These days the debates in Berlin on architecture and urban development invariably degenerate into ideological conflicts. The discussions about the ‘New Teutonic’ style, the brick architectural language of a handful of protagonists from the Berlin architecture scene, had barely subsided when the announcement of a master plan for the central city of Berlin sparked off a new round of verbal fireworks. Peter Strieder, senator for urban development, environment and technology, presented the Planwerk Innenstadt Berlin at a press conference on 26 December 1996. This was to lay the foundations for the future urban development of the metropolis. It covers the entire central area, from the Zoo station in the west to the Alexanderplatz in the east. Responding to the previous controversy on style, Strieder decided to directly commission a select group of urban planners. The public was excluded from this procedure to secure compelling results. This was of course bound to provoke reactions. Critics objected that an open contest should have been organized at least for the historic city centre, the area between Alexanderplatz and Schlossplatz. Strieder’s choice of designers caused irritation as well. There were no urban planners from East Berlin and no women among them.
Strieder, it seems, had asked his minister of state, Hans Stimmann, to form two design groups, each containing two urban planners. Stimmann had previously been Senatsbaudirektor and was responsible for building regulations for the critical reconstruction of the perimeter block on Friedrichstrasse. So his name is associated with terms like gutter height, tripartite facade composition, cut stone cladding, and perimeter block. He now chose people who had already served him as consultants in his previous position, thereby restored the power of the neo-conservatives. This laid the basis for a further round in the clash of views on the architectural and urban fronts.
Fritz Neumeyer and Manfred Ortner were put to work on City-West, the area between Kurfürstendamm and Potsdamer Platz. Neumeyer, an architect and architectural historian, was known above all for his studies of Karl Friedrich Schinkel and Mies van der Rohe. He proved to be an advocate of an architectural approach in which the classicist idiom could once again be injected into the façade design of contemporary buildings. He was to collaborate with the Viennese artist-architect Manfred Ortner, of Ortner and Ortner.
The ‘historic centre’, i.e. the baroque Friedrichstadt between Potsdamer Platz and Schlossplatz, as well as the adjacent area up to Alexanderplatz, was assigned to Dieter Hoffmann-Axthelm. He is the key figure in the debate on the Berlin perimeter block since the 1984-1987 Internationaler Bauaustellung (IBA). This theology graduate has tackled the history of Berlin in a series of texts. He was teamed up with architect Bernd Albers, whose work, like that of Hans Kollhoff, is influenced by Neumeyer’s theories.
The future in the past
The bipartition of Berlin, the protracted political uncertainty hanging over the western part, the size of the city and the extent of the destruction during the war have so far stood in the way of a comprehensive reconstruction along the lines of that achieved in other German cities. Given a delay of fifty years, the demise of the Wall and the reunification of the country opened up this possibility. Planwerk Innenstadt can be seen as a step in this direction.
But senator Strieder had to admit that his master plan has come too late. At the time of placing the assignment, the urban competitions for Potsdamer Platz and Alexanderplatz had already been won, and a good many projects were on the point of being implemented, if not completed, in Friedrichstrasse, for example, where building permits have been issued since 1989.
The urbanists were forced to react to this fait accompli in order not to lose sight of the homogeneous cityscape they aspired to. They therefore had to take the various new-build schemes that had been elaborated independently of one another, and integrate them in their all-in urban plan.
A model developed by Hoffmann-Axthelm informs the urban design for Planwerk. He started out from the premise that a city, like the geologically layered strata of the ground, is composed of various overlapping layers. These layers of urban development find expression in the pattern of streets, in the ground plan. But even at places where an older layer has been hidden fromn view by later interventions, it is possible to ‘reactivate’ that older layer. He appealed to the genius loci to determine which historical plan of the city should be reactivated. From this he derived the following hypothesis: ‘the reformulation of Berlin’s identity’ (Strieder) can be achieved by reinstating the perimeter block so typical of Berlin and the spatial layout at the turn of the century or ‘Gründerzeit’. The recipe needed to achieve that? Densification.
In translating their theory into a design, the urban designers effected a series of interventions in the urban structure, interventions that need explaining with examples. This is also where the many conflicts latent in the sub-plans come out into the open.
Generally speaking, the master plan aims to return and restore the perimeter block. Gaps in existing blocks must be filled in once more, and open areas that have arisen as a result of wartime damage or demolition must be built up again – with perimeter blocks. This densifying operation will reduce the scale of the urban structure to one easier to grasp and to use for pedestrians and cyclists too.
In the wasteland of the Wall zone, the buildings that were demolished in the past, representing the older layers of planning, are to be restored. But before concrete measures can be taken for reconstruction, an acceptable legal basis has to be found for the sale of the land, so that the owners of houses and land who were dispossessed at that time can secure a title to the land again along satisfactory lines. The present arrangement, which proceeds via the State, has led to delays in investment. In fact, this problem applies to the entire former East Berlin, but the plots of land evacuated there are under the control of Land Berlin.
Having a go at modernism
Hoffmann-Axthelm and Albers propose reconstructing the street pattern and block structure on Fischerinsel in East Berlin. This southern portion of Spreeinsel, where the so-called Fischerkiez is situated, is one of the oldest inhabited parts of the city, and is characterized by canals. Hardly damaged during the war, it was not until the Sixties that the residents were evicted and their homes demolished. Several historical buildings were transferred to the other side of the water. The street pattern disappeared to make way for green space, amidst which the new high-rise blocks of flats stand. The old structure of streets must be restored: the former streets have been marked in again in Planwerk, with a block structure of small plots for housing. To guarantee the small scale of future construction, Hoffmann-Axthelm proposes an investment model in which small-scale and medium-scale investors are given priority in the purchase of land. This idea is primarily influenced by the planning disaster of the huge perimeter blocks along Friedrichstrasse. The smallness of scale is above all to encourage a mix of functions.
The high-rise blocks on the Fischerinsel will not be demolished, but simply encircled by the new blocks. However, the present inhabitants of this neighbourhood consider that this will reduce their homes to mere courtyard development. They are afraid of a distinction between first-class and second-class houses, and are vehemently opposed to this action. The urban planners had not counted on this. In their view the East German assembly-line construction lacked every possibility of identity, but this proved to be not entirely true.
The Planwerk urbanists were immediately accused of adopting a hostile attitude to East German urban development. Hoffmann-Axthelm laid himself open to such criticism when he claimed that East German urban planning must from now on be regarded as passé, now that the political system that it represented no longer exists. Double standards seemed to be operative here. East Berlin, where the urban street plan of the Gründerzeit was almost entirely obliterated, is being comprehensively densified and adjusted, whereas in the comparable West Berlin area of Hansaviertel (Interbau 1957), the model project for the postwar reconstruction, a proposal to intervene was quickly rebutted. But the aim of Planwerk is a general one, and that is to replace the ‘paradigms of modern planning’.
Accordingly, streets are to be reinstated in large areas of the city. Major traffic corridors, designed to turn Berlin into a city of cars, are reduced in Planwerk to their original width. In both the eastern and western parts of the city covered by Planwerk, the widening of streets is closely linked with postwar high-rise schemes. Broad street zones and unbuilt areas between the blocks are no longer seen as necessary open space, but as potential building ground. For instance, there is to be development erected in front of the flats on Leipziger Strasse, the traffic artery in East Berlin, right up to the old building line. Interventions of this kind within the framework of Planwerk can be seen as deliberate disruptions of the status quo. Chopping up the logical urban planning structure of these large postwar ensembles is accepted, even desired. Laying bare an old layer in the urban fabric here means covering up a newer one.
But the planning legislation in Berlin prohibits building on land that has been earmarked for a park or a street. Such changes in function are possible only if there is no more land available for building.
Another element of Planwerk concerns the strengthening of the elevations around squares. Low-rise development containing arcades is projected around Hardenbergerplatz, the bus station near the Zoo station. However, parts of those buildings are on land belonging to the adjoining zoological gardens, so that the plot will first have to be reallocated as building ground.
Similarly drastic measures are planned for the neighbouring Breitscheidtplatz. The central square with its church (Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche) is a traffic island, intersected tangentially by two major traffic roads. On the northern side of the square, across one of the tangents, is the Bikini Haus, built in the Fifties. Neumeyer and Ortner want to seal off this building’s open arcade with glazed facades and turn it into a shopping mall. The resulting containment is intended to give this side of the square a stronger backbone. This intervention in ‘Zentrum am Zoo’ would render futile a ten-year struggle raging over the monument status of one of the city’s seminal ensembles.
The western side of Breitscheidtplatz is dominated by development oversailing the street. Dating from the Fifties, this optically separates the square from the area beyond. The designers propose diverting the traffic presently passing beneath this development. The original street space will then be transformed into an arcade in the middle of a city block.
The centre of East Berlin has to be rearranged too. There a string of squares extends for more than one and a half kilometres along Unter den Linden and the much wider continuation of this street eastward. This ribbon running through the centre of the city, dating from the East German period, is bounded by Schlossplatz to the west and Alexanderplatz to the east.
This is where ‘das Schloss’, torn down in 1950, is to rise again, together with its immunity, though with no effect, it shoudl be said, on the Palast der Republik. One of the most sensitive points in the old city has thus been adroited skirted. At the rear, the Marx Engels Forum will be transformed into a city park by having its elevations strengthened with urban blocks and rows of trees.
Eastward this area shades into the broad square at the foot of the television tower. Here the Planwerk has no real alternative to offer: the discrete blocks look no less forlorn than the medieval Marienkirche does today.
From preliminary design to basic principles
After the first round of slagging, senator Strieder gave a new press conference at the end of January 1997. The criticism was inducement enough to involve the public more in the future development of the plans. There have been four-weekly meetings held since February, each one dealing with a different aspect of the master plan. However, an interim stocktake in May revealed that the positions of the parties involved have hardened rather than converged. The lay public is still almost entirely excluded. The meetings serve primarily to continue the professional trench war.
Once the meetings are over, the design work will have to go on. Political reasons alone make it necessary for Strieder to revise Planwerk. As the designers had been given carte blanche by the senator for urban development, they have produced a plan which takes no account at all of projects elaborated at district level by the local authorities. This interference in the planning autonomy of the district councils has led to thirty-six points of conflict in the Mitte district alone. At the same time, the structure plan which is binding on the district councils (Flächennutzungsplan, FNP) is being signally ignored. This document, drawn up by Strieder’s predecessor, Volker Hassemer, fixes the functions without specifying volumes or built forms. Strieder wants his Planwerk to replace it. But until that time Planwerk will have to conform to the zoning plans of the district councils, to the FNP, in other words. Which is why Strieder chopped the planning area up into thirteen Vertiefungsbereiche, subdivisions which still have to be worked out in detail, to work in close collaboration with the district councils. Pressure is already being brought to bear in favour of partially implementing the projects proposed in the master plan.
In the meantime, the opponents of Planwerk have drawn their conclusions. In the House of Deputies, the Bündnis 90/Grünen combination is commissioning an alternative model. The Mitte district came up more or less simultaneously with a report on the dismantling of the Karl Marx Allee area and Fischerinsel. In this report, architect Peter Meyer picks up the thread of the city planning of the Sixties to arrive at coherent densification of the area.
Another alternative design was commissioned from the Frankfurt architect Christoph Mäckler by the Berlin Building, Housing and Traffic Department, which has been independent of Strieder’s department since 1982. The Christian Democratic Bausenator Jürgen Klemann and Barbara Jakubeit, his Senatsbaudirektorin, are both agreed that a settlement must be made quickly on the area around Breitscheidtplatz as building commissions for three projects in the immediate surroundings have already been placed: construction of the ‘Zoo-Fenster’, a high-tech skyscraper designed by Richard Rogers; a glass wedge-shape block by Helmut Jahn; and completion of the ‘Armadillo’, Nicholas Grimshaw’s exchange building.
Mäckler’s study concludes that implementation of these projects implies a shift from the centre to the west. Falling back on an older plan by Hans Kollhoff, he proposes adding two towers on the east side of the square to strike a balance. Rogers’ project needs to be surrounded by a ‘plinth’ development to close off the street elevation. Additionally, each of these three new projects should be more closely related to the ‘pivot’ of the church (Gedächtniskirche). In addition, Mäckler proposes demolishing the oversailing development on the east side and reinstating the line of vision there.
So in the wake of the discussions about Alexanderplatz, Berlin is returning to what have by now become traditional high-rise debates, one of the most remarkable themes in Berlin’s planning history since the Twenties.
But now there is uncertaintly regarding the future of the Rogers complex. The investor is apparently on the verge of bankruptcy, and to compound matters, a number of the departments involved in its implementation have rallied against high-rise in this form. The gaping hole created by the premature demolition of the existing development will thus remain empty for a while.
Stand up and walk!
Planwerk Innenstadt Berlin is in line with the lengthy history of this century’s plans for the capital. Or rather: planning failures. Perhaps Strieder’s designers are so sure of themselves because their standards are not those of the twentieth century, not those of the century of failures. They act as though they are continuing work on the city from the Gründerzeit, as if there have been no mistakes. The turn-of-the-century city-block typology was applied to the modern city without taking into account the situation today and without reevaluating the pros and cons of this structure. Genius loci is regarded as the measure of all things, as the solution to the structural problems of large areas of the city. But didn’t the modernist planners also proffer a concept to solve the problems of their times, a concept that in retrospect has failed? And were they not just as vigorous in opposing a planning approach they regarded as a failure? If the Planwerk designers were to tackle questions of this kind, they would be forced to place their work in a historical context, confront the historical actuality of their views, and review them critically. But that is precisely what they are not doing.
Daniel Libeskind accompanied his submission for the Alexanderplatz contest with the following: ‘In recent years we have had the good fortune to witness the end of all elementary concepts and their claim to comprehensiveness. This is why we regard it as out of place, if not arrogant, to want to rearrange the ultra-sensitive area of Alexanderplatz with a single gesture. If architecture is not to enter the following millennium as the very last bastion of claims to comprehensiveness, it will have to opt for what is generally accepted in socio-political relations: pluralism.’ Berlin has opted for quite a different concept. With Planwerks’ execution, a gross surface area of 4.74 million m2 will be added to raise the Lazarus of the ‘brick Berlin’ from the dead. Pursuit of the perimeter block as symbol of the past on the one hand, and the attempt to become a modern metropolis by means of a skyline on the other – these two poles determine the fight against time that Berlin has taken up. Still, it is precisely that split personality, or more positively that diversity, that makes Berlin in its present form so appealing. To prime the new old Berlin to receive the government in 1999, that diversity has to be abolished in large parts of the city. Symptomatically, a suburban plan, ‘Planwerk Aussenstadt’, has already been commissioned.
Another press conference has been announced for 1 December, when senator Strieder will present a revised plan one year after the presentation of the first version of Planwerk Innenstadt Berlin. Then it will become clear as to what how far the critics have influenced the designers, and whether the master plan is a workable proposition politically.