Without its Wall Berlin an architectural free for all

October 30, 2009
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, BERLIN, Oct 30 – Plans to erect a giant staircase to straddle the remains of the Berlin Wall have long been shelved but the city is still an architectural work in progress, 20 years after the hated barrier fell.

When the Wall was finally pulled down, city planners, suddenly presented with acres of prime building land in the heart of a top European capital, were rubbing their hands with glee.

Planners thought "the building boom would soon put Berlin back on a par with Paris and London" as it was during the glory years of the 1920s, said local architect Christoph Wessling.

And the no-man’s-land where the Wall once stood became a playground for designers of all stripes, who set to work with enthusiasm.

Potsdamer Platz, for example, which at the start of the 20th century was said to be the busiest thoroughfare in the world and the site of the first traffic light, was a vacant lot overrun by wild grass and rabbits.

Under the direction of star architects including Italy’s Renzo Piano, it transformed into a mini-Manhattan of imaginatively shaped glass skyscrapers overlooking the nearby Tiergarten park.

As for the rabbits, they have scampered into the gardens of the "embassies" set up by Germany’s regional governments near the site where Adolf Hitler’s wartime bunker once stood.

Unique among major cities, Berlin had to cope both with its wartime devastation and then the huge scar of the Wall carved through its heart.

To bring Berlin back together after it regained its status as German capital, city planners had to rebuild bridges, underground stations, roads — in short, nearly half the infrastructure of the city of 3.4 million people.

Some of the wackier plans, like US architect Robert Venturi’s bid to build a huge staircase over the Brandenburg Gate, never saw the light of day as Berliners were desperate for a return to workaday city life.

"After the war and the Wall, Berliners were keen to return to normality," said Wessling.

The problem for the 7.5 million tourists who visit Berlin each year is not difficulty circumventing the Wall but finding where the barrier once stood.

"In some places, even Berliners no longer remember where it used to run," Wessling noted.

In addition to demolishing the Wall, the government acted quickly — some say too hastily — to pull down some of the relics of the communist state.

The Palace of the Republic, home to the former rubber-stamp East German parliament, was wrecked to make way for the rebuilding of the old imperial palace, which had itself been knocked down by communist authorities in the 1950s.

And to accommodate the government, which moved from Bonn to Berlin in 1999, a new district has been built around the restyled Reichstag parliament building.

But, in parts, Berlin still seems in limbo.

Visitors arriving in the city via its huge glass-covered central railway station are often surprised to be immediately confronted with a vast empty swathe of wind-swept lawns and concrete pavement.

"Berlin is still full of ugly corners, unfinished or empty," says Guido Fassbender, the curator of a museum documenting the transformation of Berlin.

"Building is costly and Berlin today is 60 billion euros (89 billion dollars) in debt," said Wessling.

However, east Berlin is no longer the neglected concrete wasteland it once was. Many old buildings — some still bearing the pockmarks of wartime fighting — have been renovated.

This renewal has taken place on such a scale, said an executive from the legendary Babelsberg studios on the city’s outskirts, that film crews sometimes now use West Berlin backdrops to depict old East Berlin.

Gentrification has also brought on higher rents and in some areas up to 80 percent of the local population has been displaced, says Fassbender.

"The East-West border has gone, but it’s been replaced by one separating the poor and the rich," he said.

Berlin’s mayor Klaus Wowereit, who describes his city as "poor but sexy", believes brash commercialism has dealt a blow to its once creative rejuvenation.

"When it comes to architecture, what’s now going on in Berlin is boring," he said recently.

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