ONE way to take Berlin is to wonder at the stupendous mess caused by the renewal effort. Another is to lose oneself in the new architecture, which is surprisingly unpretentious but a bit cold and conformist. Yet another is to keep one's distance, as Germans from the West tend to do; they seem terrified by the mystique of the place and the fact that it is so much bigger and more threatening than the German cities they know. One can try picking out East Berliners from West Berliners, which used to be easy but now requires flair and a knowledge of hairdos and street posture. Or one can grow impatient for the new Berlin to be finished and show itself in its true colors.
The hard thing is to remain aware of what is being smoothed away. Heiner Müller, eulogized as Germany's best postwar playwright when he died, just over a year ago, had given himself a mission: "German history is my enemy," he used to say, "and I want to stare into the white of its eye." Berlin was Müller's home, and the city is covering its tracks so fast that it has resorted to painting a red line through its heart to show baffled visitors where the Wall used to run. One simply can't see where it was anymore, let alone make out the moral silhouette of this painful century.
This is a strange time in the life of Berlin -- the hiatus between its redesignation as Germany's capital and 1999, when it will begin acting the part. Each day one finds oneself losing touch a little more with what went on before. The experience is not entirely welcome -- though, heaven knows, it ought to be, given what did go on. There was something truly weird about the old East Berlin in particular, something so awful that the place possessed a certain appeal. Now the bombed sites and vacant lots that told of Hitler's madness and pocked central Berlin for half a century are as good as gone. Even the shoddy Communist building style, which more than anything else revealed the soul of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR), is slipping into anonymity, as modern construction sweeps through Berlin's old center in the eastern sector. The top names in international architecture -- the superstars here are Americans, British, French, Italians -- and the developers who employ them are, well, ruining the view.
Those who hanker after an "old Berlin" have not exactly given up. Indeed, they seem to be on a roll. Architectural traditionalists who favor cornices and a dose of old-time Prussian arrogance were laughed at when it came to planning a new Berlin after the Wall fell, in 1989. The style that city planners chose was relentlessly classical-modern, which meant filling the void at Berlin's heart with flat stone-and-glass façades of restricted height (100 feet). But now there are second thoughts. The conservative Christian Democrats who head the reunified capital's coalition government have detected a welling up of discontent among Berlin's put-upon populace. Isn't the current approach too rigorous? Where is the warmth? The character? The upshot is that the city government's longtime building director, a man of Prussian rigor who rejected frills, has been replaced by a warmer-hearted soul from Germany's far-western and far softer Rheinland, who says that she has in mind "a little fantasy, some poetry."
So traditionalists believe that they are back in the fray, particularly on a crucial mile of Unter den Linden heading east from the Brandenburg Gate. Maybe. But the classical-modernists are streets ahead of them, being able to build faster (an advantage that appeals to investors and developers). In any case, the traditionalists wish not so much to hold on to genuine history as to replicate it. The base camp for their comeback is a near copy of the once-renowned Adlon Hotel at its old site by the Brandenburg Gate. The Adlon replica revives a hotel that was so plush a place to stay when it opened, in 1907, that Kaiser Wilhelm stopped anyone from checking in until he had tried out its pomp for himself. Many Germans want to re-create the imperial castle of the Hohenzollerns (the Prussian dynasty) right where it used to stand, between two arms of the river Spree at the other end of Unter den Linden. Think what one will of this scheme, it has the support of Germany's most powerful citizen, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and, it seems, of the Christian Democratic mayor of Berlin, Eberhard Diepgen.
Most Germans assume that Allied bombs destroyed the royal castle, but in truth the first Communist masters of the DDR inherited it in eminently restorable shape and demolished it in 1950 out of anti-imperial spite. Diepgen would love to remove the crass Palace of the Republic that the Communists built in place of the castle for use by their rubber-stamp parliament. This is a touchy matter, though. The orange-toned DDR edifice somehow became the pride of ordinary East Germans, and it will hurt the feelings of a lot of Diepgen's new supporters in the eastern part of the city to bring it down, especially for the purpose he now has in mind. I wonder, anyway, whether Heiner Müller, were he still around, would bother to stare at an imperial Prussian mock-up.
MORE likely Müller's eyes would be glued on Kronenstrasse. These days there are precious few streets like Kronenstrasse left in the Mitte (central) district, Berlin's old heart. Even among the half dozen that for some reason or other have not been overwhelmed by the construction wave, this street is special: it is a class apart in drabness. Right next to Checkpoint Charlie, the Cold War's east-west crossing point, Kronenstrasse reeks of the Berlin that people of my postwar generation always imagined. Irish and Polish hardhats have almost finished building a showy American business center at Checkpoint Charlie, yet somehow one can still hear the stomp of East German border guards there and the rustling trenchcoats of CIA and KGB agents whose offices overlooked the crossing point from opposite sides of the wall.