Thoughts on New Berlin’s architecture and Berlin as a lived space

The unified national capital now includes sleek corporate buildings, a federal government district, new regional transportation and communication links, a renovated historic district, gentrified neighborhoods, urban parks and riverfronts, and a growing suburban ring. This cosmopolitan city of the twenty-first century is also an international cultural center, ranked above London in a recent Condé Nast Traveler magazine for its numerous symphonic orchestras, opera houses, choirs, galleries and museums, theaters, alternative art scene, and buildings designed by internationally famous architects. “With 3.5 million inhabitants, Berlin has as many theaters as Paris and more symphony orchestras than London, both metropoles of some 10 million inhabitants and contenders for the title of Europe’s cultural capital.”

Just as the New Berlin has been given a radiant material form through buildings and districts designed by world-famous architects, so places and landscapes throughout the contemporary city embody new Berlins imagined in the past and historic Berlins imagined today. As the capital of five different historical Germanys, Berlin represents the “unstable optic identity” of the nation —for it is the city where, more than any other city, German nationalism and modernity have been staged and restaged, represented and contested. Berlin is a city that cannot be contained by marketing representations of time, of the “new.” It is a place with “heterogeneous references, ancient scars,” a city that “create[s] bumps on the smooth utopias” of its imagined futures. Even the marketing images that now adorn city billboards to promote the New Berlin as a cosmopolitan beauty queen, surrounded by corporate power and wealth and bejeweled by cultural icons, are haunted by former hopes for the future of Weimar, National Socialist, and Cold War Berlins.

While Berlin may be unusual in Europe because of the sheer scale of construction and renovation that has occurred since 1990, it remains distinctive because of the array of places that have been (re)established that convey both the desires and fears of returning to traumatic national pasts. The specters of the past are felt in the contemporary city when groups or individuals intentionally or unexpectedly evoke ghosts, such as when they plan and market another “new” Berlin, identify artifacts and ruins as culturally significant, “discover” and mark formerly deserted landscapes as historic, claim a national heritage and dig for past cities, establish museums and memorials, or visit places of memory through tours. Even postunification urban landscapes continue to be defined by presences from the recent past. Recently built corporate buildings and consumer spaces designed by internationally known architects, including O. M. Ungers, Philip Johnson, and Aldo Rossi, characterize Germany’s aspirations toward being a “normal” European nation-state and are squarely located at sites of former East– West Bloc confrontation: Potsdamer Platz, Friedrichstraße, and Checkpoint Charlie. The glimmering Daimler-Benz and Sony towers in the center of the city at Potsdamer Platz grew out of the former “death strip” between the two Berlin Walls—a no-man’s-land that existed as a result of the trauma of National Socialism.

Potsdamer Platz at night

Potsdamer Platz at night

Berlin Downtown Friedrichstraße

Berlin Downtown Friedrichstraße

Checkpoint Charlie

Checkpoint Charlie

Much has been written about Germany’s attempt to master the National Socialist past and about the controversial politics of memory in Berlin. In these works the city, as well as place more generally, is treated as a stage on which the drama of history—represented as contested negotiations between key political figures, historians, philosophers, and artists—is performed. But places are never merely backdrops for action or containers for the past. They are fluid mosaics and moments of memory, matter, metaphor, scene, and experience that create and mediate social spaces and temporalities. Through place making, people mark social spaces as haunted sites where they can return, make contact with their loss, contain unwanted presences, or confront past injustices.

Source: Till, K. (c2005)”The New Belrin: memory, politics, place”

Minneapolis: University of Minnesota

(Eva Spirova)

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