Sat, Nov 22, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Grand hopes unrealized, as post-wall Berlin takes its own path

Despite many people believing the world would become a better place after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the progress, or lack of progress, since 1989 paints a different picture

By Michael Kimmelman  /  NY Times News Service, BERLIN

Illustration: Kevin Sheu

Not far from the Brandenburg Gate, Potsdamer Platz was a no-man’s-land during the Cold War. Then the Berlin Wall fell, and the German authorities made it a petting zoo for celebrity architecture. The corporate headquarters of Germany’s new global swagger.

However, the ambitions for Potsdamer Platz, like the hopes and fears about a united Germany, turned out differently. The architecture was not so great. Many companies fled. Berliners and newcomers alike preferred the dingy, more atmospheric quarters of the old former East. “Poor, but sexy” became the city slogan.

“Twenty-five years ago, there was the expectation that a reunified Berlin would become the economic engine of the new Germany, a great metropolis,” said Peter Schneider, a novelist and the author of Berlin Now.

“There was even talk of 10 million inhabitants,” he said. “Instead of going up, the population dropped.”

A friend recently took me to where he lived in East Berlin before the wall fell. He still sees the wall in his mind every day, he told me, when he drives across the city. Yet he could not find where it had blocked off the street just yards from his old apartment. Almost all traces of it are gone now, obliterated in the rush to wipe clean the historical slate.

Few Germans thought about preserving significant parts of the wall in 1989, as a cautionary tale. Today, many Berliners regret the haste with which it was demolished and sold in bits and pieces.

“It’s horrible, how we deleted it,” said Simon Schaefer, who runs Factory, a Berlin incubator for startups, which recently opened in a refurbished brewery from which East German border guards used to survey a strip of the wall.

West Berlin chauvinism, lording it over the humiliated East, hastened the destruction of many East Germany landmarks that, also unpredictably, are now prized as architecturally significant and historically irreplaceable.

“East Germany had its own aesthetic, its own history,” Schaefer said.

It was that same urge to wipe clean the past and settle scores that caused Berlin to undertake another grand architectural folly: tearing down, at insane cost, the modernist, bronzed glass Palace of the Republic — which East Germany built to replace the kaiser’s Schloss it tore down in the heart of the city — and erect an imitation of the old Schloss.

The absence of the wall is a handy metaphor for a world whose divisions, religious and cultural, are everywhere and often invisible. At the same time, the wall’s destruction created a new range of urban possibilities. It left vast empty spaces that have turned out to be civic boons in ways politicians and planners 25 years ago did not foresee, just as it freed citizens from the constraints of oppression to explore ambition and opportunity.

The emptiness attracted a new generation. It provided space to dream up clubs in bunkers, galleries in old department stores. Berlin was unfinished, like this generation, which pioneered ad hoc, improvisatory, piecemeal development.

For some of the same reasons that big corporations fled the city — inept government, lack of infrastructure, Detroit-size debts and “the fact that there still is not a Whole Foods where you can choose six different types of bananas,” as Schaefer said half-jokingly — Berlin suited a post-wall, urban-minded, DIY generation.

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