Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
On Monday, the city announced that it was listing some key structures in East Berlin’s central square as historical monuments.
Berlin has just said “yes” to Communist-era blocks and “no” to more new skyscrapers. On Monday, the city announced that it was listing some key Communist-era structures in Alexanderplatz, East Berlin’s central square, as historical monuments. It is an irremovable nail in the coffin of a 22-year-old plan to demolish the square and replace it with a “little Manhattan”—a set of 10 new 150-meter high towers. The decision is a contentious one: the new monuments just confirmed are in a late-1960s modernist style that many people still hate.
Alexanderplatz won’t stay entirely unchanged. Two new towers will still be built, one of them a twisting number from Frank Gehry. What is definitively over, however, is a master plan dating back to 1993 from architect Hans Kollhof that envisioned a forest of towers apparently inspired by 1930s Chicago. The plan’s likelihood of being built has been waning for some years, but Monday’s announcement has led the press to pronounce it definitively obsolete. For a city with such a complex past, this means a lot, a sign that Berlin is at last finding a way to come to terms with its recent history.
The defeated skyscraper plan in some ways represented the anxieties of the reunification period, anxieties that have arguably passed. In rebuilding key sites after 1989, Berlin wanted to draw a line under decades of dictatorship and division and celebrate more positive aspects of the city’s past. But what was there to celebrate in a city with such a troubled history as Berlin?
A possible answer lay in the rocky but creative Weimar Republic period which, as Brian Ladd pointed out in his book The Ghosts of Berlin, was one of the few bright spots to hark back to and build upon. The spirit of international interwar modernism could at a push be presented as embodying this spirit, and it could be found both in the deco influences of the Alexanderplatz Plan and in the actually constructed buildings with interwar influences at Potsdamer Platz. What few in 1989 wanted was the supposedly dumpy, chronically unfashionable late-1960s buildings around Alexanderplatz, relics of a defunct, unlovable regime that were perceived as having little or no architectural value.
This hatred might seem unfair now that the Communist-era has receded into history. The monuments are certainly far from the worst constructions of their time. Best known and most popular is the World Clock, a kitschy but delightful sculpture-cum-timepiece created in 1969 that has long been a popular meeting spot for locals.
Less obviously easy to love are the clock’s companions as Berlin’s latest protected monuments, also begun in 1969: two towers called the Haus des Reisens and the Haus des Berliner Verlages. These admittedly have some attractive details to them. The Haus des Reisens has a copper relief entitled “Man Conquers Space” that is overlaid with a curved shell-like canopy, while the Haus des Berliner Verlages is enlivened by a zig-zagged external staircase. Both buildings are likewise oriented so as contribute to the square’s public space, with a ground floor of shops making them more than just hulks lurking in the mist. Having been this generous to them so far, it’s nonetheless fair to say that these are pretty standard, unremarkable late-modernist slabs of a type found across Europe. So why are they worthy of keeping forever?
The short answer is that knocking them down removes a key part of the Berlin jigsaw. Berlin is no classic beauty, but what it does have to make its cityscape compelling is history, specifically recent history. I can think of no other city that has used buildings to showcase two competing political systems in the way Berlin has, punctuated as the city is by spaces intended to demonstrate the relative benefits of communism or capitalism. This might make it sound a little dreary—dusty avenues and statues with clenched fists to the East, tawdry temples to consumption to the West—but the results are often impressive, even delightful.
Construction on East Berlin’s monumental avenue Karl-Marx-Allee may have begun while Stalin was still around, but it feels green, easy, and walkable, with a healthy dose of wit detectable in its grandiose buildings full of high-quality apartments. In West Berlin, the central Interbau project of 1957 similarly proclaimed its state’s values in its non-hierarchical set of modernist towers scattered as if through a forest—a European model (albeit an expensive one) for countless other later urban developments.
Alexanderplatz was planned as yet another such showcase. You can still come here to experience how the German Democratic Republic wanted to present itself, but the place is also mellowing with age. It remains busy, alive, and pleasantly easy-going, especially when the weather is warm. Demolishing its Communist-era structures to build a fantasy Olde Chicago wouldn’t have been a true new beginning. It would have shown the city struggling to efface its past. Instead, the monumental protection order shows Berlin is managing something rather better—accepting, absorbing, and simultaneously moving on from its past with some grace.