The layers that explain its historical, morphological, cultural

The city is able to hold within many layers that explain its historical, morphological, cultural and economic growth. These factors all together constitute to make the urban form a reality that conveys meaning. Most of the city’s caricature is embedded in the places that are responsible for strengthening and facilitating human interactions. The public squares are considered to be an integral part of the urban structure, as they not only attract people but are potential land parcels that can attract business. Potsdamer Platz in Berlin is one such example that has seen many transformations throughout history and has accommodated every change of pattern. Yet, it stands today, being criticized for what it has become in comparison to what it could have been.

(Nowobilska and Zaman 2014)Potsdamer Platz: The Reshaping of Berlin. Potsdamer Platz

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Berlin has maintained a central position on the map and so has the Potsdamer Platz, which till date remains the Centre of the city. Pre-War Potsdamer Platz functioned as a transport and commerce hub for the rapidly modernizing German Empire and was considered to be a symbol of a progressive, industrial and cosmopolitan Germany of that time (Dempsey 1990). In its true sense it is not a European square but a traffic junction. Potsdamer Platz overloaded by streetcars, automobiles, trams and hectic pedestrian traffic became the busiest public space in Europe with the ‘movement’ being the most defining characteristic of it (Ladd 2008). With ornate structures of neo-baroque and neo-rococo style around it, Columbushaus, was the only 10-storey modernist structure with a pure form.


Proposals were put forward to give a modernist make-over to the Platz, as it attracted many, due to its position in the metropolis. However, with the exception of Columbushaus, they were never built due to changes in Berlin’s economic situation as well as the slowly moving wheels of Berlin’s bureaucracy (Sonne 1900).


But with the war, came in the change of fate for Potsdamer Platz, where bombing led to destruction and was partially dead with few a standing structures. In 1945, the war ended and left Germany divided, Berlin was divided strategically among the four forces in the country and with it came the Cold War followed by the construction of the Berlin Wall between East and West Germany. Potsdamer Platz now faced its final blow with its heart being dissected into two parts. On both sides of Potsdamer Platz also The Wall itself became a subject of opposite meaning. While on the east it was abandoned, on the western side, nicknamed ‘Wall of Shame’, it was not guarded by police and became a popular place for socializing and canvas for graffiti (Nowobilska and Zaman 2014)


With the divide and no defined Centre, the east and the west sides started to develop design approaches that would suit best the current situation of the urban structure. Modernization at that time had already started to be realized as a catastrophe, reinvention and reconstruction had started. In America, Jane Jacobs (Life and Death of Great American Cities, 1961) and Kevin Lynch (The Image of the City, 1960) were gaining popularity for their concepts of revitalization and on the other hand Robert Venturi had started discussing the concepts of Post-Modernism.

(Nowobilska and Zaman 2014)Potsdamer Platz: The Reshaping of Berlin. Potsdamer Platz


Post-Modernism was not able to impress the Berliners but they found refuge in the theories put forward by Aldo Rossi (The Architecture of the City, 1966), which discussed the preservation and restoration of historical structures. Campaign 507 was launched in West Berlin, which was inspired by the concepts of Rossi and one of their members Josef Paul Kleihues developed the theory of ‘Critical Reconstruction’, that focused on the preservation of the pre-war state and the use of traditional materials. Kleihues also launched the IBA’87 and of the results of the previous Berlin’s architectural exhibition named ‘Interbau’ from 1957 (that involved Alvar Aalto, Le Corbusier, Water Gropius, Arne Jacobsenor Oscar Niemeyer) and IBA’87 (designs from Aldo Rossi, Arata Izosaki, Peter Eisenman and James Stirling), became the base and a set of physical representations of Kleihues’ critical reconstruction theory (Nowobilska and Zaman 2014).


Potsdamer Platz remained forgotten and neglected in this span of 44 years where West Berlin developed into a polycentric division where as East Berlin was monocentric radiating from the Alexander Platz. With the conditions in the city this soon led to the fall of the wall in 1989, the ‘Die Wende’. The capital was shifted back to Berlin from Bonn, and the city experienced a dramatic rise in population overnight. The euphoric streak could be sensed and the victory over communism was being celebrated, Potsdamer Platz, again was now recognized as the Centre of Berlin. But being the Centre again, meant a great deal this time. The Platz in a state of tabula rasa was a figure ground of opportunities. The world this time identified it as real estate giant and was eyeing the 60-ha land. This soon led to the much-anticipated boom.


The government that wanted Berlin back on the world map instantly, was quite aware of the situation and they very strategically started to market the property. This led to seeking the attention of big giants.

Divided in four parts the land was sold to private investors that included big names like Daimler-Benz, which decided to bring its head quarter there and Sony, who had plans of placing its European Centre. With the inclusion of globally acclaimed names like these, it was clearly visible that the idea was to project an image of Berlin that did not belong to it previously, to make it globally huge. But in this process Potsdamer Platz was acting like a backbone. It was the reason for the new streak of urbanism. The economically led urbanism. Where the city’s history, unknowingly was being buried under the banner of commercialization.


The masterplan has the capacity to offer a future ‘vision’ of the city as a whole, but it must have a recourse to both past plans-  which have to be reconsidered from the point of view of new urban phenomena (BUSQUETS 2000). The government initiated competitions to have a masterplan to bring everyone under one roof, for they were aware of the fact that the scale was gigantic and it would lead to results that would not complement each other on a site that was divided into four and sold to different people. The brief discussed to have a mixed-used masterplan that could recreate a pre-war Centre where there would be places to relax and breathe. This led to the emergence of many contradicting ideas. The traditionalists wanted to forget the traces of war and wanted to return to the 1914, but the deconstructionists argued that it was not 1914, the city had evolved since then and has a different social and economic environment, they wanted to move ahead in future with the scars of the past remembered and preserved as a part of history. The competition was won by Hilmer-Sattler. The selected proposal divided the area between five radiating streets referring to the site’s historic arrangement and accentuated its forefront by high-rise towers. The rest of the buildings were broken into blocks with a maximum height of 35 m referring to the historical urban blocks (Nowobilska and Zaman 2014)

(Nowobilska and Zaman 2014)Potsdamer Platz: The Reshaping of Berlin. Potsdamer Platz


When peace was made between the two school of thoughts, the project was hit by the concept of globalization and its pressures came with it. It was no longer essential to think about local public benefits, for the cities under the flag of globalization were at a war that everyone wanted to take a part in and wanted to come out victorious, as (de Sola-Morales 1992) mentions, the spectacular creation of public spaces and buildings in some large European cities- some paying lip service to those principle and some ignoring them- is turning them into glittering showcases of aesthetic design and consumption, competitive images for presentation in mass media, explains how important it had become for the world nations by the 90’s to mark their existence and be popular, with that the  traditional urbanism, of modest interventions, in terms of public spaces was taking a back seat.

Hilmer – Sattler’s plan was accepted by the developers but each of the enthusiastic owners were putting up competitions for their own sites and similar to their status the architects attached to their projects were prestigious names. Daimler – Benz’s master plan was being developed by Renzo Piano, Sony’s was being developed by Helmut Jahn. The works on the plaza were gradually beginning to happen but the overwhelmingly ambitious vision of pin pointing Berlin on the world map overnight came with its own fear of failing at the big idea. Urbanism now was now on a road from place-making to ‘place-marketing’ (Colomb 2012)  where it was not only dealing with the city but had to please the world, leaving no stone unturned, new marketing campaigns were launched. The use of ‘media’ techniques is also important in projects which affect a broad sector of population: here, image helps to dispel the distance between proposal and reality, simulating scenarios which express the project’s potential (BUSQUETS 2000). With ideas of introducing on-site marketing with temporary structures being installed like the INFOBOX, to attract visitors and investors, which was sowing the seed of Berlin as the new metropolis. The technology and the images on display were promising a lot to the huge number of visitors it welcomed every year. It was a constant fear in the developers which led them to use shells under construction for marketing to keep the world engaged and informed about the future of Potsdamer Platz and it continued till the INFOBOX was taken down in 2001, with the majority of the construction works approaching completion.

Today the Platz is there with all its glory and with no signs of the pre-war or even post-war reflections on it. Many argue that the Potsdamer Platz today has been everything but not true to its character. But what made this character vanish? Commercialization of the public space was taken up as a strategy to emerge from the dark past of the cold war. With aplomb the land parcels were presented to the world by city officials. For them the answer to their question was in going global. Privatization of the properties around the Platz has been an eye-soar for many. With privatization most of the public area was taken up to become semi- private. In an illusion of being the glitteriest ‘public’ plaza, boundaries for the public use were being defined. Invisible barriers and the pomp and show of the branded spaces led to a social divide where the plaza invited all but at the same time projected on an image that was painted for particular social strata. The good city is the one in which private buildings- especially good private buildings- are public elements whether they like it or not and serve as vehicles for social meaning and values that reach beyond themselves, and it is precisely in this they are urban (de Sola-Morales 1992). With this statement let’s try and understand the character of the monsters present on the Platz. Sony, with its glass and steel structure has in many ways tried to be the most happening place with its theatres, restaurants and offices. A concept of a public space alien to the Berliners, with no physical barriers it invites the public inside into a huge plaza where there are no restrictions to move around but power of inclusion and exclusion can be sensed in the way the human behavior has been tamed to move in certain patterns. In which physically one is free to linger but is refrained mentally to use the presented facilities based on social and economic conditions. It is an image of contemporary Berlin where it has scratched the past by keeping the public overwhelmed with its architecture and exclusive branding style. It is eye-catchy in terms of basic inclusion but no urban activity is spotted that does not fall in the category of being commercial. It is not that the true significance of such spaces is hidden from view, but rather that we are often too close to notice how our sense of publicness has been appropriated and used to bring about an effective response. The trappings that we find ourselves in the midst of, may perhaps seem too obvious to bear scrutiny, But, it is their very familiarity which stops us from probing them in the first place. The staging of a certain kind of ‘publicness’ in privatized spaces is not a false spectacle; the openness and accessibility are real, as are the closure and the constraint that accompany it. (Allen 2006)

Sony revolves around the idea of ‘key’ buildings in an urbanistic project as explained by Busquets in Urbanism at the turn of the Century where he recognizes the outstanding aspect of recent urban projects is the simultaneous presence of strategic, high-ambition interventions based around other, clearly delimited actions which use spectacular nature to trigger off the operation as a whole (BUSQUETS 2000). The competition between cities has led to this search for the logo buildings that can build new images for the cities. Buildings on the Potsdamer Platz were behaving in a similar manner as they were erecting from the city’s fabric and were concentrated in the Centre. It is an abrupt change in skyline as well as in the language, the city overall has. The varied identities that pop-out of the Centre today in which each intervention is important in its own stride which simultaneously puts in question the centrality of Potsdamer Platz itself. Shifting centralities can been experienced which is influenced by the presence of the iconic architecture and strategies taken up to design the historic node.

Public space can give cohesion to a city made up of parts according to J. Habermas, but it is an aspect which needs to be reclaimed (BUSQUETS 2000). Every brand brought in had a different strategy to portray its presence on the Potsdamer Platz. The way it was made, divided, the resultant was also a variety of experiences in the urban Centre that responded well to its own boundary but as a whole they were unique from one another. The expectations for the New Potsdamer Platz to revive the old Centre with movement and life was brought back in a sense but it missed the target by being too commercial and private where every portion bore a tag that obviously had a language of its own. It’s a technologically driven development. But Morales argues on the fact that the public space should not be thought to be self sufficient on its own. He says, thus taking ‘public spaces’ too seriously, considering them sufficient in themselves, as places in which to build works of architecture without volume or as objects of design, may turn out to be a grave theoretical error. As a programme of ‘urban beautification’ they undoubtedly possess the great virtue of establishing the aesthetic importance of works of urbanization, but from a more ambitious approach to the urban project do not have a great future ahead of them (de Sola-Morales 1992)

In the case of Potsdamer Platz the city did not accept the new image because the new Centre could have been anywhere in the world. Berliners cannot respond back to the Centre for they understand the Platz is much more than these buildings that are not native to the city. The Centre stands today commercialized to its core. The character of today’s Potsdamer Platz is rich but its authenticity is questioned. Apparently, the inhabitants were and are still not ready to accept the architecture that does not tap into there senses and memories. Certain voids have been left in the imagination of the citizens where they can see the wall standing in between the Platz but cannot feel it. History of a place is passed on to many generations as memories and when alterations are made to them, the link breaks. The chain of events that happen on the urban fabric have to be taken care of no matter what measures are taken up to make the city a better place but on the contrary as Setha Low mentions, the economic motives for the design of urban public space often have more to do with increasing the value and attractiveness of the surrounding property than with increasing the comfort of the daily inhabitants (Low 2003). This explains a lot about the deal where human emotions, their involvement and patterns of history are not considered important enough for the growth of the city in the race to be commercially acclaimed then, results are such where the project in itself becomes an icon, but it cannot extend its roots in the land that it stands on. The two historical structures of Hotel Esplanade and Weinhaus Huth, which have been integrated in the plans by Daimler and Sony stand today, hidden, and their historical significance on the Platz overpowered by the glamour of the New Potsdamer Platz.

M. Christine Boyer describes the contemporary world in the most appropriate manner with reference to Walter Benjamin’s ideas, she writes, ‘The city, or so Benjamin thought, once offered pleasurable streets and phantasmagorical visions, beckoning the stroller to explore. But as the familiar patterns of experience declined throughout the nineteenth century, the modern metropolis met the spectators gaze with ‘shock experiences’. The swelling crowd in large cities, for example buffeted the spectator about, subjecting him or her to traumatic collisions and abrasive noises. Inevitably for sheer survival, the spectator’s conscious awareness withdrew from such negative experiences, while a veil descended protecting the viewer against such attacks. Thus, the memory traces, once recorded as experiences in a direct and natural manner, failed to register at all. Consequently, the continuum of traditional experience and remembrance embedded in spatial forms, once thought to be the ordering structure of the city and generating device for memory, was impoverished beyond recognition. The continuum could be resuscitated synthetically and unnaturally in frozen city landscapes where memory had fallen asleep lulled by the comfort of “once upon a time”. (Boyer 1994)

For the Platz to not have a trace of the wall is indigestible but on the 20th Anniversary of the end of Socialist era it was reintroduced on the Platz as an intervention. But by making it ceremonious, the meaning of the wall was interchanged to something it was not. The wall was a symbol of divide and the history of the city is embedded in it. As Tölle describes it: ‘it focuses the story only on its ‘happy ending'(Tölle 2010). The rupture that the wall caused in the growth of the city can not be overwritten by the beautification of the city. The matter of the wall needed to be handled in a much sensitive manner, for in the time it was taken down it was an eye soar but it was from the city. If the Platz is reduced to its original form it had so many ingredients which could have been used to their amazing potential but in the euphoria of the end of Cold War the idea was to have the shift then and there and a humble approach could not have worked for the Berlin of that time. But the professionals could have been more responsible in handling the pieces of history. It was not only the government of that time that took the decision to make the Platz what it is today. Reputable names were involved in the deciding the fate of the Platz. The lack of permeability of one field into another might have influenced the course of direction of the urbanistic approach, as Busquets mentions, a stronger potential disciplinary corpus should be seen as integrating rather than as exclusive, and therefore capable of overcoming the regressive aspects of old specializations which, rather than ensuring more thorough disciplinary study, have produced a system of conflicting competences, leading to excessive fragmentation of the city, its infrastructures and its functional sectors (BUSQUETS 2000), this divide likewise, also affects the way the urban fabric is realized.

Urbanism in the 90’s for Berlin proved to be about the growth of the metropolis linked to the search of iconic architecture, production of emblematic city centres, marketed and plastered in our heads as global identities, washed out with the layer of history in the elation of being the next big thing. As we see it today, we see it on the world map, we agree to it being the commercial hub and the face changing transformation for Berlin. The Platz has undergone all the technological, commercial and economic transformations and has whole heartedly taken part in the process, but will it still be able to transform on the same grounds that are superficial and are not rooted in the urban fabric? In the recent years we have already seen Sony and Daimler putting their properties up for sale. Does it mean that the time has already arrived where the picture perfect, economically stable setting on ground level with all the glitz and lights is about to deteriorate or, already has.