Filling Berlin’s Gaps

Bold buildings are sprouting in areas that have remained barren since World War II

On a dusty parking lot in central Berlin, where U.S. bombs leveled homes and offices in 1945, Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas is planning a beehive-like digital media center for publisher Axel Springer. A 15-minute bike ride away, on the former site of an iron foundry, architect Daniel Libeskind is completing a titanium-wrapped apartment building crowned with a soaring penthouse. Across the Humboldthafen canal, a new neighborhood with a tree-lined boulevard flanked by shops, homes, and offices is rising where rail-switching yards stood before they were wiped out during World War II.

Seventy years after the end of the war, Berlin is finally filling the last gaps left by Allied bombs, which destroyed more than two-thirds of the buildings in the city center. Architects say the construction boom offers Berlin a chance to make up for decades of bad planning and mediocre architecture. “This is a new time in Berlin,” says Libeskind, the Polish American architect who designed the Jewish Museum in Berlin and drew up the master plan for the new World Trade Center site in Manhattan. “It’s one of the great cities of the world, and we expect it to compete. We don’t expect it to be some backwater.”

The German capital is a hodgepodge of architectural styles, each reflecting the political priorities of successive rulers. The pompous classical buildings of the Kaisers were a statement of economic might. Stern Nazi ministries, a few of which are still used by the government, doubled as monuments to efficiency. East Berlin’s plattenbau, massive apartment blocs made from prefabricated concrete slabs, were symbols of Soviet austerity. “Berlin was a hugely subsidized, nonfunctioning entity until the wall came down,” says Lena Kleinheinz, a partner at Berlin’s Magma Architecture. “We’re slowly overcoming that.”

While many buildings under construction in the city center will house ministries and other government offices, an increasing share of the development is powered by growing private wealth and an ascendant technology industry. Private projects under construction in the city last year were valued at €23.6 billion, up 43 percent from 2012, according to research firm Bulwiengesa. “Berlin is realizing it can’t just rely on being the capital,” says Andreas Ludwigs, head of real estate at Axel Springer, Germany’s biggest publisher, whose Koolhaas-designed media center will have desks for 3,500 employees. “It needs to find its own feet.”

A rendering of Axel Springer’s digital center.
A rendering of Axel Springer’s digital center.
Source: Courtesy Axel Springer/Oma

The Springer complex sits on Zimmerstrasse, the heart of the city’s historical newspaper district that once teemed with newsmen, copy boys, and delivery trucks. The neighborhood was almost completely flattened in the war and later was split in half by the Berlin Wall. Koolhaas says the Springer development, with its 10-story atrium and terraced, open-plan floors visible from the outside, will restore dynamism to the area. “We wanted to continue the traditions of this historic neighborhood but also create workspaces with a perspective to the future,” says Ludwigs.

Berlin, with a population of 3.5 million, is gaining about 50,000 residents a year, which is creating changes in the cityscape. Many of the migrants are high earners from places such as San Francisco and London. Rents have jumped 30 percent in five years, prompting a spate of apartment construction that added 16,000 units in 2014. Last year an apartment close to Hitler’s bunker sold for a record €5.7 million ($6.4 million).

The last time construction grew at this pace was just after reunification, when the federal government offered generous tax breaks for new developments to lure back the banks, insurers, and other businesses that quit the city after the war. Planners at the time aimed to re-create the look of 1930s Berlin, enforcing strict rules that limited most buildings to about six stories, the maximum height firefighters can reach with ordinary ladders. Building codes mandated natural stone exteriors and windows set back from the facade to resemble Berlin’s traditional double-frame windows. Pariser Platz, the historic central square at the Brandenburg Gate, was rebuilt on the footprint of its prewar layout after lying fallow during the years of the Berlin Wall, a decision that Libeskind says betrayed a lack of imagination. “Some of the world’s best architects did their worst work in Berlin because of the restrictions,” he says.

Those rules are slowly being relaxed. Michael Müller, who took over as Berlin’s mayor in December, has convened town hall meetings to discuss some of the real estate developments. These events, which bring together the city’s disparate constituencies—from 1970s squatters who salvaged bombed-out neighborhoods to slick restaurateurs looking for more glamorous spaces—always make one thing clear: Berlin remains a work in progress. “When we first got involved in the 1990s, people said the rebuilding would be finished in 10 years,” says Helmut Jahn, a German-born architect based in Chicago who designed the Sony Center, a covered plaza with offices, restaurants, and cinemas that’s one of Berlin’s most famous post-unification landmarks. “Now it’s 25 years later, and we’re not finished yet. That’s natural. These things take time.”

The bottom line: Private investment is powering a building boom to accommodate new migrants to the German capital.

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