If the Berlin of 2002 saw its current incarnation, would it recognise itself? Yes, probably – but it would be really pissed off. Today’s Berlin has been shaped by two decades of uninspired, conservative design choices strikingly out of touch with the city’s history of architectural innovation.
The powers-that-be might respond that desperate times called for desperate measures. During the 2000s, Berlin was actually a shrinking city with a glut of empty flats: it had some 75,000 fewer residents in 2005 than in 1995. Desperate for business, the city sold off prime real estate at bargain prices to anyone willing to build, with little or no concern for design quality.
That’s the Berlin that Regula Lüscher found in 2007 when the Swiss architect was appointed the city’s Senate Building Director. Since then, we’ve all been living in her world. Lüscher set out to raise Berlin’s architectural standards, and has enforced her trademark style – a cool, minimalist modernism – onto built projects across the city.
Berlin’s planners were caught off guard by the city’s rapid population turnaround: since 2011, the city has gained over 350,000 new residents. That triggered a poorly-managed real estate boom that’s brought an ongoing tidal wave of rushed, mediocre buildings. What would time travellers from Berlin of 2002 be most pissed off about? Probably the loss of all its precious open space, all those empty lots radiant with potential. It is a potential that the city has not come anywhere near reaching, as this tour through Berlin’s last 20 years of projects – from malls to monuments, from zombie palaces to repurposed industrial sites – makes clear.
FINE ART PRINCE: David Chipperfield
Next to Regula Lüscher, no single architect has put their stamp on Berlin over the last 20 years more than David Chipperfield.
The British architect kicked off his Berlin career with a verifiable home run, the reconstruction of Museum Island’s Neues Museum. First opened in 1859, it suffered bomb damage in WWII and sat derelict for nearly 50 years. Chipperfield’s resurrection preserved much of the ruin’s decay and scars while inserting respectful modern additions like a stunning grand staircase. Like Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum, it’s a museum building that all but outshines the exhibits on display.
Haus Bastian (2007)
That prize-winning design lifted Chipperfield to starchitect status and led to a string of high-profile Berlin projects, starting with the Haus Bastian just across from Museum Island. Its façade pairs large, wood-framed windows with beautifully tactile panels of reused bricks covered in a thin plaster film. Thoroughly modern, it nevertheless sits comfortably with its bullet-scarred neo-classical neighbours. In 2019, the building was donated to the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz, officially becoming part of the Museum Island complex.
James Simon Gallery (2019)
This multi-purpose pavilion on Museum Island – a glass box inside a cage of thin, white columns – was developed during Regula Lüscher’s tenure and bears her minimalist signature. Chipperfield wrapped a similar colonnade around his Museum of Modern Literature in Marbach (2006). Here, applied to a low, narrow box floating above the Spree, the rickety white arcade recalls the corrugated metal siding of a barge carrying shipping containers. The building had a long, tortured design process. For some, the final result is a light, refreshing contrast to its monumental neighbours; for others, the icy birdcage is a wimpy cop out.
Neue Nationalgalerie – renovation (2021)
Chipperfield’s latest art-related project was the reverent €140 million renovation of Mies van der Rohe’s 1968 Neue Nationalgalerie. Applauded for its fealty to the master’s vision, it nonetheless adds a jarringly un-Miesian coat check space that crudely exposes the building’s structural undersides.
MAKING SPACE: Two new parks
Tempelhofer Feld (2010)
Many Berliners were annoyed when historic Tempelhof Airport closed in 2008 but most changed their tune when it reopened as a park in 2010. Its 880 acres have been transformed into a sprawling playground/stage/urban laboratory where joggers and gardeners cross paths with runway models and techno DJs. The park’s devotees carried their don’t-fence-me-in ethos a step further in 2014 by voting to quash plans to rein in Tempelhof’s wild nature by imposing a landscaping scheme and constructing buildings along its edges.
Gleisdreieck Park (2011-14)
Like Tempelhofer Feld, this sprawling park repurposes an abandoned transport hub – 78 acres (31.5 hectares) of abandoned rail yards straddling Schöneberg and Kreuzberg. Gleisdreieck, however, is a discreetly-ordered space that bears the stamp of Berlin’s corporate present: it was paid for by the private developers who constructed nearby Potsdamer Platz. The design by landscape architects Atelier Loidl punctuates the big, green lawns with creepy features like half-buried train tracks and a spiky forest of weathered tree trunks, making it feel rather like a collaboration between Ingmar Bergman and David Lynch.
LIGHTS IN THE DARKNESS: New memorials
Berlin is a Wunderkammer of karmic pain. These are some recent examples of the ongoing process of commemorating – or packaging – the city’s dark history.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (2005)
It’s a daunting task, designing an open-air sculpture that evokes the horrors of state-sponsored terror and genocide. American architect Peter Eisenman’s solution was to fill a 19,000 sqm block next to the Tiergarten with 2711 grey coffin-like blocks or stelae, then gently slope the ground and tilt selected stelae to create a creeping sense of disorientation and dread. It’s a powerful experience that’s particularly sobering for visitors who wander over from the tourist circus of nearby Pariser Platz.
Memorial to the Persecuted Homosexuals Under National Socialism (2008)
The €25 million memorial won over most critics, but others felt it ignored other groups persecuted by the Nazis. To pay tribute to gay and lesbian victims, Scandinavian artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset added one more stela across the street in the Tiergarten. A small window shows a film featuring a same-sex kiss, reminding viewers that love endures.
Memorial to the Sinti and Roma of Europe Murdered Under National Socialism (2012)
The memorial dedicated to the murdered Sinti and Roma was built in the Tiergarten just south of the Reichstag. Designed by sculptor Dani Karavan, the walled garden centred on a small water basin is the most literal of the three – the text of a poem ‘Auschwitz’ by Italian Roma poet Santino Spinello is engraved on glass panels, and the names of concentration camps are carved into stones. Those place names tie the three memorials together, reminding us they’re all anchored by one terrible event. Experienced in sequence, the three monuments strike a range of emotional notes that leaves room for personal interpretation but ultimately make a clear statement: never forget.
The Topography of Terror (2010)
The former site of the notorious Gestapo headquarters was first commemorated in 1987 with an outdoor exhibit, titled Topography of Terror, in the long-gone building’s excavated basement. Its open-air setting gave the displays detailing Nazi crimes an appealing scrappy urgency, but an indoor space was deemed necessary. The first design by Peter Zumthor was partially built but then torn down again. The current building, an 800 sqm minimalist design, was designed by Ursula Wilms of Berlin-based Heinle, Wischer und Partner. It’s a low glass and steel box, square in plan – wilfully neutral, and thus deferential to the site and its history. Combined with the excess of coolly documented evil, the coldness of the building adds to an uncanny numbness.
Center for Flight, Expulsion and Reconciliation (2021)
Just around the corner, by Anhalter Bahnhof, is a new centre that was initially created to describe the plight of ethnic Germans forced from their homes in today’s Poland and Czech Republic after WWII. Its brief was later expanded to show the broader human history of ethnic cleansing until today. The tragic nature of the centre’s displays ties it to the Topography, but the focus on individual people combined with the setting – the 1926 Deutschlandhaus, with new interiors by Marte. Marte Architekten – make it less overwhelmingly disquieting and rather easier to digest.
MONEY PITS: Shopping malls
In the 1990s, Berlin gained many new shopping malls, a swarm of interchangeable Passagen and Arkaden. These three more recent retail complexes all aim to be unique – and each unwittingly defines a facet of Berlin’s schizophrenic post-Wall identity.
This trippy rose-coloured behemoth next to Alexanderplatz already feels like a relic of those blissful days when post-Wall Berlin was a Mecca for Europe’s hedonistic youth. Portuguese architect José Quintela da Fonseca might have designed the concrete façade – which depicts interlocking red spongecake rainbows – in the cheery, buzzy depths of an EasyJet party
Bikini Berlin (2014)
Everyone cheered the revival of this complex on Breitscheidplatz, a landmark of the late-1950s effort to turn Cold-War West Berlin into a capitalist showpiece. In 2014, after decades of decline, the complex was reimagined as a high-end “concept mall” centred around the then-fashionable notion of pop-up shops. The project highlights Berlin’s love/ hate flirtation with high-end fashion. Bikini’s quirky design by Belgian architects SAQ and artist Arne Quinze, which includes a roof shaped like an extraterrestrial spinal cord, was embraced by the city’s design glitterati who, ever since, have stayed away in droves. These days, all you’ll find inside are a few tourists clustered around a window overlooking the neighbouring Zoo’s monkey enclosure.
Mall of Berlin (2014)
A retail counterpart to our new Baroque palace, this urban mega-mall is effectively a resurrection of the Wertheim department store that stood on the site from 1896 until WWII. In its day, that store was revolutionary in size and selection, redefining modern shopping. The Nazis stole Wertheim from its Jewish owners in 1937: in 2007, their descendants received a payout of €88 million, paving the way for today’s retail oasis. The new exterior by Tchoban Voss Architekten couldn’t be more conservative, a classicist pastiche referencing nearby landmarks. The interior is reverently decorated with photos of the long-gone store, apparently meant to evoke a grand past but instead producing a rather ghostly feeling.
When the German Bundestag voted in 1991 to relocate the federal capital to Berlin, it turned the city into a giant construction site. These three signature projects tied to the city’s new status began with the best of intentions but instead turned into symbols of waste, incompetence and a certain degree of fear.
BND Zentrale (2019)
Along with Bonn-based government ministries, the main offices of Germany’s international spy agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), were relocated to Berlin from their secluded home in a Bavarian forest. Estimated to cost €720 million, the BND HQ went some €280 million over budget and opened six years late. Architect Jan Kleihues designed the 260,000sqm compound as a menacing bureaucratic fortress on Chausseestraße set back behind a high steel fence and 30 metres of ditches and grassy knolls. Besides offices, the complex also contains training facilities, an Islamic Terrorism Centre and a tourist shop selling BND- themed souvenirs.
Berlin Brandenburg Airport Willy Brandt (2020)
Architecture firm GMP not only designed our Hauptbahnhof, but also got their start designing Berlin’s late, beloved Tegel Airport (1974). Logically, the same experts were tasked with designing Tegel’s replacement – what could possibly go wrong? The architects, who were ultimately dismissed when things went south, shouldn’t be blamed for the nightmarish cavalcade of errors and incompetence that delayed BER’s opening from 2011 to 2020 and drove costs from €2.8 billion to at least €6 billion. But they can be blamed for the pedestrian design: a half-hearted, Miesian glass entry pavilion leads to an undersized security zone and a maze-like shopping mall with boarding gates wedged in. We deserve better.
Berlin Hauptbahnhof (2006)
Architects Gerkan, Marq & Partners (GMP) won the design competition for Berlin’s main train station in 1993. Thirteen years and €700 million later, we found ourselves inside a dark, disorienting five-storey maze. Adding lots of retail space meant making the distances between the station’s narrow stairs and tiny elevators even larger. The entry forecourt on the north side is a chaotic wasteland in the shadow of a giant robotic “rolling horse” sculpture. When Deutsche Bahn chopped 100 metres off the train shed roof to save costs, the designers sued – and won. The station’s 2006 opening was marred by a teenage knife attack incident, and soon after two girders crashed to the ground during a wind storm, all of which added to its fearful reputation.
PALACES IN PAIN: Humboldt Forum (2021) and Palast der Republik
First, the good news: Berlin’s Humboldt Forum aka the reconstructed Berliner Stadtschloss, was completed close to its original budget (€650 million) and only a year behind schedule – unusual for large construction projects here. But an angsty cloud hovers over the mammoth faux-Baroque palace because of one simple question: Why does it exist?
The original Prussian royal palace was damaged in WWII, and its shell was dynamited in 1950. Amidst the wave of post-Wall triumphalism, a group of conservative West Germans, Friends of the Berliner Schloss, lobbied to ‘correct’ history and resurrect the building as a reminder of Germany’s glorious pre-Nazi past. In other words, let’s ignore that its residents, the Hohenzollern dynasty, were war-mongers who mercilessly invaded their neighbours, fought back appeals for domestic political reforms with rifle fire and all-but-invented genocide while colonising Africa.
Once the Federal Government handed over €500 million to get the ball rolling, the new question became what to put inside. An early scheme, dubbed the “palace-shaped shopping mall”, wanted to fill it with shops and eateries.
More enlightened minds suggested relocating the Ethnological Museum from Dahlem, giving visitors to Museum Island a multikulti alternative to the Eurocentric art filling its other venues. Which basically meant displaying looted voodoo dolls and bamboo huts in the reconstructed birthplace of Prussia’s disastrous colonial ambitions. Rather than being an antidote to our city’s dark memories of the Nazis or the Cold War, the galleries uncover and highlight yet more ugly chapters in German history.
What about the building? The new Humboldt Forum as designed by Italian architect Franco Stella, is a crudely simplified faux-Baroque façade based on photos and guesswork wrapped around a 21st-century concrete-framed office building.
Most tragically, the construction of this ersatz palace required the demolition of an authentic piece of history, the Palast der Republik (built 1976). Ostensibly East Germany’s congress hall, the building was a kind of People’s Pleasure Palace with a mirrored-glass façade, restaurants and a bowling alley. It thus represented an inconvenient East Berlin narrative; for many, life in the DDR was actually fun. Its demolition was ordered based on asbestos contamination, although countless still-standing West Berlin structures had the same issue. From 2004 to 2006, a scrappy group of artists filled the Palast’s half-demolished shell with DIY installations. Just as London was celebrating the conversion of the derelict Bankside Power station into the wildly popular Tate Modern gallery, the Palast showed us how perfectly it served as a home to contemporary art.
We can only imagine an alternate world in which the Humboldt Forum was never built because the Palast der Republik was saved by a public referendum and converted by the Tate’s architects Herzog & de Mueron into a spectacular contemporary arts palace. The reality: Instead, on the Palast’s grave, we have the Humboldt Forum with its numbingly inert grandeur. Herzog & de Mueron now really have designed an arts space for Berlin – the Museum of the Twentieth Century, a brick shed set to rise besides the Neue Nationalgalerie. Developed under the yoked by strict Regula Lüscher, it is one of their least inspired designs.
Of all the many wasted opportunities of Berlin’s last 20 years, this is probably the most tragic.
LOVE AMONG THE RUINS
One bright spot in the last two decades of Berlin’s architectural history is the assortment of derelict buildings that have been creatively repurposed for a myriad of functions.
The queen of our resurrected ruins is Berghain. Since this power station-turned-dance club opened in 2004, it’s become so indispensable to the city’s identity that, in 2016, it was the first techno venue dubbed a cultural institution – on par with our Philharmonie and Staatsoper. The cavernous plant was finished in 1953 to power housing on Stalinallee (now Karl-Marx-Allee), and no doubt that whiff of Berlin’s dark history contributes to its allure.
Boros Collection (2008), Soho House (2010)
Other resurrected buildings also trade on their notorious origins. The Boros Collection’s art is much more appealing inside a castle-like Nazi-era bunker. The same could be said of Soho House: the swanky hotel reuses a 1928 department store that subsequently housed both the offices of the Nazi Youth and, later, East German president Wilhelm Pieck. Just as morbid – but less historically sinister – is the reconversion of a crematorium into the Silent Green culture quarter, right by Exberliner’s headquarters in (finally) up-and-coming Wedding.
Radialsystem (2005), Kindl Center for Contemporary Art (2016), Umspannwerk Kreuzberg (2004)
Radialsystem preserves a gem of Berlin’s industrial history by inserting a performance venue into the bomb-damaged remains of an 1890s water-pumping station. Similarly, Neukölln’s KINDL Center for Contemporary Art breathes new life into a 1930 brewery marked by a seven-story Gothic-expressionist tower. In the 1920s, architect Hans Heinrich Müller created stunning brick buildings for Berlin’s power company. His masterpiece, dubbed the Cathedral of Electricity, became the event venue Umspannwerk Kreuzberg and the restaurant VOLT. In 2018, Google’s plans to convert the building into a startup campus were quashed by locals who denounced the tech giant’s presence in their Cathedral as sacrilege.
Over in Oberschöneweide, a historically industrial area in Berlin’s southeast, is now a happening cultural hub of galleries and artists’ ateliers – among them Alicja Kwade – and the Stiftung Reinbeckhallen foundation for contemporary art and culture and Industriesalon Schöneweide. The latest high-profile addition to the neighbourhood is the vast turbine hall of Germany’s oldest listed three-phase power plant on the banks of the Spree, now reborn as the sprawling cultural complex MaHalla.
Illustrations by Agata Sasiuk
Texas-born Dan Borden lived and worked as an architect in New York before moving to Berlin in 2000. In 2009, he co-organised Exberliner’s “Save Berlin” festival that examined the future of the city’s urban landscape. He lives with his husband in Neukölln.