With history in mind, Berlin begins make-over

April 17, 1995|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Berlin Bureau of The Sun

BERLIN -- As planners and dreamers map the future of Berlin, their centerpiece is a plot of land hollowed underground by Adolf Hitler's bunker and scraped bare by the makers of the Berlin Wall.

The tract is called Potsdamer Platz, and for the moment it offers little but mud and troubling memories. But it is also the most coveted construction site in Berlin's plans to be Europe's most important city by the end of the century.

With the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II approaching, Berliners can't help but recall the last time they embraced such aspirations. Not since Nazi architect Albert Speer unveiled his grandiose designs for Hitler have so many ambitious visions of the city been put to paper.

Given Berlin's dark backdrop of history and the well-spoken angst and irreverence of its people, the city's third make-over this century promises to hold Europe's attention for the next decade and beyond.

"Of all the cities in the world right now -- L.A., Chicago, New York, Paris, London -- to me, Berlin is the most exciting place," says Eugene Bird, a businessman contemplating the city's future. "It is the center of Germany, and Germany is the center of Europe. Take that together with the German will to do, and the German know-how, and you have an unbeatable combination."

As a transplanted American, Mr. Bird perhaps feels more free to talk about German "will" and "know-how" than do most Germans. But like many other Berliners, he has one foot in the city's past and another in its future.

His first impression of Berlin came from the stench of bodies as he approached within 20 miles of the city in 1945. Mr. Bird, who would retire as a U.S. Army colonel, was advancing with U.S. forces just after the German surrender in World War II.

Once he reached the city, he saw the stolid legions of dusty women clearing the ruins, brick by brick. A few years later he presided over some of Germany's greatest scoundrels as warden of Spandau prison.

Its inmates were ranking Nazi war criminals such as Rudolph Hess, and none was contrite or ashamed -- except for Speer, the architect and minister of munitions. Speer stayed busy walking and gardening, though as a favor to the warden he sketched out the design of a new house. Mr. Bird had the house built and still lives there. Such is the layering of history on the Berlin landscape.

These days, the city seems overrun by architects. Sometimes they fill entire hotels, plus whole classrooms of German language schools. Joining them are 25,000 construction workers, who trek between their work sites and large dormitories on the edge of the city.

The impetus for the building boom is the federal government's plans to move the German capital from Bonn to Berlin during the next five years -- an undertaking akin to grafting the federal core of Washington, D.C., onto a borough of New York City.

Unprecedented boom

It has prompted a building boom that economists say is unprecedented in Europe. Near the tree-lined Unter Den Linden in the city center, where German troops marched off to both world wars, the current parade is one of construction cranes -- more than 900 of them, according to Der Spiegel magazine. They swivel and bend on the skyline like giant mantises feasting on the vacant lots below, where workers occasionally dig up unexploded bombs left behind by Allied attacks.

Besides building or refurbishing sites for a Chancellery, two houses of Parliament and 14 federal ministries, Berlin has giant private (although publicly subsidized) projects like the undertaking at Potsdamer Platz -- a complex of offices, stores and homes backed by Sony and Daimler-Benz. Also under way or planned are a five-block business center next to the Cold War landmark of Checkpoint Charlie, a new subway tunnel beneath the green parkland of the Tiergarten and, next to the Brandenburg Gate, new U.S. and French embassies.

Then there are the projects that will sprawl across the city's outer districts, such as the Silicon Valley-style research center in southeast Berlin, or the "Water City" planned for the rivers and canals near Spandau. The riverside prison that once housed Speer has been razed.

But within the shadow of these rising buildings is a deepening well of debt. The Berlin Senate has committed about $280 billion of municipal funds to the projects over the next 20 years while paying little attention to where the money might come from.

"Principles of city planning have been overturned to a certain extent," says economist Eberhard von Einem. "It is quite a chaotic boom."

The free spending comes by force of habit. Because West Berlin was virtually an island in the middle of Communist East Germany during the Cold War, the city was given federal subsidies, and the city government grew to accommodate the largess. Berlin's bureaucracy is now one-third larger, per capita, than those of Germany's other largest cities.

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