Philipp Oswalt | 1998
Close Window

Berlin, City of the 20th Century

More than any other city, Berlin has made its mark on the history of the 20th century: The city was the scene of major events and trends in this century - the Modernist movement of the twenties, the First and Second World Wars, National Socialism and the Holocaust, the Cold War and the collapse of socialism, capitalism and revolt - and, at the same time, these events have shaped the city. Berlin, which in the 19th century had been a boomtown without any tradition of its own, absorbed these influences and gave them an expression. In a process of 'automatic urbanism' - recurring destruction, planning and reconstruction -, the city developed into a montage of contradictory ideological fragments. The city has become a text which tells its story and, in doing so, reflects the history of the 20th century. Unlike other cities, Berlin does not stand out on account of its classical beauty, it is neither a composition which is the result of an ideal plan nor is it the product of organic growth; discontinuities and contradictions, diversity and emptiness characterise the city. Berlin is ugly and, at the same time, its intensity and its individual character are a source of fascination.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, a trend in architecture has gained the upper hand which is fundamentally opposed to this and aims to turn the fiction of an unbroken history of Prussia and Berlin into a model for architecture and urban design. In the name of 'history', it denies this history and removes its traces. The International Building Exhibition (IBA), under the direction of Josef Paul Kleihues, was already pursuing the idea of reconstruction of the city layout of the 19th century in the Berlin of the nineteen-eighties. Perimeter block development and corridor streets formed the central idea and their implementation led to a removal of the evidence of destruction by war, the Cold War and the car-orientated town planning of the fifties - a development which architects such as Rem Koolhaas and Hans Kollhoff criticised at the time as nostalgic. Whereas the IBA provided a forum for a liberal conception of architecture as part of the concept of the so-called 'critical reconstruction' and involved a large number of very different kinds of architects to achieve this, the debate on Berlin architecture became far more radical after the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989.

From then on, the protagonists - apart from Josef Paul Kleihues particularly Hans Stimmann, who was the Senate building director and is now an under-secretary -, called for homogeneity of architecture and accomplishment of a so-called Berlin-Prussian style. They used the following criteria to define this so-called 'Berlin style of architecture':
- homogenous perimeter block development with eaves 22 metres high;
- division of the block - at least optically - into small individual house units;
- facades of stone with a tectonic structuring of facades, upright window and the use of natural stone for facings. Buildings are intended to be monolithic and embody solidity.
These rules were elevated to become a universal principle and used in every conceivable situation, whether in the historical district of Mitte, at Potsdamer Platz or - in a slightly modified version - in the new housing estates on the outskirts of the city. Their premises did not only apply to new buildings. The same recipe was also to be used to transform existing districts of the city and adapt them to fit into a homogenous urban landscape as part of the 'Planwerk Innenstadt' (master plan). Stimmann said quite openly: 'The cities which I like are the ones which are homogenous.' For him, architecture in Berlin was to be 'disciplined, Prussian, subdued in its colour schemes, of stone, in straight lines rather than curved'. For example, Stimmann praised the 'Hofgarten' project conceived by Kleihues because here the 'architects do what once happened automatically, [architects] who feel they are part of Berlin and are not interested in recreating America in Berlin ... It is disciplined architecture.' The architecture critic Martin Kieren even goes so far as to speak of the 'uniform as a model' to characterise the Berlin style of architecture. Stimmann was able to implement his ideas for a Berlin style of architecture owing to the dominant role he played in numerous competition juries, the influence he was able to exert on what building permits were issued and by intensive public relations. The architecture theoreticians Dieter Hoffmann-Axthelm and Fritz Neumeyer developed the ideological foundations, and Hans Kollhoff, who prior to 1990 had still advocated modern and experimental architecture, became the most determined champion of the 'new style of Berlin architecture'. The call for 'Berlin architecture' and a 'Prussian style' was justified by a line of argument which was a classic example of the cultural pessimism described by the historian Fritz Stern in his book entitled The Politics of Cultural Despair (1961). Wholesale simplifications are used to generalise problems of Western civilisation and an idealised past is evoked which - according to the architecture theoretician Fritz Neumeyer -is to be demythologised and remythologised. Modernity and liberalism are actively opposed and a community is longed for. The sentiment is anti-American and opposes everything which is 'alien to Berlin'. Hence, it is hardly surprising that the concept of 'Prussian style' is borrowed from the right-wing thinker and nationalist Moeller van den Bruck, who published a book with the same title in 1916, in which he used concepts such as tectonics, monumentality, uniformity, massiveness and discipline to describe the Prussian style - the same concepts which form the basis of the present debate. What today finds expression in the debate on architecture in Berlin is a feeling that it is time for a resurgence of European nationalism following the end of the Cold War and the desire for a 'normalisation' of German history. Berlin is to become a normal European city, Germany a normal country and, following the end of the post-war era, its unfortunate history is, if possible, to be erased from the collective memory of the city and society. And at the same time, the 'Berlin style of architecture' is the post-modern concept of a decorated shed for a globalised real estate market which reduces architecture to the role of styling the consumer article building with the help of stereotyped images.

Typical of the Berlin debate of the nineties was that the main emphasis lay on achieving a conservative cityscape and that questions relating to infrastructure, use or ownership issues playing no role. While, for example, most of the Potsdamer Platz site was sold to the global players Daimler Benz and Sony for a fraction of its market value, a condition of sale was that they were to create the image of a 'European City' in formal terms. Stimmann said quite openly: 'I'm for the investors. I try to keep them in check with aesthetic categories.' And so, although Berlin had the historic opportunity of shaping the structure of the city, all decisive urban design questions were left up to the real estate market or bureaucrats. A large proportion of the vacant areas in central locations which were to be developed belonged to the state, essential infrastructure such as the main railway station, an airport and a number of principal roads had to be built from scratch. The city had an enormous additional building requirement (per capita it only had one quarter of the office space of Frankfurt, only one third of that of Munich), and the relationship with the area surrounding it, which was still virtually unsettled as a result of the division of the city and the planned economy of the former German Democratic Republic, needed to be redefined. The building boom in Berlin coincided with a restructuring of the real estate market, which became dominated by completely different kinds of investors in the wake of the globalisation of markets. Investors who built to meet their own needs - characteristic of the post-war economy in Germany and still typical when the centre of Frankfurt was developed in the eighties- were replaced by international investors in the form of real estate funds, life insurance companies and developers who invested in the real estate market for speculative reasons and had property to be let or sold built entirely on the basis of financial considerations. In such a constellation, architects are degraded to the role of service providers, expected to develop readily marketable property on a tight budget and time schedule, and have to relinquish most of their former powers to project managers, developers and quantitiy surveyors. The combination of aesthetic conventions with economic and town planning laissez-faire has led to the emergence of a homogenous services centre and government district in the area between Spreebogen, Potsdamer Platz and Friedrichstraße. According to Rem Koolhaas, this new business district constitutes an extreme degree of Americanisation with all the disadvantages of America and none of its advantages. The remark made by Kurt Tucholsky in 1919 has come true again. 'Berlin combines the disadvantages of a major American city with those of a provincial German town.'

In terms of architecture this means packaging the contemporary speculative office building in historicising facades, which also simulate the small-scale. As no legal limitations had been placed on the degree of use and only the permitted maximum height had been prescribed, buildings were extended downwards: the Friedrichstadtpassagen have up to five underground stories, some buildings on Pariser Platz achieve a depth of 100 metres. It could be said sarcastically that the Berlin conventions have in fact proved to be innovative as they have produced a new kind of building. A typical example is the Kontorhaus Mitte in Friedrichstraße: the block is owned by a group of investors; Kleihues designed the entire block, the ground-plans of the buildings, the stairwells, the courtyard, the courtyard facades etc. He invited three further architects to design the street facades, whereby stone was the prescribed material. In other words, their contribution was confined to selecting the natural stone to be used, deciding the proportions of the windows and designing the details of the facades. The building which is homogenous on the inside presents itself on the outside as six houses with six different facades. The Italian architect Aldo Rossi collaborated with the architects Bellmann + Böhm to achieve the same result without outside help for the Quartier Schützenstraße. On a property owned by a single investor, the team of architects developed a building complex which is continuous on the inside and externally simulates the historical parcelling of the property by presenting approximately twenty different facades. The Neue Hackesche Höfe (1 investor, 1 building, 12 facades) and debis at Potsdamer Platz (1 investor, 1 property, 6 architects, 12 'buildings') are further examples of this approach. In the case of the shopping mall of debis at Potsdamer Platz, simulating history has meant that some buildings were designed by three architects as is the case in a Surrealistic cadavre exquis. While the architects office of Christoph Kohlbecker was responsible for the underground stories of the entire complex, the office of Renzo Piano was commissioned to design the shopping mall, which also includes the covered gallery and the first two above-ground stories of the adjacent buildings, and the Richard Roger Partnership was responsible for designing the upper half (second to eighth stories) of the building. The project was not only shared horizontally but also vertically: The Roger's office designed the park facade, Piano's office the facade facing the shopping gallery.
The contradictory desires for homogeneity and small-scale produced finished buildings with 'stuck-on' facades which seemed like oversized exhibits of manufacturers of facades at a trade fair of the building industry. The impression is one of a confusing diversity of yellowish, reddish, greyish and greenish facade facings made of granite, sandstone, travertine, brickwork etc. New dormitory suburbs, located on the periphery of the city, came into being at the same time as the developments taking place in the city centre. The estate of Karow-Nord, the model project of the former Senate building director, is a typical example. The point of departure for planning this residential project, which is located in former East Berlin and provides 5,100 dwellings for 15,000 residents, was an 'imposing image for a new suburb' (Stimmann); this was defined with the help of design statutes comprising several hundred pages. In particular, the form of the boundaries, the shape of roofs, redbrick bases, upright window formats and a maximum window area of 50 per cent were intended to create the picture of a traditional suburb. In contrast, the questions of access to public transport services, the progammatic mix and reduction of costs were more or less ignored. It is significant that the office of Moore, Ruble, Yudell, which developed the master plan for Karow-Nord, was also involved in the planning for Celebration. Celebration is a settlement which the Walt Disney Company created in Florida in the nineties using the Hollywood notions of a fictitious 'traditional' American town.

Whereas building policies in Berlin in the nineties have used theme park methods to simulate a continuous tradition, there are a number of architects who have involved themselves with the complex history of the city since the seventies. In addition to a number of young Berlin architects, these include Rem Koolhaas, who began his career as an architect with a study on 'The Berlin Wall as Architecture', 1972, and Daniel Libeskind, whose focus on Berlin began in the late eighties. In their dialogue with Berlin, both architects developed a number of themes which are not only central to their own work but have also had an impact on the international debate on architecture in the eighties and nineties. Nevertheless, Rem Koolhaas has been a persona non grata since his public criticism in 1991 of official development policy in Berlin; Libeskind was tolerated as an oddity and allowed to build the Jewish Museum.
The particular character of Berlin in terms of architecture and urban design was first described in 1977 in a study entitled 'Stadt in der Stadt' (City in The City) by Oswald Matthias Ungers, Rem Koolhaas, Hans Kollhoff et al.: 'The diversity and variety which are manifest in the historical quarters of the city are what give Berlin its individual character and reflect the quality of its urban design. It is a city in which opposing elements have always articulated themselves and which has never been successful in its attempts to achieve a single standardising principle.' A few years later, the designs by Rem Koolhaas and his Office for Metropolitan Architecture for the IBA showed how this special quality of Berlin can be translated into a new kind of urban design. For example, the design for the southern part of Friedrichstadt develops the heterogeneity and openness of the location and, at the same time, incorporates it into a coherent spatial structure. Baroque urban fragments, tenement buildings from the 19th century, elements of classical Modernism and post-war urban development are supplemented by two further typologies - houses with courtyards and slabs - to achieve an urban fabric. Rem Koolhaas was of the opinion that a 'conceptual framework is necessary that relates buildings in conflicting forms of architecture and creates anchors for new insertions. A retroactive manifesto which makes sense of the existing randomness.' A number of works by different architects used the dialogue with the Berlin that existed to develop a number of themes which provide a conceptual framework for the identity of the city and, at the same time, transform these into contemporary architecture. I would like to use a few of these works as examples to describe this other conception of Berlin.

The Berlin of the post-war era was characterised by large empty lots in the centre of the city. The NS regime, the destruction wrought by war and post-war planning as well as the building of the Berlin Wall had created huge empty areas which constituted a new kind of urban space and made possible a wide variety of temporary and spontaneous uses. Rem Koolhaas discovered the theme of emptiness, which was later to occupy such a central position for him, in his study 'The Berlin Wall as Architecture' He saw these empty areas as having a liberating potential: 'Where nothing exists, everything is possible.' In contrast to the definitions of uses by architecture, empty spaces have the quality of programmatic uncertainty. By the end of the eighties, he had developed this theme further in projects such as the urban design for Melun-Sénart or the Très Grande Bibliothèque for Paris to create a new concept of architecture and urban design. Less well-known outside Berlin are the works of Andreas Reidemeister, who as long ago as 1982 argued against the urban wasteland in the southern part of Friedrichstadt - the result of the planned motorway route - being redeveloped with new buildings - something which the IBA did a short time later. Instead, he proposed that the empty space, which had been created by war and demolition and now permitted spontaneous forms of use and possessed unique spatial qualities, should be preserved and given architectural articulation. He proposed breaking up the block structure by a public green area and providing rhythm in the form of accompanying residential buildings. Reidemeister took this idea a stage further in 1992 and proposed preservation of the large empty areas in the centre of the city, which were so typical of Berlin - the former railway installations, the course once followed by the Wall and the banks of the River Spree - and placing these in the context of urban design by building offices and residential towers along their edge. As similar approach was adopted by the Dutch office MVRDV for its design for Bornholmer Straße, which was awarded 1st prize in a European competition in 1991, but was not realised. The building is conceived as a vertical block marking the empty space formed by the void in the urban space left by the Wall and the course of the S-Bahn. The east-west alignment of the building volume in the former border area draws attention to the different halves of the once divided city and makes them tangible. Empty spaces have been cut out of the slab, these spaces accommodate the community and public programmes and, at the same time, formulate the emptiness as an architectural topic. The mass of the building consists of a three-dimensional puzzle of apartments of varying cubatures, thereby creating great spatial and programmatic diversity within the building. In contrast with the projects already mentioned, the theme which Daniel Libeskind developed in his work was that of emptiness. To him, emptiness did not only characterise Berlin physically but also psychologically. The numerous empty spaces which war had left in the centre of the city, such as those at Potsdamer Platz, in the diplomatic quarter and the Spreebogen, are, in his eyes, visible symbols of loss, destruction and discontinuity. Whereas Rem Koolhaas was fascinated and inspired by the spatial and programmatic qualities of this particular urban landscape, to Libeskind it represented the loss of the rich Jewish heritage in Berlin, the break in the history of Jews in Germany, in the history of German Jews and Germans. 'An absence which cannot be filled, a break which cannot be healed.' His design for the Jewish Museum transforms the existing urban voids into the structural centre of the building. A fragmented emptiness, interrupted at several points, forms the central element of the Museum. The building is built around a centre which is absent, a void which cannot be entered and cannot be filled. The second central theme of the Jewish Museum is the fragmentation and heterogeneity of the city. The complex form of the building reflects the heterogeneous elements of its surroundings - a Baroque city palace, high-rise apartment blocks put up in the sixties, urban villas of the eighties - and integrates these into a spatial structure. It is only its complex geometry which makes it possible to relate the urban fragments to one another and integrate the new building into a context which is heterogeneous.

O.M.A. designs for the IBA and the design of Daniel Libeskind for the Jewish Museum give expression to a programme of modern contextualism which does not idealise a certain phase of the city's history, but accepts structures and elements from different epochs, transforms the fragments into an overall idea, uses spatial and programmatic extensions to remove their deficits and reinforces existing qualities. Neither is the status quo preserved nor is a past epoch reconstructed; instead what exists is developed further using contemporary means and enriched by the addition of new elements. Libeskind developed this idea further on an urban scale in his competition entries for Alexanderplatz (1993, 2nd prize). In contrast to the design by Hans Kollhoff, which was awarded 1st prize, he proposed retaining the huge residential blocks built during GDR times and supplementing these with commercial and cultural functions. The new buildings make reference to the different urban structures in their surroundings. A multiple order serves to transform, develop and densify what is already there. The approach of the office of Léon + Wohlhage to the fragmented urban space of Berlin takes up the idea of ambivalent buildings which can be interpreted both as a soltaire and an integrated part of an urban texture, thereby giving expression to an ambivalence of autonomy and subordination. An example of this is, in addition to its designs for the World Trade Center Berlin (1991-93) and the Bürohaus am Halensee (Halensee Office Building) (1990-96), the Wohnhaus in der Schlesischen Straße 1992-94) (Residential Building Schlesische Straße). The building not only defines the corner of the block, it is also a free-standing element which permits a view of the surrounding fire protection walls and integrates the post-war development, which negated the historical ground-plan of the city, into a free order. The design for the GSW-Hauptverwaltung in Kochstraße by Sauerbruch/Hutton (1991-99) is based on a analogous idea: The new building incorporates the existing high-rise of the GSW, which dates from the fifties, into the urban context of the baroque urban plan and, at the same time, creates references to the other high-rise buildings in the vicinity. The existing heterogeneity is accepted, integrated into a multiple order by means of interventions and structured spatially.

Unlike in the older parts of Berlin, the mass housing estates in the eastern part of the city are fundamentally characterised by functional monotony and spatiality which is poorly articulated. However, here, too, the sheer quantity of the pre-fabricated apartment blocks rules out the possibility of restructuring on the basis of supplementary buildings. Hence, the study for Falkenberger Chaussee in Hohenschönhausen by Irene Keil and Jörg Pampe is based on the idea of modern contextualism, which accepts what is already there, while, at the same time, providing it with new qualities by means of transformation. The typical spatiality of urban design in the former GDR is überhöht compositionally, given rhythm and densified by means of a sequence of free-standing buildings which are aligned to the street, giving it a spatial definition. Another starting point which could be adopted was used by the Amsterdam landscape architects B+B in its winning entry in the competition for the Hellersdorfer Graben (1994). The existing artificial topography was used to make possible the co-existence between a park which is used intensively and untouched natural space. The former drainage ditch, which today is used as an above-ground underground railway route, is to be deepened and allowed to develop into a self-regulating woodland biotope by means of initial plantings; this is to transverse the entire district like a green river and provide the link with the surrounding area. A number of topographical islands on the same level as the surrounding districts constitutes a park which allows many different forms of use and is linked with the urban districts by bridges.

On the scale of the town as a whole the Berlin architect Christoph Langhof developed a concept in his project entitled 'Delta Stadt' (Delta City)( 1991) which makes use of the specific 'duplicity' of Berlin to develop a new quality: Instead of merging the east and west halves of Berlin in a process of 'reunification', he proposes establishing a third city to the south of Berlin, which makes use of the infrastructure already in place there (airport, ICE route, highway) and, at the same time, serves as a link between east and west. The parallelism of the three cities enhances the competition inside the metropolitan area, strengthens polycentrality and permits experimental and open urban development, which is to be helped by tax concessions and more efficient administrative processes.

A further central Berlin theme is the temporary, spontaneous, often illegal use of waste urban land or empty buildings. Berlin has experienced the fall of four German states in this century. The times of radical change, the destruction of war, the weak economy and unresolved ownership questions often led to spontaneous appropriations and activities, which stood out on account of their lack of financial resources and high degree of creativity. Such activities are unstable and transitory, and have an extremely flexible reaction to any change in the general conditions. They have helped to shape the specific urbanity of the city. Typical of this are the squatting scene, the Polish markets and the club and bar scene which has developed in Berlin-Mitte since the fall of the Wall. A legendary example of this is the WMF -Club, whose eventful history has been shaped by the temporary use of a number of places which are central to and, at the same time, very typical of Berlin's history. The club was founded in 1990/1991 when the premises of the former headquarters of the Württembergische Metallwarenfabrik in Leipziger Straße was occupied. After they were expelled by the owner, the initiators drained the flooded urinal of the former Wertheim department store at Potsdamer Platz without permission and ran the club there for nine months. This was followed by a legalised interim use in Burgstraße, the premises there were designed by Fred Rubin. The bowling bar which he had removed from the Palast der Republik and transformed was installed there in a new context. When the WMF recently moved into what had once been the guest house of the Council of Ministers of the German Democratic Republic in Johannisstraße the idea was developed further and the interior designed using objects from the former Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the former Central Committee of the SED such as the office of Erich Honecker in white leather. A further current example of the temporary use of a characteristic place is the Kunsthalle (art gallery) in Chausseestraße; here a former GDR supermarket has been turned into a place for exhibitions. As the examples described show, a number of projects have come about during the last few years outside the official discourse on architecture; these projects concern themselves with the authentic history of Berlin which is very particular to the city and seek to develop a contemporary form of architecture from this. The central themes of the city: emptiness, fragmentation, heterogeneity, multiplicity, temporariness, formlessness and subversion reveal a high degree of innovative potential. It remains to be hoped that, despite all trends toward restoration and economic exploitation, the city does not fully return to normal, but retains its particular identity and uses this to develop potential which points the way for the future.

Close Window

Philipp Oswalt
I would like to thank Stefan Rethfeld for his assistance in researching this article.

published in : Berlin / Berlin, Katalog zur Berlin Biennale | Ed. Miriam Wiesel | Berlin | 1998