The woman in charge of overseeing Berlin’s new building projects, city planner Regula Lüscher, shares her perspective on the German capital and its future.
When Regula Lüscher became Berlin’s Senatsbaudirektorin, or City Building Director, in 2007, she was a Swiss outsider stepping into the shoes of revered city planner Hans Stimman. She has persevered, reshaping the job and leaving her stamp on major projects across Berlin – and she’s just signed up for another five-year term.
As a transplant from Switzerland, what do you find special about Berlin?
As a student, I’d often visited Berlin, the divided city. And I was inspired by the images of the city from Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire – that was my Berlin. But when I got here I found the level of architectural discourse so conservative, so far from the spirit of the city, that I often sighed in despair. What’s fascinating is how, today, I’m still confronted by this “doubled Berlin”. There is two of everything, a West Berlin version and an East – every cultural institution, every museum, every problem. And of course one has to deal with the culture of memory: guilt and atonement, alleged victims and perpetrators. These fronts are never clear, but they must be incorporated. At first, my approach was a bit too relaxed, even naive. But now it’s precisely this point which I love so much about Berlin.
You’re a big fan of holding design competitions for new, high-profile buildings in the city. Which have been most satisfying for you?
When I got here I found the level of architectural discourse so conservative, so far from the spirit of the city, that I often sighed in despair.
For me, the most important was for the redesign of the Kulturforum by Potsdamer Platz. It’s such an incredibly important place and it required a brilliant architectural concept – and now we have that. The competition for the Humboldt Forum [the rebuilt Baroque city palace] was fascinating because it was so very political. The new Europacity development is interesting because, as we’re creating a whole new city district, the jury isn’t only choosing a building but “curating” an entire city quarter.
You were re-appointed by the new red-red-green coalition government… should we be optimistic about having them in power?
Yes. They want to provide a socially oriented rent policy – that’s critically important as new buildings get more and more expensive. And, secondly, the Green Party has a truly future-oriented transportation and mobility policy. Without that, we can’t develop new city districts or a truly sustainable city.
The big issue facing Berlin is the housing crisis. Will we see a lot of new high-rises built in the near future?
Yes, we will grow upwards because the city needs to densify and, at the same time, we want to retain our open space. We’re now beginning work on designs for prototype housing towers.
Architecture and city planning take a long time from idea to completion. What can we look forward to in the next few years?
There are, of course, the new city districts, like Europacity and the Schumacher Quartier at Tegel Airport. We can expect a higher quality of design in these new quarters because I’m now working with a senator [City Development Minister Katrin Lompscher, Die Linke] who is an urban planner like myself. I need someone watching my back politically. Now I have that, 100 percent, and naturally I’m happy about it.
Four high-profile projects that will shape the Berlin of the future.
For decades, that windswept plaza/parking lot in front of the museum and concert hall complex by Potsdamer Platz has been one of Berlin’s biggest embarrassments. Flanked by two iconically quirky masterpieces, Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie and Hans Scharoun’s Philarmonie, the site posed myriad problems. Undeterred, in 2015 Lüscher announced a competition to design a new extension of Mies’ glass box to house Berlin’s collection of post-1950 art on this architectural minefield. After a torturous multi-phase, multi-year process, the jury chose a shed-like gallery scheme by Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron. Will the new building play nice with its architectural diva neighbours? We won’t know until it’s completed in 2027.
By the time Regula Lüscher arrived in Berlin, the scheme to replace Mitte’s GDR-era Palast der Republik with a reconstructed Baroque Stadtschloss was a fait accompli. She took part in the competition that chose Italian architect Franco Stella to design the new palace, renamed the Humboldt Forum, but she lobbied to rein in its worst Disneyland-style excesses – she’s fighting to keep the square surrounding the building free of faux-historical fountains and statues, for example. Lüscher contends that the bare cobblestone plaza will help mark the building as a “project of the 21st century” – and also provide adequate parking space for tourist buses.
In 2006, Berlin unveiled its new Hauptbahnhof train station and instantly converted an unloved stretch of former railyards north of the station into prime real estate. Plans were approved in 2009 for a dense, eco-friendly mini-city, 40 hectares (100 acres) of offices and flats, plus an extension of the neighbouring Hamburger Bahnhof museum. Eight years later, only a fraction is finished, but that slow roll-out has proved a blessing: once envisioned as a business district with an emphasis on medicine and technology, Europacity’s brief has been tweaked to include – surprise! – more housing. Let’s pray it escapes the fate of other masterplanned urban districts that materialised as collections of sterile boxes with no sense of place.
Those endless Berlin Brandenburg Airport opening delays are no joke for Berlin’s city planners. They’re ready, shovels in hand, to start work on this 48-hectare (118-acre) city-of-tomorrow on the eastern tip of Tegel Airport (when and if it closes). Plans call for 5000 affordable flats erected by a diverse range of builders, from Berlin’s public housing companies to DIY co-ops, to be used by families, students and the elderly. Throw in two schools, day care centers and shopping, and Berlin will have its first new neighbourhood in decades. Lüscher touts the district’s use of “Smart City” technologies, with computers controlling everything from traffic flows to water use. Expect solar panels and windmills on every carbon-neutral green roof.