Berlin politics :: Eliminating the East German People's Palace This is the third in a series of articles written by the architects about specific aspects of the hotel design of Miniloft, Berlin.

Berlin has a very distinct relationship with its historical urban fabric. This relationship has evolved through several phases since the end of World War II – the evolution of design in this period could be compared to the phases of mourning for a dead family member. It has taken almost sixty years, but I think Berlin has finally recovered from its mourning.

Phase I: Denial

In the first years after the war, simply repairing the buildings to provide the most basic shelter was the first priority, design was not an issue!

Phase II: Shock and anger

During the 1960's and 70's Berlin's city structure was thrown out the window for a modern ideal. Whole city quarters were demolished to make way for new large scale apartment blocks.

This building wave followed the modernist dogma of the time, creating a city based on automotive mobility, and providing light and air to all.

Surprisingly the East German approach did not differ much from the West German approach.

Phase III: Mourning

Berlin :: Urban design model Miniloft in Berlin :: Urban design model Beginning in the 1980's Berlin's population rebelled. Wide spread protest and new ideas from a new generation of architects turned the tide on radical clean slate reconstruction.

This new movement was spearheaded by Hardt-Waltherr Hämer who is considered father of 'Behutsame Stadterneuerung'. Directly translated it means 'careful urban renewal' but the term community development is used in English to describe a similar approach.

Hämer worked closely with the community, and proved that restoration of the existing buildings was cheaper and more effective than demolition and re-construction.

In 1991 Hans Stimmann became Berlin's director of city planning. He extended the philosophy of 'Behutsame Stadterneuerung' to the scale of the whole city, coining the term 'critical reconstruction' to describe his approach to repairing Berlin's damaged urban fabric.

After the wall came down Berlin was left with huge swaths of unbuilt land where the wall once stood.This massive scar cut the city right through its center. Germany's reunification completely changed Berlin's structure. Parts that were once on the edge of town were now in the center. Roads that lead nowhere became major arteries once again. Berlin had been lobotomized for over forty years.

The communist east side of Berlin was in a dreadful state of disrepair. The city's infrastructure was crippled and disjointed. All the buildings were grey and run down. Crossing the border to the west was like walking from a black and white movie into a coloured one.

In the nineties Berlin became Europe's largest building site, and was transformed to meet it's new function as the capital of a reunified Germany. Stimmann's critical reconstruction set the tenor for this transformation.

The Critical Reconstruction was based on two main ideas:

The old city street plan should be restored . In areas like Potsdamer Platz where whole quarters were rebuilt, the old street plans formed the basis for the urban design of the new buildings.

New buildings should look like the old ones . Sometimes very restrictive laws were introduced to force architects to design their buildings along certain lines:

  • Façades must be made of stone, brick, or plaster, with windows (a 'lochfassade' or hole façade in German).
  • The trough height, defined by the line where the wall meets the roof was limited to 21 meters.

Although Stimmann's contextual approach was laudable, he pursued his goals by ensuring that a small circle of his favorite offices got all the work, and built in a style he considered appropriate.

Phase IV: Recovery

After the German government returned to Berlin, the city showed signs of regaining confidence. A new director of city planning, Regula Lüscher, was recruited from Zürich in 2007, and she has a distinctly different approach to urban planning.

Rather than laying down the law, Regula Lüscher is adapting her Swiss culture of dialogue to the difficult and complex planning problems facing Berlin in the decades to come.

The reconstruction of Berlin seems to be over; the scars of the war have all but disappeared. Berlin can now start concentrating on developing a vision of itself for the future, rather than processing its past.

The Miniloft design and Berlin Politics

Berlin :: Bureaucracy in action Awards ceremony :: Architecture Prize Berlin 2003 We designed the miniloft building during Hans Stimmann's critical reconstruction (Phase III). Needless to say it wasn't easy – our building did not fit well in the political rhetoric of the time. It had no legible trough line, was not a 'lochfassade' (see façade design part one) and was not clad in traditional façade materials.

Because our building was quite small, and not located in one of the main reconstruction areas, it passed under Hans Stimmann's radar system. Therefore we did not have to get his personal approval for our plans. None the less it took 18 months to get planning permission because our design broke so many rules that we needed half a dozen exceptions from the Berlin building code.

In 2003 we won an 'Auszeichnung' (distinction) in Berlin's architecture prize – Hans Stimmann was not on the jury, but he handed over the prizes. While shaking my hand he could not resist taunting me off mike "Ah, a roof renovation – that's the task of the future", implying that if he had his say we would never build anything in Berlin more substantial than small renovation jobs.

Rem Koolhaas, one of the most highly regarded architects was notoriously snubbed by Stimmann while on the jury for the Potsdamer Platz urban plan competition in 1991. He was in the audience that evening, due to receive a prize for his Dutch Embassy building. I often wonder what Stimmann said to him when he shook his hand that evening.

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