In Berlin, Remaking The City Can Rekindle Old Frictions

Oct 9, 2014
Originally published on October 10, 2014 9:54 pm

Berlin is an on-again, off-again capital with a darker history than most cities in Europe.

It served as the epicenter of Hitler's Third Reich and was nearly wiped off the map at the end of the last World War. Berlin was also the flashpoint of the Cold War between the United States and Russia. Their conflict split the city into two, leaving residents on either side cut off from each other in every way imaginable for a generation.

Still, visitors hoping to relive a John le Carre Cold War spy novel today are likely to be disappointed. Most traces of the Berlin Wall and other landmarks delineating East and West have been torn down or moved since Germany reunited nearly a quarter-century ago.

German planners have made a concerted effort to erase the divisions between the two Berlins. But here's the catch: These costly changes — especially the ongoing removal of communist-era architecture — have fostered resentment among many residents in the eastern part of the city. Many feel the buildings are an important part of Berlin's history that are worth protecting.

A Blank Canvas For A Unified Berlin

During the Cold War, most of Berlin's subways served the West. Its trains would slow down — but never stop — in the dimly lit stations in the communist eastern part of the city, where guards with machine guns kept watch. East Berliners, on the other hand, rode above-ground trains, streetcars and buses that steered clear of West Berlin.

These days in Berlin, people can use any mode of public transit they wish.

Changes like these are by design, says municipal planner Annalie Schoen, a West German transplant to Berlin. Schoen is part of a team that has helped create a seamless capital since lawmakers decided to move the government from Bonn back to Berlin in 1991.

I met her in the federal government quarter, which is called the "Band des Bundes," suggesting a place connecting the former East and West and binding the new federation. Schoen says the buildings here, with their modern facades and welcoming public spaces both indoors and out, symbolize Germany's evolution into a democratic and peaceful society.

"When we started, none of the streets were here, none of the buildings were here," she says.

The blank canvas made the task of creating a unified government quarter here easier, Schoen adds. Architects from around the world competed to design it, as German officials sought international input to prevent any appearance of nationalistic pride.

A key element was the redesign of the former Reichstag building, which now serves as the main German parliament building. It was one of the few existing structures in the quarter, one that was rich in history but in terrible shape, Schoen says.

"You know that our Reichstag was renovated by a British architect, Norman Foster," she says, adding that she doubts Britain or France would have allowed an outsider to do that. "But you know our history, so that forces us to be a bit more open."

The renovated building, which runs on solar power, is a huge draw for German and foreign tourists alike. They get not only a 360-degree view of the city, but can peer into the legislative chamber below.

Architect Thomas Krueger, another West German transplant who runs an agency offering architectural tours of Berlin called Ticket B, is one of the many fans of the new design.

"Now, there is a new monumentality," he says. "It's also showing pride. Now we are 85 million [people], peaceful, reunited."

Palace Of The Republic Goes Baroque

But a short bus ride away is another project Berlin has undertaken to reinvent itself that Krueger says misses the mark.

Called the Humboldt Forum, the project, which is to be completed by 2019, is a partial reconstruction of a Baroque palace that traces its roots back to the 15th century. The palace was badly damaged in World War II and then completely torn down by the East German communists, who built their parliament building there in the 1970s.

In 2006, the German parliament ordered the East German building with bronze-mirrored windows to be torn down, which took about two years.

These days, the site is hovered over by cranes and workers assigned to the nearly $800 million project. When it's finished, Krueger says, it will house a library, university facilities and Berlin's African and other non-European art collections.

"The museum for non-European art will be presented behind a Baroque facade, which does not really make any sense," he explains.

Nor did it make sense to remove every trace of the East German building that was here, Krueger adds. Called the Palace of the Republic, it housed not only the communist legislature, but also a bowling alley, concert hall, restaurants and even a giant dance floor on hydraulic lifts.

"Every East German I know told me a story about his connection to this Palace of the Republic, and to demolish it is really an act of violence," Krueger says. "Colleagues of mine made a lot of suggestions how to renovate the old Palace of the Republic, and there was still cultural life in it. That is really unbelievable. All what Berlin is representing was still here."

The Palace of the Republic was not the only German Democratic Republic building to be torn down, he adds.

"I read that more than 180 buildings here in the inner city were demolished since '89," he says. "This is quite a lot. There was a high-rise building called the foreign ministry of the GDR, so they demolished it very quickly. So this was a prominent building, also not really nice architecture, but it was a piece of the German history."

The sentiment, Krueger adds, is, "Everything is ugly from the GDR times and so we have to demolish it."

Remaking — Or Negating — East Berlin's Past?

Krueger very much disagrees. But he says the problem is that West Germans — especially those not from Berlin — don't believe the communist-era buildings are worth protecting. They are a reminder of a time in Germany's history they'd rather forget.

That's put Berlin's last major East German-era landmark — Alexanderplatz — at risk as well. The 20-acre square was the showplace of communist East Germany and is best known for Berlin's iconic television tower that, at 1,207 feet, is one of Europe's tallest structures. A "World Clock" and somewhat gaudy copper and enamel fountain here also draw tourists.

Alexanderplatz is also framed by hulking Soviet-era buildings with stark glass and metal facades that, since reunification, feature mostly businesses, stores and restaurants. The square's critics and investors say it is wasted space with old structures that are eyesores. They are pushing to tear them down.

In an op-ed in Der Tagesspiegel in August 2013, one West German author and journalist, Peter von Becker, likened the proposed preservation of one of the buildings to keeping Berlin looking like the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.

That's not how Katrin Lompscher sees it. She's a native East Berliner who was 27 when the wall came down and now serves in the Berlin parliament as a member of the Die Linke party, which includes members of the political party that succeeded East Germany's ruling communists.

"The Alexanderplatz of my youth, as I remember it, was a major transportation hub and great place to shop," Lompscher says. "The best department store ... was here and had a terrace with open stairs like a piazza.

"Of course it's important to move forward and develop things," she adds. "But it's wrong to completely negate what's already here."

She worries about a 1993 master plan by German architect Hans Kollhoff. It was approved by the government and calls for 10 high-rise towers in and around the square, although investors shied away from erecting any during a decade-long economic slump. Lompscher says it now it appears that plans are moving ahead for one of the high-rises: a 39-story building designed by avant-garde architect Frank Gehry.

To Lompscher, it's a slap in the face to East Berliners, many of whom feel reunification has meant doing everything the Western way.

City planner Annalie Schoen agrees that many East Berliners view this as something "conquerors do."

She says it was tougher for them to adjust post-reunification "because we sort of took over. They had to use our laws, they had to use our regulations, our social security system, everything."

"For them," Schoen says, "the change was more dramatic than it was for us."

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Our location determines a lot about how we see the world. We're now going to hear how that plays out in a city that was physically divided for decades, another story from the NPR Cities Project.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This is an old city.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It's very vibrant.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: It is a fragmented city.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Location, location, location.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Location location location.

MARTIN: And today we're talking about Berlin. The German capital was nearly wiped out of existence at the end of World War II, then it became the flashpoint in the Cold War. Conflict between the West and the Soviet Union split the city in two. In 1961, the Berlin Wall went up, leaving residents on either side cut off from each other in every imaginable way. Twenty-five years ago, the wall came down. East Germans flooded across the border, and the city was made whole. Since then, German planners have been trying to erase signs of that divided past. But in the East, the changes are not so welcome. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson takes us on a tour of East and West Berlin to explain why.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: During the Cold War, most subways like this one I'm on served the West. These trains would slow down but never stop in the heavily guarded stations in the Communist East. East Berliners, on the other hand, rode trams and buses that steered clear of the West. These days, people can use any mode of transit they wish. The unified government has also worked to erase all signs of the division.

I'm getting out in the government district, which the most popular example of the merger. I'm meeting Annalie Schoen. She's part of the team that has worked since the early '90s to create a seamless capital.

ANNALIE SCHOEN: When we started, none of the streets were here, none of the buildings were here.

NELSON: Schoen says there was no debate about construction here because there was nothing to tear down. Architects from around the world competed to design the unified quarter. A key element was the redesign of the German Parliament, or former Reichstag building. It was one of the few existing structures in the quarter, one that was rich in history, but in terrible shape, Schoen says.

SCHOEN: You know that our Reichstag was renovated by a British architect, and that shows also how open we were. I would say that - I don't know - the French or the British probably would not build their parliament by a foreigner; I don't know.

NELSON: By enlisting outsiders to develop the district's striking architecture, the Germans were avoiding the appearance of nationalistic pride. The resulting parliament building is a huge draw for German and foreign tourists who are able to watch the legislature in action below a glass dome. Schoen says the other buildings in the government district with their modern facades and welcoming public spaces also symbolize Germany's evolution into a democratic and peaceful society.

But let's take a short bus ride to another project that many say misses the mark, partly because it erases East German history. It's called the Humboldt Forum, and it's scheduled to be completed by 2019. As I look around, I see no trace of where the East Germans built their communist parliament building in the '70s. It was torn down six years ago. What's replacing it is a partial recreational of a baroque palace, the origins of which go back six centuries. The nearly $800-million project will eventually house a library, university facilities and Berlin's collection of African art. German architect Thomas Krueger is one of those who hates it.

THOMAS KRUEGER: It's not true what you see; it's just a facade, and it has nothing to do with the real history.

NELSON: He says it makes no sense to remove every trace of the East German building that was here, called the Palace of the Republic. It housed not only the communist legislature, but a bowling alley, concert hall and restaurants.

KRUEGER: Every East German I know that told me a story about his connection to this Palace of the Republic and to demolish it is really an act of violence. Colleagues of mine, they made a lot of suggestions how to renovate the old Palace of the Republic, and there was still cultural life in it. That is really unbelievable.

NELSON: Do you feel that there is too much dismissal of East German architecture, that more of an effort should be made to preserve some of what was here during the Cold War?

KRUEGER: I read that more than 180 buildings here in the inner city were demolished since '89. This is quite a lot.

NELSON: Do you agree aesthetically?

KRUEGER: No, no, no. They had also fantastic buildings.

NELSON: Krueger says the problem is that West Germans, especially those not from Berlin, don't believe communist-era buildings are with protecting. They are a reminder of a time in Germany's history they'd rather forget.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUS)

NELSON: That includes Alexanderplatz, where I'm headed on the last stop of our tour. The 20-acre square in its day was the showplace of communist East Germany. It's now under threat. Berlin's iconic television tower is here. It's a giant, silver ball on a concrete shaft; at 1,207 feet, it's the tallest freestanding structure in Germany. Also striking are the many hulking, soviet-era buildings that line the square with stark glass and metal facades. They are now full of businesses, stores and restaurants. The square's critics and investors call these old structures eyesores and are pushing to tear them down, something tour guides in Alexanderplatz point out.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: And this plan, calls, basically, to tear down everything - that, that, that, that and that.

NELSON: One West German author and journalist, Peter von Becker, in an op-ed last year, likened the proposed preservation of one of the buildings to keeping Berlin looking like the North Korean capital, Pyongyang. That's not how Katrina Lompscher sees it. She's a native East Berliner who was 27 when the wall came down.

KATRINA LOMPSCHER: (Speaking German).

NELSON: Lompscher now serves in the Berlin parliament as a member of Die Linke Party, which includes members of the political party that succeeded East Germany's ruling Communists.

LOMPSCHER: (Through translator) The Alexanderplatz of my youth, as I remember it, was a major transportation hub and a great place to shop. The best department store was here, and it had a terrace with open stairs like a piazza. Of course, it's important to move forward and develop things. But it's wrong to completely negate what's already here.

NELSON: She's especially worried about a 1993 master plan to build 10 high-rise towers here. After the economy delayed that plan for a decade, work on at least one of the high-rises appears back on track. That high-rise is designed by avant-garde architect Frank Gehry. To Lompscher, it's a slap in the face to East Berliners who feel reunification has meant doing everything the Western way. In the former East Berlin, I'm Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, for the NPR Cities Project. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.