Berlin Alexanderplatz: Ideologies of Design and Planning and the Fate of Public Space
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It is difficult to see the human, ethical perspective in various projects and involvements as an architect. The contemporary era is one of tremendous change in architecture and in the politics of space. Particularly having come recently from Germany, I am aware of the change from the European perspective. Nostalgia for the past — an idea of returning to something that might have been but can no longer be — is instrumental in distorting and deforming modernity and the quest for an ever-better spiritual and architectural situation of human beings. Of course, that is true globally. As the economic pressures come, one must resist the temptation to become a victim of easy ideologies which tend to flatten and reduce architectural discourse through, very often, underlying authoritarian agendas, which might be expressed in different ways in different parts of the world. The proposal for Alexanderplatz in Berlin, which reflects my commitment to a new idea of urban design, is neither a capitulation to the erasure of history nor the temptation to repeat history once again.
Alexanderplatz was the main center of Berlin, the old center. When the unification of Germany came, and with it the unification of Berlin, Alexanderplatz came back to the fore as the center of the city. What should one do with such a place and where does one turn for inspiration? Alexanderplatz has been completely transformed since the 1930s when the famous schemes by Mies van der Rohe, the Luckhardt brothers, Behrens, Poelzig, and Mendelsohn were proposed. Many famous architects worked on this site during the twenties and thirties but nothing much materialized because history took another course. Now, another surprise turn of history has come with the unification of Berlin.
I turned to a doctor for information about the site. Alfred Doblin was a famous writer, the James Joyce of Berlin. However, few people know that he was a medical doctor who had his practice in East Berlin near Alexanderplatz. He studied Alexanderplatz from a medical point of view in the twenties and thirties. To paraphrase, he said: When I stand on Alexanderplatz, I am in East Berlin. This was an amazing thing to say in 1920, before the war and before the Wall. He said, I am in East Berlin because this is where the people are. In West Berlin are the zoo, the Kufurstendamm, and very nice houses. He used those categories, East and West. This view is still correct, although the delineations of space have changed.
Doblin was asked how he would describe Alexanderplatz. He made an imprint of his left hand and said: “That is Alexanderplatz.” I meditated on this fascinating act. Why wasn’t it his right hand? Why was it his left hand? Was it about left architecture versus right architecture? Was it about fascism and leftist ideology? Was it about the fact that the invisible lines of the hand which are an occult and palmistic destiny of the body, are themselves never visible when the hand grasps the tools of work? All of these thoughts coagulated in my mind as a strategy for looking at Alexanderplatz, and for deciphering its history, which is not an easy task to do today.
This part of the city was named when Czar Alexander came into Berlin in the eighteenth century, and it remained Alexanderplatz when the Russian troops departed from exactly the same spot in 1989. In the 1930s the space was formed by two Behrens buildings in a huge, very dense population quarter. Alexanderplatz today looks very different. It is difficult to orient oneself because so little remains from the past, except an invisible linkage to the Doblinian interpretation. There are new buildings, and a new scale.
The incredible idea of demolishing the city is unique to Berlin. Streets in other cities of the world such as Paris, New York and London seem to be sacred territory; nobody changes the street patterns in most cities of the world. This is not the case in Berlin. Berlin has always had the idea that if a house can be removed, the direction or course of a street can also be changed. There have been hundreds of proposals for changing street patterns in Berlin. It is poignant to realize that the idea of devastating the city predated the physical destruction of Alexanderplatz during the war, before all the utopian schemes of the great modernists had appeared in the periodicals, much less been completed. Even though this competition took place in a particular city in Europe, there were certain fundamental points that I wanted to address which relate to issues of other urban centers, whether the devastation is because of war, political catastrophe, or economic catastrophe as in American cities. I thought of the axiom of Paul Valéry, one of my favorite philosophers and poets, who said, “Humanity is permanently threatened by two dangers: order and disorder.” The threat comes from left and right, from order and disorder. I have tried to make a scheme which navigates between this Scylla and Charybdis of nostalgic historicism on the one hand, and of the tabula rasa of a totalitarian kind of thinking on the other.
The competition was in two stages with eighteen international architects. I was lucky to win the second prize with a scheme which is diametrically opposed to the winning scheme. Even though only one vote separates the two schemes, there is an abyss in the understanding of urban space. The winning scheme proposes 50 skyscrapers of equal height standing on a Cartesian grid, each built of granite. They are all the same, each with an Art Deco top. I could not understand this approach. I proposed a scheme which follows the history of Alexanderplatz and emphatically rejects the idea of isolating once again the urban problem from the social and political problem by building, for example, isolated islands of office buildings. I reject the idea that totalitarian planning can still be engaged in the late twentieth century. I do not think that the city can be demolished yet again. My proposal calls for immediate interaction of the existing with the new, with the possible. I proposed to supplement and to alter, but to deal with what is there today. I suggested to the investors of the competition that they need not demolish a set of buildings in order to rebuild them once again in another style. The alternative is to simply improve them for now. None of us knows what for now really means.
My approach is not very popular in Berlin political circles. In view of Berlin politics today, these buildings do not really exist. All of the other architects in the competition proposed that ideally, during the next forty years, all existing buildings will be demolished. I am not a fan of East German architecture and I do not think that it has much merit architecturally, but this is not a question of aesthetics. The issue is the displacement of tens of thousands of people who have lived on this site for fifty years. This housing was built as a showcase for the DDR regime. This was the best housing, the best place to live. The radical feature of my idea in view of Berlin politics is to advocate the acceptance of the existence of these vast housing estates, and to accept the fact that people live there, that their lives have to be bettered, and that these lives have a memory of at least two generations. Even the prefabricated and ill-conceived buildings of the former DDR, which have little architectural merit, should not be singled out for demolition.
This is an important point: Planning and architecture should not condone demolition; they should deal with construction and the incorporation of difficult conditions in a new and ecologically responsible manner. I propose not to alter traffic routes, not to engage in new street design, but to re-use all existing streets in a different way. The huge Karl Marx Allee goes from Alexanderplatz through the Schoeneberg residential quarter to all the outlying areas. I did not monumentalize the Karl Marx Allee as the other competitors did. I proposed to build a series of pavilions in the median to provide facilities badly needed by the nearby housing estates — recreation facilities, inexpensive movie theaters and restaurants, sports facilities, and so on. One must deal with the thousands of people who are living here and provide facilities which mediate between the old part of the city and the residential areas. This goes against the grain today. Today, Berliners are talking about renaming Karl Marx Allee to become Friedrich Hegel Allee. I think that, better than renaming streets, is to do what Hegel would have done: to mediate the dialectic extremes of east and west, good and bad, and various aesthetics by participation.
In the scheme which I designed, the old buildings on the site — the big Forum Hotel, the huge buildings of the newspaper Berliner Zeitung, the old Kaufhof department store — are to be retained. The site is to be opened emphatically with a new wedge building. This building is to serve a public function as the European information focal point for Berlin, particularly for the people from the East. My only intervention in Alexanderplatz itself is to provide a bigger entrance and exit to the underground. The underground system is one of the few things which remains intact from the Berlin of the 1920s. The shape of the wedge building exactly matches a gigantic, ominous bunker under Alexanderplatz which is closed to the public. I propose that the bunker should become a public place which is part of the vertical circulation linking the underground exits and entrances to Alexanderplatz. I refuse to orient my scheme from the viewpoint of the western portal because I believe that the majority of people will see another view, as I did when I came to Berlin as a child from Poland. Alfred Doblin or anybody coming from the East arrived at Alexanderplatz station, and not at the zoo or the Kufurstendamm. The eastern gateway to Berlin must be reinforced. Oddly, everyone else in the competition did away with the existing buildings like the Kaufhof and the Forum Hotel. Investors have already poured more than 60 million Marks into the renovation of these buildings. I do not think that the investors plan on destroying these buildings in the next five years. Perhaps they will be demolished in thirty years. It depends on how Europe develops and how Berlin will fare. In my view, it is important for the existing tall buildings to be incorporated, and I have therefore suggested a contextual re-reading of the site. The site has the old height of Berlin as represented by the Behrens buildings, but it has also the intermediate height of the proposed Mendelsohn, Mies van der Rohe, and Luckhardt buildings, and the new height of the television tower, the Forum Hotel, and other big buildings. The Kaufhof building was the most successful department store of the Eastern Bloc. People told me, Please Mr. Libeskind, leave something that we can remember on this site. I proposed to keep the Kaufhof, to double the area of the store, and to bring it up to date with new elevator cores. I proposed a new open air tower, the Odessa Tower, with inexpensive rental spaces for markets which happen here frequently.
The re-working and particularly the transparency of spaces leading out of and into Alexanderplatz are important. The obsession in Berlin today, as in many other places, is to bring history back. The award-winning scheme says that Alexanderplatz will look like Piazza Navona. I thought that it will never look like Piazza Navona. It should not look like Piazza Navona. It cannot look like Piazza Navona because underneath Alexanderplatz, there is a transportation system like 42nd Street and Times Square which can bring three million people to this place every fifteen minutes. The image of reverie of the past is inappropriate. The Berlin of tomorrow is a place of tumultuous activity and of functional connections to both existing and new buildings.
I have also proposed a linear park, which was not a part of the competition program, to connect the East with the Spree throughout all of these ruins of ideologies. It is important to understand that these sites are already owned by investors. The architecture is already made for these places. This is a planning competition to decide what is the nature of — and I would say emphatically — the public space not the private space of the offices, and how to connect the public space in the vertical and horizontal dimensions.
I made a model at 1:2000 scale as required by the competition, but I thought one should also look at the site at 1:500 scale. One should see every window and one should ask the people what they think. Should the windows move a little bit? Is this a good idea? Should the buildings be lower or higher? Should one see something else? I proposed to the Senate of Berlin to bring the citizens into the full participatory process. Particularly with contemporary technologies, there is no reason why the public cannot participate in making decisions about planning. That did not endear me with the planners of Berlin. I believe that the idea of the totality, the finality of the masterplan is misguided. One should advocate a gradual transformation of public space a metamorphic process, without relying on hypothetical time in the future when everything will be perfect. The mistake of planners and architects is to believe that 50 years from now Alexanderplatz will be perfected. We see this same illusion demonstrated over and over on Alexanderplatz.
The time is now. The interaction is now.
One should not see cities as pathological entities, as being sick. One should see them as needing care. What is needed, in my view, is a Buddhist or homeopathic approach to city planning comprised of gentle interventions, which are not very dramatic in terms of instant gratification. I tried to tell people, particularly in the west, that there is nothing wrong with Alexanderplatz. It is an incredible place which is pregnant with possibilities that have not yet been played out. That is true of many cities. My picture postcard of Berlin says, Wish you were here. The competition jury may have selected a group of identical skyscrapers standing in a rigid grid, all of equal height, all of granite. Without winning the competition, I think I have shown how Berlin will actually develop. It must develop this way because the alternative is hopeless.
The city is the greatest artistic and spiritual creation of human beings. It is a collective work which exists not only in space but also in time. Its structure is intrinsically mysterious. Let me put it this way: When you see Alexanderplatz or the city, it is more like a dream than like the construction of a washing machine or a car. In this sense, I have tried to propose an alternative to the whole notion of the masterplan with its implied idea of totality, of finality, and the misguided ambition which I think all plans have of the eternal recurrence of the same through replication of type and through replication of order. I think we know this is a nihilistic notion. I propose instead a process which reinforces the structure of change in a heterogeneous, pluralistic and diverse architecture. In a democratic society, one should acknowledge that architecture will reflect very different, and sometimes conflicting views of the world. This is an alternative approach to the traditional idea of planning which implies continuity based on projection. It is an approach which treats the city as an evolving poetic and unpredictable structure.
This passage is excerpted from “Traces of the Unborn,” from the book, Daniel Libeskind, 1995 Raoul Wallenberg Lecture, published by the College of Architecture and Urban Planning, The University of Michigan. The book is currently on sale at FormZero Books in Los Angeles, Prairie Avenue Bookshop in Chicago, William Stout in San Francisco, and Peter Miller Books in Seattle. It is also stocked by the Triangle Bookshop and the RIBA Bookshop in London, Architectura + Natura in Amsterdam, New Ballenford Books in Toronto, Architext in Melbourne, and The Centro Cultural de Belem in Lisbon. It is available for $10.00, plus postage, from the College of Architecture and Urb
Daniel Libeskind is an architect whose work has been the subject of exhibitions all over the world. Libeskind was the 1995 Raoul Wallenberg Lecturer at the College of Architecture and Urban Planning. This article is an excerpt from Libeskind’s Wallenberg Lecture, in which he discusses his entry for the competition to redesign Alexanderplatz. Among Libeskind’s current projects is the Jewish Museum in Berlin, one of the key projects in the reconstruction of that city.