http://www.propeller-island.com/rooms_neu/room_detail/01/index.php>), is a creative, one-of-a-kind project with crazy but comfortable rooms. Reservations by fax only.
Where to drink:
Café Anita Wronski (Knaack Strasse 26-8; 011-49-30-442-8483) is a low key but hip watering hole near Prenzlauer Berg's nightlife mecca, Kollwitz Platz.
CSA (Karl-Marx-Allee 96; 011-49-30-2904-4741), a former Czech airlines office, is a retro-chic cocktail sipping spot.
Dachkammer (Simon-Dach Strasse 39; 011-49-30-296-1673) is a split-level pub in Friedrichshain: cocktails on top; beer and food below.
Tagung (Wuhlisch Strasse 29; 011-49-30-292-8756), a Friedrichshain socialist-themed pub, is the best place to openly mock Lenin and Marx while boozing it up.
Where to shop:
Mondos Arts (Schreiner Strasse 6; 011-49-030-4201-0778; www.mondosarts.de) sells everything you ever wanted to shop for from the DDR, but were afraid to buy.
Berlin Tourist Bureau, 323-658-5040; www.berlin-tourism.de.
German National Tourist Office, 122 E. 42nd St., New York, NY 10168; 212-661-7200; www.cometogermany.com.