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Berlin: Potsdam Square Messed Up

The abolishment of the East-West Border has created a unique chance for city-planners to realise their concept of a both European and modern city on huge streches of land with no previous purpose. We can observe such an exemplary lost opportunity at Potsdam Square in Berlin.

City-researchers from Paris to Warsaw and from London to Palermo have now for several years been pleading for the return of the “European city”. This effort is directed against the “American city”, which means an agglomeration of suburban settlements penetrating the landscape along the highways. The prototype of a city extended in this way is Los Angeles. Cities are widening in Europe as well – without an increase in the number of inhabitants. Middle-class families are fleeing the city centres and building their family houses in a circle around state-subsidized dwellings; retail traders are building giant shopping-malls on both sides of the most important access roads on cheaper suburban land. European city-researchers are trying to oppose the old characteristics of European cities – closed concept, dominating centre, high spatial and social density, intricate structure, long history – to this overextension of cities called sprawl.

The discussion about the “European city” is not only multilayered, but also entangled. Here we shall try to untangle some threads that in contemporary city construction, concerning a city’s history, almost always get bound up wrongly. As an exemplary case, I have chosen the recent reconstruction of the Potsdam Square in Berlin, the most important European city-development single project of the last decade. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, a unique opportunity emerged: a centre of a big city could be planned anew, without much demolition and relocation. The new structuring of the Potsdam Square should show everybody the future direction of city-development in Europe.

In July of 1990, the West-Berlin Senate and the East-Berlin Magistrate reached a common decision to sell a 60 000 sqm property, situated shortly before at the Wall between the State Library, Landwehrkanal and the former Potsdam Square, to Daimler-Benz-Interservices (debis). This agency for services was newly founded by the today’s Daimler Chrysler Inc., specialising in the domains electronic data processing and marketing. In September the sale was confirmed by the City Parliament of Berlin, with three Alternative List’s opposing votes and thirty East Berlin abstentions.

At the end of the year 1991, the City Development and Environment Protection Department, in concordance with the Daimler combine, started a city-development competition for the area on the former Potsdam Square. Apart from the debis property, the biggest one, the area which was to be covered by planning included also a piece of land situated on its east side, shortly afterwards purchased by the Japanese electronics company Sony, which wanted to build its European headquarters there, as well as the lots adjoining its southern border, today owned by the trade company Hertie and the combine A+T (Asea Brown Boveri and Terreno). Architects got the task to create an overall city-planning concept for this new block, covering approximately 100 football fields. They also had to build this area into the city structure, make the development of a “capital city centre” possible and counteract the formation of a city mono structure, which means the formation of a pure office city within the city. The few historical architectural remnants in the area, the wine-house Huth and a part of the Esplanade hotel, had to be preserved. That means that the political agenda obviously resorted to formulas pleading for the “European city”: the creation of a new centre of Berlin, closed, dense building, many closely bundled functions and a reference to local history.

The competition winners, the architects Hilmer and Sattler from Munich, followed the instructions of the Senate’s Department very precisely. In their concept the street pattern is as much as possible a copy of the old floor plan, their buildings correspond the old Berlin block-structure in both their form and positioning, which means that they are big, massive and closely aligned, forming a street. The investors at Potsdam Square accepted Hilmer’s and Sattler’s concept only after considerable modifications, i.e. the increase of the buildings’ height in the first place.

The architects Renzo Piano and Christoph Kohlbecker from Gaggenau won a contest for architectural design of the debis lot, announced in March 1992. After that, the winners worked out a master plan, in which, according to the investor’s wishes, they integrated a four-floor, glass-covered shopping passage in the northern part of the lot: the Potsdam Square Arcades. In December 1993, the architects supplied all the necessary documentation, on the 24th of March 1994 the Senate voted in favour of the final plans for debis’s construction enterprise. In the autumn of the same year, the construction work began. In October of 1998 the debis-City was opened, two years later followed the Sony-Centre. If one had looked into the red information box (put away at the beginning of 2001) and seen the Berlin’s Senate and the investors’ propaganda for the new look of the Potsdam Square, accompanying the construction work, one might have got the impression that the debis-City and the Sony-Center were the ultimate aim of history at that place. But what is the real history of the Potsdam Square?

Countless histories and events, of public and private nature, overlap on Potsdam Square. Some of them had a rather political importance, some rather economic, many had just a regional impact, but some also affected the whole world. In the 18th century, the Potsdam Square of today was just a diverging road at the Potsdam Gate in the city wall. With the opening of the Potsdam Railway Station in the year 1838, south of the Square, the importance of the Potsdam and Leipzig Squares increased, because they acted as the entrance into the city. The consequence of this first Prussian railway line was a dramatic increase in the number of incoming passengers at the Potsdam Gate. The railway revolutionised migration; every year, it transported more and more field workers to Berlin, whose luggage were many dreams of freedom and well-being and little else. The revolution attempt, staged among other places also at the Potsdam Gate, failed in 1848.

In 1871, Berlin became the capital of the new German Reich. The seat of the government was established in the nearby Wilhelmstrasse, which also affected the Potsdam and Leipzig Squares, where luxury hotels and noble restaurants were built. This area developed subsequently into a lively consumer quarter of utmost importance for the city. During the early 20th century, the Potsdam Square again became a place of political action. On the 1st of May 1916, Karl Liebknecht held an important peace speech in front of the Potsdam Railway Station – “Stop the war, down with the government!” –after which the police serving that same government put him in prison. On the 11th of January 1919, volunteer troopers under the command of people’s social-democratic representative Gustav Noske, fired at rebelling Spartacus fighters at the crossroads. Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were killed by the volunteer troopers on the 15th of January. Their dead bodies were found in the Landwehrkanal, not far from the today’s debis-headquarters.

During the twenties, Potsdam Square developed into the genius loci of that time’s spirit of progress. It was considered the epitome of modernism and the biggest traffic knot in the world. The first traffic light on the European continent was put into use there. Numerous city-planners and architects wanted to give a profile to the pace at Potsdam Square, to make space for moving people and machines and to reconstruct Berlin into a technically organised artistic entity. The social democrat Martin Wagner, a city-developer and from 1926 to 1933 head of the City Development Department, became a key figure of that striving. He wanted to turn Berlin into a worldly exhibition city. In the year 1928, Wagner presented a plan for a new shape of the Potsdam Square, in which the belief in progress and technicism of the Weimar Republic were tied together in a concentrated and plastic form. Wagner wanted to unite the Potsdam Square and the neighbouring Leipzig Square und construct a three-storey traffic carousel there. Wagner’s project did not see its realisation, as well as many other alternative proposals for the reconstruction of the square.

However, in 1932, a single project was realised: the “Columbushaus” by Eric Mendelsohn, which reached the status of a symbol of technical modernity. It was a functional building, open for as many uses as possible. After the national-socialists seized power, the SS moved into the building and used it as a central “facility for protective custody”. There were regularly 300 to 400 prisoners and it was possibly the worst of the Berlin’s torture prisons.

Since 1935, on the today’s debis-land, there has been a justice palace. Under the president Roland Freisler about 13000 people in all were sentenced to death. In February 1945, the building was totally destroyed in bomber attack and Freisler was killed. Until the 1st of May 1945, German soldiers fought at the Potsdam Square, on the last barricade in front of Hitler’s headquarters. In the middle of smoking debris stood one of the last functioning tanks of the Waffen-SS, pointed against the Red Army. On the 2nd of May 1945, a deputation of the national-socialist leadership initiated the process of capitulation at the Potsdam Bridge.

Some buildings at the Potsdam Square were destroyed during the war; many were seriously damaged, but not so heavily that they would have been removed. The “Columbushaus” was, for example, burnt down, but lower storeys were provisionally soon put into use again. Because the border between the West end the East Sector was drawn across the Potsdam Square, the administration of East Berlin tore down the “Columbushaus” as well as other buildings protruding into the West.

This decision was a result of a military plan, the aim of which was a final division of the city. In the night from the 12th to the 13th of August 1961, soldiers of the National People’s Army of the GDR began to build the Berlin Wall at the Potsdam Square. The Senate of West Berlin also decided that the remaining buildings should be torn down and it reserved the waste ground for the future government seat of a reunited Germany. After that, until November 1989, the Potsdam Square lay deserted in a corner set off from both halves of the city.

The question how we should treat the real history of the Potsdam Square, played no part in the political decision-making process of its new construction after 1989. The critical public opinion outside the Parliament, which in Berlin at first fiercely pleaded against selling the land to private investors and afterwards against the present architectural layout, was systematically ignored by the Berlin Senate, construction management and the architects involved. Instead, they started a debate about the “European city”, without taking into consideration just one of the more competent contributions to the discussion. They reached the conclusion that Berlin was the centre of Europe, which should be expressed by selling out an important symbolic place of Europe’s last 200 years history to the capital as quickly as possible and by obliging it not to overreach the formal expression of the 19th century in the architectural concept.

Reluctantly, the construction management had to accept even the attractive Sony Palace by the architect Helmut Jahn, with a transparent tent-roof over an inner plaza. In that way, on Potsdam Square now stands an architectural ensemble, symbolising a repelling political Utopia: the vision of a social machine carried forward by the technical spirit of progress, whose one side is wrapped into formally strict stone facades and the other into playful, glass ones. This monster was built into the sand of the Mark province as a result of the so-called public-private-partnership: a tight collaboration between the capital and the Berlin administration in an enterprise that should actually have been public.

How could and should European cities be developed in future? This question can publicly be discussed consequently only then, when two of the biggest obstacles are out of the way: first, private ownership of land, with construction industry and construction managements bureaucratically organised and second, the wrong assumption that European cities could be understood independently and developed in that sense.

To understand their history and include it into planning and construction, it is absolutely necessary to acquire awareness of the history of important places, which gain symbolic importance through actual events that happened there. On the other hand, European cities would certainly benefit if their creators would occasionally visit other continents, so that they could change their perspective, instead of only abstractly detaching themselves from “americanism” in city-building. If they once asked themselves in North America the question which Jean Baudrillard asked himself in his “America”-book – “How can one, for everything in the world, only be a European?” – maybe they would begin to understand that European cities the more remain captured in their history the more it is denied. Such a denial can be seen at Potsdam Square.

(Published in: Die Wochenzeitung (Zurich), 14th of June, 2001, p. 24)


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