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In Brunnenstrasse, Mitte, a very interesting building has been completed by architect Arno Brandlhuber. This is perhaps the antithesis of the L-40, where the L-40 is carried through with a minimum of compromise and adaptation, this is all compromise and adaptation. And it is all the more interesting for it.

The building is located in a part of town that is currently the forefront of gentrification; one of the last squats across the street was emptied last November, the façade still reads “Wir bleiben alle hier”, we’re all staying here, but the building is now a sad empty shell. New bars and galleries pop up, and the area will continue to become more expensive, like the rest of Mitte. This building is of course a part of this process, but then again, so am I, so I will leave this subject for now.

The building itself stands on the ruins of a previous investor’s dreams, the plot was bought, and foundations built in the middle of the 1990’s by an investor who went bankrupt. To use the existing foundation was one of the first and a very defining decision in the construction process. This was the first compromise, the next is the buildings height, it has been chopped off to allow the people living in the courtyard house behind it to keep as much sunlight as possible. Another compromise is the unquestioning adaptation to the floor heights of the neighboring buildings, which incidentally are at different levels, and meet each other in a low step in the centre of the new buildings that is visible through the façade. The facades are pragmatic and built on a very low budget. The majority of the façade is constructed with translucent polycarbonate sheets, which allow the house to light up at night. The result resembles French Lacaton Vassal in its pragmatic approach to create great spaces on small budgets, but with a certain Berlin roughness to it.

The most interesting part of the building is the gallery in the ground floor, equipped with a wall that swings inward and opens up the gallery to the street in a manner similar to the Storefront Gallery in NYC, but where the Storefront gallery has a nice and specific façade, the façade here looks like an anonymous wall and is covered with posters, stickers and tags, bringing the city into the gallery in a way that the Storefront never managed. It produces a great interface between the city and the building, a way to blur the border between the public and the private, and turns the entire gallery from being a semi-private space to a semi-public space.

In order to understand what is great about this building, it is essential to understand the two major issues that have haunted Berlin architecture over the last decades. Firstly, the city suffers from an architectural trauma imposed by the draconic construction regulations Hans Stimmann introduced here in the 1990’s. These principles defined the “Berlin style”, or Neo-Prussian style, where all new, and preferably adaptations of old buildings would be maximum 22 meters tall, follow the old block structure with outer and inner courtyards, be divided, at least visually, in street facades that were short, preferably shorter than they were tall, with standing windows and facades in natural stone or a material resembling natural stone. This conservative and frightening dogma has been imposed on new constructions across the city. You can see the traces everywhere, and the results are often, at least in my opinion, suspiciously similar to the local architecture of the 1930’s.

Secondly, there is no money here. Ever since the happy days of reunification and grand construction projects, Berlin has suffered, and still suffers from an economic hangover. The city is broke, and investors are cautious, and reluctant to invest in architecture. They often manage to get cheap and very mediocre buildings built in return for promises of creating jobs. This means that value engineered rubbish is built in prominent locations across the city every month. Boxes with no resemblance of architecture but with plenty of space for billboards litter the city these days.

This is a building that presents an alternative for Berlin architecture. This is an architecture much more in keeping with the Zeitgeist of the city than the neo-Prussian value engineered rubbish that constitutes the majority of the new buildings in this city. It is a cheap, yet sensitive and elaborate building. A building that communicates with the public spaces and adds something to the street. The city slogan these days is “be Berlin” and this building is Berlin.

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Hauptbahnhof under construction

The railway station, as a building type, has had its ups and downs over the last two centuries. From its humble beginnings in Liverpool, it evolved into the grandiose cathedrals of St Pancras, London, Grand Central Terminal, NYC or the Victoria Terminus in Bombay.

Then, at some point in the middle of the last century, they fell from grace. From being the cathedrals of modern rapid transport, the railway stations became the local epi-centre of urban vice when airports became the glamorous, nodes of travel. King’s Cross, London, and Københavns Hovedbanegård would two examples.

Lately though, as airports become ever less glamorous and environmentally abominable in the public eye, railway stations have, during the last decades, yet again become monumental cathedrals of transportation. The train station has come out of hiding and claims space in the city where it becomes the most important of transportation nodes.

Berlin has got a brand spanking new train station (Berlin Hauptbahnhof), it was opened as late as in 2006, and is currently the largest crossing station in Europe. It is located in Moabit, an area that was more or less wall adjacent during the cold war. Large parts of the area were empty when the wall came down and a lot of government buildings sprang up south of the station during the early nineties when money poured into the city.

The station itself was the last of these grand projects to be completed, long after the steam had gone out of the over-optimistic post-wall Berlin. The final cost of the construction landed somewhere around €700,000,000.

The thing that interests me with train stations is usually not the actual building, but what kind of urban environment that surrounds it, the local context, from King’s Cross’ (formerly) seedy context to Venice’s glorious embankment, the area around train stations is never really dull.

Today, the Hauptbahnhof sits in, more or less lone majesty, surrounded by parking lots, wasteland and the river. With the railway stations’ refound status, I’ve been curious regarding what will grow up around the Hauptbahnhof, until last week when the plans for the area immediately south of the station were presented in a number of local newspapers.

Basically the plan is to construct a whole batch of hotels, totaling approximately 1,200 beds, mostly orientated to a budget market, a congress centre for 3,500 people and 300 or so car parking spaces.

Well, I can understand that tourism is one of the expanding industries in Berlin, and the fact that there is a lack of centrally located congress centres as far as I can understand. But that’s basically as far as I can sympathize with this plan. To create a tourist enclave in the middle of Berlin, isolated by government offices that are empty in the evenings, train tracks and the river is just idiotic.

First of all, this area could be so much more, it needs to become integrated with Berlin, not isolated from it. The Hauptbahnhof is not an airport in the middle of nowhere, it is an extremely central part of the city. To create a tourist island here is to separate it from the rest of the city.

Secondly, any urban area needs to develop over time, instant programs of a larger scale focusing on one function usually become very dreary. Any major European city has a number of more or less failed (on an urban level) large scale single function developments, especially those developed in a haste.

Thirdly, is it even going to be attractive to tourists? The reason you go to Berlin as a tourist is for the vibrant mix of everything, it is functionally quite an integrated city. Cheap bars next expensive hotels, squats next to banks, there’s always a surprise down every street. We all know that’s not going to last, but that’s no reason to speed up the generification (is that a proper word actually?) of Berlin willfully.

I do appreciate that the incentive for this is economical and my arguments against it aren’t very economical. I do also appreciate the fact that Berlin is still a scarred city with many blanks in the urban fabric, and some people are itching to mend them. But I can’t help but feel that the city sells itself short, over and over again.

There are lots of examples, read Architecture in Berlin’s posts on Mediaspree, or Alexanderplatz. The blanks in the urban fabric, that some are so eager to fill in, are part of what gives Berlin unique charm. The undefined spaces, that with temporary modification can become anything, allow things to prosper, ideas, art, clubs and so forth that would never even be able to survive for a week elsewhere.

However, this will most likely give Berlin something else that’s unique; a dull area just outside a major railway station.

Shopping arcades may be fighting a losing battle for consumers in the long run. They appear to be too rigid in structure, lack complexity and adaptability. For the last years, internationally, there’s been a triumphant return for the department store. In London; Selfridge’s, Harvey Nichol’s and last, but not least; Dover Street Market, these are changing the idea of a department store. At least with Dover Street Market, the idea is to create a more adaptable structure. Brands are organised independently and can update lines and stalls freer than a shop with a generic men’s department. The fact that it is decorated like a shanty town just increases its impression of instant flux. Departments can expand and retract according to need whereas the shopping arcade is locked in so many ways to the physical borders between the actual shops.

Another great strategy is to mix in other activities with the shopping, eating, drinking, art exhibitions and so on, among the merchandise rather than in a food court. It’s basically all done in order to expose the customer too as many products as possible in a friendly environment. The need to sell is not emphasized, cash registers are almost hidden away, staff don’t accost you, the need to browse is understood and encouraged. The longer you spend there the more profitable you are and thus it’s in the interest of the store is to make you feel welcome and make you linger around. The shopping area becomes curated rather than engineered, art exhibitions are interlaced with products and the borders between art and consumer goods are blurred.

This concept has now found its way to Stockholm, it may have been around for a while, what do I know, I haven’t been there in ages. PUB is one of the classic department stores in Stockholm, but has in recent years become less exclusive and popular. The top floor has recently been refurbished to accommodate a very DSM inspired fashion outlet. Even most of the aesthetics seem to come from the same shanty-town concept.

This type of venues will probably pop up all over the place in the coming years, and whether or not they succeed will basically depend on whether they manage to maintain their exclusive reputation. You can only have so many luxury shantytowns in one city. I am quite positive to the concept I must admit, it adds a few of the layers of complexity that the shopping mall lacks by mixing bars and exhibition spaces with the shopping. These developments are more living room like, whereas shopping malls are highways, pick your exit from the main aisle, do your business, get back out. Places like D.S.M. and PUB manage to keep me interested quite a while longer. I am however no expert in shop design and profitability per square foot and so forth, and in the end, that’s what it all comes down to.

From an urban perspective, I don’t really mind them neither. They don’t pretend to be an extension of the street, that’s the whole point; it’s exclusive. These stores are highly controlled environments, but so are shopping malls, possibly to an even higher degree. At the same time, they never claim to be public, they never pretend to be an ersatz for the city centre, they are a part of it.

Alexa: A new 54 000 square meter shopping mall by Alexanderplatz, Berlin. A few months ago, this gigantic new shopping mall opened in the centre of Berlin. It is located right next to the Alexanderplatz although it turns its back to the over-sized square with it’s famous TV-tower.

The mall itself can be described as huge, pink, and vaguely resembling a monstrous pastry (marshmallow man out of Ghost busters type of thing). According to the architects, it’s an Art Deco development, designed to remind of the roaring twenties. A very clumsy attempt to recreate a more acceptable past yet again perhaps. Or is it just an excuse to get a project through planning that wouldn’t have passed without years of debate had it been in a less populist style.

The Municipality and government originally intended for the land around Alexanderplatz to be developed in smaller plots, containing government buildings and embassies and other official buildings. These instead ended up around Pariser Platz, Potsdamer Platz and Tiergarten. The sites around Alexanderplatz were left without any purpose. The site of Alexa was also a rather difficult one, a block off Alexanderplatz, next to the S-bahn tracks and in the middle of several traffic interchanges. Sometimes I feel that this city is so desperate to become whole again, it sells itself short. Potsdamer Platz is not my favorite development, yet it’s from a different division in architectural quality compared to Alexa. This desperation to have a fully operational world class city a.s.a.p. is not really helping achieving any long term goal for Berlin. From a strictly architectural viewpoint, Berlin would do well to slow down rather than fill in the gaps as fast as possible. These are however desperate times, and have been so ever since the recession set in, but it must be possible to do better than this.

You’ll find no argument from me that Alexanderplatz needs a makeover and needs cheering up. I would however argue that the main problem of Alexanderplatz is a problem with scale rather than lack of tacky arcthitecture in funny colours. In a time when even Dubai and Las Vegas are employing international architects to improve their tacky reputation, Berlin goes in the other direction.

Alexa appears to be the physical manifestation of the shock therapy in capitalism, imposed by the IMF on Russia after the communist system collapsed. One could however question its legitimacy 20 years later. An embassy of vulgar capitalism in the heart of former GDR. One can’t help to appreciate the irony.

If you look up the term “Cyberpunk” in Wikipedia, you’ll find an image of Sony Center in Potsdamer Platz. Cyberpunk is as a genre of literature and films, and is usually set in a near future dystopia, with “high-tech and low life”, artificial intelligence and corporations running amok, where nothing is as it seems to our eyes. All in all an extremely in-human world. Bladerunner is a prime example of the genre.

The Wikipedia image caption states that Sony Center has aesthetic qualities resembling of the genre, but on the other hand, one could extend the analogy to cyberpunk even further.

Potsdamer Platz used to be the absolute city centre in Berlin in the twenties, it was the largest traffic junction on the continent, a huge number of vehicles and trams passed by every day and this also led to the erection of Europe’s first traffic light. Since a bunch of Third Reich official buildings were located in the vicinity, the area was reduced to rubble in the allied bombing raids. During the cold war, the area was part of No man’s land, and remained barren. When the wall came down, officials in Berlin were suddenly faced with the fact that their once city center was still rubble.

As the reunited Berlin was a city with aspirations, everything was done to make sure the area was returned to its vibrant pre-war self as quickly as possible. In order to achieve this, the large area was reduced to three sites, each to be sold off to just one corporation. Naturally, the prospect of cheap inner city land made many a corporation start drooling, and in the end the two largest slices were snatched up by Sony and Daimler-Benz and they set forth to develop the area at neck-breaking speed. The objective was to create the resemblance of urbanity, shops, cafes, theaters and so on on ground level. An urban area containing pedestrian streets, lined with trees, fountains and the usual urban paraphernalia. The only difference is that it is almost entirely privately owned and managed. A meticulously controlled private city. Quite cyberpunk, isn’t it?