Joyce and I first visited Berlin in 1991, while the Berlin Wall was still in the process of being torn down. While the Western section was relatively modern and lively, the recently opened Eastern section of the city was characterized by depressing Communist-era buildings and a somewhat foggy atmosphere, like it had just emerged from a fifty-year sleep (which, in a way, it did).
Today’s Berlin has a very different style.
Awakening from a Bad Dream
Berlin had been a world-class city until World War I. When Germany lost the war, things went downhill fast. It eventually led the country’s citizens to place their fate in a political party (German Workers’ Party) and chancellor (Adolph Hitler) who brought the country into another war that resulted in devastating bombing, a division of the country and the city and a stigma that it is still trying to overcome. (See our blog, Berlin Awakening: Recovering from an 80-Year Bad Dream).
The history of the country and the city, as told by our excellent guide from Berlin Walks’ Discover Berlin tour, was fascinating. Although we have read about it all before, seeing the sites and hearing about episodes such as the Night of Breaking Glass and the Book Burning, not to speak of standing atop former Gestapo’s prisons and torture chambers and Hitler’s own bunker–drives home the implications of these events in an indelibly poignant way. Then, hearing stories and seeing pictures of the devastation caused by the Allied bombing that destroyed about 40 percent of the city (and 90 percent of the downtown area) and significantly damaged much of the rest, left no question as to what the people of Berlin had endured. Dozens of buildings still bear bullet and shrapnel scars that provide daily reminders of the devastation of war
Then as if Nazi rule and the War weren’t enough, the city then had to endure almost 50 years of being wrenched apart by the Berlin Wall, with families and friends unable to see each other and forced to live under very different governments and economic conditions. The process of reuniting the city and the country was almost as difficult as having it divided in the first place. Remnants of this period are evidenced by pieces of the Berlin Wall that have been preserved as reminders of this period.
With all this, the city not only survived, but prospered. True, the huge rebuilding effort combined with the costs of reuniting the city has already put Berlin €64 billion in debt. And this figure is growing daily with more than 1,000 big infrastructure (primarily roadway, subway and public building) construction projects all across the city. One of these projects, the reconstruction of the destroyed Royal Palace, is expected to cost €600 million in and of itself! Judging from all this construction activity, we can’t even imagine how the city will look ten years from now.
Still, with all this construction, the city’s population of 3.3 million remains below that prior to World War I and far below city planning projections. The result, an estimated one-third of personal dwellings are vacant and rents remain among the lowest of any major city on the continent. Many buildings remain boarded up or sparsely occupied. Other vacant buildings have been covered with plastic, painted to appear occupied.
Architecture and Rebuilding
Berlin is, by necessity, a modern city. The city, all but destroyed by the war, effectively had to start over–under the disadvantages of being a divided city in which the Communists initially did all in their power to limit Western access and aid. Both the east and the west, however, embarked on huge building campaigns, restoring some of the most important buildings and building thousands of others from scratch.
Back in 1991, the differences between East and West were profound. Today, much less so. The Brandenburg Gate, once a symbol of division has, as they say, become a symbol of unity. Meanwhile, the city’s iconic TV tower, built by the East Germans to demonstrate technological parity with, if not necessarily superiority over the West, remains the tallest structure in the now unified city and country. Some East Berlin neighborhoods are now among the youngest, hottest, and hippest in the city.
Blending the Old and the New
Although there are still a few old, extensively reconstructed, monumental pre-war buildings, their thick covers of soot make them appear much more dreary, and less attractive than they might otherwise be. Most of the remaining older buildings are, at least to our eyes, of the unattractive 1950’s and 60’s eras, especially many of the drab, Communist-era buildings of the East. There are even a few remaining Nazi-era building, characterized by their massive sizes, unadorned classical styles and intimidating features that Hitler so loved.
The mass of these older and restored buildings, however, are increasingly overwhelmed by a rapidly growing number of modern buildings designed by world-class architects. Some, such as the Sir Norman Foster’s Riestag dome and Helmut Jahn’s Sony Center, are incredibly successful, both in the view of the critics and the people. Some other new buildings: much less so.
Berlin Buildings as Tourist Attractions
Berlin has become a magnet for the World’s star architects (Starchitects) looking to create world-class architectural statements. Examples, which are located throughout the city, include Helmut Jahn’s Sony Center, Mark Braun’s Spreedreieck, David Chipperfield’s Neues Museum (New Museum)and Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum.
A handful of new and renovated buildings and monuments near the Brandenburg Gate, are of particular interest to, and particularly accessible to tourists.
Unter den Linden
In an interesting, unexpected twist, we found virtually all of the buildings on the most expensive and most prestigious block of Unter den Linden, the so-called Royal Road. Buildings including the American, British and French Embassies, and even the Frank Geary-designed DZ Bank, appear to be relatively plain and understated. In fact, one of the prettiest buildings in the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate (Brandenburger Tor) is the stately Hotel Adlon Berlin, another reconstructed building that is one of the best (not to speak of most expensive) hotels in Europe.
But, as one of our tour guides explained, the understated exteriors of these buildings were all according to plan: city fathers wanted to ensure that none of these buildings would compete with the Brandenburg Gate. And, as we discovered, the generally plain exteriors do not necessarily presage what is inside the doors. The lobby of the Hotel Adlon Berlin, for example, is beautiful. Meanwhile, one of the plainest exteriors, that of the DZ Bank, houses one of the most fun and interesting interiors in the city. It appears that even if Frank Geary can be contained on the outside, his renowned originality will pop out on the inside.
Just behind the buildings at the top of Unter den Linden is the mysterious and engaging Holocaust Memorial, with its 2,711 unmarked gray concrete blocks, of varying heights, on undulating ground, all arranged in precise rows and columns. Why 2,711? Why the varying heights and the precise placement? Although there is no end to the speculation, nobody knows for sure. The designer insists that his monument remain just as inexplicable as the holocaust.
Reichstag. When you speak of Berlin architecture, two buildings stand out as the most prominent and symbolic of all Berlin buildings: the Berliner Dom cathedral (see below) and especially the Reichstag, the building that, up to the war, and now once again, houses the German parliament. It also represents one of the most successful combinations of 19th-century and contemporary architecture.
While the building had to be almost totally rebuilt after the allied bombing, it was reconstructed to duplicate the original. Then, British architect Sir David Foster, improved on it by adding a glass dome that not only modernizes the building and has become one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions, but allow brings active and passive solar power to the building and recycles some of the rainwater that falls onto it
BerlinerDom Cathedral. Although Berlinerdom certainly does contain a number of pieces of art, such as its pulpit, it’s alter, its organ and some of its tombs, it is itself a piece of art, and a huge one at that. Its base is massive and it soars into the sky with a 279-foot high dome–which visitors can climb for a panoramic view of the city. While the entire structure and is contents are impressive, the dome is downright amazing, due both to its size and the detail of the art. The crypts contain some of the most elaborate tombs we have ever seen and the views from the top of the dome, including those of details of the church’s own decoration, are more than worth the price of admission.
Although some of the largest, highest profile buildings are in the areas around and between the Reichstag and the Berliner Dom, Berlin is a city of neighborhoods. All of its major plazas (or "platz"), for example, have their own commercial centers. Some, such as the huge Potsdamerplatz and Zoologischer Garten are practically cities unto themselves. Potsdamerplatz, in particular, is home to huge towers and complexes including Daimler City, the Arcaden and the critically and publicly acclaimed Sony Center.