25 Years After Communism, Eyesores Spur Landmark DebateDalia Fahmy
The House of Electro-Technology stretches like a felled skyscraper along the northern edge of Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, limiting views and impeding traffic in the heart of the German capital. The shopworn relic of the former East Germany, an assembly of pre-fabricated glass and aluminum squares, has been called clunky and dehumanizing. Its owners say it’s outdated and should be replaced. Christine Edmaier wants to save it.
“We lose an important part of our history when we tear these buildings down,” said Edmaier, head of Berlin’s Chamber of Architects. “It’s not about whether they’re beautiful.”
A quarter century after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Eastern Europe’s transition to democracy and capitalism, while largely successful, remains a work in progress. Even a generation later, the legacy of communism continues to weigh on the region as governments grapple with issues ranging from the structure of their economies to the quality of food to the fate of brutalist buildings that clash with newer steel and glass structures.
Berlin is battling over how much of its communist architecture to retain, restore, or destroy. The city parliament is set to vote as early as September on a new plan for the square immortalized in films as diverse as Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1980 Berlin Alexanderplatz and the 2004 Matt Damon vehicle The Bourne Supremacy.
The plan could involve offering landmark protection to buildings on the 20-acre (8-hectare) Alexanderplatz. The popular shopping destination sits in the heart of East Berlin and is the now-combined city’s busiest transportation hub -- a tangle of underground, elevated and street-level train, bus and tram stops.
Investors who bought properties expecting they’d be able to build high-rises are worried their plans may be scuttled by landmarking rules. Joerg Lammersen, head of the Berlin operations of TLG Immobilien GmbH, which owns the 45-year-old House of Electro-Technology and four other buildings on Alexanderplatz, says the city risks falling behind other European capitals by preserving too many East German relics.
“We can’t afford to keep the square as a museum, it’s too central for that,” Lammersen said, motioning toward the monotonous 10-story facade of the Electro-Technology building, which has been only marginally improved by new window louvres and entrances. “The architecture is not a highlight.”
Dallas-based Lone Star Funds in 2012 bought TLG as part of a 1.1 billion-euro ($1.5 billion) property deal -- and is said to be planning a share offering. Starwood Capital Group LLC, based in Greenwich, Connecticut, holds a stake in the Park Inn hotel on the square. Deutsche Bank AG is the biggest tenant at the House of Electro-Technology.
The area is best known for the needle-shaped television tower that has become a Berlin icon. Built in 1969 to mark East Germany’s 20th anniversary, the 368-meter (1,207-foot)-tall tower is still the country’s highest structure and can be seen across the city. Otherwise, Alexanderplatz has few memorable characteristics other than its daunting size and the jumble of large, socialist-era buildings that now house chain stores, fast-food restaurants, and fashion discounters.
The prefabricated blocks, built with great fanfare by East Germany’s star architects in the 1960s and 1970s, still speak volumes about their history. There’s the House of Travel, former headquarters of the state-owned travel agency and airline -- within walking distance of the heavily guarded “Death Strip” of the Berlin Wall that kept citizens penned in. The House of the Teacher has a Diego-Riviera-style mural depicting scientists, athletes and a woman holding a baby. At the 37-story mirror-glass Park Inn, the flagship of the state-owned Interhotel chain, all the rooms were bugged and prostitutes were hired to spy on guests.
The buildings stand at odd angles and the area’s only centerpieces -- the copper and enamel “Fountain of Friendship Between Peoples” and the “World Time Clock” with a rotating aluminum calendar -- aren’t centered at all. During Christmas and Oktoberfest, the plaza fills with pop-up stalls that sell sausages, candied apples and wool socks. For most of the year, though, it can feel like a void.
The contrast with western Berlin’s shopping districts is stark. Capitalist public spaces tend to serve consumption: malls, restaurants and cafes. Communist planners, by contrast, saw their squares and plazas as backdrops to propaganda photographs and as sites for parades.
“Under socialism, governments used public spaces to show what progressive and modern states they had,” said Stefan Wolle, a historian at Berlin’s DDR Museum, which features exhibits on life in East Germany. “The state was the landowner, the planner, the tenant. The result was city centers that were very sterile, dull and overwrought. Alexanderplatz was an example par excellence.”
When the Wall fell, officials in charge of knitting the city back together after its 45-year division set their sights on Alexanderplatz. A 1993 proposal envisioned tearing down most of the East German blocks, cutting the width of surrounding streets, and improving access to bordering neighborhoods. The plan, along with demolitions planned elsewhere in Berlin, sparked a backlash from East German preservationists.
“The fate of the city was simply put into the hands of aging West German politicians and investors,” said Katrin Lompscher, a Berlin parliamentarian with the opposition, left-leaning Die Linke party, who was 27 when the Wall fell. “People just wanted to skip over entire development phases and immediately try to be like New York.”
The biggest changes took place a 10-minute cab ride west of Alexanderplatz, where the Wall had cut through pre-war Berlin’s most important square, Potsdamer Platz. A bombed out wasteland during the division, it now features skyscrapers and cinemas around a roofed-in plaza after more than 1 billion euros in investment by Sony Corp. and Daimler AG. In front of the Brandenburg Gate, a few minutes’ walk to the north, the once-barren Pariser Platz -- flanked by the British, U.S. and French embassies and the neo-baroque Adlon hotel -- has become the epicenter of Berlin tourism.
Alexanderplatz proved more difficult because it wasn’t an empty slate, said Daniel Festag, an architect at HENN GmbH. “It’s very complicated to make change happen on a big square like that,” he said, looking down over the area from his office on the eighth floor of the House of Travel.
The biggest differences aren’t readily visible: Sidewalks were expanded to shrink one of the avenues, there’s a new underground garage, and commuter tunnels meant to keep pedestrians off the streets were removed. A handful of buildings were erected in line with a 1993 master plan by architect Hans Kollhoff, including a cube-shaped cinema, two hotels and a store selling washing machines and televisions. At the foot of the TV tower, Amsterdam-based Redevco Nederland BV is constructing a five-story building with 14 luxury apartments.
Otherwise, little of Kollhoff’s plan has been realized. A 1990s construction boom was followed by a decade-long slump, and newly built office space across Berlin stood empty. The commercial vacancy rate soared to a record-high of 10.4 percent in 2004, according to broker Jones Lang LaSalle Inc.
Alexanderplatz property owners who had been given permits to tear down East German relics and replace them with high-rises chose to renovate instead. The Park Inn, the House of Electro-Technology, the House of the Teacher, and the House of Travel received spruced-up interiors, better plumbing and in some cases revamped facades.
“Everyone thought Berlin would become like London or Paris, but when people didn’t come the investments weren’t necessary,” said Jan Kleihues, the architect who converted the former East German Centrum department store into a limestone and glass box owned by the Galeria Kaufhof GmbH chain, one of the square’s biggest draws. Though he says he once thought the communist-era structures “wouldn’t last, now I think differently: those buildings have their own architectural merits.”
Calls to revisit Alexanderplatz’s fate emerged last year after a proposal to build the first of Kollhoff’s 10 high-rises, a 39-story confection by starchitect Frank Gehry. The apartment building -- four towers connected in a clover-leaf design that’s atypically whimsical for the area -- is slightly set off from where it had been sited under the Kollhoff plan. That triggered hearings to examine whether other zoning changes might be needed.
Politicians are eager to take advantage of the recent construction boom to pull Alexanderplatz out of limbo. Since contracts allowing owners to develop their properties under the Kollhoff plan have expired, the city can create new zoning without worrying about lawsuits from investors.
“There’s a much greater acceptance of the East’s postwar architecture now that we’ve gained distance from the ideological debates tied to the division,” said Manfred Kuehne, head of urban planning in the local government. “Many owners don’t want to tear down their properties, and maybe it’s time to adjust our plans.”
TLG is relying on an agreement with the Berlin government that allows the House of Electro-Technology to be razed and replaced with taller, more modern structures. Replacing the House of Electro-Technology would open up Alexanderplatz to the rest of the city, especially trendy Prenzlauer Berg, a stroller-filled neighborhood often compared to Brooklyn’s Park Slope.
That would be smart, Lammersen said, because the city has largely filled the gaps left behind by war ruins and the demolition of the Berlin Wall. Now, he says, is the time to start adding density.
“It’s important for a capital like Berlin to set architectural accents,” he said. “If this whole area were put under landmark protection, you’d have the Television Tower and the Park Inn sticking out by themselves like lonely teeth, surrounded by the 1960s architecture.”