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Berlin Rebuilt

Few physical traces remain of the brief period of constitutional democracy before Hitler came to power—the Weimar Republic—that gave birth to its own style of architecture, produced by the Bauhaus. The Bauhaus was primarily an educational institution and, with the Nazi ascendancy, did not last long (most of its practitioners fled to America). Consequently not much was actually built in that style in Berlin: parts of several underground stations and a low-cost housing block. Two impressive examples of Bauhaus design went up much later: the Neue Nationalgalerie, by Mies van der Rohe, and Philharmonic Hall, by Hans Scharoun, both built in the sixties. (So many cultural institutions ended up in East Berlin that West Berlin was obliged to reproduce them, making reunified Berlin a strangely duplicated city—two city halls, two national museums, two symphony halls, and so on.) Mies's museum and Scharoun's hall are near each other, in the area known as the Kulturforum, the museum a single story aboveground, steel-framed and with glass on all sides, and the hall a multi-sided shape that has the look of a Cubist ship on the high seas; inside, it is like a marvelous gourd of sound. These buildings project a mood of lightness, a happy world that does not look back, a posture that proved to be unsustainable for Germany, and indeed for the rest of the West.

Hitler had a vision of building Berlin as "Germania," but not much of this vision came to be. An exception was Göring's Air Ministry, on the busy corner of Wilhelmstrasse and Leipzigstrasse, in the former East Berlin; it now houses the Ministry of Finance. Designed by Ernst Sagebiel in the stripped-down, traditionalist style favored by the Nazis, today it memorializes a more recent history. A Socialist mural—sheaves of wheat and singing youths—still embellishes one side of the building; affixed to the other side, high up, are blowups of a demonstration against the East German government that took place in 1953. The photographs are easily visible as you drive down Wilhelmstrasse. From the sidewalk you can look through stately second-floor windows into one of the ceremonial halls in which Göring received visitors.

The imprint of Stalinist planning on the city is most visible on Alexanderplatz. When Berlin was divided, Alexanderplatz, previously insignificant, became the center of the Eastern side. I was shown around the area by Norbert König, a young art historian specializing in architecture who had grown up in East Berlin. He explained to me that where Western eyes see façades, Socialist eyes see buildings arranged in symbolic ways. Indeed everything about Alexanderplatz and its environs was freighted with meaning—the department store at which few in the past could afford to shop, the office building that housed the sole travel agency in East Germany (not far from the wall that was built to keep people in), the Haus der Elektroindustrie (House of Industry), the international hotel that saw few customers, the television tower. These were built in the sixties in the Internationalist Style previously rejected by the regime as corrupt but finally adopted out of budgetary necessity. The problem the Communists faced was how to make modern architecture symbolic. They solved this in various ways. The Teacher's Union, the first building to go up on Alexanderplatz in this period, was decorated with a Socialist mural.In the case of the House of Industry, passages from Berlin Alexanderplatz, a novel by Alfred Döblin that was critical of capitalism, were printed on the façade.

Leading into the Platz is a very wide avenue called Karl-Marx-Allee, designed for parades celebrating Socialism and lined with Modernist housing blocks that are spaced to dramatic effect. Toward the bottom of the avenue, the apartment buildings have a functionalist, traditional style similar to that of the Nazi era. They look more comfortable, more ample, but they were expensive to build, and when Khrushchev came to power in the late fifties he immediately ordered that a form of mass-produced housing be developed. That meant modern design. The system changed overnight.

Once the showpiece of East Berlin, the avenue is now in decline. For though the ensemble is grand in its way, the layout is not suitable to capitalistic enterprise. The Allee is too wide, and the buildings too far apart, for businesses to flourish. It's an extraordinary monument to a regime that compiled secret files on one-third of its citizens: another painful aspect of German history.

Formerly the commercial heart of the city, the Potsdamer Platz was divided by the Wall, and consequently became a wasteland. Rebuilding it, therefore, entailed creating a showplace for capitalism—the most extensive project to be completed in Berlin since reunification; one that has been much written about: photos of the forest of cranes went around the world in the nineties. The two principal "pioneers" at Potsdamer were DaimlerChrysler and Sony, both of which erected large complexes. Much of DaimlerChrysler's was designed by the celebrated contemporary architect Renzo Piano. The complex includes an office building with an airy atrium and a shopping arcade, and behind it there is a casino. In the Sony building, there is a striking space, glass-walled and sheltered by sail-like elements arranged in a circle. All this is fun, embracing the trend of architecture-as-entertainment, but not especially distinguished. The adjective that comes to mind is glitzy; the noun, mall. In other words, in the new Potsdamer Platz, physical emptiness has been replaced by a kind of cultural emptiness. We may feel condescending toward the Karl-Marx-Allee, but Potsdamer raises the question, Is this all we've got?

Well, it's not all, but to know that definitively you have to leave Potsdamer for the quieter district of Kreuzberg. There you can find the Jewish Museum, designed by Daniel Libeskind—author of the plan for Ground Zero, it just so happens. The Jewish Museum is symbolic without empty staginess; fulfilling in a spiritual sense while serving a practical purpose; difficult in its creativity—everything that the easy, consumer-friendly Potsdamer Platz is not: in short, it's a masterpiece.

With a zigzagging, lightning-like footprint, with zinc and titanium walls in which narrow windows are cut at unexpected angles and in unexpected shapes that, like the footprint itself, seem to be almost a kind of writing, with an interior where the floor sometimes slants and corridors end in bluntly expressive cul-de-sacs, and with a sunken garden accessible only from the interior, this building is symbolic in every respect. The garden is impressive from a distance as well as from within: willow oaks are encased in concrete planters so tall that only the tops of the trees peek out. The planters are set in rows well below ground level so that from outside you see just a portion of them, with the treetops bursting out, the ground tilting one way while the planters themselves tilt, in unison, in another. The garden does not so much express feelings as set in motion a mixture of hope and sorrow, loss and joy. And a part of that joy is the knowledge that in our Western culture, artistry can still be a match for history, that aesthetics can still provide a language for the collective experience of our time.


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