“Sometimes it is good to take things slowly”
How is the face of the city changing? How should it change? A debate between the head of the Berlin senate's building authority and an architectural photographer
Berlin-Where the Wall used to stand new housing and business quarters are spreading. Berlin as a city often seems passive in the face of this development. Four of us are sitting around a table and through the windows we can see over the roofs down to the Alexanderplatz and Breitscheidplatz, to the television tower and the radio tower and to the Leipziger Strasse and we can even see the Steglitz roundabout. One of Regula Lüscher’s jobs is to work out what Berlin will look like in the future. The architectural photographer Martin Maleschka from Eisenhüttenstadt is concerned with the opposite; namely, how the city is disappearing.
A debate about ideological positions, Berlin utopias and investment architecture.
Frau Lüscher, where is Berlin at its most Berlinesque are for you?
Regula Lüscher: Alexanderplatz
That's a surprise. Why?
Regula Lüscher: Alexanderplatz reflects the struggle for identity after the fall of the wall. It is packed with history and is a symbol for times past because so many buildings from the Imperial age or the Weimar Republic have disappeared and in their place came important buildings of GDR modernity. At the same time you can see that Berlin tried to give itself a new face after the fall of the wall, but the development that was hoped for did not come about. This means it is a place of utopias and disappointments. It's a place that has been thought about and it is an unloved place that everyone moans about, which makes it very Berlinesque.
Herr Maleschka, what do you see when you are standing on Alexanderplatz?
Martin Maleschka: the first thing is that it would be about the East. We just heard the most important word: utopia. The grand scale, above all in its size, around the Fountain of International Friendship, the gigantic spiral and the urban dominance of the tower blocks, the television tower. That's where you see the dimensions but also that with the Breitscheidplatz, the Europa Centre and the Bikini house they were looking to the West.
What does the Alexanderplatz mean to you personally?
Martin Maleschka: utopia. That was a good description and I know what it means from the place I grew up in. I come from a utopian city. It was planned in 1950 as Stalinstadt, a gigantic, sprawling, magisterial place that combined living and working. But today Eisenhüttenstadt, as it’s now called, is a city that has become peripheral.
And does Berlin belong to a failed utopia?
Regula Lüscher: it would appear so. Berlin is a city of extremes. There were times when it had to save money to the point where the pips squeaked and infrastructure and administration were pushed to the edge of existence – or the city grows quite suddenly and you suddenly have to get the machinery out of the deepest of holes. This incredible variation is what leads, presumably, to thoughts of utopia. And some things just stay utopian.
Martin Maleschka: of course the concept of utopia contains the future. We cannot see the future and that is what is decisive about it. Frau Lüscher just spoke about the period after the fall of the wall, that relatively short period, and everything that has happened in that period. And then you think about what might happen in the next 30 years — the Kolhoff plan, for example…
… That was the plan that the architect Hans Kolhoff drew up in 1933 for ten 150 m towers on the Alexanderplatz, but not one of them was ever built.
Martin Maleschka: back then it was about the city's urban silhouette. But the question is, what does central Berlin need, what does this centre need? Of course, there is another centre in West Berlin and everything that is projected onto the Alexanderplatz in terms of buildings, society, social and artistic elements as well as criminality can be found pulsing away there too.
The Alexanderplatz must feel like a permanent open wound for any city planner. Why does it look the way does?
Martin Maleschka: that question implies that you don't like it.
Do you think it is beautiful?
Martin Maleschka: I do, yes. Of course there are buildings that one perhaps doesn't find quite so beautiful. But the fact is that much more could happen there. Take the elevated railway line, for example, things are changing there. What used to be a car park has become a mall and then there is the new hostel. Things are happening there.
Regula Lüscher: for me, the Alexanderplatz is primarily one of my workplaces. And for me it is also no problem that the Kolhoff plans have been on hold for many years. On the contrary, often in city planning, delay is a gift, particularly in a city like Berlin where, after the fall of the wall, there was a period of very strong emotionalization. there was a period when the city had to find itself, both in itself and in its relationship between East and West. Delay then becomes a massive advantage because it is possible to take a step back from all the urban plans and to become wiser through that distance.
How do you mean?
Regula Lüscher: the programme for the 1992 competition intended a sort of tabula rasa for the Alexanderplatz. That was the spirit of the times. Now it is different. Post-war modernity is seen in a more positive light and we can put the buildings under protected status – for example the old Berlin Publishing House, the House of Technology and the House of Travel. Today there is a positive perception of post-war modernity in the East. In that sense, it was a stroke of luck that it took time.
Martin Maleschka: not in Potsdam, if you look at the transformation of the Alten Markt. And it is being pushed forward now, for example in the Breiten Strasse. The state parliament has been built as a reconstruction of the Palace and the Institute for teacher training from GDR times has been removed and now the Staudenhof housing block behind the Nikolaikirche is to go the same way, the computing centre too in order to rebuild the Garnisonkirche. So, delay at the Alexanderplatz is an advantage – even if things are being built there too – but that is, unfortunately, not the case in Potsdam.
Why is Berlin different to Potsdam?
Martin Maleschka: because it would have taken perhaps another one or two years for Potsdam to come to a different decision – which might have given us a chance. Frau Lüscher had the advantage that people were thinking about what was built in GDR times, about the special buildings of post-war modernity. The siren call of the "prefab" is holding things back.
That's your big theme, isn't it, GDR architecture. For a long time, it seemed to be the aim of politicians – one thinks of the Palace of the Republic, the Ahornblatt restaurant – to wipe out as much as possible. Do you have the sense that that is changing slowly?
Martin Maleschka: if we take a look at other cities, such as Dresden, Leipzig, Rostock, then we can see that there's not much left in terms of the special buildings of GDR modernity that is worth protecting. The important buildings have already been removed or re-formulated.
If I look at all the stuff that has been torn down in the West in the last 40 or 50 years; the whole city library culture, museums, whole city quarters, in Stuttgart, in Frankfurt then I have to ask myself what is it that is special about GDR architecture? Apart from the big symbolic buildings, isn't this simply the way things are?
Martin Maleschka: it is about Western modernism too.
Regula Lüscher: I think that the adaptation of the Palace of the Republic has a sort of symbolic power. By reconstructing the old Palace, one gets the feeling that the Palace of the Republic was torn down in order to forget about a particular period in time and in order to reconstitute an earlier period. It is quite different if you demolish a building because you have a forward-looking image of the city, because with that, one is saying that a building is no longer appropriate and that we need, for example, different libraries. That's the big difference and I believe this effect has implanted itself deep in the Berlin consciousness.
Can you give me examples?
Regula Lüscher: well, one flashback is the discussion about the International Congress Centrum, the ICC, which is a typical West Berlin icon. I hadn't been in the city for very long when it was explained to me, behind closed doors "well, you know, Ms. Lüscher, you have to understand that if the ICC is demolished it would be East Berlin’s revenge for the Palace of the Republic.”
How have these patterns of thought changed in the last 30 years?
Regula Lüscher: in Berlin I can see that one deals with these themes much more carefully, that one listens more and that one doesn't let oneself simply be rolled over by the other side. East Berlin’s self-confidence has grown. Any urban construction here has to reflect the history of a divided city. I have learnt that in Berlin it is not simply about wanting the most spectacular building and that this city is concerned with itself much more than it is with that desire.
Herr Maleschka, what about you? Do you think that the value of GDR architecture is being recognised more?
Martin Maleschka: yes, definitely. And I think that the GDR cannot be simply forgotten or planned out of existence. I think that in any case the past 30 years have been needed. The current generation value what the generation before the last planned, built and implemented and what the intention was. It was about the construction of a whole new society, new cities, new city centres and, looked at ideologically, a new human being. You can see that in the murals, the mosaics — for example Walter Womacka’s “Bauchbinde” on the Haus des Lehrers. In my hometown too, a completely new city, Womacka had a big effect, for example with his natural stone mosaic "Our New Life." That says everything you need to know really.
We talked earlier about the reconstruction of the façade of the Palace of the Republic. An old image of the city was revived in order to create a new image of the city. Is that modern or reactionary?
Martin Maleschka: for me it's really fifty-fifty. Now we have the Humboldt-Forum back. A different generation decided that. If it had been up to me I would have left the Palace of the Republic as it was for a united Berlin, for creatives, tourists, for everyone really. We don't need the Humboldt-Forum.
There is a very virulent debate about what to do with this massive piece of land between the Alexanderplatz and the Schlossplatz. Does the memory of the earlier public political function of this space play a role?
Regula Lüscher: the discussion about this space around the television tower is whether it should become the place that is parcelled up and perhaps even privatised or whether it should fundamentally remain a public space. We all know that it is unbelievably difficult, once a public space is privatised, get it back for a city. We can see that in the question of housing. When housing has been privatised it is gone and it becomes very expensive to buy it back. And the “family silver” of public property is so sensitive that we have to have this discussion. We have to defend that which is public wherever we can.
If you look around you often get the impression that there is no planning at all in Berlin. There is investment architecture, for example around the train station. Why doesn't the public and take a bigger role? Is politics too timid to do so? Are you too timid?
Regula Lüscher: the central question is how one deals with the fact that after the wall came down the city was left with a swathe cut through it. It was decided straightaway that this swathe should be made invisible. A different decision could have been made at that moment. One could have said Stop! Let's think about this first. If a different political decision had been taken back then the Heidestrasse would look different today.
And what would have been the consequences?
Regula Lüscher: we could have sent to the Deutsche Bahn (German Rail), who owns the land, we only want public buildings there. That wasn't done. Planning started in about 2005, just as Berlin was stagnating. At that time, they were looking for investors like supplicants who were rolling out the red carpet. That means not making any demands on private developers. That was the political priority at the time and that was what was done. I wasn't given the task of demanding good architecture or affordable housing. It was simply a different time.
But how do you explain that your predecessor in charge of the Berlin Senate building authority Hanns Stimmann had forced investors about 10 years earlier, around 1993, 1994, to build certain façades.
Regula Lüscher: we are talking about quite different things. I just talked about the space where the wall was and about the politics of land and now we are talking about the re construction of façades.
No, we are also talking about street planning.
Regula Lüscher: it's not the case that the Europa-City is not planned. There was a competitive process, urban structural development — Herr Stimmann would have certainly done the same. He might presumably have chosen a different plan. That may be the case. But times have changed and that changes architecture. Politics is not interested in questions of concrete shaping. In the twelve years I have done this job, when presenting any particular project to any particular political body I have never experienced anybody praising the architecture.
How do such things get through then?
Regula Lüscher: I can explain that. Building law does not have anything to say about architecture and structure. The only thing in the building regulations is that a building should not be “detrimental to its environment.” It does not state that it should fit in. This means that it is the lowest, the very lowest standard being demanded. In comparison if we look at Zürich, where I worked for a long time, a building has to be “satisfactory.” When it comes to certain types of buildings then it has to be “good” or even “particularly good.”
Martin Maleschka: Zürich is very different to Berlin.
Would it be good for Berlin to be a bit more like Zürich?
Martin Maleschka: I like Zürich, but it is not for everyone. For me it is fifty-fifty again. But I am perplexed when you talk about this law. Who says what is ugly? Over there we can see the new Axel Springer campus. Looking at it we can also ask of this bent façade — really? It is always about one's point of view.
Sometimes one might think that a lot of things that are built are not built for the people who live here but for tourists and investors. Do we need a new peaceful revolution in urban planning?
Martin Maleschka: but that is already a big theme in Berlin, a massive one. All around Berlin housing is being removed from the market. In Eisenhüttenstadt too.
You mean social housing?
Martin Maleschka: yes, exactly.
Regula Lüscher: of course we need a revolution. We need a revolution in land reform. That's where everything begins and ends.
That's extraordinary that a Swiss person is saying that there hasn't been a revolution for 170 years in Switzerland and that wasn't particularly successful.
Regula Lüscher: the question is if we need a peaceful revolution then around what issue? My answer is around the issue of land reform! That's where we need a peaceful revolution.
Martin Maleschka: not just about its use or living on it. Exactly. We have to start at the base.
Regula Lüscher: this question about how we develop a city is primarily dependent on land ownership. If the land is publicly owned then the state can say "I want to choose the stakeholders myself". That is the case with cooperatives, with initiatives, public bodies and building societies. That is what is being done at the House of Statistics, for example. And then Berlin can say "what we are doing here we can do everywhere we own the land." And then the city will change and with it the cityscape.
Herr Maleschka, you say that public housing continues to be abandoned in Eisenhüttenstadt?
Martin Maleschka: yes, but they have to because the population is constantly falling. Reconstructing the city in the form of demolishing housing continues.
How do you feel about that?
Martin Maleschka: it is sad of course, but it is necessary.
Does it really have to be like that? Berlin is growing and sucking in all the energy. How could it be done so that cities such as Eisenhüttenstadt, Frankfurt (Oder) or even Wriezen get a bigger slice of the cake?
Martin Maleschka : do you have to mention Wriezen? My nightmare.
Martin Maleschka: I was in Wriezen one grey day. I go everywhere to document everything that still has something to do with GDR modernism…
And GDR modernism can be found in its original state there?
Martin Maleschka: yes. It was really a very sad picture. For me as a photographer it is precisely what I am looking for but it was at the weekend and the people could have gone out of with their children but the streets were empty and nothing was happening. There were scenes where there was an old barn and, behind it, a modern block overlapping it. That's what I find beautiful about a city, or interesting, that there are buildings from different epochs in the same place. Berlin has that en masse and I like that.
Is there no chance for the smaller cities around Berlin? Even Potsdam is scarcely half as big as the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district in Berlin…
Martin Maleschka: Berlin exists as a sort of pulsing planet with Potsdam, Königs Wusterhausen, even Fürstenwalde bobbing along in its orbit. Those are the nearest commuter towns, of course. I was asked by the housing co-operative Brandenburg on the Havel how they could make a prefab building that hasn't even been renovated hip enough for the commuters who travel between Berlin and the Havel.
But it would be a political decision to say that Berlin provides the power. Should Berlin be aware of what is going on around it or should we just consider it to be one big playpark?
Regula Lüscher: of course Berlin has to plan together with its neighbours. And of course it is vital for a metropolis to have alternatives to living in the centre and that one can choose to commute. But that assumes that there are good connections and I'm sure we are agreed that these could be improved.
Back to you Herr Maleschka. Do the small and medium-sized towns in the East also need a peaceful revolution?
Martin Maleschka: I would say a stimulus, rather. For example, in Eisenhüttenstadt I believe that people are rather resting on their laurels. The problem there is that people are not prepared to think ahead. And when it comes to Frankfurt (Oder) or Cottbus then it's true that students are commuting. Regional trains are full, completely full.
Students are going to university in Eberswalde or Frankfurt but living in Berlin?
Martin Maleschka: that has changed a bit. But it depends on the attractivity of the towns themselves, that's clear. You have to change things in Cottbus or Frankfurt to keep the students there. More cultural events for example.
Regula Lüscher: although rents in Berlin have risen massively…
Martin Maleschka: I have never commuted. I'm still here.
Frau Lüscher, you come from Switzerland. Did you have to learn to value Eastern architecture?
Regula Lüscher: me? No, of course not. I have always lived in an urban environment, even in Switzerland.
Although prefabricated housing is not really part of the cityscape there.
Regula Lüscher: the dimensions are different of course. I have always lived in cities and they are smaller in Switzerland, in Basel, in Zürich. What has changed in my head is a feeling for expanse and size. We get a similar effect when we go back to the places we were born as adults. Everything seems smaller. I have developed a different sense of expanse and for breadth and for city spaces.
Martin Maleschka: it is almost the opposite for me. When I was growing up in one of these prefab houses I used to think, my God, this building is enormous. Today, if I want to think about what is being lost then I think, well, those buildings could be a lot bigger.
And what do you imagine Germany will be like in the year 2029?
Regula Lüscher: well, we can't expect to have a completely new city in nine years. I wouldn’t like that anyway. I am going to assume that we will have improved on E-mobility. I am going to assume that we will have improved the situation with the provision of living space in many cities and I am going to assume that we will be aware that climate protection is the central question when it comes to developing cities.
Martin Maleschka: that's a difficult one. I hope that we will have reached the stage where we learn to value the culture of buildings and the art of buildings as part of a heritage and that we will put more value on things from our past.
What would you put under world heritage protection in Berlin?
Regula Lüscher: the unique thing about Berlin is that there are two of them and that they are growing back together again.
Martin Maleschka: I think that's right. The city East and the city West.