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Development of Berlin's Urban Form

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Architecture
Wordcount: 3999 words Published: 15th Mar 2021

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Choose a city that has been addressed in one of the lectures in this block, and through a careful reading of it’s history and development of its urban form, examine, through the Koolhaas text, the question of how that city has come into being, and how it may, or may not be considered to have areas or quarters of a ‘generic’ nature. Where the fabric is not ‘generic’, what gives it a local or non-generic character?

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“Berlin has a lot of empty spaces…the empty spaces allow the visitor and the people of Berlin to see through the city scape…, through these gaps in a sense they can see through time.”[1] Wirm Wenders. A city is derived from its long rooted history, context, what is real and existed and where there is nothing contemporary contributed by us, humans. It is going to be a challenging task to evaluate Berlin’s fragmented urban form; generic and the non-generic fabric of the city. As the world recognizes Berlin as a city strongly anchored by a long chain of tragic history and having a troubled national past. Thus, the strong centralized identity of Berlin doesn’t help us think any other way. But, what if it is merely a mirage, a showcase and that there are several other faces of Berlin? Therefore, it is important to unveil all the other layers of history and architecture of the scarred city, Berlin, which has critically contributed to its generic or non-generic urban form.

Once the identity of a city is diluted, we start to become familiarized with synchronization of experience.[2] The only identity of that city is that it doesn’t have an identity anymore, therefore a generic city is born. But in contrary, I believe that no city is born generic. It is a convert. Likewise, the lack of identity is not the only identity associated with the generic city. There are several factors in the Koolhaas’s writing that add up to deplete the history and result in the rise of a generic city, also labelled as the ‘junk city’.[3] The superficial city produces a new identity every other day,[4] it is very high pace; competing to be bigger and more equipped, yet remain simplified for easy global exchange of information.[5] To maintain the status of a modern city it has to be constantly maintained. “It has to be the most old and the most new, the most fixed and the most dynamic,” to be the most important at the world stage.[6]

Berlin has secured the status of becoming the capital city of Germany, and the third largest metropolitan region after Rhine Ruhr and Rhine Main.[7] The double city of Berlin- Cölln, was found at the counterpoint of two important trade routes. Soon, it became an important economic center of Germany.  Since its very existence the city has faced years of destruction and terror. The city is known for its wounds.[8] After the Thirty Year’s War and the Seven Year’s War the city was left devastated.   The history of Berlin is of course the 19th century, but it is also the Second World War and the reconstruction.[9] It will also be superficial to ignore the Cold War (the wall) and everything else.[10] These tragic events have been gradually shaping a specific urban context for Berlin; a hybrid and an archive of all the ruins. History has left the city with polycentric organization[11] and an eclectic array of architecture from the Kingdom of Prussia, the 1871 German Empire, the Weiman Republic, Nazi Germany, East and West Germany and the reunified Germany.[12] If we compare to Koolhaas’s definition of a generic city, then this historical analysis might be alluding to a non-generic cityscape at the moment, but in reality the fabric of Berlin is the aftereffect of these historic events, where the generic is carved from the non-generic.

While Berlin has seen the industrial revolution transforming the city in 19th century. When the population and economy expanded dramatically.[13] It has also seen the World War One reducing the country to a state of economic and political turmoil.[14] The post-war period required an urgent reform of the existing city. Gentrification and globalization resulted in attempts made to improve the appearance of the city and creating more visually harmonious streets respectively, which once displayed its past on every corner of the street.[15] The many conducted competitions yielded what were probably the most complex strategies.[16] The competition for Greater Berlin and Stadknone’s first skyscraper resulted in radical proposals and approaches that included Friedrichstrasse skyscraper by Mies Van der Rohe. It is described as high reaching steel skeletons sheathed in glass.[17] His work has been a source of massive influence for the later modern architecture. Though, rising Nazism and the Nazi regime soon made Germany untenable for modern architects, until the 20th century where once again we see the growth of modern architecture.[18] Furthermore, the Berlin Zentrum Design included mass of buildings strategically punctuated in order to endow Berlin with a modern urban expression. Four large scale buildings were erected with no defined use only to create a visible urban expression.[19] Now we can start to encircle the generic quarters of Berlin. It wouldn’t be wrong to call the urban movement as pseudo suburban or merely a theatrical stage set being built at the site of tragedy. In contrast to the socialist architecture and in parallel to the hyper-globalization, the hyper-local character of the city came from the post-war expressionist movement. Great Playhouse by Hans Poelzig, a product of that movement, imposes mysterious forms in concrete. Poelzig addressed, “The true understanding of architecture is so unspeakably important because it determines the appearance of our homeland, which has been so disfigured by the half-hearted architecture of recent decades…”[20] The expressionist style adopted by the architects certainly saved the entire urban form from getting masked by the universal form. The expressionist movement is described as a collision of seemingly heterogeneous functions and an almost hallucinogenic industrial esthetic; an amalgamation of purpose and fantasy.[21]

Additionally, the world war two constitutes a major portion of Berlin’s history and its impressions left upon the urban form that are still visible today. The war caused the whole Germany to split into two halves; thus the realization of Communist East Berlin and the Capitalist West Berlin. Parting of the ways lead to two different architectural versions of Berlin which depended on the contrasting economic and political powers on both sides. Therefore, we cannot generalize the urban form of Berlin as a whole, while Berlin’s experience as a divided city reaches back as far as its establishment as medieval double city, Berlin- Cölln.[22] Walls have played role throughout the entire history of Berlin. Architectural structures have long been used to assert political authority and identity.[23] The wall separating East and West Berlin is a classic example which also contributed to the city’s image and memory.[24] Besides the living, the bombing, raids, fires and street battles during the war also heavily damaged the valuable buildings. Germany was dotted with a lot of empty spaces as a result of the war. We can connect this opportunity to Koolhaas’s prediction in his text that “voids are the essential building block of the generic city.”[25]  On top of that, most of the remaining buildings were also demolished in the post war period on both the sides to build new residential and business quarters. Hence, the crucial point “What is being preserved is not an object of ‘historical value’, but a memory of the network of relationship to the built environment, a ‘spatial image’ of the past.”[26] This was seen as a turning point with reference to the evolution of the urban fabric. The post-war demanded a critical urban transformation and reconstruction once again. According to Koolhaas, “Generic city is the post-city being prepared on the site of the ex-city.”[27] A post contemporary city was conceived which was more commercial and more functional in order to meet the ongoing challenges and prevent both sides from failing.

The political powers on both the sides were torn between competing interests and demands of their city, its economic survival and competitiveness.[28] “When the center was the center of the empire the center was dominant until its ultimate collapse or abandonment.”[29] Therefore, the reconstruction started off rather quickly to reestablish the exhausted centers and to densify them. Architecture was used as a tool to represent normality in Berlin. There were two ongoing processes of normalization. Firstly, in the commercial sector and secondly in the way that the past is remembered. The advocates of critical reconstruction hoped that architects can find inspiration in the old city even as they build new one.[30] “Both halves in the city become paradigmatic experiments in modernist urban reconstruction in the post-war era, albeit at slightly different pace.”[31] As unlike East, the West Berlin was privileged to get foreign aid which helped accelerate the construction. Thus, stability for West Berlin seemed more near than the east as well. Its very aim was to cater the tourists’ attention. Therefore, it was inevitable to conceive a reconstructed city amidst rubble of 1945 as a city of tomorrow to achieve the goals.[32] The efforts are apparent in the utopian plans submitted in Harptstadt Berlin Architectural Competition. The competition focused on the formation of multi-level traffic infrastructure and a self-contained skyscraper city.[33] Raised pedestrian networks are seen as mistakes of architects but generic city enjoy the benefits of these inventions.[34] The ‘old’ was simply disregarded, it had to be, as justified by Koolhaas “History drags down its (city’s) performance.”[35]  The west opted for Bonn style in federal buildings in which modernist functionalism was united with a degree of modesty.[36] Memories of memories turned the city into an open air museum of horrors with memorials such as imprinted cobblestones and train tracks and Jewish street names marked all around the city.

While there was memorial culture being practiced in the West Berlin, in contrast the East Berliner’s thought that they managed their liberation from the painful historic core (identity) by declaring that it was their explicit aim to resist and oppose the imperialist manipulation and expansion.[37] To practice that, the communists (GDR) demolished the Stadtchloss (the imperial palace) as a symbol of hated Prussian imperialism. It is bizarre to erase, in the name of history, an important part of history of Berlin.[38] It was replaced with a parliament building made of bronze mirrored glass, steel and concrete called Palast der Republik (palace of the republic) because it was impossible for the communist and imperial palace to coexist. “The idea was to rewrite history by ignoring, indeed destroying the old.”[39] Soon the history returned as a service when the debate about reconstructing the palace was initiated. These series of demolition and constructions directly mirror Berlin’s contemporary nature. Koolhaas has called a contemporary city as the generic city.[40] One of the important characteristic of a generic city is that it self-destructs and renews, it abandons what doesn’t work and accept whatever grows in place.[41] While the western side was flourishing at the hands of foreign aid, unfortunately the prosperity of the East Berlin rested in the hands of devoted work of East German workers.[42] There is an interesting contrast drawn between East and West Berlin, by the economic differences which can be credited to the one way flow of traffic, human and financial; predominantly from east to west.[43] Other than the disappearance of traces of history and mobilizing memories of memories the common fabric that stretched across both sides were the prefabricated concrete buildings for people effected by post-war. Architects saw building design as a potential device of societal transformation. “Concrete is the esthetic and technical protagonist of long lasting architectural movement of brutalism. The big buildings exploiting the technical solutions allowed by the use of reinforced concrete were aimed at creating vertical cities.”[44] This affirms that the city was on its way from horizontality to verticality. It is a reflection of realizing the present need which is yet another characteristic of a generic city. This is reminiscent of Koolhaas’s belief that is: “The skyscraper is the final definitive typology.”[45]

The reconstruction was a necessity, in order to move away from the specificity of the traumatic city.[46] Though, Wolf Jobst Siedler sees post-war urban planning as the “second destruction” of the city.[47] Many competitions were held to gather ideas of a utopian Berlin and its transformation into a modern city. The transformation was important to represent an illusory of power and grandeur (that Berlin lacked).[48] Many proposals referred to models of the Parisian boulevard, London underground system, American high rise buildings as a solution to the problems of old Berlin.[49] The utopian plans made references to the plans of Ebenezer Howard’s garden city. A clear north and south axis was suggested. The idea of axis already demonstrates a close link with modernist planning.[50] The order that the architects were seeking for, rested in the plans of generic cities. Berlin was seen as a new comer. Restructuring Berlin as Weltstadt had capacity to unify the people and apply notion of unity to the new metropolitan scale just like the Bismarck towers, built all over the empire that once awakened the national sentiments.[51]

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Two cities grown apart were once again given a chance to grow together when the Berlin wall fell in 1989. “The attempt to infuse optimism in the form of a grand new city center defied too much history.”[52] The reunited center hoped to knit together the east and the west and to revive the flair of 1920 that matched the attractions of London, New York etc.[53] The reunited Berlin looked up to these world cities as a framework for the future of Berlin. But an argument arises here that Paris can build spectacular new buildings confident in its visual identity because of the solid mass of 19th century “background” buildings that make Paris unmistakable.[54] “Berlin in contrast, has lost too much of that background and must choose between restoring it or venturing yet another grand experiment.”[55] Lack of representativeness kept aside, Berlin’s urban district was radically different as compared to Paris as well. A battle of renegotiation of local and national identity started within Berlin.[56] Convergence is possible only at the price of shedding identity.[57] The city was at its breaking point. The renewal of the city meant establishing the business status and the city status by first addressing all the problems of traffic congestion, poor sanitation and housing shortage in the old Berlin. It was a dream of ‘total planning’ and a coherent urban structure because the historical cities are ‘too small’ to contain so many human destinies and so many phenomena and such a great number of economic transactions according to Marciano.[58] There was emphasis on the overall form of the city. Berlin is a unique example of suffering through both capitalist and socialist modernism…the new urban form intended to heal those wounds.[59] That said, the surgery started by leaving the treatment for parliament building in the hands of a foreign architect, Norman Foster. He won the competition in 1993 for redevelopment of the century old German Reichstag which was left in ruins after a fire in 1933. Due to its close proximity to the Berlin wall, it was largely overlooked until the reunification.[60]

Moreover, the role of skyscrapers were increasingly addressed and it became a recurring theme of the 20th century. Koolhaas clarifies that homogenization is an intentional process and that the architecture of the generic city is beautiful but built at an incredible speed.[61] It is a juxtaposition of both interesting and boring buildings in a city. It is a mutation that produces results fast enough to keep pace with the generic cities development.[62] “Its main inspiration is the baffling discovery that Americans are talking about the problems of their cities, Europeans are talking about the problems of their cities, Asians are talking about the problems of their cities, but if you look at these cities there is almost no difference between them.”[63] Generic city is the form without name of standardization. It is destined to spread inexorably throughout the world.[64] It is incapable of establishing relationship with the classical city; maintain a dialogue with the existing city. If we take a look back we can see the dramatic evolution of the city of Berlin and can also trace its non-generic fabric being stained by the generic. If we look forward, we can envision Berlin’s architecture being eclipsed by the metropolis.[65] In late 20th century, there were more serious debates about skyscrapers; large scale mixed use buildings. They followed the American model more strictly. It was time to engage with the city’s vertical axis. Even though the first efforts were seen before the partition of Berlin, they became more rigorous by this time as visible in Potsdamer Platz. It showcases the new Berlin and is a home to modern skyscrapers which caters all the function of a city; it is a city within city according to Koolhaas.[66] A number of high rise office and hotel buildings stand there as an expression of revolutionary Berlin, irrespective of nature and context, from time and space.[67]

Despite the fact, that Berlin is acknowledged as a city adorned in local historical fabric, we realise that it has lost purity. It has borrowed more than one theme from the generic’s definition. And Friedrichstrasse, Potsdamer Platz and Unter den Linden are a proof of Berlin’s contemporary desires. In light of Koolhaas text we were able to highlight the contrasting urban form of Berlin and reached to a consensus that it is a distinctive example where the generic and the non-generic coexist. In conclusion, Berlin is no longer a virgin; it has been impregnated with modernism.


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