Georges Rouzeau - 2009-11-20
Since the fall of the Wall, Berlin is still constantly changing. While classic heritage, such as the Reichstag, has been given a new lease of life in many cases, the very best architects from the world over are coming here to give free rein to their creativity. Berlin, the eternal Bauhaus, is waiting to be (re)explored.
With good grace, the most extensive metropolis on the continent has given itself over to its favourite pastime: urban experimentation, a characteristic of a city that has always cultivated a nonconformist tradition.
From Potsdamer Platz to the embassy district, avant-garde buildings are springing up as if by magic. Even classic monuments such as the Reichstag and the Zeughaus, extended by Ieoh Ming Pei (the architect of the Pyramid of the Louvre), have been given a new lease of life.
Although Berlin has hardly any architectural homogeneity, it draws tremendous energy and creativity from its contrasts, which have for a long time been embodied by the alternative Kreuzberg district. Accordingly, the city's appeal lies as much in its collections of ancient art as in its futuristic skyscrapers, and in its historical monuments as much as in its old squats converted into galleries.
Unter den Linden
Any exploration of Berlin begins with the avenue Unter den Linden (literally "under the lime trees"), which crosses the historic centre. Over time, this broad royal avenue, created by Frederick-William in the 17th century, accumulated prestigious buildings, some of which survived the war.
The Brandenburg Gate, symbol of Berlin and of a divided and subsequently reunified Germany, majestically opens the avenue like a modern Athenian Acropolis. It is crowned by a spirited Quadriga (by Johann Gottfried Schadow) symbolising Victory, and looking towards the city in the guise of peace. Hitler, an expert at misappropriating symbols, had turned it towards the West so that no one could fail to be aware of his plans to conquer.
At the foot of the gate, Pariser Platz celebrates the taking of Paris by the armies that had joined forces against Napoleon. Since the fall of the Wall, this square - formerly considered as Berlin's "diplomatic lounge" - has been subject to an intense reconstruction campaign, which is notably evident in the new French Embassy (2002), built by Christian de Portzamparc on the historic site of the old neo-Classical palace destroyed in 1945.
Standing opposite is the very boring façade of DG Bank. But don't go by appearances! Inside, the American Frank Gehry has shattered all the rules. The atrium serves as the setting for a glass and metal structure, above which floats an enigmatic form a fish, the ideal metaphor for movement according to Gehry, creator of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. The roof is incredibly complex with its honeycomb-like mesh of steel and glass.
Next door is an eye-catching glass construction, the Akademie der Künste by Gunther Behnisch, built to replace the old academy, which was set in an 18th century palace built by Ernst von Ihne. The bright and airy atrium opens onto the cafeteria, library and bookshop, via a network of glass staircases and footbridges.
A couple of minutes away from the Brandenburg Gate, you can visit one of Berlin's most popular attractions, where from 10 o'clock in the morning there is already over an hour's wait! It is, of course, the Reichstag, which was completely renovated by Sir Norman Foster (the architect of the Millau Viaduct), who crowned the seat of the German parliament with a glass dome, reached via a spiral ramp. The view from East to West is magnificent.
At the first big crossroads, turn right into Friedrichstrasse, which has become the main shopping street of the Mitte district, the historic centre.
In the days before the First World War, the cafés, restaurants, hotels, cabarets and theatres here attracted people from every social class. This wonderful mixture disappeared under the Nazis, and street fighting destroyed the thoroughfare in 1945. Nevertheless, from numbers 165 to 167, three fine Jugendstil façades have survived; one of them, in red sandstone from 1899, is really worth a look.
Then allow yourself to be swept along by the stream of tourists and Berliners in a hurry, who are going to shop at Quartier 207, the glass Galeries Lafayette building designed by Jean Nouvel, Quartier 206, whose numerous protrusions on the façade were designed by Ieoh Ming Pei, or Quartier 205, built by the O.M. Ungers firm of architects based in Cologne. It is brilliant, stylish and dramatic, but not earth-shattering. One receptionist suggests that we return at night, when the façades are transformed by lighting effects.
At the end of the vista formed by the straight line of Friedrichstrasse, you will see a small white hut standing right in the middle of the street: this is the reconstruction of Checkpoint Charlie, the only crossing point (with Friedrichstrasse station) between the two parts of Berlin. A fake American soldier is striking a pose for photographers when an Italian tourist comes to swoon in his arms. That's the way it goes in history, from the tragic to the farcical…
Nevertheless, call into the Mauermuseum Haus am Checkpoint Charlie, a small private museum created by an association, containing a jumble of enlightening documents, notably on the extraordinary means used to flee to the West: you won't regret it. It provides an insight into the extent to which the Wall tragically governed the life of Berlin's inhabitants.
You will no doubt be glad to find more serenity and less commercialism at the Gendarmenmarkt, which is unquestionably one of the most beautiful squares in Berlin. Created entirely by Great Elector Frederick-William, the square has two twin churches, the Französischer Dom (French cathedral) and Deutscher Dom (German cathedral), which flank the magnificent Schauspielhaus (theatre) built by Schinkel in 1820.
The French Huguenots, driven out of France by the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, were the first to settle in this district, and their influence was considerable since they brought with them new trades, new dances and even new fruit and vegetables!
It really is the ideal place for a lunch break, coffee, or a siesta in a deckchair in the shade of the trees. The square even boasts a superb early 20th century public urinal with fretted ironwork, which has been freshly repainted.
Back on Unter den Linden, Bebelplatz is the centre of the Forum Fridericianum, Frederick II's great plan for the development of Berlin, which included an opera house, a new palace and a fine arts academy. The Staatsoper Unter den Linden (national opera house) was the only building to be completed according to the sovereign's plans. This elegant building, with a Corinthian portico, was built between 1741 and 1743 by the architect Knobelsdorff, and constitutes the first example of a freestanding concert hall, detached from a princely residence.
Around the square, the Alte Bibliothek occupies the spot intended for the academy: its curved profile has earned it the nickname of "commode" among the Berliners. On 11th May 1933, Bebelplatz was the scene of the book-burning by the Nazis, during which 20,000 "non-German" books were burned. A memorial representing a sunken library with empty shelves immortalises this sinister episode.
In the 19th century, to reflect the strength and grandeur of the young German Empire, a whole series of buildings of neo-Classical inspiration were erected on this island in the middle of the Spree. Before the war the complex formed, in all modesty, one of the richest collections in the world. Hitler, a failed painter allergic to talent, had already cut swathes through several collections of works by contemporary German painters before bombing also took a heavy toll.
In spite of this, be prepared for one of the biggest shocks of your art-loving life at the Pergamonmuseum (Pergamon Museum), with its full-scale presentations of ancient times. Life-size reconstructions of the Altar of Pergamon (a Greek town in Asia Minor) and the gateway to the Milet market (a Roman trading post) are set in monumental rooms! The rest of the collections is in keeping with this (notably the gate of Ishtar from Babylon), and the museum also houses the Museum of Near Eastern Antiquities and the sumptuous collections of the Museum of Islamic Art.
If you can manage it (these visits are very time-consuming), you should complete your exploration of Museum Island with a trip to the Altes Museum (Old Museum), the Alte Nationalgalerie and lastly the Bodemuseum (Bode Museum). Exhausted and on your last legs, you will reach the Berliner Dom (cathedral) to be amazed by the exuberant interior decoration, and to gather your thoughts in the Hohenzollern crypt.
A series of astonishing skyscrapers now occupies this square, which was a no-man's-land in the shadow of the Wall during half a century of Cold War. In the inter-war years, it was the busiest crossroads in Europe, so much so that the first traffic lights on the Old Continent were installed here.
It now plays the role of futuristic showcase of reunified Germany, and most companies have their headquarters here. Organised around business, shopping and entertainment Anglo-Saxon style, the overall master plan was entrusted to Renzo Piano. The space is shared by three distinct complexes.
DaimlerCity (1998) is the fruit of the collaboration between Renzo Piano himself (one of the architects of the Centre Pompidou in Paris), Rafael Moneo (the man behind the Kursaal in San Sebastián) and Arata Isozaki. The complex includes the DaimlerChrylser Contemporary, a gallery of abstract art, a water feature, a vast shopping centre and the Weinhaus Huth (1912), the only original building to have survived!
Designed by Helmut Jahn (who created the City Spire in New York), an American architect of German extraction, the Sony Center, European headquarters of the famous firm, is the most spectacular creation: a circular space, surrounded by transparent buildings and covered by a gigantic roof of glass, with pieces of canvas stretched by metal girders arranged in the shape of bicycle wheels.
Restaurants, shops, Filmmuseum (multiplex cinema) and cafés with vast terraces attract a large crowd.
The architectural explosion of Berlin is also characterised by an upsurge of buildings dedicated to the Jewish community and its history. The Neue Synagoge Berlin-Centrum Judaicum (New Synagogue) was inaugurated in 1994 with a restored façade and a magnificent gilded dome. A study centre with a permanent exhibition on the role of the Jews of Berlin, the rest of the building has undergone minimal restoration: empty spaces suggest that what has been destroyed is gone forever.
In 2003, the architect Daniel Libeskind handed over the keys to the Jüdisches Museum, which was immediately nicknamed Blitz (flash of lightning) by the Berliners. Flash of lightning, but also a zigzag or scar, this long building covered with zinc and slashed with loopholes is an example of expressionist architecture and can be read as a metaphor for the harrowing history of the Jewish people.
Lastly, between the Brandenburg Gate and Potsdamerplatz, a few dozen metres from Hitler's personal bunker, the Holocaust Memorial was built. This is the first time that a nation has acknowledged the greatest of its crimes by a monument right in the middle of its capital. Peter Eisenman has laid out 2,711 charcoal grey concrete slabs through which people can wander freely, day and night. Even though the architect rejects the comparison with a cemetery, this is what is bound to spring to mind…