Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

until the last days of the Weimar Republic. Another wasteland was then created by the same forces that razed Pariser Platz.

Following reunification, this vast tract of empty space (60 hectares) became a unique opportunity for Berlin to reconnect the two halves of the city and provide accommodation for a wide range of uses.

A masterplan by Hilmer & Sattler, selected in competition very soon after the Wall came down, set out new streets and building plots. Driven by multiple road intersections, these plots were primarily wedge-shaped. Individual investment groups were then sold parcels of land, and between 1993 and 2000 a new city quarter duly arose from what was considered Europe’s largest building site. The results are absorbing.

Approaching from the city centre, one is immediately struck by three towers forming a gateway to the area, a new Potsdamer Gate as it were. To the right, the curved glass facade of the semi-circular Bahn Tower; to its left, the jagged brick cliff of Potsdamer Platz 1; to the left of that, the razor-sharp blade of Potsdamer Platz 11 with its ochre ceramic cladding stretching far into the distance behind a glazed leading edge. Coming into view later at the rear of the site is a fourth tower, topped by a stylised green cube.

Bahn Tower (the English is used) holds the offices of Deutsche Bahn railways. It is part of the Sony Centre, a corporate headquarters and contemporary film complex that includes a museum and IMAX cinema. The whole was designed by Helmut Jahn. An eccentric (in both senses) tented glass roof towers above an elliptical public space, which contains preserved fragments of rooms from the venerated Hotel Esplanade at ground level. Sandwiched between protective glass shells and rearranged as eating places and as displays, it’s an odd junction with the past that feels gimmicky.

The other towers, each far more innovative and effective than that of Deutsche Bahn, rise from the DaimlerChrysler estate, which fills the largest portion of the Potsdamer Platz site. Nineteen separate buildings were contracted to various architects including Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano, his former collaborator at the Pompidou Centre in Paris.

It is, though, Hans Kollhoff who designed the extraordinary Potsdamer Platz 1.

A V-shaped base fills its site, rising evenly for eight stories or so before stepping up towards the apex. A tower is then extruded from the front third of the plot to the building’s full 25-storey, 103-metre height. Its pinnacle, nicely asymmetric, diminishes in gentle steps and ends in a delicate pergola that forms a two-stage, open-air public viewing terrace. Other than the polished grey granite used for the lowest three stories, Potsdamer Platz 1 is faced entirely in reddish-brown, peat-fired clinker bricks, hand-set on a reinforced concrete frame.

The exterior is treated slightly differently at each stage of the building’s rise. The first has continuous spandrel panels running the entire length of the facade, emphasising horizontality closest to the busy Potsdamer Strasse. The second recesses the spandrel panels to allow the vertical piers to dominate. This guides the eye to the tower, where in a subtle move the secondary piers are now brought forward as well, further stressing the verticality introduced below.

On the roof terrace, attention to detail is revealed in the careful arrangement of pillars and beams in the pergola, the gold-anodised metal capping of the vertical brick piers to form an Art Deco-style crown, the perforated brick screens over air conditioning vents and even the dark mortar courses that enhance the brick.

This combination of a very specific massing and a particular finishing material renders the building immediately striking but also brings to mind the classic inter-war American skyscraper, a resemblance continued in the lobby with its upside down wedding cake light fittings and illuminated wall-mounted tenant directory. Such precedents are in fact an avowed influence for Kollhoff for the Potsdamer project, and although no individual examples are cited it is possible to see reflections of, say, Raymond Hood’s American Radiator Building or Ralph Walker’s Barclay-Vesey Building, both in New York.

But the deployment of brick in this way is also a clear acknowledgement of German Expressionism, most famously embodied in Fritz Höger’s Chilehaus, Hamburg (1922-24) which actually used the very same type of brick as Kollhoff employs here. Additional links can be made to Gothic churches and the filmic landscape of Fritz Lang’s groundbreaking Metropolis. 

It is a tremendously intelligent articulation of a facade, through sensitive use of a material whose time appears to have passed elsewhere but whose relevance to Germany and German architecture has been acknowledged respectfully and meaningfully for a new era.

Notwithstanding these intentional nods across time and space, the result succeeds on its own merits. The outline changes as one circles, and even from the ground the natural variation and tactility of the brick surface is apparent and delightful. It is this quality, intelligence and informed reference to national heritage that raises Potsdamer Platz 1 to a great height.

The third tower is the acutely angled forward end – perhaps the prow – of the DaimlerChrysler complex. A mix of glass and terracotta sheathes this block, from Renzo Piano. It introduces further buildings by Piano and Richard Rogers.

Of the latter’s work Linkstrasse 2–4, a neighbouring pair of office blocks, each a mirror image of the other, is the most impressive. As ever with Rogers, a dynamic counterpoint of geometric forms and colours characterises these buildings.

Essentially otherwise conventional offices with an atrium, at one corner a piece of each floor has been bitten away to create a cascade of terraces. A cylindrical stack of function rooms nestles within the gap. Both overlook the new Tilla-Durieux Park, a linear grassed embankment running through the south east of the site. Inside, escalators leading up to the lift lobby are set diagonally on plan, continuing the axis set by the massing and recalling Kevin Roche’s Ford Foundation, New York. Office floors are clad with terracotta and the cylinder features vertical sun shades of bright yellow, a colour picked up in more conventional blinds elsewhere on the facade.

Zesty and stylish, highly precise components meticulously arranged are the signature here, revealed in the superb staircases and elevational detail on the side returns.

To the rear of the DaimlerChrysler site lies Piano’s very long and very fine Eichhornstrasse 3, with a slender tower of its own. Originally built for Debis, DaimlerChrysler’s fleet management and financial services subsidiary, a three dimensional version of its logo tops this, the tallest tower in the Potsdamer Platz development and actually a ventilation flue for the traffic tunnel beneath.

The immensity of the building is diffused by its being broken into four parts. All are clad in matte ceramic panelling in an attractive sandy hue, engineered as a series of delicate screens. The general avoidance of glass as a skin is a notable feature of much of Berlin’s emerging architecture, something to be admired in a city trying to advance into the future whilst maintaining its identity.

The taller part of Eichhornstrasse 3 is also split into several vertical volumes like books left ragged on a shelf, including two dramatic, projecting, glass-clad stairways.

There is a double facade which is deep enough to walk through, being divided by maintenance balconies. The outer leaf has openable windows, another pervasive feature in the city today. Louvres between the two layers work automatically but have a manual override. A large internal street, 82 metres by 14 metres, seven stories high and with a glazed roof, runs the entire length of the block. Its interior faces are clad with the same ceramic, producing a monumental effect somewhat reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s long-demolished but much-admired Larkin Building (1904-06).

Where the block helps terminates the Potsdamer Platz development to the south at the junction with the Reichpietschufer dual carriageway, a design cue is taken from the Lanwehrkanal running nearby. A restful pool, planted with reed beds and spanned by stepping stones, is a positive piece of public realm creation allowing pleasant passage through the site. The pool continues inside the building.

Despite its size, Eichhornstrasse 3 is quiet, calm and restrained. The brilliant ceramic cladding is as fascinating to explore visually and to touch as the clinker brick on Potsdamer Platz 1, and its resemblance to brick from afar combined with the cube-capped tower prompts thoughts of a likely further influence, namely Dudok’s Hilversum Town Hall of 1930.

The remaining architecture of Potsdamer Platz is disappointing, with a smart enough but hardly daring covered shopping mall running through the DaimlerChrysler sector and the dull Beisheim Center hotel blocks opposite the three towers. Most depressingly, the piazza at the heart of the Platz onto which the underground railway station entrances open is as bleak as the area was before 1989, with not a single bench, planter or other relief from the paving and the noise.

Nevertheless, there is undoubtedly enough to admire to congratulate Berlin for not erecting another series of bland glass boxes, and for reconnecting with its past in some measure and some style.

All of the sites examined so far lie in what became, after 1949, West Berlin. This, along with construction of the Berlin Wall overnight on 12/13 August 1961, represented the most profound change for Berliners, a change that would be endured for forty years.

The city was not just partitioned; its western half was enclosed, surrounded by what the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (German Democratic Republic, GDR) termed an ‘anti-fascist barrier’ but which was in truth a desperate measure to halt the flight of GDR citizens to the west-aligned nations.

Before exploring the architecture of the East and its impact on the present, some mention should be made of the architecture of the Wall.

That initial division was accomplished merely by barbed wire and a military presence. Basic concrete blockwork, rapidly laid, very soon replaced this. Where buildings sat on the border, every window and door toward the West was bricked up. Tenants were later evicted and the buildings demolished as the Wall was developed into a depopulated zone rather than a simple barrier.

Four generations of Wall have been identified, each more substantial than the last. By the late 1970s, it comprised 140 kilometres of pre-cast reinforced concrete sections nearly four metres high capped with concrete pipe to eliminate hand-holds. But this, the only aspect of the Wall usually seen by television cameras, was actually the last barrier to be passed by potential escapees from the East.

Behind this outer wall or fore-barrier was the control or death strip. Tens of metres wide in places and mercilessly floodlit at night, it was a sterile expanse of sand or raked gravel to slow and show witness to any escape attempt. Dogs ran through this corridor which was interrupted only by watchtowers and vehicle patrols, both manned by armed guards with orders to shoot to stop. Next came the signal fence, wired with silent alarms. Finally there was the hinterland barrier, a concrete panel wall that was actually the first line of defence and the only one visible by those in the East.

The Berlin Wall imposed the purposeful, emotionless architecture of the military base onto a peacetime city at a time of Coca Cola, rock and roll and The Beatles. It severed 300 streets, created 100 cul-de-sacs, split villas from their lakeside settings, brought about a dozen ghost stations on the railways where trains never stopped and forced apart couples, families and friends alike.

One day it will be as remote as the Roman age. It has already passed from direct memory by a generation. But today its remains – now, fittingly, stranded amidst a thriving European city – are preserved and interpreted just as those of the Romans, most soberingly at the Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer (Berlin Wall Memorial) to the north of the city centre. Here, along Bernauer Strasse, a 1.4 kilometre stretch of the Wall’s path can be walked and remnants of several generations of inner and outer walls examined. Rusted fragments of lights and electrical fittings have been excavated, along with the pavement and kerbs of cross streets buried by the Wall’s remorseless passage. The gable ends of terraces in those cross streets, exposed by demolition, still loom above the cleared area.

Bernauer Strasse is the only street to remain split by the Wall. Its true impact on the communities it passed through can be gauged by ascending an observation tower that gives a view over a substantial length of Wall restored to its penultimate condition. Outer barrier, inner, control strip and watchtower are all present. Its implacability can be seen in the story of the progressive destruction of the pretty Sophien Versohnungskirche or Church of Reconciliation whose churchyard abutted Bernauer Strasse. Graves were dug up, the church demolished and its steeple, finally, blown up less than four years before the Wall came down. A memorial building by Peter Sassenroth and Rudolf Reitermann opened in 2000.

With Berlin divided politically and culturally, a strange battle began on both sides of the Wall, with architecture replacing arms.

At the opposite end of Unter Den Linden lay Museumsinsel, now marooned in East Berlin. Built between 1830 and 1930 to house finds from ancient lands, sculpture and paintings, its five museums had been heavily damaged in the war, but as the city’s main cultural institutions their value was recognised even by the GDR and some repairs were carried out. The wonderfully baroque Berliner Schloss, however, standing opposite Schinkel’s severe, classical Altes Museum,

  ...contd

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