View from Berlin, 1998 – Venture Kapital
The center of Berlin today is the largest construction site in Europe, a high tech endeavor pharaonic in scale.
The new foundations have been laid beneath groundwater level by scuba divers, while giant machines assembled in front of the parliament building are drilling an astonishing network of subterranean transport tunnels. Mile after mile of scaffolding lines the streets of the decayed neighborhoods in the East, and courtyards echo with the shouts of immigrant workers. Developers, engineers, and contract laborers have come here from around the world to help build a new capital for Germany, and perhaps for all Europe.
The last great urban redevelopment plan for Berlin, scheduled for completion in 1950, was sketched by Adolf Hitler. Hitler’s “Germania” would have reoriented Berlin on a north-south axis, defined by a grand boulevard running between a 700-foot dome and an enormous memorial arch more than twice as high as the Arc de Triomphe. By 1938, a hundred people were at work in Albert Speer’s planning office, and tens of thousands of apartments had already been vacated, a task made easier by the fact that many of the residents were Jews.
A few years later, Allied bombing raids had reduced much of Berlin to rubble. For the rest of the century, the once-great Prussian manufacturing center was suspended in a state of blank stasis, held motionless by the tension of the conflict between East and West. Postwar Berlin was a city with a wall and grassy rubble in place of its old core. It had edges, but no center. Though the western sector boasted a few thriving commercial districts, the economy was artificially pumped up by subsidies, and serious investment went elsewhere. In the East, meanwhile, communist rebuilding projects were mired in the lassitude of the planned economy, and grand boulevards started crumbling almost as soon as they were completed.
Then the Wall fell. Awakening nine years ago from its half-century trance, Berlin has struggled to decide which direction to look in. Would it model itself on the new cities of the world, with their disregard for history and their willingness to remake themselves according to exigencies of the global economy and the whims of savvy developers? Or could Berlin pick up some thread of a local identity, salvaged from its prewar past? This is hardly an innocent question, since every gap in the cityscape of Berlin today is an expression of both the city’s losses and its crimes.
In the heady days that followed reunification, Edzard Reuter, then the CEO of Daimler-Benz (and the son of Berlin’s most famous mayor), announced that the city’s location at the eastern edge of the European Union would make it the Hong Kong of Eastern Europe. Daimler-Benz decided to locate the headquarters of its service-oriented subsidiary, debis, in Potsdamer Platz, on a plot directly atop the old route of the Wall. Sony also decided to move its European headquarters to Berlin, purchasing a large site nearby. Scores of other companies were expected to follow.
As the building boom accelerated, Berlin’s leaders imagined their city as the center of the world’s attention and the site of the Olympiad 2000. The idea was already in the air: In 1987, on the same visit during which he had called upon Gorbachev to tear down the Wall, Ronald Reagan speculated that Berlin would then be an ideal host for the millennial games, the first held here since 1936, when Hitler had personally presided. (In a first, the Nazis had televised the opening ceremony as a demonstration of German technological superiority.) Now that Berlin was rising from the ashes of its punishment, the German government envisioned the Olympics returning to a city whose new prosperity embodied the promise of an undivided Europe.
In the early ’90s, economists predicted a massive population increase. The city economist Eberhard von Einem estimated that 60,000 people would arrive in Berlin every year. The German government voted to move most of the federal administration from Bonn to Berlin, which meant the direct transfer of tens of thousands of government employees, plus attendant law firms, associations, and political party offices. To get the attention of investors, the federal government offered irresistible tax credits, sparking an orgy of speculative upgrade.
No comparable city-building scheme has been seen in Europe in this century. By the mid ’90s, construction investments in Berlin reached DM30 billion per year (US$16 billion-plus). In Potsdamer Platz alone, Daimler-Benz, Sony, and the other developers agreed to put up 29 buildings with 111,000 square meters of apartment space, 310,000 square meters of office space, and 57,000 square meters of retail shops and restaurants; plus two Imax theaters, 27 cinemas, a concert stage, an underground train station, and a grand shopping arcade.
Potsdamer Platz was the most famous ruined site of the old city, but it represented only a fraction of the new construction. There would be tens of thousands of fancy apartments built in the central city – a planned neighborhood for sophisticated city dwellers. A new government quarter in the Spreebogen area, with an enormous, multilevel railway station. Three crosstown tunnels to carry cars, subway trains, and long-distance trains. A high-rent office and shopping district running the entire length of Friedrichstrasse, with its famous border-crossing at Checkpoint Charlie. The new Berlin is meant to be a “Gateway to the East,” a beacon of German affluence at the edge of the First World.
On the surface, Berlin seems to be liberating itself from history. The Nazi monuments were erased by bombs five decades ago, and the Wall has been gone for nine years – leaving long, inviting stretches of unfilled lots. Whole swaths of the city are being razed for new construction. But if the past is invisible, it is also unavoidable. Redevelopment schemes in Berlin seek either to rewrite the city’s history or to escape it entirely, and their bizarre theatrical quality stems from this battle with the past.
Berlin’s dream is to be the affluent, service-oriented capital of Europe’s richest country, and a beacon of hope to its neighbors in the East, where prosperity remains elusive. Yet the early results, where visible, hint at spectacular failure. Empty stores line the streets; a wave of investors has already washed out.
Nineteenth-century Berlin may have been the hub of the Prussian rail network and the center of German manufacturing, but why build a Gateway to the East now, when commerce is being decentralized, material goods are shipped point-to-point, and the intellectual property crucial to the economy hardly touches ground at all? Today, manufacturing has migrated to the poorest countries of the world; communications networks and global logistics have made the railroads ancillary. At a time when governments are weakening, taking second place to borderless corporate entities whose bureaucratic back offices are located in suburbs where land is cheap, Berlin is staking its future on a new government center.
The reconstruction of a 19th-century city at the border of the 21st century is an exercise in fantasy and national mythmaking. But Berlin’s savviest entrepreneurs and corporate executives well understand the commercial power of fantasy. Alongside the government buildings, they are building a multibillion-deutschmark theatrical event whose theme is “great city.” Their goal isn’t the literal re-creation of an industrial city, but the creation of a new, convincing urban environment that will attract a new audience of tourists and knowledge workers.
The dominant philosophy of Berlin redevelopment is “critical reconstruction.” Its adherents want to recapture the “mythos” of the city at an earlier time. These planners discourage the aggregation of multiple lots into extended developments and require architects to follow strict rules governing the height and shape of the buildings, favoring stone and ceramic exteriors over steel and glass. Where possible, they want to restore prewar street patterns and building lines. “We are asking,” says Volker Hassemer, a former senator who now runs an influential city marketing group, “what was the role of the central city area in the 19th century? Then we must invent the contemporary equivalent.”
“After the Wall had gone, there was a great opportunity not just to unify but to reestablish the old historical center of the city,” recalls Berlin architect Hans Kollhoff, who has worked on many of the projects. The 50-year interruption in center-city development preserved, paradoxically, something of prewar Berlin. The rare possibility thus exists to realize a vision of urban life distinctly at odds with the chaotic and exploding forms of the American and Asian cities of the second half of the century. “There was severe damage” to Berlin, says Kollhoff, “but people retained a certain image of their city, a very precise image, and they want to regain something of that old world.
“Good cities are made of quiet buildings that people like,” he reasons. We are sitting in his offices on the Kurfürstendamm, Berlin’s toniest shopping district, and Kollhoff points out the window to the dull buildings across the street. “Ku’damm works well, although it is all ugly buildings. This is also the character of Friedrichstrasse.”
Friedrichstrasse, the showplace project of the new Berlin, passes a few hundred meters east of the Brandenburg Gate. Like a cat colonizing a new house by staking out a strip of defensible territory close to an obvious exit, West German investors quickly got involved in this nearby sector of the eastern part of the city. Up went dozens of new buildings, an invented promenade designed to satisfy all the dreams of the liberated consumers in the eastern sector. For block after block, the obedient ranks of offices and storefronts press close to the street.
But the critical reconstruction of Friedrichstrasse has created the form of a 19th-century city – without the people. The shopping showplace sits like an island between the wealthy western part of the city and the poor East. West Berliners continue to shop in their familiar spots, such as the Ku’damm.
“Most of the buildings are owned by the banks now,” says Michael Sontheimer, the Berlin bureau chief of Der Spiegel, whose office on Friedrichstrasse overlooks the street. “Very few of the original investors are still around.”
It is 5 p.m. on a Monday. Out Sontheimer’s window are the dark glass bands of Galeries Lafayette, across which hang ribbons of bright electric text. Inside, the Planet Hollywood store is empty, as is the jewelry shop. There are no customers at DKNY. At the photo boutique a man is asking a clerk to make a photocopy for him, but it is not clear whether this is a commercial transaction or simply a favor. Down the street, not a single person can be seen in the elegant modernist lobby of the Atrium Friedrichstrasse, a truly imposing eight-story space lined with interior windows and overlooked by an open, metalwork staircase at each corner. At the front, a double-columned business directory has plenty of room for additions. The absence of tenants is strangely compelling. The mostly blank rectangles in the directory look like dominos set face down, waiting for a game to restart.
One of the most obvious reasons that Friedrichstrasse remains empty is that Berlin remains poor. Despite the early commitments from Sony and Daimler-Benz, it hasn’t proven strictly necessary to establish an office in Berlin in order to do business in Eastern Europe. The slowly developing economies of the former communist countries are forming their own direct ties to the power centers of the West. The main airport hubs for heading east are Frankfurt and Vienna, not Berlin.
While the government is still scheduled to move by the turn of the century, the German Institute for Economic Research has revised its population prediction, and now expects the Berlin population to shrink slightly between now and 2015. Many of the government employees are expected to settle in the suburbs. Unemployment in the city hovers between 17 and 18 percent. Meanwhile, the takeover of formerly East German industries by private firms from the West has rendered much of the East Berlin population unemployable. Heinrich Mäding, an economist from the Deutsches Institut für Urbanistik (a research group funded by a collection of German cities and towns), admits frankly that many of the people from East Berlin who were over 50 years old when unification came have no future of any kind in the labor market. Reduced to continuously demanding financial assistance from a grudging federal government, the city itself is virtually bankrupt.
The Berlin architect Daniel Libeskind considers the city’s reconstruction projects a national scandal – because they reflect a vision of city life more suited to the Nazi Berlin of the ’30s than the city of today or tomorrow.
It takes three attempts to connect with Libeskind in his obscurely marked atelier at the back of a courtyard in Charlottenburg. The reception area of his office is guarded by two doting secretaries who argue possessively over the management of his schedule and succeed in telegraphing, even before he appears, the architect’s aura of youthful self-regard. Though he is in his 50s, Libeskind retains the compelling, slightly aggrieved quality of the boy genius, and it hardly takes a question before he picks up his attack on the presumptions of the city planners.
“It is a paranoia of historiographic reconstruction – or pretend historiographic reconstruction,” he says. “It is the fear of history, in Berlin and in Germany. It is a kind of allergy. Berlin is a new city. It is not 1870 or 1910 or 1930 – thank God. It’s now postwar and we have a new economy and a new understanding of cities.”
In particular, Libeskind takes issue with Kollhoff. The sudden opening of Berlin represented a frightening invitation to the global forces of city development, and the recalcitrant streets and blocks of central Berlin remain an invitation to pedestrians to imagine alternative futures. Kollhoff believes the solution is to create a reordered city of regular blocks.
“This is completely fallacious,” Libeskind answers. “Berlin doesn’t need any new order. It is a perfectly ordered, perfectly beautiful city.”
Finding beauty in central Berlin today is not difficult, but it requires a postmodern taste. In the jumble of dilapidated postwar apartments alternating with gentrified neighbors, harsh East German government buildings, and isolated 19th-century monuments, there is a provocative lack of imposed logic, and a sense that only very local patterns of order can be grasped. It is the kind of environment that young people and the very ambitious enjoy, because it presents, in every direction, the prospect of problems to be solved.
“It is not chaos,” Libeskind insists, “but order of a different kind.”
Friedrichstrasse is the most important major site to be completed so far, but it is just the beginning. The new Berlin has been planned through enormous design competitions. The entire site at Potsdamer Platz, the center of consumer culture in prewar Berlin, was planned by Heinz Hilmer and Christoph Sattler; the competition for planning the Spreebogen area, where the new government buildings would be, attracted 832 entries and was won by Axel Schultes and Charlotte Frank; and Alexanderplatz, the once-great working-class square, was awarded to Hans Kollhoff.
For Alexanderplatz, Kollhoff does not stick to the modest, 22-meter façades he suggests for other parts of the city. Rather, his plan attempts to project an image of Berlin as if the city had grown more “normally” in the 20th century. His design calls for more than 1 million square meters of office and retail space, organized into 12 skyscrapers on large, block-long, 12-story bases. This is a city of ordered, energetic downtown blocks – a city that might have been built had the election of 1933 turned out differently. It represents an alternative future, or, more accurately, a high tech future built as if it were the product of an alternative past.
Sigfried Giedion, one of the great midcentury historians of technology, wrote in 1941 that “the skyscraper slab form of today is as significant and expressive for our period as the monolithic obelisk of Egypt and the Gothic cathedral tower were for their periods.” Giedion would recognize Kollhoff’s redevelopment plan instantly as an optimistic blending of modern technology with the needs of business. But when Giedion wrote his paean to Rockefeller Center, the buildings he admired were still expressive of a revolutionary movement in architecture, and they sat in a diverse cityscape of earlier developments.
During the 50 years that central Berlin was held in deep freeze, the social optimism of modernist city development steadily evaporated, and the ubiquitous skyscraper slabs have come to represent the faceless corporate hierarchies that fund and occupy them. Like the redeveloped Friedrichstrasse, Kollhoff’s idea for Alexanderplatz is a bold fantasy, an amazing piece of urban theater whose purpose is to spirit the postwar period away.
About 200 meters down Friedrichstrasse from the ghostly high-rent district sits a gray one-story building with a grass-and-gravel lot for cars. The lot is full, even though it is a weekday evening and there is no party going on. On weekend nights the decrepit building houses a techno club that features dancing in a series of small rooms. The single larger room is off-limits because of a giant sinkhole in the floor. Open fluorescent bulbs dangle from the ceiling, and rubber hoses feeding the bar form booby traps for the unwary. Tonight the building is being used as the set for a music video starring Dr. Motte, a star of the Berlin techno scene. Production assistants are carefully wrapping the DJ in strings of electric lights. Dr. Motte waves his illuminated arms up and down while the camera looks at him through the water in an aquarium. The video, explains one of the producers, will take the point of view of a fish.
With his colleague Ralf Regitz, Dr. Motte is a partner in the Love Parade, an annual music festival and peace march that last year brought a million people to Berlin. While Dr. Motte is working on his video, Regitz is a few miles away taping a small piece of paper with the name of his production company, planetcom, to the directory of a newly redeveloped office building on Brunnenstrasse. From the top floor of this five-story walk-up, Regitz, who is 33, handles production of the Love Parade demonstration and rally, negotiations with city officials, and planning for next year’s parade. Negotiations with the government of Berlin are always lengthy and difficult. “We screw up the whole city,” Regitz admits.
If “critical reconstruction” is a bold form of urban theater, the entrepreneurship of Regitz is even bolder. The orderly façades of the new Berlin are meant to be a container for housing and employing its inhabitants, but to Regitz the contemporary city is not a collection of stable containers; instead, it is a gathering place for a flow of money and people that may stay for only a short while.
People who know Regitz say that he looks like a tall E.T., and while it is true that he is extraordinarily thin, with oversize hands and ears, the extraterrestrial reference is justified less by his features than by his combined air of alienation and benevolence. Screwing up the entire city, Regitz says, is a great thing to do. Regitz spends hundreds of hours with city officials, discussing the parade route, the toilet facilities, the press arrangements, the emergency services, and so on. “The U-Bahn people, the police, the shop owners – for once they have to talk to each other and cooperate,” he says. “They are not used to cooperating, and it is not easy. But they know that if they don’t, there is going to be a catastrophe.” Regitz is relaxed as he threatens the possibility of disaster. “In the end, everybody loves it, including the police.”
Like every single Berliner with some extra cash on hand, Regitz has a sideline in real estate development. planetcom runs a techno club called e-werk in an unused power plant in central Berlin, and the club uses only a fraction of the available space. Regitz shows me his development proposal for a complex of apartments, with a café and health club. He wants to use the foyer of the factory for public concerts and leave it open to the public when there isn’t a show. There will also be a series of micro offices for students or tiny start-ups, renting for only DM150 per month (approximately US$80).
Regitz’s development proposal is a not-too-distant cousin of those drawings sixth graders produce when asked for a picture of their dream bedroom, with a lobby/techno-club in place of the personal candy store or private zoo. But, for a brief time at least, these visions can become reality in Berlin. e-werk is located between Checkpoint Charlie and Potsdamer Platz. “From the roof of the building,” he says, “you’ll have a view of the entire city.”
A panoramic view is the conventional reward for the successful city developer, and another young Berliner, Thomas Heilmann, is about to take possession of his. Heilmann moved to Berlin in 1992 to start an advertising agency. It was a time when many major advertising firms, entranced by the image of a new European capital, were opening Berlin offices. They came thinking they would be well positioned to get East German clients. The problem was, there were no East German clients.
At the moment of reunification, most of East Germany’s managerial class became redundant. There were new markets opening in the East, but the West retained control of the economy. Major advertising firms quickly realized their mistake and retreated from their Berlin outposts. But Heilmann’s firm, Scholz & Friends, stayed and prospered by reversing the business proposition. Rather than pitching Western advertising know-how to scarce customers in the East, they pitched the image of on-the-edge Berlin creativity to traditional clients in the West. Within a few years Scholz & Friends had expanded its Berlin office to 70 people and had begun to pursue a major project of real estate development.
Heilmann stands on a swaying aluminum staircase that rises from his unfinished apartment toward an observation deck on the roof of the large building on Chausseestrasse. “From here,” says Heilmann, who is 33, “you have views of the entire city.” Descending from the ramparts, he explains why his project, called the European New Media Center, was irresistible. The price of Berlin real estate has fallen so low, and the tax incentives are so generous, that Heilmann is able to offer tenants trendy, newly remodeled offices at DM20 per square foot for the basic version and DM25 per square foot for the suites with blond wood floors and other custom enhancements. Meanwhile, the experience of Scholz & Friends had taught Heilmann that having your headquarters in an underdeveloped city isn’t necessarily a handicap as long as your business maintains a commonsense orientation toward the power centers of the West. The fundamental business decisions governing the future of his company and his new office development are made by the advertising clients and media consumers of the global village.
Like Regitz’s new complex at e-werk, Heilmann’s New Media Center is designed for companies that can use Berlin’s distant location and economic pathos to good advantage. There are inexpensive offices, plus an appealing atmosphere of urban tension and transformation. For the privileged knowledge workers who will occupy the New Media Center, Berlin is not a central node on a shipping network, but a lifestyle choice.
As Heilmann points out, the Berlin of Scholz & Friends is a creature of the media, a local redoubt for talented professionals who could work anywhere. “Every month we hire five or six new people,” he says. “But the people we are hiring are not the people from the former industries that have disappeared. It will take 30 years to make the turnover in the labor pool.” Berlin is something his tenants and employees consume in their off-hours. It is also part of their identity. “Berlin” is a great name to have on your Web site and your business cards these days, and in a few years savvy third-wave entrepreneurs will doubtless be moving to Havana for similar reasons.
While Hans Kollhoff and his colleagues are attempting to bring a sense of tradition and order to Berlin, Heilmann and Regitz are taking advantage of the city’s uncertainty and openness. All three are projecting a new urban image against the dark backdrop of Berlin’s depression. All three are heirs of Walt Disney. They are Imagineers: experts at the theatrical adaptation of an urban theme.
In the world of real estate development, Regitz and Heilmann are small fry. Edgar van Ommen, on the other hand, is a leviathan. Van Ommen controls the Sony project. Developed with Tishman Speyer Properties and the Kajima Corporation and designed by Helmut Jahn, the Sony Center at Potsdamer Platz is the company’s largest investment in Europe.
German executives tend to be formal, so it is disconcerting when van Ommen, spying me in the conference room, calls out: “Oh, you poor boy! Why are you in there? Come join me in my office. No, don’t take your drink with you – we have people who will do that.”
Questioned as to his divergence from type, van Ommen explains that he is from Vienna by way of South Africa, Bangkok, and Bombay, where he has spent the past 18 years building hotels. He made his South African sojourn as a founding partner in Sun City, the gambling resort that was the subject of a well-publicized international boycott during the anti-apartheid struggle. The transition from Sun City’s stunning vulgarity to Sony’s less flamboyant corporate style is expressed in his few items of office decor, which include a photo of two tigers in a casino, a pair of boxing gloves, a book of Japanese business etiquette, and a demure set of family photos.
Van Ommen is building Sony’s European headquarters here, but that is only one of the company’s new structures. There will also be a 26-story office tower, a combined headquarters for several German film and television institutes, three additional office buildings, more than 200 apartments, a luxury hotel, and an enormous covered entertainment forum with eight underground movie screens and an Imax theater. The disjunction between the optimism expressed by Sony’s investment and the manifest problems of Berlin’s economy has created widespread skepticism about whether Potsdamer Platz will suffer the same fate as Friedrichstrasse. Van Ommen laughs off this possibility: “You do not need an MBA to realize that when you build a project this size in one of the best locations in Europe, purchased at this price and developed at this time, failure can almost be excluded.”
It is true that van Ommen got a good deal on the purchase of the site and that Berlin’s economic crisis has allowed him to negotiate favorable construction terms. But the developer has another advantage. Van Ommen’s project is no more dependent on the fate of Berlin’s current population than is Heilmann’s New Media Center or Regitz’s planetcom. Sony can use its global holdings to create an entertainment event whose appeal goes far beyond the borders of the city. The Sony Center at Potsdamer Platz will offer the adult version of what Regitz’s Love Parade offers youth. There will be formidable design and architecture, shops and amenities for Heilmann’s knowledge workers, and a huge multiplex with plenty of parking for politicians, lobbyists, and government staffers who choose to live close to the drama of downtown. The Sony Center aims to become a gathering place for deutschmarks that bounce into the Berlin economy from outside, are carried briefly in the pocketbooks of affluent citizens and tourists, and are laid down at the box office or concession stand before returning into the great international flow.
Van Ommen believes that Berlin can be one of world’s great stages, but unlike Regitz and Heilmann, he does not enjoy the view from his headquarters. “Look out the window here at Friedrichstrasse,” he complains. “Is this not the worst shit God ever created? It is supposed to be a place for the flaneur – a mall. Look, there are no trees. I would have closed it off to traffic, put some trees and cafés along the street. But what do you expect? It was designed by Berliners who have never been anywhere.”
Friedrichstrasse looks the way it does because Kollhoff and his colleagues envisioned the orderly, impressive buildings of an idealized European capital. But van Ommen understands that quiet functionality and local memories are hardly the most promising commercial themes. His version of the city is not designed merely for its citizens, or even primarily for them. Like Sun City, and like the hotels van Ommen has built in Bangkok and Bombay, Sony’s Berlin will draw its audience from all over the world.
Ironically, the dimensions of Berlin’s identity most compelling to outsiders are precisely the ones Kollhoff’s Berlin is most anxious to conceal. “In America,” says Hanns Nerger, director of the Berlin Tourism office, “you would have a memorial Wall and a simulated escape.” But Berlin is too haunted to commercialize its history. It will never host a simulated Wall or a Naziworld.
Some of Berlin’s leaders would like the city to connect with a more distant past – Weimar in the ’20s is frequently mentioned – but van Ommen is focused on the contemporary, international entertainment culture that Sony owns, and that seems to work everywhere. While Kollhoff and his colleagues are attempting to redeem the past by reconstructing an orderly European city purged of Nazi associations, Sony can mobilize its entertainment magic to make the past disappear altogether.
The Sony complex is the only site in central Berlin to present the sort of spectacular architecture that the advocates of critical reconstruction abhor. The entire project is controlled architecturally by Helmut Jahn (in contrast to the other developments on Potsdamer Platz, which are shared among multiple architects), and at the center of the site is an open arena under an elliptical steel, glass, and fabric roof. Van Ommen seems to have had a free hand in the development, but in fact he has been negotiating relentlessly with the city from the first day.
“I know what happens in human beings when they are overwhelmed by an avalanche of unknown facts,” he says magisterially. “We arrive with building applications that are very complex, that are more complex than any they have ever dealt with. We sit down, talk, compromise, and come back.” For all that, van Ommen retained the upper hand. As the real estate market collapsed in the mid ’90s, he allowed rumors to circulate that Sony would withdraw, and he took advantage of the falling prices and the growing anxiety to get highly favorable construction terms.
Van Ommen expects the conservative rhetoric that surrounds the projects of central Berlin to drop quickly away. And he is confident that the Sony Center, however uncharacteristic today, offers a more accurate picture of Berlin’s future than anything built by the planners and architects native to the city. “Berlin has been encaged and enclosed and totally subsidized,” he says. “Suddenly, the city élite is exposed to competition, exposed to international, hard-core, trained people. This is not comfortable for them, and that goes for everybody – press, business, and politicians. A typical German is methodical, correct, politically inflexible, and uncompromising. This was good for the past 40 years, but times have changed. It will take an entire generation to transform the city.”
Van Ommen derides Berlin’s leaders for the their lack of worldliness. For him, Europe is a provincial ideal. The worldliness of the Sony Center will be the worldliness of the Sony recording artists whose CDs are on sale in the shops, and of the Sony-owned movies that will run in the multiplex. The tourists will come from everywhere, and the service staff will arrive in Berlin from Eastern Europe, from Turkey, and from the least affluent countries of the European Union. Berlin’s task is to orient itself toward these international flows of money, images, and people. In this version of Berlin, the city is not a gateway to anywhere. Sony is the gateway.
“Without a German revolution, we are doomed,” wrote Lenin in 1919, the same year Rosa Luxemburg, the most famous German revolutionary, was killed in the street by police during a failed uprising. After the Nazi defeat, Luxemburg was enshrined as one of the founding mothers of the East German régime, and even as communist rule soured she remained Germany’s most popular revolutionary hero. Each year, in the second week of January, demonstrations in her memory attracted every variety of left-winger in West Berlin – from stolid trade unionists to anarchist punks – while in the East the anniversary of her death was the occasion for a parade down Karl-Marx-Allee.
With only one city, you need only one Rosa Luxemburg parade, and today the festivities begin just east of Alexanderplatz, following their traditional East Berlin route between multistory apartment blocks of relentless uniformity. The apartments, faced with crumbling pastel tiles, are set far back from the wide street and sit above empty shops. In the windows, elderly ex-bureaucrats stand with their families and wave to the marchers below. These apartments were luxurious by East German standards, and they were once perks for devoted government service.
This year’s parade gathers momentum in an atmosphere of impending riot. Well-disciplined blocks of activists from the Turkish Stalinist party, carrying large portraits and reciting slogans in unison, press up against a phalanx of black-clad anarchist kids who represent the antiracist front and are well known for fighting with the police. Both sides of the avenue are lined with officers in green uniforms, leather gloves, and helmets. The ferocity of the anarchist display is a response to the recent riots and demonstrations by Germany’s young neo-Nazis, who have reacted to the economic crisis with their own version of romanticism and nostalgia.
Every so often, police charge into the marchers. The line twitches and contracts like a skewered worm, everybody screams, the bystanders point, while the police concentrate on removing one or two people and taking them away. A broken window or a thrown brick would be the signal for a general mêlée, but most of the parties involved have lots of experience at the edges of mayhem, and despite the energetic histrionics no actual warfare breaks out.
A skeptical television producer discussing the march during the preceding days guessed that maybe, maybe a few thousand people would show up. What could be less relevant to contemporary Berlin than a long walk to place flowers on the memorial to a murdered communist heroine, a memorial that is all the way out in Lichtenberg, a poor neighborhood in the East where unemployed workers cash government checks to buy fuel for the coal stoves in their otherwise freezing apartments? The producer made a bet with her boyfriend that less than 5,000 people would come.
“Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte, Schwarz-wälder Kirschtorte,” he hummed gleefully, anticipating his victory dessert as the march swelled in numbers. He called his girlfriend on his cell phone several times along the route to report the latest tally. The next day’s newspaper reported that more than 100,000 people had participated.
The Rosa Luxemburg marchers are the unaccounted for, the people of an old Berlin, a Berlin of work and politics that have been superseded by the new dispensation. The millions who inhabit this old Berlin are not recognized in any new vision of the city – whether it be the European ideal of critical reconstruction, or the global entertainment culture of van Ommen. The new city is leaving its people behind. As Berlin’s history demonstrates, a mass of people, effectively mobilized, can be a powerful force. But today Berlin’s challenge, and its tangible intrigue, is that no political language, no common resource of symbols and forms, has yet emerged in the theatrical new space where city life is being remade.
A few days after the march, I make a visit to the offices of die tageszeitung, a left-wing daily. I go up the dirty staircase, passing landing after landing, each with its half-meter standing ashtray, until I reach a classic warren of a newspaper office. Torn posters decorate the walls and the shelves are overloaded with toppling books. I’m here to see Uwe Rada, a Berlin writer whose recent book about the development projects, Berlin: Capital of Repression, has become a word-of-mouth sensation in the city, despite having been printed in an edition of only 3,000 copies. Rada’s lack of investment in any urban redevelopment scheme allows him to ask the obvious question: What happens to the city’s people?
Rada wears a shirt of Guatemalan fabric and has the face of a sad cherub. He listens mournfully to a summary of what Berlin’s leaders have been telling me about his city’s future. “They are serving the people they wish would move to Berlin,” he shrugs. “But who are these new urbanites? Nobody knows them. Nobody sees them. What about the old urbanites?”
“I went to visit Hanns Peter Nerger,” I tell Rada, describing my conversation with the city’s director of tourism, who has an office overlooking the new debis headquarters at Potsdamer Platz. “He has a pretty clear picture of the 21st-century city: ‘Some Berliners will be highly paid. Others will be on the dole. That’s Berlin, that’s the future of Berlin, and people who don’t like it should stay away.’”
I add some other quick portraits. Klaus Mangold, the CEO of debis, believes that the Berlin population will simply need to adjust to the realities of the new economy. When I asked Mangold what kind of opportunities await workers without third-wave skills, he had a firm answer. “There are still no shoe-shiners in Berlin; there are still no grocery baggers.”
I read to Rada from the notes of my interview with Edgar van Ommen. “Before the Berlin Wall came down,” van Ommen had said, “the Berliners would relate only to each other. There was no traffic in the street. Whether you worked or not made no difference. Then came the big bang. Yes, it will take an entire generation to transform the social and economic life of the city, but the train is out of the station. If you want to have the small, beautiful Berlin of 15 years ago, it cannot be. It is far too late.”
Finally, the young writer laughs. “The train has left the station,” he answers, “but I don’t know where it will arrive. Berlin is a proletarian city. Man kann mit Ihnen Staat machen, aber kein Geld.” With its people you can make a state, but not money.
Before I go, Rada tells me one of left-wing Berlin’s favorite stories. The symbolism of a Berlin Olympics may have seemed perfect to some in Berlin, but there were currents of dissent beneath the surface. Berliners immune to nationalist symbolism and opposed to the profit-oriented Olympic development plans sent the International Olympic Committee a videotape showing images of Berlin riots, bombed-out cars, and a person hurling a stone, with the message: “We will be waiting for you!” When the IOC met in Monte Carlo on the 23rd of September, 1993, to determine who would host the millennial games, Berlin received nine of the 89 votes. Only Istanbul received fewer, with seven.
Had Berlin hosted the Olympics, the old Olympic stadium in Charlottenburg would have been one of the venues. The stadium was built in 1936, survived the war, and is still in use today. Its classical shape was meant to connect the Third Reich to mythical, pre-Christian roots. Although the stadium is only 62 years old, its style is so distant from today’s language of power that it appears almost modest. It claims 90,000 seats, but it somehow feels smaller than, say, Buckeye stadium, where an equal number of Ohio State University fans scream their way through football Saturdays. The attempt by the Nazis to reconstruct a mythical past has been swept away by time, and it is not difficult to stand in the end-zone seats and forget the racist crowds cheering and raising their arms.
Crowds today in Berlin and elsewhere are mere observers of development going on around them. At best, they are consumers of it. They have little stake in government, and their political parties are weak. Uwe Rada’s axiom, while clever, is backward. With these people you can’t make a state, but you can make money. As the locus of some of the most terrible governmental crimes in history, Berlin has had a special meaning for the 20th century – but the century is now over. “I’ve worked all over the world,” shrugs Edgar van Ommen. “Berlin, Bangkok, Bombay – it doesn’t make any difference.”
Van Ommen knows that Berlin’s future is being made in a new kind of place, one that has no specific locality. And there is only one familiar reminder of that future here in the old Olympic stadium: the giant electronic display screen – dark, sleek, monumental – that hangs above the entrance of the field.
Wired Issue 6.06, June 1998
Additional reporting by Jörg Koch (firstname.lastname@example.org).