What Has Happened in Berlin Since 1989?

An Interview with Thibaut de Ruyter

by Thibaut de Ruyter & Olivier Gaudin & translated by Oliver Waine [12-06-2020]

Mots-clés : architecture | history | urban history | memory

Since the fall of the Wall in November 1989, Berlin has metamorphosed into one of the world’s most popular urban tourism destinations. Architect, art critic and curator Thibaut de Ruyter has witnessed these transformations firsthand and shares his impressions (originally published in French in 2019) of what has changed in the reunified German capital.

What explains Berlin’s attraction as a city?

At the end of the 1980s, the city was something of an island of marginality. This is still the case today. Young tourists are looking for a certain underground scene, and want to go to Berghain or Tresor—a legendary nightclub of the 1990s that was moved and rebuilt identically, like a kind of Disneyland! They also come to see the painted parts of the Wall, and seek an alternative, carefree experience. The city’s imaginary hasn’t changed all that much. What has changed is the number of visitors. Low-cost flights have had a major impact on this sort of tourism: you can get on an airplane in London on Saturday morning for €20, spend the night at Berghain, bathe in a lake on Sunday morning before returning to the club in the afternoon, and then fly back on Monday at dawn… all without having to pay for two nights at a hotel. And inside the clubs, some people buy their drugs via Paypal transfer! This is a trendy, inexpensive type of tourism that has nothing in common, for example, with the luxury tourist market in Paris.

Figure 1. Frankfurter Tor, on Karl-Marx-Allee (1957, architect: Hermann Henselmann)

Source: Thibaut de Ruyter.

Berlin also attracts families who come to study the city and its history through the key dates of the 20th century: Nazi buildings, a section of the Wall, a few museums, and the dome of the Reichstag building. The Reichstag is a symbol of the Nazis’ rise to power, because of the Reichstag fire in February 1933, and also of a scarred and divided Germany? Its renovation was completed in the late 1990s, when it once again became the seat of the Bundestag, the federal parliament. This architecture, which was the first image of a reunified Germany, has proven such a success among tourists that access has had to be adapted, and advance bookings made compulsory for tours.

Lastly, a third form of tourism can be identified: people who come to Berlin to visit the city as an open-air museum of architecture. There is an extraordinary collection of work by 20th‑century architects: Le Corbusier, Arne Jacobsen, Oscar Niemeyer, Alvar Aalto, Norman Foster, Rem Koolhaas, Jean Nouvel and John Hejduk, as well as, naturally, many German architects, such as Bruno Taut, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Egon Eiermann, Werner Düttmann, Frei Otto, Richard Paulick, Hans Scharoun, Hermann Henselmann…! A student of architecture has much more to learn from Berlin than from Paris or Venice.

Figure 2. Detail of the former Nazi Ministry of Aviation building (1934–1935, architect: Ernst Sagebiel), now the Federal Ministry of Finance

Source: Thibaut de Ruyter.

Berlin was a divided city and a city under military occupation for over 45 years. Today, the removal of traces of the GDR in its former capital, East Berlin, has been so radical that one might wonder what remains of it at all: memories, fictions, lost illusions?

Above all, a whole population remains. Residents have been brutally displaced. Prenzlauer Berg is a neighborhood that, between 1989 and 2009, saw 80% of its population changed—this proportion has no equivalent in the history of gentrification in New York, Paris or London. But these people are still alive: they moved to live, for example, in peripheral neighborhoods of East Berlin, and have gradually become “invisible.”

Another key point regarding the population of Berlin is that there exists a mentality, a way of thinking and behaving… an attitude to capitalism that is different. East Germans experienced the brutal arrival of the market economy. West Germans often have a different attitude to comfort, to insurers, to lawyers, to doctors; it’s the image of the Spiesser [1]: the timid and fearful petit-bourgeois… whereas the people who opened the underground clubs, along with the young people who are founding start‑ups today, often come from East German culture. You also notice that women born in East Germany have different, more determined, natures [than those born in the West]. So I would say that attitudes to the world are still to a certain extent differentiated. We’re talking about people who in some cases are only just 30, who grew up in the 1990s, but whose parents didn’t break with the old communist ideological context overnight. This, to me, seems more relevant than talking about Ostalgie—a term developed largely to market and monetize nostalgia for the GDR. Populations don’t change that quickly. Thirty years is barely one generation.

When it comes to the physical traces of East Berlin as the capital of the GDR, however, the situation is much more dramatic: they’ve truly been wiped away. Street names, monuments, symbolic placees, all gone; a whole state, ideology and culture that existed from 1949 to 1990, wiped away. Four decades of history have been erased in no time at all. You only need to consider the demolition of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic (or “People’s Palace”) and the rebuilding of the Berlin Palace. The drama lies in the relationship to time. Here’s a quick reminder of the key events in the history of the People’s Palace: the GDR committed an “original sin” with regard to the past, by destroying the historic Berlin Palace, in the very heart of the city, which suffered partial bomb damage during the Second World War but which could have been saved. In the early 1950s, in a single night, it was completely demolished; because, for East Germany—this new state that was looking to the future—its Prussian past was the start of the rot that was Imperial Germany. But it is often forgotten that, for the next 25 years, this site, which could be considered the equivalent of the Île de la Cité in Paris, would remain empty. Grass was grown on the site, and once a year a grandstand was constructed for official parades… but this land laid empty for a generation!

Then, in 1976, the GDR inaugurated the Palace of the Republic: an experimental building, a sort of poor man’s Pompidou Centre, that was the site not just of the national parliament but also a concert hall, a bowling alley, restaurants, a cafeteria, an exhibition hall, a theater… it was a multipurpose building that reflected the spirit of the 1970s quite well. And it became the symbol of East Germany: simultaneously the seat of government, a place where people would get married, where families would go to celebrate or have fun… It was therefore logical that when the Wall came down, Germany and Berlin would call into question this symbol, which moreover was a building riddled with asbestos. It was then dismantled, then, despite several years of debates and imaginative proposals to rehabilitate and transform it, it was completely demolished; it disappeared. It was at this point that the real mistake was made: in less than six months, the decision was made to rebuild, identically, three of the four façades of a palace that was incredibly banal in architectural terms, without even having the slightest idea of what its interior would be used for. Instead of gifting it to future generations, instead of trusting them and letting them imagine their own future, when the time came, an image of the past was imposed on them. That’s what was missing here: 25 years of lying fallow, like the GDR did? The real tragedy is that time was not taken to take a step back and gain a little perspective with regard to the site’s history; that a decision was made to destroy something without waiting. The same thing could well have happened when Tempelhof airport was closed in 2008, but in this case, happily, a debate followed by a public vote froze the situation. No one knows what will happen, in 10 or 15 years’ time, to this open space in the heart of the city that is almost as big as the Tiergarten. And that’s absolutely fine.

Figure 3. Soviet war memorial and military cemetery in Treptower Park (1949, architect: Iakov Bielopolski)

Source: Thibaut de Ruyter.

In a text published a few years ago (de Ruyter 2014), you described the unrelenting presence of imitations and copies in Berlin. What does the urban-design principle known as “Critical Reconstruction” [2] signify, and how can it be understood?

Senator Hans Stimmann (of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, SPD), a contradictory and fascinating character who was in charge of urban planning in Berlin in the 1990s, set up the legislative framework for the city’s reconstruction. He imposed a reference to the street plan and cadastral plan of 1933. [3] Stimmann’s directives were quite simple: roof guttering—i.e. frontage heights—were to be set at 27 meters (88.5 feet), the traditional height of buildings in Berlin; blocks were to be occupied on all four sides, which was a clever strategy to avoid lone constructions or breaks in the urban fabric, and to eliminate any empty spaces or irregular alignments by building continuous frontages. The aim was to force the creation of something that looked like a city and that had a semblance of urbanity. He also imposed certain materials: sand-colored stone was to be dominant, rather than glass or brick. According to Stimmann, the greatest difficulty he faced was convincing members of his own party that the city shouldn’t be looking Vorwärts (“forward”, which is the name of the SPD’s newspaper) but Rückwärts (“backward”).

The illustration par excellence of this doctrine is Pariser Platz, home to the Hotel Adlon, the US embassy, and the French embassy (which fully deserves its nickname of “Gendarmerie de Bordeaux ” [“Bordeaux Police Station”], in reference to its rather sad, provincial style). Nothing remained of this plaza after 1945, and everything was rebuilt according to this dogma. It is clear to see how the architects have played with the planning regulations.

So why was this principle of Critical Reconstruction applied? Well, Berlin is a city scarred by demolitions, from 1933 to the bombings of 1943–1945, and of course the Wall from 1961… It’s easy to forget that streets and indeed whole city blocks south of the Tiergarten were demolished in the 1930s to prepare for the arrival of Germania, Hitler’s plan for his new capital. Demolitions, bruising of the urban fabric, and historic attacks have all marked Berlin considerably. Hence this idea that things were better before 1933, and this enthusiasm for erasing the traces of the past… And yet it is an illusion—as any doctor will tell you, a person who presents with an open fracture on their leg will always have a scar. The imitations and the pseudo-historical are built in order to forget and no doubt also for reassurance.

Figure 4. Hangars at the former Tempelhof airport (1935—1941, architect: Ernst Sagebiel)

Source: Thibaut de Ruyter.

From the standpoint of the way the landscape is experienced, what continues to distinguish the city?

In terms of the area within their respective city limits, Berlin is nearly nine times the size of Paris [4]; the typical distance between two subway stations in central Paris is about 300 meters (1,000 feet) [5] whereas in Berlin it is 900 meters (3,000 feet)! In terms of space, Berlin is a much more comfortable city, with a large number of public open spaces, excluding areas of wasteland and building sites, which are now increasingly a thing of the past. Bar and restaurant terraces in Berlin are much larger than their Parisian counterparts. People are used to feeling at ease, and attitudes to the body in general are different in the two cities. What is new, from this point of view—coming back to the issue of transportation—is that we have started to see crowded subway trains and traffic jams. There is a specific relationship to time, and to boredom, when wandering around Berlin. It’s possible to walk across half of the city center, on a sunny Sunday morning, and see only five other people! The relationship to density is very different. This is reflected in the size of dwellings, the width of sidewalks, and so on.

Figure 5. Tour Total Berlin (2010–2012, architect: Barkow Leibinger), opposite Berlin central station (Hauptbahnhof)

Source: Thibaut de Ruyter.

Do specific “sites of remembrance” exist in Berlin?

Talking about sites of remembrance in Berlin is complicated. The city is the site of various remembrances, but not all are equal in the face of history: one might cite the Reichstag because of the 1933 fire; or Mitte synagogue because of Kristallnacht in 1938; but there are also the young tourists who come for the mythology of the underground scene and who want to see a piece of the Wall, visit Kreuzberg for its connections with Nick Cave and Wings of Desire, because that was the film they saw before coming to the city. Tourists in their forties want to see the house David Bowie lived in during his Berlin period. Our parents, who have a more complicated relationship with 20th‑century history, might want to come to admire the beautiful Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and the sad Jewish Museum. There are many other sites, linked to the Stasi, Bertolt Brecht, the Spartacist uprising, or Walter Benjamin… For example, since 2008, the city has been home to a surprising memorial to homosexuals persecuted during the Nazi period, situated opposite the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, directly in the Tiergarten [6]: it is a single concrete cuboid, or stela, which seems a little lost, that incorporates a video installation. The shape of the stela reflects those of the Holocaust Memorial—a wonderful way to remind us that something happened here.

One might also cite the Soviet war memorial and military cemetery in Treptower Park, where 7,000 Soviet soliders are buried. There is a statue of a soldier carrying a little girl in his arms and holding a sword several meters long that he has just used to destroy a Swastika. It’s incredibly kitsch and monumental—but it has the desired effect!

Figure 6. Social housing and artists’ workshops in Kreuzberg (1987–1988, architect: John Hejduk)

Source: Thibaut de Ruyter.

In 2019, there were also other anniversaries, in addition to the fall of the Wall in 1989. For example, 1919 was the year in which “Greater Berlin” was created, the Weimar Republic came into being, and the Bauhaus art school was founded, also in Weimar.

Here, too, one needs to bear in mind that Berlin is a city of remembrances in the plural. Of course, the commemoration of the fall of the Wall has a popular and touristic aspect, and that’s fine for an audience that wants to learn a little bit of history… But not all anniversaries enjoy the same kind of media exposure. It’s also 100 years since women obtained the right to vote in Germany! The centenary of the Bauhaus, on the other hand, concerns a more elitist, more cultivated audience. It’s a mistake to reflecting upon history solely in terms of jubilees.

In reality, we’re not celebrating 30 years since the fall of the Wall, but two periods of 15 years. There were the years from 1990 to 2005, a period of intense urban changes, symbolic buildings, underground clubs, and bohemian lifestyles. And then there’s 2005–2020, which is more about day-to-day management, the failed construction of Berlin Brandenburg airport, the normalization of galloping gentrification… There are those who are nostalgic for the first period, those who benefited from the second, and those who lost out during both. One thing’s for sure: these 30 years can’t be considered a cohesive whole or a logical sequence of events.

Figure 7. Detail of the Stasi Museum building, formerly the GDR’s Ministry of State Security of the GDR (1961)

Source: Thibaut de Ruyter.

Further reading (in French):

  • Bocquet, D. and Laborier, P. 2016. Sociologie de Berlin, Paris: La Découverte.
  • von Buttlar, A. 2010. “À Berlin, un château contre un palais”, Criticat, no. 5.
  • Forderer, C. 2015. “Images vides ou présence pleine ? À propos du paysage urbain du Berlin actuel entre mémoire et imaginaire”, Allemagne d’aujourd’hui, no. 211, pp. 81–94.
  • Hocquet, M. 2012. “Les effets d’exclusion du geste destructeur : le cas du Palais de la République à Berlin”, ethnographiques.org, no. 24.
  • Koolhaas, R. and Ungers, O. M. 2013 [1977]. La Ville dans la ville : Berlin, un archipel vert, F. Hertweck and S. Marot (eds.), Zürich: Lars Müller.
  • Leo, A. 1992. “RDA : traces, vestiges, stigmates”, Communications, no. 55.
  • Manale, M. 2002. “Berlin capitale : la ville comme exposition”, L’Homme et la Société, no. 145, pp. 67–88.
  • Offenstadt, N. 2018. Le Pays disparu. Sur les traces de la RDA, Paris: Stock.
  • Oswalt, P. 2010. “À propos du projet lauréat pour le Humboldt-Forum”, Criticat, no. 5.
  • de Ruyter, T. 2014. “Faire de la copie une réalité”, in D. Sanson (ed.), Berlin. Histoire, promenades, anthologie & dictionnaire, Paris: Robert Laffont, pp. 231–247.
  • Zischler, H. 2013. Berlin est trop grand pour Berlin, trans. by J. Torrent, Paris: Macula.

Footnotes

[1Translator’s note: the term Spiesser (usually written as Spießer in German) is defined by Duden, the German dictionary of reference, as “a bigoted person that is guided by the conventions of society and the judgment of others,” with connotations of having philistine or petit-bourgeois sensibilities.

[2Editor’s note: Critical Reconstruction refers to a set of precise, quantified urban-design directives, resulting from a historicist conception of 18th‑ and 19th‑century German architecture, which were applied in a number of German cities, beginning in the 1980s and later in certain major projects of the 1990s. The principles of Critical Reconstruction favor continuous street frontages, the regular placement of doors and windows, and uniform building height, so as to ensure cohesive urban forms and avoid differences of scale.

[3In 1933, the urban fabric of Berlin was characterized by its very high density and its organization into regular blocks, the solid, massive appearance of which results in part from the Hobrecht Plan of 1862. Plans of the city from the 1930s were used as a reference framework during debates on the reconstruction of the city as early as the 1980s, and then above all after the fall of the Wall.

[4Translator’s note: it should be noted, however, that the boundaries of the city of Paris proper are very tightly drawn to cover the dense urban core (broadly speaking, the area within the Périphérique ring road, with a population of just over 2 million) and do not include any of the city’s extensive suburbs, which are home to a further 10 million people. By contrast, the city of Berlin proper, with a population of around 3.7 million, already includes many suburban localities, with a further 2.4 million suburbanites in the surrounding Brandenburg region.

[5Translator’s note: the mean distance between stations across the whole Métro network in Paris is actually 570 meters (1,870 feet), but in central Paris the inter-station distances are considerably shorter.

[6Editor’s note: the Tiergarten was a well-known site for homosexual encounters in pre‑1933 Berlin.

To quote this article :

Thibaut de Ruyter & Olivier Gaudin & translated by Oliver Waine, « What Has Happened in Berlin Since 1989?. An Interview with Thibaut de Ruyter », Metropolitics, 12 June 2020. URL : https://www.metropolitiques.eu/What-Has-Happened-in-Berlin-Since-1989.html
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