THE BIG BUILDUP
Explore the capital's amazing architecture
Berlin may not have the Renaissance palazzos of Florence or the fairytale spires of Prague. The widespread devastation of World War II took care of that, reducing the majority of the capital’s historic buildings to ruins. A few Baroque palaces and neoclassical façades still bear witness to the city's ancient splendor, but what Berlin does boast today is a thrillingly diverse patchwork of contemporary architecture that captures the capital’s history. Whether it’s showstopping Brutalism, quirky retro constructions, or contemporary masterpieces that quicken your pulse, there is plenty to explore and discover in Berlin’s modern cityscape.
TURN OF THE CENTURY
Ever wondered what Berlin looked like at the end of the1800s? It was a fairly big European capital whose latest urban projects, inspired by the Renaissance, Gothic and Baroque styles, were woven into a tapestry of older neoClassical and Baroque buildings. When the Industrial Revolution kicked in, migration drove people from rural areas into the city, and Berlin’s population swelled rapidly. The city was soon fitted with a railway system and the first U-Bahn lines, and to provide much-needed housing, it began drawing up plans for Mietskaserne, or “rental barracks,” a style of tenement housing in which apartments are clustered around a series of interconnected courtyards. Often featuring stuccoed fronts and Art Nouveau or Art Deco decoration and almost always five stories high, these buildings sprung up en masse between 1860–1914. Wealthier families lived in the “front house,” while the working class lived in the darker and less decorated courtyard apartments. By law, these yards had to be large enough for a horse-drawn firefighters’ wagon to enter, and shops, industry, and other businesses were often incorporated into the structures. Many of Berlin’s residential neighborhoods still feature these Altbau buildings – though getting access may be tricky. For a prime example of this courtyard-style construction that's open to the public, visit Mitte’s
Hackesche Höfe (Hackescher Markt). Built in 1906, the fully restored complex features eight interconnected courtyards that are now home to clubs, restaurants, theaters, and shops.
BETWEEN TWO WARS: CLEAN AND FUNCTIONAL STYLE
After World War I drew to a close, Berlin didn't just pick up the pieces: it also expanded its boundaries by incorporating 59 rural communities and 27 estates. The districts of Charlottenburg and Schöneberg, until then independent towns, were now part of the city. With over four million inhabitants occupying an area of 880 square kilometers, Berlin was the largest city in Europe. To provide a new, functional kind of housing, architect Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus school in 1929. According to the Bauhaus principles, arts, crafts, and architecture should be given equal importance to create highly functional buildings with a modern design. The German Bauhaus movement did not last long, as it was soon banned by the Nazis along with all other forms of abstract or Expressionist art, but it did leave an important mark in Berlin, where it took different names, from "Weimar style" to "New Rationalism" and "Expressionism." Its main followers, Bruno Taut and Martin Wagner, created the progressive housing projects of the White City (Schillerring 13, Reinickendorf) and of the Horseshoe
Estate (Fritz-Renate-Allee 44, Neukölln), both UNESCO World Heritage Sites that have been described as two of the most outstanding examples of German urban planning of the 1920s. Intended for the working class, these large housing blocks were built with low-cost materials and standardized floor plans, and were meant to also create a sense of community through large gardens and local services. Paint rather than stucco was used to provide cheap decoration, and the initial monotony of the long housing blocks was later broken by varying the units’ heights. Compared to the tenement housing of the early 1900s, the new architecture focused on increased hygiene, brightness, air, and common spaces. Taut took the concept even further, applying it to the English garden city idea to create the enormous
Onkel-Toms-Hütte housing estate (U Onkel-Toms-Hütte). These Bauhaus-style townhouses are comprised of single and
multiple family condos in the lush greenery of Grunewald. Berlin's New Rationalism not only affected residential neighborhoods: the Shell-Haus office building, built in1932, features a very characteristic façade that leaps forward to create six folds as the building increases in height from six to 10 stories. But when Hitler rose to power in 1933, the construction of these large housing projects came to a halt. As the Führer prepared for war, he also jotted down his plans for the imperial Berlin of his dreams, the "world capital city of Germania," featuring imposing buildings and large boulevards. His defeat and a city reduced to rubble by the war upset his plans, but he did manage to leave behind a couple of examples of what can be considered Nazi architecture. The
Tempelhof Airport building, built to be the biggest airport of that time, has an imposing concrete façade adorned with austere Nazi eagles, a large check-in hall lined with monumental block-type staircases, and a rooftop terrace to provide perfect views of the Reich's Luftwaffe air shows.
AFTER WWII, A CITY DIVIDED
The city lay in ruins after the war finally came to an end. For years, survival was Berlin's main priority, with homelessness and food and fuel shortages being the grim realities Berliners faced every day. In 1948, however, the Marshall Plan kicked in, and economic aid from the American government began to flow in. For West Berlin, the 1950s were a period of rapid reconstruction, leaving behind a legacy of rather retro-looking buildings that dot the cityscape today. In 1957, the IBA expo brought renowned international architects to Berlin for the Interbau development project. Talents like Alvar Aalto, Le Corbusier, and Arne Jacobsen contributed to the redevelopment of the Hansaviertel district north of Tiergarten, which still features numerous high-rises in the iconic Nachkriegsmoderne, or post-war modern, style. The Haus der Kulturen
der Welt (John-Foster-Dulles- Allee 10, Mitte), built as a congress hall in 1957 and today a cultural center, is one of the other iconic buildings of that era, together with the Bikini-Haus of 1955 (Budapester Str. 38-50, Charlottenburg) reopened in 2014 as a sophisticated mall. Hans Scharoun's Philharmonie ( 1960) and the Neue
Nationalgalerie (Potsdamer Str. 50, Mitte), a Mies van der Rohe design from 1968, are part of the redevelopment of the Tiergarten area. Meanwhile in East Berlin, construction began in 1952 to build Stalinallee, renamed
Karl-Marx-Allee in 1961. The Friedrichshain boulevard was seen as a flagship of East Berlin’s reconstruction, and the grand architecture was designed to reflect the greatness of the socialist regime. Nearly 90m wide and about 2km long, the Allee is lined with monumental apartment buildings in the classic Soviet-style wedding-cake look
of that period. Along with the retro Kino
International, a movie theater still in use today, the boulevard’s architecture remains untouched, a shining example of the Soviet influence on East Berlin’s architecture. By the 1960s/70s, another distinctive look to emerge on West Berlin’s cityscape was Brutalism, defined by stark concrete and aggressive shapes. Shining examples of this imposing look are the Czech Embassy on Mitte’s Wilhelmstraße, with its cement panels and tinted glass, or the St. Agnes
church on Alexandrinenstraße in Kreuzberg, currently being converted into an ultramodern art gallery by renowned German architect Arno Brandlhuber.
TOGETHER AGAIN: REUNIFIED BERLIN
In the 1990s, Berlin administrators and politicians were faced with the problem of filling the empty spaces of what had once been the Berlin Wall's "death strip," and creating unity in the two differently developed halves of the city. One of the first achievements was the reconstruction of Potsdamer Platz, the former heart of the city. Led by archi-stars like Renzo Piano, Hans Kohlhoff, and Christoph Kohlbecker, cranes worked for years to recreate the bustling hub the Platz had once been. Other achievements were Daniel Libeskind's extension of the former Jewish Museum building (Lindenstr. 9-14, Mitte) into an irregularly angled silver structure that could symbolize the tormented history of the Jews in Germany, and Norman Foster's remodeling of the Reichstag (Mitte) and the design of its new glass cupola, which can be visited by appointment, offering a view of even more new architectural projects taking shape in the city.
The Shell-Haus (1932) is famous for its wave-like façade.
The Beisheim Center on Potsdamer Platz houses the RitzCarlton Hotel.
1956-1957 (West): Haus der Kulturen