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The Boston Phoenix Millennium City

The once and future Berlin

By Jeffrey Gantz

MAY 17, 1999:  I'm standing at the heart of what used to be West Berlin, pondering a silhouette that's like no other in the world. The Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche -- the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church -- rose out of the destruction of World War II as an emblem of the double nature of divided Berlin. Now that the Wall is down, this church epitomizes not just the two Berlins and the two Germanys, but the two millennia that it's about to straddle. It's a once-and-future symbol of a once-and-future world.

Kaiser Wilhelm II -- the World War I kaiser, Germany's last -- had the Gedächtniskirche built to honor his grandfather, Kaiser Wilhelm I. Completed in 1895, it was a neo-Gothic/Romanesque behemoth whose spire rose nearly 400 feet. Allied bombers destroyed most of the church in November 1943, leaving just 225 feet of the main tower, a broken tooth that jabbed at the sky. Yet when in the '50s the West Berlin government proposed tearing down that tower, the people rose in protest.

Today the truncated spire is flanked by a new fluorescent-blue chapel and bell tower, and it's hard to imagine either without the other. One part is old, the other is new. One part is stone, the other is concrete and glass. One part is all curves, the other is all straight lines. One part is all detail, the other has no detail. Between them they write the history of architecture. And between them they offer a key to the identity of Berlin.

These days, the identity of Germany's once-and-future capital is no small matter. On the 23rd of this month, the country's governing bodies will move from Bonn to Berlin. With money pouring in from everywhere, and still with plenty of room to rebuild, Berlin is poised to become not just the de facto capital of Europe, but the City of the New Millennium. The linden trees will be blooming along Unter den Linden, the thoroughfare that Frederick the Great laid out in the 18th century -- and, as the beloved old song has it, so long as Berlin has its linden trees, it will still be Berlin. At this moment in history, for the first time in its existence, Berlin can be whatever it wants. But what does it want to be? That's the question on everybody's mind as May 23 approaches.

In this century, Berlin has been just about everything. Boom Town at the turn of the century, the new kid on the block, muscling its way up alongside Paris and Vienna. Kaiser City, with rulers who styled themselves the heirs of Julius Caesar. Bust City after World War I, with warp-speed inflation; then Sin City (and the world's cocaine capital) in the Devil's Playground of the Weimar Republic that produced the Devil's Spawn: Hitler and National Socialism. Rubble and Rape City after World War II, Near-Starvation City during the airlift of 1948-'49, Divided City in the '50s, and then City on the Edge of Nowhere after the Wall went up in 1961. And, eternally, Berlin has been the City on the Edge of Tomorrow, attracting the brightest scientists (Max Planck and Albert Einstein), the most outrageous entertainers (Josephine Baker and Marlene Dietrich), the most avant-garde directors (Fritz Lang and Bertolt Brecht), the most radical architects (Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe), the most intransigent presidents (John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan), the hippest musicians (David Bowie and U2). They all wanted to be where it was at, and in this century, that's been Berlin.

Now, almost 10 years after the sudden collapse of the Wall, Berlin is Millennium City. Some Germans fear that it will once more be a Nazi city, or at least a Prussian military city. Others wonder whether this spontaneous, charismatic, least German of German cities will rub off on the rest of the country.

Berlin has always had an inferiority complex, which it's hidden by swaggering, throwing its weight around, trying to hide its dodgy pedigree. Despite having just celebrated its 750th birthday, the city is painfully aware that next to London, Rome, Paris, Vienna, and even medieval German towns like Cologne and Nürnberg, it's a parvenu with almost nothing to show for its first 500 years. Pushy Imperial Berlin is summed up by the photo of Kaiser Wilhelm II wearing a helmet topped not with the usual spike but with a garishly oversized Prussian eagle. From the beginning, Berlin has been Rapacious Eagle City. Yet from the beginning it's also been Teddy Bear City. Which means that, even before the Wall, Berlin was a Divided City whose yin-yang oppositions sparked its creative tension and its extraordinary energy, a city whose double view of the world was the source of its unique personality. To understand why, we have to go back to that beginning.


Like many cities, Berlin grew up on both sides of a river. In the first centuries of this millennium, the not particularly inviting sand, swamp, and pine scrub of the Mark Brandenburg was occupied, and fought over, by Slavic and Germanic tribes. Albrecht the Bear (also called Albert -- yes, two names) had two strongholds: Spandau in the west and Köpenick in the east. In between there emerged a settlement on either side of the river Spree: Cölln on the south bank, Berlin on the north. It appears that Cölln took its name from a German word ("hill") and Berlin its name from a Slavic one ("marsh") -- from the start it was not Teutonic City but Ethnically Diverse City. Berlin had the Nikolaikirche, Cölln the Petrikirche; Berlin got the Franciscans, Cölln the Dominicans. Each settlement had its own rathaus, or town hall; when in 1307 they officially merged, as Berlin, they built a new rathaus on the bridge that connected the two settlements.

Of course, popular (i.e., don't try to tell your Berliner friends otherwise) etymology holds that "Berlin" derives from "bär" (yes, "bear"). Certainly no city is more identified with its wappentier, or coat-of-arms animal, than Berlin is -- bears are everywhere. Yet the earliest coat-of-arms, from 1253, shows an eagle, the symbol of the margraves of Brandenburg (the rulers appointed by the Holy Roman Emperor) and later of the Hohenzollerns from Nürnberg, who ruled Berlin from 1411 to 1918. For centuries the two creatures, one aggressive, one cuddly, have fought it out on the coat-of-arms. Berlin will always be Bear City, but as the capital of the German Republic it's obliged to be Eagle City as well. Two symbols, two natures.

Berliners live on ambivalence. Any great city can have its succession of Friedrich and Friedrich Wilhelm rulers -- but only in Berlin would you have two Friedrich I's, or a Friedrich Wilhelm and a Friedrich Wilhelm I. The city's modern history begins with the "Great Elector," Friedrich Wilhelm, who ruled from 1640 to 1688. His successor, Friedrich III, maneuvered to have himself crowned "king in Prussia" (he couldn't be "king of Prussia" since he didn't reign over all of Prussia) and thereafter styled himself Friedrich I, even though Berlin had already had a Friedrich I (1415-1440). The second Friedrich I's son became Friedrich Wilhelm I (1713-1740), since the first Friedrich Wilhelm was only a Great Elector and not a king.

When the Hohenzollerns extended their rule east, Berlin became the capital of Prussia -- and a major European city -- even though it wasn't actually in Prussia. (Quickie course on the difference between Prussians and Berliners: Prussians parade; Berliners bummel -- a kind of pleasant saunter about town punctuated by frequent liquid-refreshment stops.) Since Friedrich Wilhelm's reign, Berlin has been Garrison City; Friedrich II (Frederick the Great), who ruled from 1741 to 1786, kept a standing army of 150,000 and maintained a wall to deter his men from deserting (East Berlin was not the first Captive City). To the Hohenzollerns Berlin was always Irreverence City, home of the celebrated Berliner Unwille, or "resistance to authority" -- yet though Berliners are the world's champion grumblers, they have tolerated much more (including Hitler) than they have resisted. The first mention of Jews in Berlin, way back in 1295 (Tolerance City?), is also the first mention of discrimination against Jews in Berlin (Intolerance City). Berlin has always been Melting Pot City: Friedrich Wilhelm brought in hard-working Dutch settlers; he also welcomed 50 Jewish families after they had been expelled from Vienna in 1671 and 6000 Huguenot refugees (into a city of 20,000) from France. In this century Berlin became Jewish City, not just in the size of its Jewish population but in its temperament; then it became Anti-Semitic City. Millennium Berlin maintains an uneasy relationship with its swelling Turkish population; the city invites ethnic diversification and at the same time resists it.

Nothing sums up Berlin's brand of ambivalence like the myth about the Quadriga -- the statue of the goddess Victory and her four-horse chariot that sits atop the Brandenburger Tor. The first Brandenburg Gate was erected in 1734; in 1791, it was rebuilt and the Quadriga was added, Victory driving back into the city after a successful campaign. Legend (supported by many guidebooks) has it that at one point the Quadriga was turned around so that Victory faced west -- either after its return from Paris in 1814 (Napoleon had carted it off to Paris, thus earning for himself the nickname "Horse Thief of Berlin") or under Communist rule. In fact, drawings and photographs prove that Victory has always faced east, as she does today; but the need for a Victory who looks outward as well as inward persists. (One popular guidebook refuses to give up, claiming that, as of 1995, the Quadriga "now looks westwards once again." It's facing Poland; get out a map and draw your own conclusions.)

That's why Divided Berlin was also Mirror Berlin. Before there was Communism, there were two Berlins, each centered on a large, ostentatious church -- and this in a city with little history of religious controversy and no pronounced religious sensibility. The older, eastern part of town had the neo-Baroque Berliner Dom (the Protestant cathedral that Kaiser Wilhelm II had built at the turn of the century); the newer, more suburban west had the Gedächtniskirche. The east had the Hohenzollern Stadtschloß, the rulers' city palace; the west had the Reichstag, where the German parliament met. The east had Unter den Linden; the west had Kurfürstendamm, Berlin's combination of Broadway and Fifth Avenue. After World War II, East Berlin created a Tierpark to counter the zoo in West Berlin's Tiergarten. West Berlin had the Funkturm (radio tower), East Berlin the Fernsehturm (TV tower). West Berlin had the Deutsche Oper as its answer to the East's old Linden Oper. Now that the city is unified, Berliners are reluctant to give up these defining oppositions.

Wounded buildings, wounded hearts

In Berlin, old buildings are old friends. After the war, West Berlin held an architectural competition to deal with the remaining fragment of the Gedächtniskirche. Egon Eiermann's winning entry showed a new fluorescent-blue chapel and bell tower replacing the old bombed-out church. When that front-page headline hit the newspapers (GEDÄCHTNISKIRCHE WIRD ABGERISSEN! -- "Memorial Church To Be Torn Down!"), Berliners hit their typewriters: one newspaper got 47,000 letters. Eiermann's revised winning entry showed a new fluorescent-blue chapel and bell tower flanking the old bombed-out church. Over in East Berlin, meanwhile, the Communist regime decided, despite opposition, to detonate the shell of the Hohenzollern Stadtschloß and put up a modern "people's palace," the concrete-and-amber-glass Palast der Republik. Today the people's palace sits in asbestos limbo while an elaborate 1:200 model of the rulers' palace sits in state and fuels a campaign for rebuilding the Stadtschloß from scratch. Like the Gedächtniskirche and the Berliner Dom, the Palast and the Stadtschloß have been candidates for "Ugliest Building in Berlin" (Berliners love to kvetch); yet when the Gedächtniskirche and the Dom and the Stadtschloß were wounded by Allied bombs, Berliners took them into their hearts. And when the Gedächtniskirche and the Palast were threatened with death by demolition squad, Berliners rose to their defense -- perhaps realizing that you can't kvetch about something if it's no longer there.

That goes double for the Reichstags-gebäude (usually called just the Reichstag, after the German parliament that met there): an instant "UBB" contender on completion in 1894, it became "dufte" ("swell" in "Balinüsch," the Berlin dialect) after mysteriously catching fire in 1933 (the Nazis blamed the Communists) and getting bombed during the war. When master wrapper Christo turned his attention to the Reichstag in 1971, a full-scale parliamentary debate ensued; only after 23 years did he get permission. The result, visible for two weeks in June and July of 1995, was a ghostly apparition in silver foil, all surface and no substance, that looked sublime and perhaps made a statement about parliamentary bodies. Aesthetically, it was a huge hit that galvanized and united the city.

Now officially called the Deutscher Bundestag-Plenarbereich Reichstags-gebäude (there are pedigreed dogs with shorter names), the building has a new crystal dome -- perhaps in memory of the city's infamous Kristallnacht. A nickname will doubtless follow. You don't have to guess at Berliners' favorite structures -- they're the ones with nicknames. This is, after all, the city that gave us the band Einstürzende Neubauten ("New Buildings That Fall Down"). And it's no accident that the first volume of the French comic Astérix to be translated into Balinüsch is the one about a dodgy housing development, the "Mansion of the Gods."

So the 450-foot-high Funkturm is popularly known as the Beanpole, or Langer Lulatsch ("Tall Paul from Hicktown"). Over in the east, the 1200-foot-high Fernsehturm has been dubbed both Telespargel ("tele-asparagus," from the bulb toward the top) and the Pope's Revenge (from the way the sun forms a cross on that bulb). The Palast der Republik soon became the Ballast der Republik. Alexanderplatz may have been named after Tsar Alexander I, who visited in 1805, but to its friends, it's just plain Alex. The Gedächtniskirche was initially christened Der Taufhaus des Westens (the "Baptizing House of the West"), after the celebrated nearby department store Der Kaufhaus des Westens; now it's the "hollow tooth" next to Eiermann's "compact and lipstick." The neighboring Weltkugelbrunnen is the Wasserklops ("water dumpling"). The angel atop the Siegessäule, or Victory Column, familiar to devotees of the Wim Wenders film Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire), has been christened Gold Else. The nearby Kongreßhalle, with its sweeping

cantilevered roof, is the Pregnant Oyster; Hans Scharoun's novel concept for the Berlin Philharmonic, with a 360-degree audience, became the Circus Karajani (after the orchestra's dictatorial music director, Herbert von Karajan). Christo's wrapped Reichstag got not only its own nickname -- "Die Reichs-Kohlroulade" -- but its own postcard showing the venerable edifice as one big cabbage roll while slyly alluding to then-chancellor Helmut Kohl, whose surname means "cabbage."

There's a lesson here: it's easier for Berliners to acknowledge feelings for their buildings, their trees, even their zoo animals, than for one another. It's no accident that in the song "Berlin bleibt doch Berlin," the key to the city's survival is not its persevering citizens but its persevering lindens. If a referendum were held to determine this century's "Most Popular Berliner" ("Least Popular Berliner" would deluge the ballot), I suspect Knautschke, the zoo's beloved hippo, who survived the Battle of Berlin by going underwater and getting fed by his many fans and admirers, would win in a walk. Berliners may talk tough (see "Berliner Luft," below), but it's all bark.

Big mouths, big hearts

The ultimate Berlin dichotomy is "Herz und Schnauze" -- "big mouth, big heart." Berliners like everything big, which is why the overgrown triumphal arch (two and a half times as high as the Arc de Triomphe) and domed meeting hall (with a volume 16 times that of St. Peter's) envisioned by Hitler and Albert Speer were in the right spirit (their taste is another matter). The outrageous has never been out of bounds here. Berlin's architectural set pieces are gauche, brash beasties whose motto is that there are no bad buildings, only boring ones; they may be short on style and class, but they have personality. And Berliners secretly cherish them, because, like the people themselves, these buildings yearn to be big-time. Jean Nouvel's Galeries Lafayette shopping mall in Friedrichstraße, with its immense curving glass façade; the Hackesche Höfe artists' complex in Prenzlauer Berg; Georg Bumiller's snakelike federal-employee apartment complex in Moabit along the Spree; the cylindrical blue towers of the Ministry of the Interior nearby; the new glass Lehrter rail station; the new headquarters of the Christian Democrats (looks like a ship in a bottle) and that of the Social Democrats (a modest slice of sachertorte); Daniel Libeskind's serpentine Jewish Museum, with its zigzag zinc panels and slashes of window -- these are buildings that call attention to themselves. They give Berlin the identity, the importance, it's so desperate for.

And when it comes to architecture, as with everything else, Berliners like to see double -- they know that good things come in pairs. The Kongreßhalle (American-built, in 1957) and the Reichstag, at opposite ends of the Platz der Republik, eye each other sympathetically, one all oyster curves, the other all Prussian straight lines; together they form an architectural concept that's echt ("genuine") Berlin. The Berliner Dom can see its ornate detail reflected in the spartan glass of the Palast der Republik. Hans Scharoun's existentialist Philharmonie and Kammermusiksaal (chamber-music hall) are complemented by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Thomistic Nationalgalerie, which in turn reflects the Italian Romanesque-style Matthäuskirche. These pairings are a reminder that harmony can (and in Berlin most typically does) arise from the juxtaposition of opposites.

The new Potsdamer Platz complex (see "Please Pass the Potsdamer," below) is inbred and sterile by comparison. If you could put the long, tall Debis Haus, with its bright green cube on top, next to the 14th-century Marienkirche, or the new Sony Forum circus tent next to Karl Friedrich Schinkel's neo-medieval Friedrichswerdersche Kirche, you'd have a postcard waiting to happen -- and a pair of echt Berliners.

Berlin past, Berlin future

It's twilight and I'm back in front of the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche, admiring the two towers and trying to catch what they're whispering to each other. When offered a choice between an old Gedächtniskirche and a new one, Berliners characteristically demanded both. Many would like to see the Hohenzollern Stadtschloß rebuilt, but few are ready to tear down the Palast der Republik -- what they want to see is the two palaces, Berlin past and future, side by side. That's why the image of the Quadriga silhouetted against the Reichstag's new dome is so popular these days: it's the past rushing into the future. And that's why the Gedächtniskirche has come to epitomize the city: it embraces not just Berlin past and Berlin future, but Berlin's divided consciousness, its double soul. Built on the rubble of history, built from that rubble, the memorial church is a reminder to Berlin 2000 that a city with no past has no future.

Berliner Luft

Centuries of occupation, poverty, plague, pillage, bombing, murder, and rape have made Berlin Survivors City, Cynics City, and, in its own lovable way, Chutzpah City. You have to admire a people who have the gall to take their fresh air -- the celebrated "Berliner Luft," the upshot of there being so many trees in town -- and put it in little tins and sell it (not cheap) to tourists. Sure, you can buy a tin and take it home, but how do you open it without losing the luft? The thing doesn't even come with a certificate of authenticity; you could be getting London fog or LA smog. But Berliner Luft sells. So does the Wall -- and we might well wonder, nine years after it was torn down, where all these pieces are coming from. Some are accompanied by a guarantee, but of course it could be the Great Wall of China and you and I wouldn't know the difference.

Berliners have figured out how to sell almost anything -- they've even turned the Potsdamer Platz construction site into a major tourist attraction, making it chic for visitors to have souvenirs. (Boston and the Big Dig, take note.) You can buy playing cards that show images of Berlin's ruler-tyrants, such as Frederick the Great and the Kaiser Wilhelms, plus the architectural history of the city. You can buy umbrellas that show the very latest architectural developments. And at the world-renowned Berliner Zinnfiguren shop, you can find the city's entire history re-created in exquisite lead collectibles.

Then there's the legendary Berlin wit. When Frederick the Great decided his subjects should drink more home-produced beer and less expensive imported coffee, the story has it that Johann Sebastian Bach (who visited Frederick at Potsdam in 1747) hit back with his satirical Coffee Cantata, about a woman for whom coffee is more important than even a husband. (The story can hardly be right: Bach wrote his cantata in the 1730s, and Frederick didn't come to power till 1741. But it's the sort of tale Berlin attracts.) Today, volumes like Das neue Berliner Schimpfwörter Buch ("The New Berlin Book of Curses and Swear Words") have everything you need to know to insult your contemporaries in "Balinüsch," the local dialect (think Jackie Gleason's Ralph Kramden, who would be right at home here). You can also buy postcards offering quick hits like "Dummheit is ooch 'ne Jabe Jottes, aber man soll ihr nich mißbrauchen" ("Yes, stupidity is a gift from God, but one shouldn't abuse it"). That one might have come to mind when John Kennedy stood in the Schöneberg town hall and told the world, "Ich bin ein Berliner," thus declaring himself a kind of jelly doughnut ("Ich bin Berliner" was the ticket).

Today's rampant commercialism is just more grist for the mill. Explaining that the city is planning to sell the Siegessäule to interests that would put a restaurant around it (Hard Rock Café? Planet Hollywood?), a long-suffering Berliner suggested to me that the "Berlin bleibt doch Berlin" slogan ought to read "Berlin bleibt doch käuflich": "Berlin remains up for sale." There's anger here, but also affection. In their own awkward, embarrassed, pretending-they-don't-care way, Berliners are totally taken with themselves -- and their city.

Please pass the Potsdamer

"Nach meine Beene is ja janz Berlin verrückt" ("All Berlin Is Crazy About My Legs"), Marlene Dietrich used to sing, and indeed Berlin was, but as soon as she left town, Berliners went back to arguing over their buildings. Architecture isn't just politics in this city, it's identity -- which explains why Berliners tend to leave economics to Frankfurt and focus on what's going up. It also explains why, over the past few years, the big news in town has been not the imminent return of the German government but the construction at Potsdamer Platz, whose mega-corporation office/bank/hotel/cinema/theater/shopping-arcade development has been touted as the "new heart of Berlin," and thus potentially the new heart of Europe.

This isn't just hype: back in the 1920s, Potsdamer Platz was the heart of Europe, with Europe's first traffic light and a reputation as Europe's busiest intersection. Located a few hundred yards south of the Brandenburg Gate, just off the southeast corner of the Tiergarten (Berlin's version of Central Park), Potsdamer Platz offered a quartet of glittering hotels (the Esplanade, the Bellevue, the Palast, and the Fürstenhof), an eye-popping department store (Wertheim, with its glass-roofed atrium, 10,000 light bulbs, and 83 elevators), and a proto-Disneyland (the Kempinski Haus Vaterland, which transported guests to exotic lands, including the American Wild West). Plus, of course, there was a fashionable café, the Josty, where you could sit out under the trees watching the trams and autos passing by and observing people exiting the nearby Potsdamer rail station and going in and out of the elegant hotels.

World War II leveled Potsdamer Platz; the Wall, cutting right through it, finished the job. Rather than try to re-create the on-the-street ambiance of the '20s, Berlin's planners chose to sell off huge chunks of Potsdamer Platz to a few mega-corporations: Daimler-Benz, Sony, A+T, Hertie. Internationally respected architects such as Irato Isozaki and Renzo Piano have created a shopping arcade, a Grand Hyatt Hotel, and a Sony multiplex and IMAX theater. The Berlinale Theater will host next year's Berlin Film Festival. And the stage version of Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame will premiere at Potsdamer Platz's Marlene Dietrich Theater, the first Disney stage show not to open on Broadway.

Potsdamer Platz is also setting PR records for a complex that's still under construction. You can buy postcards of Potsdamer Platz the way it was in the '20s, Potsdamer Platz as it looked a few years ago (all 17 acres of weeds and debris), Potsdamer Platz the way it looks now, Potsdamer Platz the way it'll look when it's done. (Of course, the cards you buy at the beginning of your visit are apt to be outdated by the time you go home.) There are Potsdamer Platz art books, posters, maps, umbrellas, T-shirts; as I write, some enterprising brewer is probably turning out a Potsdamer Platz lager.

What Potsdamer Platz doesn't yet have is a nickname, affectionate or otherwise, and that raises the question whether a commercial complex can truly be the heart of Europe. There is no question that the new Potsdamer Platz is fulfilling the area's original function, which was to be the marketplace of Berlin. Yet back in the 18th century, far from being the heart of Berlin, Potsdamer Platz wasn't even in Berlin. Frederick the Great had no intention of allowing Brandenburg peasants to traffic inside his elegant city, so he set up his marketplace outside the city gates. Just inside the gates, there was actually a mirror square (of course), Leipziger Platz, whose Octagon -- inspired by Paris's Place Louis Le Grand -- symbolized a rational order that stood in stark contrast to the rabble on the Potsdamer Platz side. Commerce is by nature chaotic and not rational; perhaps that's why, in all the fuss about Potsdamer Platz, there's been hardly a mention of Leipziger Platz.

Still, it's Leipziger Platz that has what has so far proved to be the area's most popular attraction: the Info Box. A building that looks like a big red cattle car jacked up off the ground, the Info Box is your guide to all the construction in the area: three stories of exhibits plus a restaurant and souvenir shop. You can also go up on the roof for a low-flying-bird's-eye view of the city. The Info Box was set up as a temporary structure, but it's been so popular that the city planners may not dare to take it down.

Like the Potsdamer Platz of the '20s, the Info Box is a kind of crossroads, a place from which you can see. The new Potsdamer Platz isn't actually in Potsdamer Platz -- it's moved slightly to the west, away from street traffic. There's no tree-shaded café from which to look out at the world. The new Potsdamer Platz's "square" is hemmed in by the Sony CinemaxX and the shopping arcade and the Hyatt and the Berlinale Theater; visitors will be lucky to get a glimpse of sky, never mind the street.

And what of the new architecture? Potsdamer Platz has always been a place of big ideas, from Friedrich Gilly's proposed Greek-temple monument honoring Frederick the Great in 1797 and Karl Friedrich Schinkel's 1000-foot-high cathedral designed after the fall of Napoleon (neither was actually built) to Erich Mendelsohn's prophetic 1932 Columbus Haus office building, with its horizontal bands and curved exterior, and, just off Potsdamer Straße, Emil Fahrenkamp's rippling Shell House, with its almost organic, Gaudí-like façade. But the new "heart" of Berlin hasn't won many admirers. Critics blame Berlin's planning director, Hans Stimmann, for hamstringing architects such as Renzo Piano and Rafael Moneo by insisting they create a harmonious, conservative whole. "The result is dull and uninspiring," Daniel Libeskind -- who designed Berlin's new Jewish Museum, which is anything but -- told the New York Times last month. Harvard and UCLA professor of architecture Dagmar Richter concurs. "Most of the new buildings are unimaginative, architectural testimony to an artistic and intellectual poverty," she opines in the recent special Berlin issue of the German magazine Geo. "I would never travel to Berlin to look at the new architecture. With some of the older buildings it's an entirely different matter: for the Staatsbibliothek or the Philharmonie [both acknowledged masterpieces by Hans Scharoun] I would walk to the North Pole."

Berlin appears to agree: it's buzzing about the Jewish Museum, about the new "Federal Strip" of government offices north of the Reichstag, about the futuristic glass Lehrter rail station -- but not about the new buildings at Potsdamer Platz. Visitors will travel to Berlin to watch the new government in action or to attend the film festival or to enjoy The Hunchback of Notre Dame at the Marlene Dietrich Theater; it remains to be seen whether anyone will come to look at the architecture of Potsdamer Platz.

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at jgantz@phx.com.

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