To describe Berlin as a construction
site has become a cliché. A report from March 2000 in The Architectural
Review reads: Cranes have dominated Berlins skyline [for]
the past ten years. 1 Five
years prior, an article in Art in America declared: Six years
after the fall of the Wall, Berlin is coming more and more to resemble
a vast construction site. 2 Cranes
and scaffolding can be seen all over the city. But the image of Berlin
as a conurbation under construction owes much to Potsdamer Platz. There,
evidence of renovation is at its most evident, and because of this Potsdamer
Platz has become the incarnation of a city-turned-building-site. Even
though other urban locations are undergoing similar transformation, this
area is by far the most visible not only because of its central
location where traffic and people converge on the way to Berlins
most popular sights 3 , but also
because of its often dramatic history, which I will outline below.
Yet perhaps more decisively,
Potsdamar Platz has become a visual signifier for post-reunification Berlin
because representations of its reconstruction have circulated in profusion
throughout the media since its architectural makeover began in 1990. From
newspaper and magazine articles about the New Berlin to travel
guides and postcards, as well as exhibitions and scholarly studies, the
successive stages of the areas reconstruction have been widely publicized
in Germany and abroad. The constant circulation of these images has ensured
the areas currency as the central icon of Berlins reconstruction.
But what does it mean for Berlins transformation to be represented
by the transformation of Potsdamer Platz? I will demonstrate that the
urban paradigm highlighted by Potsdamer Platzs reconstruction both
exalts and depends upon contemporary global capitalism, and in
turn, that this glorification also underlies the reconstruction of post-reunification
German identity as a whole. Finally, I suggest that this affirmation of
global capital in Potsdamer Platz not only fails to address the areas
historical complexity, but that it actively represses this history.
Making Potsdamer Platz
The sale of this land was followed
by a public competition in 1991 to choose a masterplan for the area, which
defined guidelines for urban occupation, such as street tracing, building
sizes and functions, and overall volumetric principles. The winning entry,
by the Munich firm Hilmer & Sattler, maintained the octagonal shape
of Leipziger Platz and retraced the old Potsdamer Strasse, as well as
creating tree-lined avenues and smaller roads. 4 The
masterplan also established mixed uses: commerce, residences, services,
and entertainment. This stemmed from the architects intention to
regenerate urban life in Potsdamer Platz, since the intermingling of different
urban functions was associated with older, more established districts
in the city. 5 But this insistence
on mixed uses as a guarantee of urban life ignores the fact that, in traditional
cities (and the old Potsdamer Platz), variety of use is generated gradually,
by social practices and transactions rooted in the everyday, developed
and altered over time. The Potsdamer Platz of today, however, was created
in a relatively short amount of time and is owned not by many different
businesses and individuals, but by four international mega-corporations.
In turn, the whole variety of buildings, functions, and enterprises
is controlled by these four companies.
After choosing Hilmer &
Sattlers masterplan, Potsdamer Platzs new owners held private
architectural competitions to design their respective sites. Potsdamer
Platz was then transformed into the worlds largest construction
site. The biggest portion of Potsdamer Platz belongs to DaimlerChrysler,
and comprises sixteen buildings: the debis 6 headquarters;
office buildings, including one for Mercedes-Benz, now a branch of DaimlerChrysler;
four residential buildings; a covered shopping arcade; a hotel; and an
entertainment complex with a multiplex film center, a theater, an Imax,
and a casino. The Haus Canaris, one of the few historical buildings to
remain after World War II, was made into a small conference center.
The overall layout of the DaimlerChrysler
sector was designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano. Pianos
architecture is assertive yet unobtrusive. The ochre surfaces of his buildings
are lightened by large panels of transparent glass set on a slender metal
framework (architectural critic Peter Davey calls this framing filigree,
indicating the subtle ornamental effect of this structural element, whose
function is to support the glass 7 ).
The constellation of superstar architects participating in
the Potsdamer Platz project as a whole including Arata Isozaki,
Rafael Moneo, and Richard Rogers reflects, in general, the sheer
scale of the project. This number of different architects, like the mixture
of uses, is mainly aimed at reproducing the heterogeneity of buildings
in traditional urban areas. Yet traditional, older urban areas of Berlin,
even those pre-dating the Second World war, do not usually display sixteen
neighboring buildings designed by international architectural celebrities.
Architectural critics have
focused on the varied quality of buildings now composing Potsdamer Platz.
Some have called it an architectural disaster. 9 Most
of this criticism is reasonable. Isozakis building is a massive,
disproportionate pink block. One of its façades is a vast surface
of stone tiles and windows, anonymous and bland, whereas the other façade
displays a symmetrical arrangement disturbingly reminiscent of the monumental
volumes of fascist architecture [fig.
2]. Moneos offices for Mercedes-Benz have been rightly criticized
for their lack of formal distinctiveness and identity except for
the companys logotype, conveniently facing the wide Neue Potsdamer
Strasse, expected to be one of Berlins busiest motorways [fig.
3]. Yet in Moneos defense, it must be noted that his building
echoes the color and geometric shape of the Berliner Phillarmonie and
the Staatsbibliothek, which sit just behind it. Moneos protruding,
triangular yellow volume is the only building that attempts to integrate
itself with its illustrious neighbors. Then again, it is hard to praise
Moneos respect for urban context when what is seen rising out of
the Phillarmonie is the logotype of Mercedes-Benz.
The new Potsdamer Platz also
includes a carefully composed open space, the Marlene Dietrich Plaza,
which has been described as every Germans idealized vision
of Italy, urbane but without the washing lines. 10
As pointed out by this facetious description, the space
is a sanitized simulacrum of a medieval European square, mimicking its
physical characteristics out of context and leaving out undesired aspects.
The plaza is in turn flanked by a casino, theater, Imax, hotel and residential
4]. No business executives on the way to work here the plaza
is intended as a congregation space for those in search of culture and
leisure. These functions conjure up the ideal of public space as social
arena, so often associated with traditional European cities 11
never mind that the Marlene Dietrich Plaza is privately owned.
Culture and art are not only
elements of historical idealization. They are increasingly used by multinational
mega-corporations as a form of self-advertisement. These companies sponsor
cultural events, purchase art pieces and collections, and participate
in cultural programs as a way of obscuring the dark side of
their main objective: to promote the accumulation of capital. On its web
site, for example, DaimlerChrysler makes explicit the connections between
corporate image and cultural sponsorship in Potsdamer Platz:
This association with art and cultural activity masks the fact that this corporations reason for existence is to produce and increase its own capital. Moreover, this capital does not revert back as a form of collective benefit for the whole of society, and indeed often increases social inequality. 13 This is to say, the promotion of cultural events is construed as a form of social benefit for Berliners, directed at a vague notion of the public. But the public of these events is not the collective social body it is a paying audience. It comprises those who can afford to know about and visit the essentially commerce-oriented Potsdamer Platz. 14
A Tour of the Space
Potsdamer Platz stands out
in the cityscape of Berlin as an agglomerate of skyscrapers nestled in
the middle of the city. Instead of forming part of a continuous weave
of similar building arrangements, like the urban fabric of Manhattan,
Potsdamer Platz is an extraneous, almost anomalous sprouting. Its buildings
rise much higher than their surroundings. 16 Their
shapes, colors and materials are also distinct: vast surfaces of transparent
or reflective glass, façades in blue, brown, yellow and pink, and
forms that include sweeping curves, sharp wedges and indented rooflines
[fig. 5]. Its
dense occupation contrasts with the green space of the Tiergarten, Berlins
central park, which opens up in the northwest direction [fig.
6]. It also differs from its eastern neighbor, the historical Mitte
district, where most of the buildings are masonry low-rises from the turn
of the nineteenth to the twentieth century.
The southern side of Potsdamer
Platz is bordered by the Kulturforum, a sprawling area lined by a series
of Modernist buildings housing artistic and cultural institutions, such
as Ludwig Mies van der Rohes Neue Nationalgalerie and, as I mentioned
above, Hans Scharouns Staatsbibliothek and the Berliner Philharmonie.
There, too, the urban matrix is different. 17 While
in Potsdamer Platz the towers are set in a dense pattern, close to one
another and to the streets, in the Kulturforum the buildings are more
loosely organized, surrounded by open spaces and set-off from the street
7]. Even though the Kulturforum buildings are large, their spatial
separation downplays their size, while in Potsdamer Platz the sheer density
of the buildings magnifies their bulk. Only the Staatsbibliothek compares
in size with the buildings of Potsdamer Platz, but its huge dimensions
are skillfully minimized because the former is broken down into interconnected
volumes. 18 In the latter, on the
contrary, buildings are basic, single volumes. Their physical presence
takes up most of their respective lots and extrudes vertically in continuous
surfaces, which appear as massive walls bordering a fortress. 19
Supporting the idea of Potsdamer
Platz as a fortress, one does not so much walk through the area as one
enters into it. This is not merely an accidental sensorial impression.
The streets and open spaces of Potsdamer Platz are private property. And
yet the perception of the area as an enclosed space is not only consonant
with its ownership status, but also with its intended uses, which are
mediated by financial transactions: commerce, services, entertainment,
and business. This fact, I argue, endorses Potsdamer Platzs role
as a billboard for private capital.
However, once within the limits of Potsdamer Platz boundaries are blurred. The continuity between inner spaces and streets is played out in various ways. Buildings are permeable through multiple entrances and transitional areas such as marquees and cantilevers. Such areas are transparent, keeping a visual continuum between streets and inner corridors. Glass doors make the act of crossing into buildings less perceptible. A few entrances are direct openings with no physical barriers, such as the one leading into the covered forum of the Sony Center. During the warmer months, sidewalk tables at restaurants and cafés are an additional way to integrate inside and outside. 20 Shops and restaurants are minimally separated from sidewalks by glass showcases, which disclose their interiors only to invite looking and subsequent visiting from passers-by. These glass membranes bring inside and outside closer, not only visually but also experientially. Because shop windows line both the inside and outside of buildings, the promenade along the length of these displays is uninterrupted from sidewalk to shopping mall. Streets and corridors are covered by the same continuous surface, a kind of Moebius strip that attracts the gaze and distracts from context. These shop windows symbolically compress their interior contents (merchandise, food, services) into flat visual planes that function as readable advertisements, which then double as a stage upon which Potsdamer Platz is presented as a thriving global city. From within and without, this area is reduced to a series of façades like stage props, with no depth.
The office towers also perform
this symbolic function. The succession of windows evokes the idea of a
beehive, not only through its repetition of identical cells,
but also in the idea of busy, incessant hard work. 21
At night, the whole area shines as an electric display.
Bright office windows are set off against their dark framework. The glass
façade of DaimlerChryslers movie complex glows as a film
screen. The buildings contents are projected through this façade,
reduced to the same visual plane as the neon signs outside [fig.
8]. Even more than during the day, Potsdamer Platz at night resembles
a giant luminous billboard.
The above considerations rely
on one assumption: that architecture symbolizes and carries out political,
social and economic functions. Yet I will now complicate this assumption
by discussing the ideological role of architecture in the context of contemporary
democracies specifically, private architecture sponsored by clients
seemingly, or nominally, disconnected from the political sphere.
In the past, totalitarian régimes
such as Nazism, Fascism, and Stalinism have used architecture to convey
specific ideological messages, to captivate their audiences through monumentality,
rigorous symmetry, repetition and didactic devices such as reliefs and
inscriptions. 22 Subtler ideological
uses of the built environment are found in so-called democratic régimes.
In these societies, civic architecture is cast in terms of national identity
rather than political leaning, and privately commissioned architecture
(such as that of Potsdamer Platz) is seen as altogether divested of politics.
Critiques of this architecture focus on the aesthetic in terms
of taste and trend, as if forms had an autonomous existence, independent
from social context or meaning. These buildings are also examined for
functional efficiency and structural quality, resulting in purely technical
Even though such forms appear
merely functional (i.e. windows are made of glass so that interior spaces
may be illuminated), they nevertheless convey ideological, cultural or
political messages. Nor are these ideas arbitrary or essential (that is,
there is no intrinsic property of glass that connotes commercialism).
These meanings are formed as the result of specific historical contexts
and are modified by social interaction. In the case of Potsdamer Platz,
taking into consideration the influence of contemporary capitalism and
German reunification, as well as the forms, materials, and functions of
the area, it becomes clear that this site delivers a specific, often crystal
clear, ideological message, even though part of this ideology is concerned
precisely with demonstrating that these forms are purely functional and
This approach to architecture
is a legacy of Modernism. Modernist architects vehemently attacked ornamentation.
23 Instead of the pictorial formalism
of nineteenth-century architects, whom they saw as mere façade
designers, the Modernists developed an abstract aesthetics, concerned
with spatial properties. They also insisted on the universality
of this aesthetic. Modernist architecture was further legitimated by its
functionalism, defined by objective, scientifically determined aspects.
In turn, these perceived qualities endowed Modernist architecture with
the appearance of semantic neutrality.
Even though this purported
absence of meaning has been criticized by Post-Modern theorists and architects
24, the tenets of Modernism have
nonetheless survived. Since the advent of the Modern Movement, even socially
minded architects such as Walter Gropius avoided political commitment.
In the Europe of the 1920s, dodging association with often radical political
movements was a matter of survival. And after the defeat of Fascism and
Nazism, the explicit association of architecture and politics became anathema
in most of the Western world. Modern architecture thus dominated post-1945
reconstruction in the West not only because of its economic and practical
effectiveness, but also because its style was associated with freedom
and democracy. 25 Today, the latter
ideas are still salient, but are complemented by the fact that Modernist
architecture allows a high degree of commercial convenience: no ideological
commitment means flexibility, which means a wider range of clients and
The supposed impartiality of
architecture reinforces the idea, in capitalist democracies, that there
is a complete separation between the spheres of politics, economics, and
culture (this separation is discursive, not observed in practice).
This perceived neutrality is in turn related to the pervasive idea that
political regimes are themselves neutral. In an essay devoted to the oppressive
dimension of democratic capitalism, French philosopher Jean-François
Lyotard remarks that the impositive nature of this political-economic
model is effaced from discourse by the view of capitalism as a natural
mode of human organization:
Lyotard indicates that neutrality
is related to two factors: one, that the idea of democratic capitalism
is purely functional (in other words, that societies compose themselves
in this way merely because it is the most fit mode of organization
the most efficient for objective or practical needs 27);
and two, that democratic capitalism is a spontaneous or natural choice,
a chance event comparable to genetic mutations. Lyotard uses the expression
natural selection to indicate the biological metaphor that
contributes to this understanding of capitalism as organic. The fact that
almost the entire world has adopted, or tried to adopt, the capitalist
system provides further evidence for those who believe in its neutrality
and adaptive advantage. Oppressive aspects such as social inequality are
either repressed or seen as inevitable. Neutral, natural, and fit, capitalism
is called a system, not a régime.
But the history of Berlin since
reunification reveals that capitalist modes of social organization are
not organic, nor are the realms of politics, economics and culture (including
the built environment) discrete. They are entirely contrived and
interconnected. The creation of Potsdamer Platz, as I have indicated,
demonstrates the degree of dependence between these concepts and their
material manifestation. Moreover, Potsdamer Platz and the discourse which
defines it, as I stated in my introduction, establishes the narrative
for most of post-unification Berlin, perhaps even Germany.
Demolition and reconstruction
have been complementary efforts in the composition of the image of Berlin.
Yet demolition did not mean that the city was built anew. The choice between
destruction and preservation was selective. The sites of demolition and
redesign tended to be those associated with the German Democratic Republic
(GDR) and East Berlin. 33 And if
the material signs of the East were the main objects of repression, then
those representing the West were not only preserved, but were also re-asserted
through new construction. The architecture of reunified Berlin, including
avant-garde experimentation, explicit commercialism, and the refined practice
of the worlds best architects, was the singular expression of postwar
architectural history in Western Europe. This cannot simply be regarded
as an art-historical development. It was a conscious affirmation of values
now taken as hegemonic: those of capitalism in its contemporary form.
Among the many buildings in Berlin that exemplify this, those of Potsdamer
Platz are the most outstanding.
The crumbling of the Soviet
Union provided further proof of the universal validity of Western (capitalist)
modes. This event, in turn, fueled representations of German reunification
as natural, inevitable. And this optimistic context allowed the re-joining
of East and West to be underscored by the promise of economic prosperity,
and social and political emancipation. Yet instead of the distribution
of new wealth throughout the country, reunification proved to be an uneven
economic and social process. Some argue that it has consisted, to a great
extent, in the domination and exploitation of the East by the West. 34
naturalization of reunification indicates that partition of the country
was viewed as unnatural or provisional. Division was seen
as an artificial imposition, whereas national unity was apparently justified
by commonalities of language, culture, history, and geography. I am not
trying to argue, however, that a united nation is natural: it is naturalized.
The contrived processes of unification are forgotten, as if societies
had lived in harmony forever. 35 But
Germany only came into being as a nation-state in 1871, due to the efforts
of Otto von Bismarck. There were and still are profound regional differences
in Germany, regarding culture, language, heritage, and political affiliation.
The unification of Germany in the nineteenth century, the countrys
division in 1945, and its reunification in 1989 are all artificial
as opposed to natural processes, in the sense that every political
decision is constructed.
The task of representing a
nation of gathering a multiplicity of social realities under a
common narrative is always-already problematic. In addition to
their natural heterogeneity (for example, in population), nations also
have to maintain a sense of unity in the face of less glorious aspects
of their history. For all the embarrassing difficulties posed, for example,
by French and British imperialism, or slavery on the American continent,
Germanys burden is in many ways exceptional: the extension of Nazi
dominance over Europe, the excessive brutality of Hitlers terror
state, the death of dozens of millions of people as a result of a war
in which Germany played a pivotal role, and of course, the Holocaust.
Few other nations have had to contend with the accusation of having fomented
absolute evil. In addition, Germans still grapple with unresolved
feelings of humiliation stemming from their defeat in both World Wars
and their postwar occupation by the Allied powers (which officially ended
only in 1990 with reunification). Because the country is scattered with
war ruins, semi-destroyed buildings, monuments and memorials, the reminders
of this traumatic past inserts the question of national self-image into
everyday life for most of the German population.
These issues are complicated
enough, but reunified Germany is dealing with yet another legacy: the
scar of its separation. Almost half a century of division has profoundly
altered both East and West in their material, cultural and social realms.
Lasting several generations, this split was deep enough to configure distinct
identities, but at the same time it was not so wounding that an underlying
sentiment of Germanness disappeared. This sense of national self lingered
throughout separation not only because both regions shared a common history,
language, and culture, but also for more basic reasons: because many Easterners
had relatives on the Western side of the border. The pain and difficulty
of division itself underscored, in its own way, the nations basic
sense of unity. The Federal Republic of Germany and the Democratic Republic
of Germany shared more than a name: they shared the claim to a lost wholeness.
But four decades of separation under divergent political and economic
systems took their toll. Thus not only did reunification revive a sense
of Germanys shared identity, but it also unearthed the countrys
profound inner differences.
Over the last ten years, the
of Potsdamer Platz has inscribed the area as the third center of
Berlin, 36 bringing capital,
people and activity into the formerly vacant space. Representations of
the areas rebuilding have consolidated the idea of resuscitation,
as if Potsdamer Platz had been dormant, only now brought back to to the
realm of the living. However, Potsdamer Platz has not been made central
(again) by its reconstruction. On the contrary, it has been chosen as
the site of reconstruction precisely because of its centrality.
This centrality does not stem only from the site's geographical location,
but also from its political significance. This significance was maintained
throughout the twentieth century, from the 1920s, when it was the busiest
intersection in the world, through its association with the Nazi
government in the 1930s 37, its
bombing in 1945, and finally its visibility as No-Mans land, the
site of the Wall, the border between the two Germanys. 38
On one level, Potsdamer Platz
became the site of concentrated investment because of material concerns.
The area, in other words, was an entrepreneurial dream: first, because
the site was vacant, meaning that costly demolition work would not be
needed; secondly, Potsdamer Platz was public property, meaning that it
was not subject to the same imperatives and concerns of private land,
which could have hampered its sale; and finally, and most importantly,
its location at the very center of the city was ideal for
attracting business, consumers, and culture-goers. Potsdamer Platz is
nestled in a heavily populated area -- in
a central passage point. It is a concrete node of urban life.
attractiveness of Potsdamer Platz goes beyond the geographical limits
of Berlin. Since reunification, followed by the decision to locate the
capital in Berlin, the city has catalyzed the nations political
energies: its historical and geographic credentials make it Germanys
political and cultural center. No wonder, then, that Berlins center
itself is the disputed object of a diverse array of interests. It stands
for more than the center of the city: it is the center of the nation,
and the symbol of its economic thriving and the material success of reunification.
Although Frankfurt, Cologne and Munich also boast shining skyscrapers,
they were not born in the aftermath of reunification. Potsdamer Platz,
as a product of the New Germany, represents the process of transformation
undergone as part of reunification. Its empty space had once been the
hallmark of Communist desolation. Thus the filling up of this space is
proof of the benefits of capitalism, which has brought its fruits to the
formerly sterile land or so it appears.
Yet the development of Potsdamer
Platz has not radically changed the economic condition of the nation.
The wealth that it symbolizes has not spread throughout the whole of East
Germany. Given these circumstances, the transformation of Potsdamer Platz
can be characterized as symbolic, or more concretely, as a contrived act
with a clear political message. This sense of Potsdamer Platzs conscious
manufacture as a site for the cultivation of national identity can be
seen in the rushed sale of the area soon after reunification. The area,
which was a public space, was sold by the city council to private, international
corporations at a price much lower than the market would then allow. As
Brigitte Werneburg reports: In 1990, only two months after the opening
of the Wall, the Berlin Senate, or city council, sold two choice filet
plots in Potsdamer Platz to Daimler-Benz and Sony, at a price so suspiciously
low that a European Union commission felt obliged to investigate.
39 The hasty sale of one of Berlins
major public spaces allowed little or no discussion of its future. No
sooner had the Wall fallen than Berlins government sealed the destiny
of the area, where local and international companies would be showcased
and the joys of consumerism including the consumption of the city
itself would be cultivated.
If this real estate transaction
contained a political choice which seems, now, inevitably linked to the
historical events of 1989 the fall of the Wall, the end of European
communism it is important to nuance this argument with the consideration
that such a choice also responds to global forces that are independent
from reunification and which have been shaping cities all over the world.
These forces include the expansion of transnational capital, corporate
investments in metropolitan centers, and the emergence of what Saskia
Sassen has called global cities. These forces have promoted
similar changes in different parts of the world 40
and were already at play in Berlin before the fall
of the Wall. Prior to 1989, for example, there were already plans for
real estate investments in an area close to Potsdamer Platz, on the western
side, by some of the companies that own it today. Architectural critic
Peter Davey notes that before unification, Daimler Benz already
had an option on a site near Potsdamer Platz. 41
The particularities of German politics thus not so
much furnished the ground for a battle finally won by capitalism, as it
provided the catalyzing forces that made the economic and political disputes
visible, even magnified. And Potsdamer Platz, as one of the most symbolic
sites of the city, is the central showcase for these disputes and their
attending cultural manifestations.
Yet although real estate enterprises
and commercial ventures abound in post-unification Berlin, one look at
the citys past and present economic situation denies any natural
necessity for such ventures and points instead to the artificial creation
of needs at the expense of the state forging and reinforcing
an image of capitalist success. In spite of its cultural and historical
significance, critics have argued that Berlin does not have a predominant
economic role in relation to the rest of the country. According to Social
Democratic senator Annette Fugmann-Heesing in a 1996 interview, West
Berlin could never carve out a niche compared to Dusseldorf, which is
the center of advertising, Munich, which dominates electronics, or Frankfurt,
which is the financial center. 42 Other
reports suggest that the economy of the city has yet to find consistency
and its own identity, despite the influx of public employees and federal
Potsdamer Platz is presented
as a product of the new Germany, and its success points directly to the
success of Germany as a unified country. But the economy of Berlin and
of reunified Germany is not as flourishing as it may seem. Berlin, as
we have seen, has not found a solid economic role for itself. Reunified
Germany is an unevenly developed country: The West contains some
of the richest regions in Europe, while the five eastern Länder [regions]
remain the poorest. 44 And
even Germanys strong economy is not above suspicion: It is
experiencing a crisis of competitiveness, with irresistible pressure to
reduce taxes, cut social welfare and reduce government spending.
45 These considerations highlight
the artificially sustained character of Berlins prosperity.
Nostalgia versus History
At the time of reunification,
Potsdamer Platz was cut by the Wall, which was in fact composed of two
parallel walls enclosing a strip of no-mans land. The western face
of the Wall was accessible to visitors who could not only approach it,
but also paint it. The open space around it, covered by weeds and debris,
was an occasional site for circuses and popular manifestations. 47
The changing graffiti, often elaborate and executed
by famous artists, made this the Walls most photogenic part, reproduced
in films, photographs and postcards [fig.
10]. The eastern wall, on the other hand, was heavily patrolled by
armed border guards. It posed a concrete danger to East Germans; many
who tried to breach it were shot and killed. 48 Buildings
bordering the wall in East Berlin had their windows and doors bricked
up, blinding their façades. The city turned its back on the antifascist
protective rampart, as the Wall was officially called in the GDR
East Germans were forbidden to call it Mauer, the German
word for wall. The structure was thus effaced not only physically,
but also in language. It was not a site of visitation, but of fear; it
was blank and deserted [figs.
11 and 12].
These characteristics made the eastern wall a poignant symbol of German
When Potsdamer Platz was vacant,
it was filled with political and cultural significance. Even as it displayed
emptiness and devastation, it was a prop for political statements and
retained a sense of the areas historical complexity. A number of
refurbishment possibilities could have maintained the sites historical
eloquence while allowing for new uses. The Wall did not have to be completely
torn down in order to be permeable; the empty space did not have to be
filled up with constructions in order to be inhabitable; and built remnants
of the border, such as watchtowers, could have been preserved. But, then
again, removing all aspects of the Wall was easier: it removed the problematic
of history and transformed it instead into a commercial bloom of
Strangely, the official discourse
on the reconstruction of Potsdamer Platz denies historical effacement
and insists on historical restoration. Architects make an effort to restore
and reconstruct the sites urban pattern. But, as I have
argued above, these efforts are fueled by nostalgia. They are not restoring
authentic origins, but constructing ideal narratives. At the same time,
these efforts repress troubling historical aspects: the division of the
country; its attending social, cultural, and material imbalances; and
the violence inherent to division incarnated by the totalitarian
state of the German Democratic Republic, but also present in the post-war
sectioning of the country among the Allies and in the Americanization
of West Germany.
The difficulty in dealing with
the recent past is translated into denial, erasure, and rewriting. It
should come as no surprise that Potsdamer Platz itself embodied all the
three in the last century. The first moment of historical effacement,
poignantly evoked by the character of Homer in Wim Wenders film
Wings of Desire, happened in the 1930s, when the proximity to the
Nazi headquarters and the presence of Nazi buildings on the site (including
a bunker) imposed its mark on the space: And then suddenly the banners
appeared, here, the whole Platz was lined with them. And the people werent
friendly any more. And the police werent either. 49
The violent, but cathartic bombing of the area by the
Allies in 1945 was another blatant instance of annulment, prolonged by
the division of the city. However, if destruction constituted a moment
of historical annihilation, the ensuing treatment of the space somehow
managed to preserve both its past history (insistently recalled by its
physical absence) and the traumatic events of bombing and division. Physical
vacancy magnified the idea of the area as a border between antagonists.
This was a reminder of the antagonism itself, of the open war wound exacerbated
by the construction of the Wall in 1961. Potsdamer Platz preserved, in
disconcerting form, the conflictual and almost absurd history of Germany.
With the end of division, though, the void was filled up with new constructions,
choking all that remained of the sense of conflict, historical contradiction,
The sequence in which Homer wanders Potsdamer Platz in Wings of Desire brilliantly evokes this anguish. It is a solemn and moving scene, where the old man, named after the father of History, slowly moves through debris and weeds. Homer revives through his words the preceding history of the place, which he had experienced. He stands, baffled, in the vacant lot, repeating the question: Where is Potsdamer Platz? It is hard not to think of Karl Marxs much-repeated motto on the recurrence of history the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. 50 If the first instance of erasure, brought about by Nazism and the war, is undeniably tragic, the second erasure, undertaken by logotypes, window shops, and business offices, can only be thought of as mockery. Sure, one can now get a clear answer to Homers question Where is Potsdamer Platz? It is there, at the end of the street, by the shiny blue office tower. But I prefer to leave the question unanswered, and to conclude by quoting Homers final words in his perplexed promenade through the vacant space: I will not give up until I have found the Potsdamer Platz. 51
Daniela Sandler is a fourth-year graduate student in the Program in Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester. She received a degree in Architecture and Urban Planning from the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil. Her dissertation is entitled Incarnate Politics: German Identity and the Reconstruction of Berlin after Reunification.