Over the last twelve years [between 1990 and 2002], Berlin has experienced a second period of expansion, similar to that of the Gründerzeit. This term refers to the period after the Franco-Prussian war of 1870–71, which ended with the proclamation of the German Empire in Versailles. During the Gründerzeit one of the direct consequences of the reparations levied on France was a huge economic boom in Berlin, where the population was already beginning to swell dramatically as people deserted the countryside. This great wave of expansion was given further impetus by land and property speculation. The population of Berlin rose from approximately 800,000 in 1871 to approximately 2 million by 1912 and then to 4.5 million by around 1930, although this increase was not exclusively due to the influx of people; it was also a statistical artefact caused by the incorporation of neighbouring towns. Furthermore, at this time Berlin (like the rest of Germany) was in the midst of industrialisation. Numerous companies like AEG, Siemens and Osram were expanding in the empire’s new capital. Berliners saw the city grow block by block. This was the time of the so-called “millionaire builders”, who erected five-storey tenement blocks on the fields at the ever-advancing edge of the city. The street and railway networks were extended and the main representative buildings necessary for government were soon under construction. In 1872, planning for the parliament building, the Reichstag, began, although its construction was not finished until the 1890s.

If the current period of expansion is compared with the Gründerzeit, it is the similarities that stand out first. Since 1989, the whole of Berlin’s local and long-distance rail network (including numerous stations for the underground and city lines) has been renovated and modernised, a new road and rail tunnel has been driven under the central park, the Tiergarten, and a new central railway station is under construction. Around 19 million sq.m. of new office space, 16 million sq.m. of retail space and 145,000 new residential units have been built in the city, with a further 100,000 or so in its immediate surroundings. The total sum invested in the reconstruction of the capital between 1990 and 2000 amounted to 250–300 billion DM, equivalent to as much as 150 billion euros, or 15 billion euros annually over that period.

Just as with the expansion of the 1870s, rapid growth in construction was accompanied by dramatic speculation and severe losses. In contrast to the Gründerjahre, however, today’s expansion is characterised by stagnating population growth – and even, in the inner-city, by depopulation. At current estimates, the area of Greater Berlin has a population of around three million. Of its once-flourishing industry, only a small part remains: Berlin is in the process of becoming a service industry centre. It is said to have more service sector jobs on offer than any other city in Germany, although unemployment is hovering at around 15% – a figure not uncommon for the eastern parts of the country.

The foundation of the German Empire in 1871 took place in a wave of nationalist euphoria following the Battle of Sedan, whereas the reunification of Germany in 1990 and the transfer of its seat of government to Berlin were de facto the last building block in the reconstruction of Germany after the self-inflicted catastrophe of the Second World War. The triumph of the so-called “quiet revolution” of 1989 and the toppling of the unjust regime in the former GDR went hand-in-hand with the reawakening of a series of national and international issues that had slumbered since the war, among them the obvious question of German identity.

At the time the Wall fell, West Berlin’s urban planning policy had just reached a stage at which the repair (in contrast to the “rehabilitation”) of the existing city had become an official topic. A strategy known as “critical reconstruction” was adopted. Be that as it may, the authorities carefully distanced themselves from the idea of a unified city plan for both the eastern and western halves of Berlin (which up to that point had been something of a sacred cow). The doctrine of two centres, referring to the Kurfürstendamm in the west and Alexanderplatz in the east, was the first indication of a certain degree of acceptance that the city’s state was a divided one. Furthermore, the architectural scene in West Berlin considered itself to be the laboratory of Europe: since the 1950s it had been customary to invite the world’s avant-garde to Berlin to join in the discussion about the future of the city.

In 1989, this laboratory was offered the largest and most exciting experiment that could possibly have been conceived: the reunification of a city that had been divided by the border between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, between capitalism and socialism. In the middle of a busy, functioning European metropolis, huge tracts of open land became available for building upon: sites that required entirely novel solutions. The moment that offered the greatest possible potential was met, however, with a tragic lack of imaginative ability.

As is generally known, the principle of critical reconstruction was essentially shorn of its ever so important adjective. The inner-city, in particular, became increasingly subject to the powerful influence of a building policy that (in its approach not only to urban planning, but also to architecture) insisted on reference to historical patterns as its only clearly articulated criterion of quality.

The official reasons given for this strategy were twofold: firstly, that it was necessary to repair not only the damage caused by the Second World War, but also that caused by the planners during reconstruction (the latter apparently a delayed day of reckoning by the children of the 1960s with their parents) and secondly, that it was not just single buildings, but the city as a whole that needed to be rebuilt. In the mind of the Director of Urban Planning in the Berlin Senate, Hans Stimmann, who had had the final say on such matters for almost the whole of this period, it did “not need to be reinvented”. On the contrary, according to this interpretation, it was the spirit of innovation that had destroyed the city during the 1950s and 1960s.

This climate of hostility towards experimentation led to the inner city being reconstructed in a manner (fairly mediocre from the architectural point of view) that more or less provided what was wanted: a relatively homogeneous urban scene, which at first sight suggested that the history of this city must have continued without interruption since the foundation of the German Empire, when the “Berlin of stone” (as Werner Hegemann critically termed it) was built, with its blocks and streets, its tenement courtyards and its height limit of 22 metres to the eaves.

The obvious ruptures in German history since that time are acknowledged in the form of single, symbolic buildings. One of the largest and most prestigious plots at the heart of the city was made available for what is loosely known as the Holocaust memorial – an attempt, as it were, to lay the ghosts of the Third Reich to rest once and for all. Fewer than two hundred metres away, however, stands the building known as Liebermann House. The current bearer of this name is an imposing bank building, built in a historicist style. Nothing (apart from a commemorative plaque) indicates that the former owner of the previous building on this site, the painter Max Liebermann (who was also the president of the Academy of Arts, which stood just across the square), and his wife were among the Jewish members of Berlin’s upper-middle class who were hounded to their deaths. There is nothing to make clear that in the Holocaust an entire section of the population was all but anni-hilated, one which had responsibly promoted the development of society in Berlin.

By now the process of so-called “critical reconstruction” at Pariser Platz, as elsewhere in the Friedrichsstadt neighbourhood, has been concluded for the most part: the historical street pattern has been restored; the proportions of the Baroque buildings (and their 19-th century transmogrifications) have been adhered to; the architecture calls to mind its historical precursors and the ground floors are filled with shops.

And yet – what sort of city is being brought to life here? It is a city that has laboriously constructed an image of long-established “urbanity” for itself (and for the tourists), an image that implicitly tries to eliminate the discontinuity of the historical city – in other words, war and its consequences. This reconstruction is no longer the result of dynamic forces; above all else, it is a stage set that all too clearly betrays an almost desperate yearning for the “great city”.

In complete contrast to the first years after the foundation of the Empire, which looked forward to the future (albeit an uncertain one), the buildings of the last decade turn to the past in an attempt to rewrite history. What results from this is an artificial construction, an “event city” of mediocre quality. Although Berlin’s city planners, with typically German lack of humour, go about their work with the raised forefinger of do-gooders, they have ultimately produced nothing more than cosy images that are more or less satisfactory for commercial use. What has been created appears somewhat discouraging, at least to a critical observer, since it seems that only a few dare to try anything surprising, to challenge the intellect and the intelligence – there is little that hints at the unique situation that led to this new beginning, or that really makes a new mark.

Ever since the Second World War, Berlin has fed on the myth of the great city. Just as one might make do with the clothes handed down by a father or an older brother, the West Berliners, at least, tried to settle down in the city as they found it. A perpetual “frontier town” industry (supported by federal government funds) tried to keep alive the myth of a cultural and innovative metropolis and to revive some of the glamour of the Roaring Twenties. In reality, aside from a certain entitlement mentality and loud-mouthed arrogance, there was not much of substance in the city: a fact that is now finding expression at all levels.

However, the myth as such is worth hard cash, as we know from the stock market. Taking this image of a dynamic, lively metropolis that is always good for a surprise and then trying to replace it with that of a place of historical continuity (which itself is merely staged) is, in my opinion, a great mistake. There are plenty of respectable, tasteful and well-ordered cities around. The quality that characterises (or at least used to characterise) this city is summed up in Karl Scheffler’s immortal phrase “that Berlin is condemned forever to become and never to be”.

The last ten years of Berlin’s development have been exciting by virtue of the sheer quantity of development and the related logistics – and it can’t be said that nothing has been created in this city. However, in spite of the considerable investment, it has not proven possible to offer the city a future other than as the seat of government. The influx of money has slowed down and now we can see that not much is left to show for it. It only remains to hope that the collapse of the old structures of West Berlin that we are currently experiencing does not give rise to even more petty bourgeois and restrictive mindsets, but rather that the current plight will inspire the spirit of development. Thus it is to be hoped that architecture will be accorded the ability to perform the important task we know it is capable of: communication.


Paper for the 4th Potsdamer Gespräche in Moscow, first published in September 2002. Then published in Sauerbruch Hutton. Archive. Baden: Lars Müller Publishers, 2006