Berlin: dedication to urban revitalization

I went to Berlin to see what it was like to be in city undergoing serious reconstruction. We don’t have anything like that here in the States, but it’s reassuring to see that somebody in the western world believes in the future of cities. There is a map on the wall of a bookshop on the Friedrichstrasse (formerly East Berlin, very near the site of that Cold War oddity, Checkpoint Charlie) that shows all the World War Two bomb damage in blue ink. The total destruction is dark blue and partial destruction light blue. The whole center of Berlin on this map is blue. The allies bombed it for the better part of a year -- Yanks by day, Brits by night. At war’s end, the city was such a smoldering wreck that there were serious proposals to abandon Berlin altogether and leave it as an admonitory ruin for future generations. Somehow this drastic outcome was avoided. As we know now, the city underwent an extraordinary political division, and for nearly half a century it was reconstructed on a kind of weird competitive basis, an ideological showroom for the Paradise of Workers on the East and Christian Democracy to the West. A lot of what got built during the Cold War on both sides was junk. The Khruschev-era slab housing that surrounds the Alexanderplatz has all the charm of Hackensack and none of the structural integrity. The Kulturforum, built on the West side, is a misbegotten ensemble of Modernist monstrosities that barely even function for their special purposes. (Mies Van Der Rohe’s New National Gallery was actually designed to be the headquarters for Bacardi Rum Inc. in Cuba, but it was commissioned at a bad time -- Castro’s 1958 revolution -- so Mies fobbed off the blueprints on Berlin. I walked around it at about six o’clock on a July evening when the sun streamed through the glass walls dosing the oil paintings inside with destructive ultraviolet rays). Bottom line: the Cold War stuff really has to be replaced. Not to mention the huge swath of wasteland that had been the death zone behind the wall. Berlin is now undergoing a second reconstruction estimated at $1 trillion. Casual visitors are impressed with the scores of cranes that loom along the skyline. The German federal government will be moving to Berlin after the turn of the new century, and so a lot of the work involves the rebuilding of the Reichstag (future home of the Bundestag) with a design by Norman Foster. There is currently a sandy pit about 50 acres in extant around the Reichstag. They are rerouting the River Spree a few hundred yards to the East, and creating a new subway line from the central U-bahn terminal to the new government center. (While I was there, one of the tunnels collapsed, setting back the project months). Many other old monumental buildings are being recycled. The old East German City Parliament building (a bogus institution) will be Chancellor Kohl’s (or his successor’s) temporary headquarters. Goring’s old air ministry on the Wilhelstrasse will be reused as the new German finance ministry -- whatever else we think about them, the Nazis put up solid buildings, and this one is too valuable to tear down, karma notwithstanding. Certainly the largest project underway is the reconstruction of the Leipziger Platz., which was once the very heart of commercial Berlin. It was flattened in the war, and then became incorporated in the no-mans-land between the East and the West. Two speculative mixed-use mega-projects are now underway there, the SONY European headquarters and the Daimler Benz complex. Both will include over a million square feet of office, retail, and apartments. They seem way out of scale for the site, but they might work at the street edge. There is a tremendous amount of infill going on in and around the Friedrichstrasse, which had mostly been in the East. Under the “critical reconstruction” program of the past nine years, the new buildings conform to the traditional height (22 meters). They are coded to contain a certain percentage of masonry on the facade. Berliners grouse that the buildings are architecturally boring, but one can easily see what the problem is: it’s still essentially verboten to decorate buildings. That is, the old dogmas of Modernism are still in force. The pre-war buildings are richly ornamented with pilasters and friezes and medallions and other historical devices. The current generation still can’t bring itself to use these things, so the buildings look, well, boring. But they meet the street well and provide retail space and new offices and apartments, and whatever their shortcomings, they’re better than what we are getting in most of the US. Those on the East side did not tear down war-ravaged buildings as freely as they did in West Berlin. The buildings in East Berlin were made habitable without necessarily restoring them fully. Consequently, East Berlin has many streets of pre-war housing that is still lived in, if dilapidated. The facades are often pocked with bullet holes. In many cases the bullet holes are confined to a twelve-foot high zone covering the ground floor, tangible reminders of how the Russians battled their way inside. Individual entrepreneurs are slowly acquiring old buildings and giving them a thorough rehab, but it is a problematic process because there are massive backlogs of title disputes in the special Federal court that was set up to re-privatize all the property seized under the old communist regime (GDR). Altogether, one gets the impression in Berlin of a city that is preparing itself for the 21st century. Several times a day while I was there, I found myself thinking: what if this was Detroit? Cleveland? What if America took the future of its cities seriously? Well, we just don’t. We don’t believe in an urban future. The Europeans do. They will have a fine rebuilt city twenty-five years from now and we will be stuck in our national automobile slum. -- Jim Kunstler Saratoga Springs, New York Jim Kunstler is the author of Geography of Nowhere and Home From Nowhere. He is working on a third book on U.S. urban design.
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