Berlin: The Lost Opportunity

Architektur in Berlin: Jahrbuch 2000

edited by the Architectenkammer, Berlin
Hamburg: Junius, 176 pp., DM68.00

How to rebuild a world city in the wake of man-made catastrophe is a notion that is just beginning to dawn on New Yorkers. But the infinitely resilient burghers of Berlin have been doing so for more than half a century, starting in the aftermath of World War II and then starting over again following the collapse of the Wall and the regimes that built and backed it. Rarely in modern times have there been reconstruction projects as far-reaching or lavishly funded as those of post-apocalyptic Berlin, and never have they been so fraught with symbolism or, in recent years, so wrought with soul-searching.

The immediate postwar aims of the West Germans and their American patrons were essentially the same as those of the East Germans and their Soviet patrons. Both superpowers wanted their respective sectors of Berlin to advertise the benefits of their political systems, and no expense was spared in translating those ideologies into built form. But since those parallel programs were being conducted in large part for the greater glory of their sponsors on the world stage, little worry was devoted to whether those schemes addressed the local past, which in large part was simply ignored.

We are reminded of that purposeful amnesia in the several chapters on postwar rebuilding in City of Architecture, Architecture of the City: Berlin 1900–2000, the richly illustrated catalog of an unfortunately underreported exhibition held at that city’s Neues Museum last year. It is further regrettable that the organizers of Berlin’s most recent building boom did not have the benefit of such an instructive guide to the city’s successive twentieth-century incarnations. Such knowledge might have better informed their design decisions and perhaps could have prevented some of the dreadful mistakes that have been made there during the last decade.

Architects and planners in 1950s Berlin felt free to do as they pleased in part because Hitler’s capital had been bombed into a veritable tabula rasa. Such wholesale departures from regional practice as the socialist neoclassical apartment towers of Stalinallee in the East (which appropriated motifs from Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Feilner house of 1827–1829 in Berlin) and the Corbusian towers-in-a-park of the Hansaviertel neighborhood in the West (including Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation of 1956–1959) only emphasized that the city had never fully meshed into a cohesive urban fabric. Spread out over almost 350 square miles, the twenty-three component boroughs of Berlin did not metamorphose into an organic metropolis in the way the villages of London or the faubourgs of Paris did. Indeed, Berlin’s lackadaisical sprawl, low-to-medium-rise profile, medium-density settlement patterns, and wildly disparate atmosphere from one part of the city to another make it more akin to Los Angeles than to any other European capital.

Schinkel, Germany’s greatest nineteenth-century architect, served as Prussia’s general building director and constructed much in and around Berlin, but the depleted finances of the state during and after the Napoleonic Wars and a parsimonious king …

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