The Building and Rebuilding of Berlin

Born and bred in Berlin, WOLF JOBST SIEDLERwas arrested for anti-Nazi activities and spent three years as a prisoner of war. He served for a while as German secretary for the Congress of Cultural Freedom before becoming literary editor of the Berlin newspaperDER TAGESSPIEGEL.He recently became director of the West Berlin publishing company Propyläen Verlag.


It is a fitting irony of history that two hundred years ago Berlin could boast the oddest architectural ensemble of any Central European city — a barracklike settlement for giants. Frederick the Great’s father, an eccentric gentleman who used to walk down the main street belaboring his frightened subjects with his walking stick and the paternal admonition: “You fellows must not fear but love me,” had carried his enthusiasm for the rococo to the neurotic extreme of wanting to be protected by a Royal Guard of Cyclopean stature. The King’s recruiting officers were ceaselessly on the lookout for outsize human specimens, and the hunt for giants was extended to neighboring lands, with the promise of special rewards for unusually lofty heads. Other European ruling houses were granted special diplomatic favors in exchange for five or ten glandularly disturbed youths; and on one occasion the Czar came through with a prize haul of over three hundred specimens, all of them taller than six foot four and worth a couple of hundred rubles apiece.

By the end of his reign Frederick William I had assembled a Guard of such physiological enormity that its upkeep involved considerable expense. The troupe, known in Prussia and throughout Europe as the “Long Fellows,” had lodgings designed and built to order; doors and blankets were twice the normal length; the beds were nine feet long; while cupboards, chairs, and tables had Brobdingnagian proportions. Long after Frederick the Great had dissolved the Guard, these giant-barracks were still one of the sights of Berlin, a monumental legacy which visitors came to gape at from near and far.

The legacy has since been greatly added to and altered, as a succession of conquerors, tyrants, and occupying powers thrust their visiting cards on the city. A casual tour through Berlin thus offers a kaleidoscopic impression of recent events rather than an orderly architectural progression from the antique to the ultramodern. Other European metropolises present a fairly definite physiognomy: Vienna, the baroque imperial ex-capital; Paris, the city of the two Napoleons, embracing the churches and town houses of the Bourbons; Rome, with its two thousand years of history. But Berlin, though it has charm, is a confusing mishmash of history, repeatedly cut off from its own past.

Boswell, when he visited Berlin in 1764, described it as “a beautiful city. Broad, long, and straight streets with stately dwellings. The Castle is magnificent: likewise certain of the Royal family’s palaces are most handsome. The Opera too is a very grand structure. In the evening we strolled up and down a chestnut walk, along the bank of a lovely canal, where everywhere strange people were ambling.” War and Communism have left nothing of this old Prussian Berlin. The Opera House was burned down during the war. The Castle was blown up by the East German government. Most of the royal family’s palaces have been torn down. The chestnut walk, later planted with the lindens which made it internationally famous, is now a depressing boulevard, bordered by ruins and a pompous Soviet Embassy, and comes to an abrupt dead end at the concrete barrier of the Brandenburg Gate. The Berlin of the Hohenzollerns has disappeared.

So has Hitler’s Berlin. The Führer never really liked the city, neither its architecture nor its atmosphere. For him, an Austrian, it was always too North German; and even after he had established himself in it as dictator, he made Munich the “Capital of the Movement” and Nürnberg the “City of Party Rallies.” Toward the end of the war he repeatedly spoke of his intention of retiring to the Austrian city of Linz. Berlin, nevertheless, was supposed to become Europe’s most imposing capital; it was to be rebaptized “Germania,” and gigantic new buildings, symbolizing the power and glory of the Hitler Reich, were to replace the old bourgeois edifices. Half of Berlin was to have disappeared in the process, and the work of demolition had actually got under way when the war broke out.

Little trace of this ambitious design remains, with the single exception of the Olympic Stadium. The Reich Chancellery was pounded to pieces by weeks of Russian artillery fire, and after the occupation of the city its ruins Were torn down and the huge marble blocks used for the construction of the Russian war memorial. Most of the dictatorship’s other edifices, such as Goebbels’ and Himmler’s private houses, were likewise blown up. Today one must really look hard to find vestiges of the fascist buildings which were to have stood for a thousand years. All Hitler achieved was the destruction of old Berlin. His intention was to erect not buildings for giants but giant buildings; but of these nothing remains.

The irony latent in this situation was underscored some years later during the controversy which arose over the plans for the first large-scale job of post-war reconstruction, the question at issue being whether new apartments should be built for dwarfs. The Berlin Senate, in deciding to rebuild the completely destroyed Hansa Quarter, near the Tiergarten, a famous residential area once inhabited by diplomats and senior government officials, farmed out the job to a number of avant-garde architects of international repute. Included among them was Monsieur le Corbusier, who was invited to equip Berlin with a Ciée Radieuse similar to those he had built in Marseilles and Nantes. Le Corbusier insisted that the ideal dimensions he had patented for Marseilles and Nantes were also valid for Berlin, Each of his projected two-story apartment units thus called for a room with a seven-foot ceiling, which the Berlin Building and Health authorities declared to be too low and insalubrious for North Germans. Le Corbusier wrathfully insisted that his theoretically ideal dimensions — the “Modular” — were as “valid for Hottentots as for British colonial officers.” A compromise was finally reached, and Berlin was equipped with a huge pigeonhole structure — located next to Hitler’s Olympic Stadium — which today has the dubious honor of being the city’s largest building.

ARCHITECTURALLY, present-day Berlin is a strange potpourri. The pompous interlude of the imperial age has been followed, in an almost literal sense, by a reversion to the past. It was from Berlin that Mies van der Rohe, Gropius, Hilbersheimer, Mendelssohn, and Marcel Breuer emigrated thirty years ago, Berlin being the last seat of the Bauhaus style before it was transplanted to Chicago. The survivors are now once again at work in Berlin, on a greater scale than ever. Gropius is building an entire satellite city, and Mies van der Rohe has designed Berlin’s newest museum. In the meantime, a new generation of architects has arisen — spanning a Reich, a war, and a debacle — which has once again established contact with the golden twenties, when Berlin was the home of Einstein, Max Reinhardt, Bertolt Brecht, and Mies van der Rohe.

The same thing, generally speaking, is happening all over Europe today; but Berlin is the only major city where architects can literally start building from scratch. In Rome, Stockholm, or Paris new suburbs are going up, but in Berlin the most important building is going on in the very heart of the city, amid blitzed war ruins. The result is a bizarre mixture, with a neoclassic palace rubbing elbows with a Jugendstil building, an ornate fin-desiècle stucco portal standing next to a Hitler eagle, a Gropius cube sticking up among all these relics of yesterday. On the other side of the Wall in East Berlin there is the Stalin Allee showpiece (now renamed the Karl-Marx Allee). with its square temple pillars and lighthouse cupolas and the sugarcake style of post-war Soviet architecture, which has since given way to prefabricated buildings introduced under Khrushchev. A trip through Berlin is not only a journey in time from Frederick the Great to William II to Adolf Hitler to Willy Brandt; it is also a journey in space from Kiev to Chicago.

Berliners have watched all this activity with a wry and at times slightly irritated humor. The Congress Hall, which stands near the Brandenburg Gate and the old Reichstag building and was a gift of the United States government and the work of an American architect, Hugh Stubbins, had hardly been built before it was nicknamed “the pregnant oyster" because of its bold, bivalvular roof design. The Berlin Philharmonic’s Concert Hall, a cold cube of glass designed by Paul Baumgarten, is popularly known as the Music Garage; near the zoo a windowless department store decorated with mosaics quickly earned itself the title of GroschenMoschee (the “Penny Mosque”); the Housing Department Building, Berlin’s first skyscraper, has come to be known as the White Collar Silo; the mustard-colored barn which is to provide an amphitheater for Herbert von Karajan’s orchestra was promptly baptized Zirkus Karajani in remembrance of the Zirkus Sarasani of pre-war fame.

The City Restored

The best known of these architectural oddities stands on the spot where Kaiser William II insisted on building Germany’s most expensive and hideous Romanesque church, the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. Here Egon Eiermann, who has been picked to build the new German Embassy in Washington, erected an octagonal spire separated from an octagonal nave, or apse. To the habitués of the Kurfürstendamm the pair is known as Berlin’s “powder box and lipstick tube.”

Over the past five years, Berlin has been gripped by an extraordinary building fever. Land values keep rising every month, and twenty thousand new apartments are built each year. In the last ten years West Berlin has done almost as much building as Ulbricht’s entire East zone.

So what does it matter if the Berlin of tomorrow is a mixture of Odessa, Houston, and Potsdam? The city has long been accustomed to foreign importations. The original fishermen’s village on the Spree was transformed in a couple of centuries into an artificial metropolis through the ceaseless influx of immigrants. In 1701, at the time of the first Prussian King, it hardly numbered twenty thousand inhabitants; it was Germany’s least important and Prussia’s most inconsequential city. It took emigrants from France, Holland, and Austria — victims of the wars of religion to put Berlin on the map. In the mid-eighteenth century there were so many émigrés and refugees in Berlin that one third of the population spoke French. There was not only a Dutch church, there was also a French cathedral; entire city areas were under French jurisdiction, had French street names, French schools, and French grocery shops. Not until 1800 did the words rue and avenue give way to the German Strasse and Allee.

Clay Allee in West Berlin, named in honor of the airlift, is thus anything but an alien intruder, least of all, perhaps, for those who first thought it was so named not for the general but for the artist Paul Klee.

Public Utilities

Before the Wall went up in August, 1961, there were eighty-eight vehicle and pedestrian crossing points between the East and West sectors of Berlin.

Today there are no more than five. The best known of them, located at Friedrichstrasse, popularly called Checkpoint Charlie, is the obligatory entrance for all foreigners and allied personnel traveling by car.

The East sector can also be entered by the elevated Stadt-Bahn railway, though this route involves laborious police, currency, and customs examinations. The S-Bahn, a subsidiary of the German National Railways (Reichsbahn), was taken over by the Russians after the war and quietly —and illegally — turned over by them to the East German authorities in 1955. Because it is run by the East sector authorities, it is subjected to a boycott by West Berliners, who now travel, often at considerable sacrifice in time and money, in buses or the underground. As a result, the S-Bahn’s buff and maroon cars travel like empty ghost trains through West Berlin.

Unlike the S-Bahn, which continues to serve eighty stations in West Berlin, the U-Bahn, or subway, has been effectively split in two. After the Wall went up, each side seized the cars in its sector. Of the eight major lines originally making up the subway network, four were entirely in the West and presented no problem. A fifth, having only one station in the East, at the Warschauer Brücke, now stops one station short of the former terminus. Two other, north-south lines begin in the French sector, cross the Soviet, and end in the American sector; on one line the trains run nonstop through empty stations guarded by East German border police: on the other the trains still make one stop out of six in the East sector. The eighth line, running from the Reichskanzlerplatz in the West to Pankow in the East, was split in two at Potsdamer Platz; the trains now go up to the last stop before the sector border, then turn around and go back in what Berliners call Pendelverkehr (“pendulum traffic”).

The telephone systems have likewise been split. One cannot telephone directly from West to East Berlin; the call must go back to Frankfurt or some other West German city, but the odds even then are against one’s getting through. Telegrams still go through, and mailbags are transferred at the border at least twice daily. All letters from East Berlin run the risk of being opened, but the haphazard censorship can be circumvented by the use of codes and fake names.

East and West Berlin still share the same sewer system. The East provides the power for certain key pumps which alone keep the sewage from backing up into the Havel River in the East.