Tracing the City


Berlin is unique as a city – in itself the destination – visited not so much for any specific sites, but because of its texture, tears, seams and stitching. As a site of remembering and disseminating European history the 1930’s through WWII it is unparalleled, but the smooth narrative presented from the fall of Berlin until today belies a more contested and murkier tale.

Above | Roof dome of the Bundestag at the Reichstag building.


Platz des 9. November 1989


The Lustgarten in central Berlin | The Jewish Museum by Daniel Liebeskind



Text as Architectural Element


It cannot be claimed that the Berlin of today is a united city. While the wall has come down, it has left in its footprint a chain of remnants surrounding the former western sectors. Differences in building stock are apparent comparing the two zones. More than this, the history of Berlin is everywhere visible in memorials, historical panels and plaques; distinct interest groups have carved up the city into manageably understood chunks. (For example, the text panels on Karl Marx Allee which explicate the specific sites along the boulevard and side-streets are a specific case study of East Berlin’s history which is understandable only as a discrete narrative among the millions of intersecting stories.) Here, words are the chosen means of memorializing the two sequential chapters of Germany’s recent path without ambiguation, and as the impetus for more words of discussion.

When the wall was breached in November 1989, a reverse invasion as those outside in East Germany entered the small western city, it was a physical manifestation of the concurrent political changes. This moment was important as a signal of the failure of the Communist system in the West [1] and so the official narrative of the BRD would reflect the brutality of East Germany practically and ideologically.

Above | Bernauer Strasse

Around this same period architects experimenting with the relationship of form and language were finally moving from paper to built projects. This strategy of using built form to record, preserve, and underscore specific physical and political conditions throughout the city, in conjunction with the proliferation of the use of text as a means to memorialize the visually ambiguous, can be seen as a theme in Berlin – used most specifically at Wall memorials. Peter Eisenman’s projects for Haus am Checkpoint Charlie (1987) and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (2005) bookend this period of transformation in the city with two indexical works, both didactic and evocative.


Sections of the Berlin Wall at Potsdamer Platz | Memorial to a Synagogue plundered on Kristalnacht in 1938

Rather than a particular style, we recognize a number of signs presenting to us that a building has been edited. Just as some might argue there is no “Nazi-style architecture” in spite of the common atmosphere that unites many of those projects, these expository works also adopt distinctive characters, and yet they remain recognizable as a family. The juxtaposition of the neoclassical column, the patches of repaired stone, and the glass rainscreen at Schinkel’s Altes Museum, for example, speaks to the destruction, repair, and changes to the frontal portico. Rather than a recognition of style, there something in their palimpsestic texture that links these projects together; the cut, the field, the stella, the word, the reflection, the detail, the lack of detail.


Solperstein in Mitte

At its smallest scale (a single cobblestone) and its largest scale (spanning many cities throughout Europe) the Stolperstein project by artist Gunter Demning creates an icon which draws attention to text that is both extremely personal and also universal. Here an example in the Mitte district of Berlin recognizing the extermination of Jewish individuals, the word “murdered” is used with purpose and precision.


Book Burning Memorial

The Book Burning Memorial at Bebelplatz in the center of Berlin employs the absence of words / books (just two small plaques nearby explain the memorial) in an underscoring of how important language really is.


Haus am Checkpoint Charlie

Peter Eisenman’s Haus am Checkpoint Charlie explores both the context of grids in Berlin, as well as the concept of the grid itself. The overlapping systems express themselves in mass and pattern on the surface of the building. They are of the place, and yet completely abstracted, a representation of the act of architecture as a process and the building as a frozen moment.


Tchoban Foundation Museum for Architectural Drawing

The Tchoban Foundation Museum for Architectural Drawing is a descendant of the etched concrete projects of Herzog and deMeuron. Still, the literal translation of the act of drawing to the container of the building draws similarities with Eisenman’s work at Checkpoint Charlie.


Marie Elisabeth Luders Haus and Paul Loeb Haus | German Chancellery, both buildings “sculpted” by the Spree

The Marie Elisabeth Lüders Haus and Paul Loeb Haus are built for the German government offices and span the Spree as a symbol of connecting East and West. Through their complex courtyard scheme they are able to present at once the austerity of a governmental colonnade. The split at the river allows singular moments to be sculpted, adding richness to the regimented building.

1. In the same year very different circumstances in China were experiencing a retrenchment in this system



Along the Wall


What does preservation mean in any context, but particularly in Berlin where waves of changes have happened rapidly, sometimes within a lifetime? Debate is alive in Berlin regarding what is a living part of the city, what gets preserved, whose needs are more pressing, which and how this all gets decided.

Traversing the wall could result in a survey of its many politics – when architects/critics cannot find the best way to save the essence of an object they can see the combinations and cases where one force has won over others. The wall has been parceled into so many different memorials that it serves as a catalogue of methods for preserving a piece of history. Multiple stories are more or less relevant at different parts of the wall. It is also a lesson in warring politics of factions, and the way a protest against the politics of one system has become the victory of the economics of another.


East Side Gallery

The East Side Gallery is a symbol for pacifism, public art, and alternative cultures. The art has become so iconic, it is now a wall within a wall.


Wall at the Topographie of Terror

The Topography of Terror exhibit demonstrates literally the layers of history, including the Stasi jail cells sitting almost directly below the wall. This site is so close to many of the more touristic stretches of the wall and underlines the problematics in presenting two stories within the same place that battle for relevance.

At Bernauer Strasse the stories of escape and the daily impact of the wall on families are evident. The memorial presents a clear example of mapping the wall and these routes onto the city through “drawing” on the park, in parallel with maps that translate the city markings. It also demonstrates the advantages and disadvantages of repatriating property to owners who can build or sell the rights – new apartment buildings sit in the path of the park, and can cut off the memorial as private property.


Open Brandenburg Gate

Potsdamer Platz, a nexus of business in Berlin which was once cut off, is today stitched together by radiating streets alternating with corporate developments. The nearby Kulturforum appears almost isolated in comparison with the packed Sony Center.



Jewish Berlin


Above | Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe


Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe


Main stair | Garden of Exile at the Jewish Museum


New Synagogue & Centrum Judaicum at Oranienburger Strasse


New Synagogue at Oranienburger Strasse


Jewish Cemetery Schönhauser Allee



Domes of Berlin


At one time, the organizing social structure in the lives of Berliners might have been the empire, the church, or the reich – with their representative centers identified by a dome at the Schloss, churches such as those at Gendarmenmarkt, Sankt Hedwig, and the Berliner Dom, or the Reichstag respectively. Post-reunification there appears to be a turn away from the explicit symbolism of the dome as a marker for the center of a world-organizing principle.


Berliner Dom | Humboldt Forum (based on the old palace)


The Reichstag rooftop

Norman Foster’s Bundestag chambers at the Reichstag building returned the center of government to Berlin with a new home. Although Foster rebuilt the geometry of the dome, of course the effect and the experience of the space has been completely altered with the dome and the assembly space for the Bundestag visually, if not entirely spatially, unified. The dome, a beacon for the building throughout the city, becomes an inhabitable and transparent space where (theoretically) the public can observe the proceedings. By inviting the citizens to occupy the dome Foster points to an accountability of the government to the populace.


Sony Center and Philharmonie from the roof of the Reichstag building


Sony Center

The Sony Center (designed by Helmut Jahn) is a more accessible space in that it is open to foot traffic from the street, and yet it can be considered a commercial rather than public space. It inverts the dome for an equally iconic profile. Busier than the nearby Kulturforum built by West Germany, the adjacent Potsdamer Platz is one of the most active intersections in Berlin. The Sony Center and shopping centers surrounding are thus more a vital part of the Berlin experience, re-knitting together the city.



Preservation and Ruins


The diversity in attitudes towards “historical” buildings in Berlin is wide. Some of this difference can be attributed to a temporal/critical distance between the structure’s original or last use and a critical juncture of decision. It may seem that the time period preserved is the one deemed most important, representative or usually least problematic. Moreover, as both East and West Germany were quickly able to take moral stands against the Nazi past, it can sometimes be these Third Reich buildings which are preserved. In contrast, attitudes towards Berlin’s Cold War divisions are more nuanced as the East was enveloped by the West.


The Humboldt Forum | Berliner Schloss

The Humboldt Forum for example is partly an exact facade replica of the Berliner Schloss (the side facing the Lustgarten, rather than the Spree facade which is being replaced by a Chipperfield-esque grid). This reproduction points at the historical texture some were trying to recapture, as well as the revulsion of many to the Soviet Palast der Republik which later stood in that spot and was found full of asbestos. It can also be seen as retribution for the GDR’s removal of the imperial Palace in the first place. [1]


Former Nazi Aviation Ministry with memorial for the East German uprising of 1953 | Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church

This need to quickly flatten a strong representation of the losing side doesn’t happen always, of course. The headquarters for the Reichs Ministry of Aviation is today the German Ministry of Finance, but in the interim housed various GDR bodies including the House of Ministries. Possibly it was saved by the simple fact that it was standing after the war, and then by the passage of time which allowed its new use to be vital, and its former character more distant.


Tempelhof with beds and tents for refugees

Tempelhof Airport is an excellent example of a Nazi building the was quickly taken over and successfully repurposed, in this case by the American military for many years (critically as part of the Berlin Airlift which must have endeared it to the general population) before becoming part of Germany’s aerial infrastructure. Today the airfields have been converted to a public park and the building surprisingly represents the welcoming attitude of many Germans towards refugees pouring into Europe, where other countries have taken more reactionary stances. Interestingly, it is a refugee way-station already relatively centrally located in the city with utilities provided. [2] The significance of what was once one of the world’s largest buildings and built by the Nazis now sheltering Syrian refugees is certainly a symbolic coup.


Tempelhof Field


The Olympic Stadium with contemporary awning

1. See Ghosts of Berlin by Brian Ladd for an excellent account of the history of this site.
2. The Olympic Stadium in West Berlin, another Nazi landmark sometimes allows schools to use its practice facilities for physical education as many school gymnasiums are also given over to housing refugees.