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Berlin Rebuilt

Americans now understand how architecture can occupy the center of a national psyche. We know that what we build at Ground Zero will determine how we collectively remember that catastrophe. Through an aesthetic alchemy, the right architecture will transform catastrophe into something else, a cultural depth, a kind of societal maturity. Such is the paradox of historical memory: no matter how terrible it is, acknowledging it is our only hope for the future.

Multiply the phenomenon of Ground Zero by 10,000 and you have Berlin. In Berlin—once the Nazi command center, and then divided between east and west—the physical city is the medium through which the identity of the new, unified Germany is being forged. There one feels the question pressing of how Germany, and indeed the West, is to go forward in this new century.

Architecture is the language in which such questions are approached: whether the Reichstag might again be used as a parliamentary seat, how the Potsdamer Platz, once divided by the Wall, should be rebuilt, what to do with the remnants of the Communist regime. But while I went to Berlin to see the buildings and places that have been at the heart of Germany's process of becoming, I wanted also to look at the architecture of earlier periods, at the layered history that is the context of these debates.

It is commonly understood that Germany must struggle with its Nazi past; less often appreciated is that the older, imperialistic past is also an issue in its reconstruction. There are medieval parts of Berlin—the remnants of a protective wall, the Nikolai Church—but it is really with the aristocratic confections built by the Hohenzollern dynasty that one enters a historical continuum that connects to the present and its concerns. For one thing, the Hohenzollerns were still in power when Germany plunged recklessly into World War I, putting the country on course for the defeat that created the conditions for Hitler's rise. But there are other ways, too, in which the architecture of the 18th century provides a background for what happened later.

Schloss Charlottenburg is the preeminent example of dynastic architecture inside the boundaries of Berlin. It was built in the late 17th century by Frederick I as a country retreat—on a site not yet part of the city— for his wife Sophia Charlotte. Its feminine, almost frivolous tone, its easy elegance, its highly cultivated atmosphere, could not be further from Nazi militarism, or modern realities of any kind. And yet the deep origins of the instability that led to Nazism can be found there.

Frederick's realm was Prussia, one of several small feudal states that made up what is now Germany. At the time of the construction of Schloss Charlottenburg, the Hohenzollerns had only recently managed to persuade the Holy Roman Emperor to recognize Prussia as a kingdom, though the promotion had to be qualified: Frederick was king in Prussia but not of Prussia because he did not control its eastern half. In this there is a taste of the ambitions of the Hohenzollerns, of how they felt themselves to be teetering on the edge of full-fledged power. A similar sense of being just short of superpower status would fuel Germany's ambitions for the first half of the 20th century.

There is no hint of this unease in the pale yellow palace with the red-tiled roof and the delicate green copper cupola that today sits in the wealthy west Berlin neighborhood of Charlottenburg. Two stories high, with stately windows front and center and two long wings that frame a central court, the schloss asserts the rightfulness of dynastic rule in a graceful yet imperious way. It is at once dainty and unquestionably royal—and indeed Frederick's purpose in building it was to express both those things, to convey a message of entitlement or decorous intimidation, depending on who you were.

There are large ceremonial rooms in the schloss, but much of it is intimate in scale. Off a long corridor, small beautiful rooms are laid out one after the other, in a French formation called an enfilade. On the other side of the corridor, windows look onto the extensive gardens that lie behind the schloss—disappearing into mist on the day I visited. Nevertheless, a feeling of claustrophobia began to set in as our guide led us from room to exquisite room. Each was a creation in which every inch worked to enrich: ceilings were painted with allegorical scenes, walls covered in patterned damask; a fireplace was lined with Delft tiles, a room entirely encrusted with displays of Chinese porcelain. Not a chink was left through which a reality other than that of Hohenzollern supremacy might shine. Was it my imagination or can you really feel the straining?

The Hohenzollerns felt inferior in every way to their cousins who ruled England and France, but what was most hurtful, perhaps, was the knowledge that the rest of Europe regarded Prussia as a realm on the outskirts of civilization. The obsessiveness of the emphasis on culture and refinement in the schloss conveys a fear of cultural inferiority.

Frederick II, who ruled during the latter half of the 18th century, had sterner ideas of royal grandeur than his grandfather and constructed a group of buildings, the Frederick Forum (Forum Fridericianum), on Unter den Linden that he hoped would turn the boulevard into Berlin's equivalent of the Champs-Élysées. He steadily expanded Hohenzollern territory to include long-coveted East Prussia (the Polish part) and Silesia. Of the Polish provinces he said that he would eat them "like an artichoke, leaf by leaf." Frederick II hoped to turn Berlin into a French city. He wrote histories of Germany in French, and French poetry that he submitted to his friend Voltairefor correction, though his verses did little to change Voltaire's opinion of Prussia as a place of horses and soldiers.

The Frederick Forum included the first freestanding opera house in Europe, since rebuilt many times; a small cathedral, St. Hedwig's, erected for Berlin's Catholics; a massive palace that is now part of Humboldt University; and a royal library that later came to serve as the university's. And it is in front of the library that the memories of imperial and Nazi pasts overlap: there, books culled from all over Germany were fed into a large bonfire in 1933 because they were deemed "un-German." A memorial marking the Nazi book-burning was installed in 1995 in the Bebelplatz, the semi-enclosed space formed by the library, the cathedral, and the opera house. The memorial took the form of a room lined with empty bookshelves, set beneath ground level, to be looked into through panes of glass beneath one's feet.

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