Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Berlin reborn

Berlin the capital of Germany and the Capital of the province of Brandenburg in Northern Germany is over 800 years old, with a population of 3.5 million people, Berlin is a transport hub in Europe, a world city of culture, science and media, one third of its territory is composed of rivers, lakes, parks, gardens and forests. In 1539 the city became Lutheran splitting with the Roman Catholic church. Berlin has a long established reputation for tolerance, in 1685 an edict by Frederick William Hohenzollern known as the Great Prince Elector, welcomed all religions and ten of thousands of French Huguenots came to settle in Berlin. In 1700 on the eve of the creation of the Kingdom of Prussia, 20% of the population was French speaking. Today Berlin is the capital of the new Germany, modern, artistic hub, high technology and research, the seat of world renowned universities. Since 1990 the Federal Government of Germany has taken as a mission to give back to Berlin the shine of a city of knowledge and enlightenment, focusing on the great philosophers like Kant, Goethe, Hegel, and Humboldt who made Germany famous.  The twelve year dictatorship of the Nazi regime is acknowledged but is also given the proper historical perspective, as a horrible aberration brought on by historical circumstances which cannot dominate the entire historical past of the city or the country.

I have been going to Berlin since 1998 and have seen much improvement and changes in the reconstruction and beautification of this great capital city. One project I have been following for years now is the reconstruction of the Eastern sector of the city where most historical buildings of old Berlin were located under the division of the city during the cold war years (1946-1989).  The East German Communist Authorities under the strict supervision of Soviet Russia had allowed the city to remain in a state of total ruin since 1945 and had done next to nothing to rebuild the part of the city they controlled, except to build ugly concrete buildings all identical row upon row. At re-unification the Federal Government started to clean, restore and rebuild all the historical buildings to give Berlin the architectural character it had prior to 1918. In areas where the devastation had been total, to allow for international architectural contests to build new spectacular buildings based on elements of light and openness.  We find this concept in all the new Federal Government buildings like the New Office and Residence of the German Chancellor or the old Reichstag building. Nothing of the old Nazi architecture has been retained with the exception of two buildings which escaped destruction, the old Air Force HQ under Goering, despite the fact that the Nazi eagles and symbols have been removed it looks sinister, that building is now housing the Ministry of Financial Planning. The other one is the old Propaganda Ministry of Goebbels which now houses the Ministry of Welfare and Social Assistance. For those seeking the old Nazi past or even elements of the old Cold War days little remains, the one exception would be the old Gestapo HQ, the building itself was destroyed but the basement remains and is now a museum on State Terror , an object lesson in what can go wrong when fanaticism and intolerance take over a national government and extremist ideology is the new god.

I remember in 1998 the centre of Berlin and the area around the Brandenburg Gate and the old Reichstag was largely vast empty fields, Postdamer Platz was one large open space with weeds and not much more. The Berlin prior to 1945 had clearly been swept away. Today it is reborn in modern eclectic buildings, the Embassies of countries are re-occupying their old sites, competing to rebuild in a style which will remain faithful to the idea that the page is turned on the past and Berlin is now looking to a prosperous and bright future.

The one project I really liked is the re-building of the Frederick the Great inspired centre of Berlin just along Unter den Linden avenue (under the Linden trees). This beautiful avenue was conceived by the grand father of Frederick the Great, as the ceremonial entrance to the Official Royal Berlin, Ambassadors would arrive at the Brandenburg Gate which was a Custom House at the time and be met  by a carriage sent from the Royal City Palace at the other end of the avenue, there they would be escorted along the avenue, passing in front of every official building and Embassies, the Opera House and Crown Prince Palace, the Palace Commander's Residence, the Armoury and the Church of St-Hedwige,  until finally arriving at the island where all the famous museums of the city are located with the Lutheran Cathedral and the great City Palace. Today most of those buildings have been rebuilt and restored. The last one not restored yet is the great Imperial City Palace of the Hohenzollern dynasty which served as their Berlin Residence for 800 years. In the 1950's the Communist decided to blow up the palace, it took several days to do so and it was severely criticized around the world as unnecessary.
But then the Communists like their allies the Nazis (until 1941), were never one to take into consideration the views of others. Luckily for us they ended up in the garbage bin of history.

This project has now been approved by the Senate of Berlin, the Parliament of Brandenburg and the Bundestag of Germany, the project should be completed by 2017. The idea is not to recreate the City Palace as it was but to recreate the outside walls and great courtyards. The building itself will be modern, devoted to art, culture and learning. This project will complete the historical reconstruction of the city centre making it whole again for the first time since 1939.
The reconstruction will be financed by private donors and by the Federal Government of Germany. Private donors can buy brinks, their name will be inscribed on the brick and in a ledger. Already many famous families in Germany like the heirs of Bismarck and others have joined this effort. The members of the Imperial family, the Hohenzollern are also interested in this project.

Here are some photos of Berlin today and of the Palace reconstruction project.

A view from the roof top of the Armoury, what the reconstructed City Palace of the Kings and German Emperors will look like in 2017.

Currently the view at the end of Unter den Linden is vacant, in 2017 the City Palace will appear completing the view.

The facade on the Berlin Cathedral side, to recreate the baroque facade hundreds of stone masons and artists are trained to do the work.

The Brandenburg gate built in 1788 was the ceremonial entrance to the avenue leading to the City Palace. Built as a gate to Peace it is modelled on the Propylaea or sacred gate of the Acropolis of Athens.

Pariser Platz (Paris Place) is now close to traffic and open only to pedestrians as it was in the old days.
On the platz on the right of the photo the rebuilt French Embassy and on the left the USA Embassy, re-occupying their old location prior to 1939.

The new Residence and Office of the German Chancellor on the Spree River next to the Reichstag. This is a new location for the Chancellery and it is a marvel of light and space. Open to the world. Historically the chancellery was located closer to Potsdamer Platz, today the Embassy of Canada occupies that spot.

Charlottenburg Palace and garden built in 1699 was the residence of the Royal family for many decades, the wife of Frederick II the Great, Queen Marie Christine lived here. He preferred to live in Potsdam at Sans Souci. His wife was never invited to live at Sans Souci Palace.

The Tiergarten this magnificient park in the centre of Berlin was once part of a great royal forest starting at the Brandenburg Gate.

Another gem of central Berlin, the Gendarmarkt 1773, named after the Cuirassier regiment, Gens d'armes who were billeted in the square with the symphony hall (Konzerthaus) and the French and German Cathedrals. This beautiful square had been left in ruins by the Communist until 1984 when West Germany paid to have the site restored.

Today Potsdamer Platz which borders Leipziger Plats in the right hand corner. Modern it replaces the old buildings all destroyed during the Second World War. This area has always been an entertainment area in Berlin.




  1. If Frederick the Great's wife was never allowed to come to Sans Souci palace, maybe that explains its name -- doesn't "sans souci" mean "worry-free"? Or is my French truly rusty?

    1. The story is that he never wanted to marry her, she was an Austrian Duchess and Austria was is enemy. Frederick built Sans Souci (worry free) because he did not like living in Berlin he did not like the people of the city that much. There is also suspicions that old Fritz was gay.

  2. I have only been to Berlin in the 80s when the wall was still up. What a transformation it must be.
    And a sign of hope.

    1. I don't think you would recognize the city, it is beautiful, prosperous and a happy place.

  3. I've always wanted to vist Berlin. I was in Germany years ago but I did not make it to city. Thanks for the wonderful info and photos...and for rekindling the wanderlust.

    1. You should and take the shirt guy with you too.

    2. Yes, probably. Between the two of us we can usually comprehend/respond to a German sentence. Individually; not so sure.

  4. I love Berlin's gift of reinventing itself. That said, there's a heaviness about so much of the architecture that weighs it down. Schools Charlottenburg is certainly one exception (and I gather Potsdam is another, though I've not yet made my way out there.

  5. That's Schloss, not Schools. Damn this word-guesser.

    1. If you think of it Charlottenburg would make a marvellous school setting if you like Baroque.

  6. Lovely post Laurent. All the aerial pictures really help in understanding the layout of things too. Don't suppose you were in a balloon taking all those pictures, were you?