Brief uit Berlijn / Letter from Berlin

Initially the feeling that prevailed was one of euphoria about the new possibilities for ‘Europe’s biggest building site’. After six years of building mania the mood has switched to one of confusion and disenchantment. Construction work continues uninterrupted, apparently without any overall policy and in large parts of the city architectural fiascos prevail.

The pressure was admittedly great: the fall of the Berlin Wall not only generated a broad swathe of no-man’s-land right across the city; property developers couldn’t wait to make their financial dream quickly come true. The government simply compounded the problem. Shortly after the Wende Helmut Kohl decided to move the seat of government to Berlin, declaring that ‘a world- famous metropolis will rise from this divided city’. Everyone seems in a great hurry to get on with it.

The reason why is not exactly clear, but nobody seems to have has escaped the construction frenzy. Even the new seat of the Bundestag is being built at tremendous pressure: at three o’clock on Saturday morning you can still hear the scream of circular saws in the remains of the former Reichstag.

The go-ahead for this race against time was given in 1990 by a competition to design three large blocks on Friedrichstrasse. At one time this street was one of the main arteries of the undivided city, known for its department stores, cafÈs and opportunities for strolling. Later with the arrival of Checkpoint Charlie it became a symbol of the divided city. The winning designs by Jean Nouvel, Henry Nichols Cobb and Oswald Mathias Ungers had to reanimate the street, and fast.

The deep- seated debate on reconstruction was whittled down to the banal conclusion that, assuming the idea was to recover something of Friedrichstadt’s former vitality, it would be better not to have just one architect design the 100-metre long facade; and that each of the three blocks should have its own character.

Nouvel’s Galeries Lafayette block was the first to be delivered. The spectacle of two glass cones stacked in the centre of the building failed to erase the feeling that something was missing in Friedrichstrasse. But what? Now that the blocks by Unger and Cobb have also been appropriated, it is clear that the three megastructures have dealt Friedrichstrasse the coup de grand#8218;ce.

Admittedly, pedestrians on a shopping spree are still out of doors as they queue at the entrance to the first store, but after that the building swallows them up, to spew them out through a subterranean passage only on reaching the third block. The role that the street once played has been largely taken over by the buildings’ innards.

Immediately after this planning – and for the time being economic – blunder, Hans Stimmann, the newly appointed bausenator, hastily drew up a set of regulations intended to guarantee at least certain urban qualities. This manifesto, presented as a ‘critical reconstruction’, immediately brought with it the simplification that the debate needed: a maximum building height of 22 metres, a set-back roof structure of no more than 30 metres, respect for the unity of the Berlin perimeter block, a minimum of 20 percent of each building plot for homes, a ban on excessive use of glass in the facade.

Just what the implications of these rules are for the city is gradually becoming plain. In Potsdamer Platz, where Renzo Piano’s master plan, by way of an exception, permits a certain percentage of high-rise, the first buildings are presently receiving their facades. Regrettably it is a colossal office block (by Arata Isozaki) that sets the tone. Enough people have expressed shock at the faded pink and white cut stone facing – Isozaki’s own intepretation of the required terracotta look – and are wondering just how livable the neighbourhood will be if this is the norm.

The nearby information centre in the bright red ‘infobox’ attempts to placate visitors’ fears with a large-scale publicity campaign. Interactive computer animations, maquettes, Internet sites, models of the new high-speed train and a ‘Coupe d’Architecte’ on the restaurant menu give a glimpse of tomorrow’s city, one inhabited only by happy people. As to what exactly is being critically reconstructed is still a mystery. The message of the publicity however has been so successfully packaged that there have been calls to save the infobox – designed by the young Frankfurt architects Schneider and Schumacher – for later, if necessary sacrificing a building on Potsdamer Platz in its stead.

The district round Checkpoint Charlie is similarly dependent, it seems, on publicity campaigns. This area of five blocks has been bought by a single investor who has neatly solved the requirement of 20 percent homes by cramming all the dwellings into the block most difficult to let. Office space conveniently sited is simply more profitable. The building requirements have meant that the difference in character between the buildings is diminishing rapidly. It has become the difference between a black suit by Moss Bros and a black suit by Boss. Philip Johnson has taken the precaution of placing in front of his building a metres-high selfportrait: one Philip Johnson on the way!

Elsewhere too one is struck by the uniformity. The idea of critical reconstruction is often translated directly into a bloodless adoption of the Traufhand#710;he or gutter height of 22 metres, the setting-back in two steps of the roof structure to 30 metres and the use of stone facing in a single unbroken surface. One building may be attributed to Brenner, another to Kleihues and a third to Lampugnani, but it could just as easily have been the other way round.

The contributions by the husband and wife firm of Kottmair form an exception to this ‘rationalist’ architecture. This pair from Munich have their own ideas about what good architecture is and all these ideas bear the name of Aldo Rossi. Rossi designed three large-scale projects for the centre of Berlin. The Kottmairs’ project for Sch¸tzenstrasse makes the most undiluted use of the idea of the old city: the block divides into small lots, each with its own architectural infill Rossi-style. Altogether, the collage of buildings is a mock-up of an authentic Berlin block, complete with courtyards and functional versatility.

Climaxing the facade is a replica of the Palazzo Farnese in Rome part-designed by Michelangelo. According to some, this is the perverting of urban departure- points at its peak; for others, it is the ultimate proof of their power.

The prestigious projects in Friedrichstadt are bound to make good eventually. Backed by high finance and centrally situated, it will undoubtedly become a classy neighbourhood. The concept of critical reconstruction becomes less justified however when applied to the legacy of the GDR period. In fact all discussion about meaningful renovation of this cultural heritage has been carefully avoided.

So it was possible for 1960s government buildings on Unter den Linden, the pride of GDR architecture, to be stripped and tacitly provided with stone facing. Or take the housing on Leipziger Strasse: these highrise rows, not all that attractive to begin with, are currently being dolled up with postmodern loggias and aluminium facing. Workers may still live in the city centre, though there will be nothing left to remind them of these erstwhile showpieces of socialism.

The real critical reconstruction is to be found in those premises nominated for demolition. This is where the historic discussion of the built environment is acted out, at night: the Eimer dance club on Rosenthaler Strasse, reached along the basement stairs of a dilapidated and deserted private house, consists of two-storey high rooms where you can drink and dance.

The steel reinforcement pokes out of the floors that have been removed. Steel catwalks skewer the spaces together. There are jugglers and contortionists and music so loud that it drowns out the scream of the circular saws.

Het Oostelijke Havengebied in Amsterdam. Drie ontwerpen voor de Javabrug / Amsterdam’s Oostelijke Havengebied. Three designs for the Java Bridge