Thursday 11 May 2017

Berlin - Brandenburger Tor and Tiergarden

An important historical district, this was key in Berlin's 18th century transformation from a relative backwater to the capital of Prussia, which became one of Europe's biggest players. With Prussia's rise its architects were commissioned to create the trappings of a worthy Weldstadt (world city) with appropriately stately institutions built on and around Unter den Linden. Traditional Baroque and Neoclassical styles predominate. Almost every one of these symbols of Prussian might was left gutted by the bombing and shelling of WWII. Paradoxically it was the post-war communist regime that resurrected them from the wartime rubble. The result was a pleasing re-creation of the old city.

The restoration was so successful that looking at these 18th and 19th century buildings it's difficult to believe that as recently as the 1960s large patches of the centre lay in ruins. Like archaeologists trying to picture a whole vase from a single fragment, the builders took a façade, or just a small fraction of one, and set about re-creating the whole.

The Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate) has come to mark the very centre of Berlin. Built as a city gate-cum-triumphal arch in 1971, it was designed by Carl Gotthard Langhans and modelled after the Propylae, the entrance to the Acropolis in Athens. The Gate became, like the Reichstag later, a symbol of German solidarity.

After the building of the Wall placed the Gate in the Eastern sector, nearby observation posts became the place for visiting politicians to look over the Iron Curtain from the West in what became a handy photo opportunity. With the opening of a border crossing here just before Christmas 1989, the east-west axis of the city was symbolically re-created.

The Brandenburg Tor looms over Pariser Platz. Standing on the southeast corner of the Platz, the Hotel Adlon is a 1990s reconstruction of one of Europe's grandest hotels.

The lobby

The Akademie der Kuenste is the only building where the strict rules of the redevelopment, - only a maximum of 49% glass -  have been flouted.

DZ Bank is next to the Akademie. Described by Frank O. Gehry 'as the best thing I've ever done', it mockingly follows the re-building rules - it's 50% stone.

The inside is stunning: Portuguese marble at the entrance, and thousands of individually formed metal panels give the entrance an aquatic, undulating curvaceousness. This is a very bad photograph, but I wanted to include it so that I could remember what it was like.

From the Brandenburg Tor and Pariser Platz we moved on to the

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, known as the Holocaust Memorial

Unveiled in 2006 after almost 17 years of planning and controversy and six years of construction, the monument was the work of New York architect Peter Eisenman, who took inspiration from the densely clustered gravestones of Prague's Jewish graveyard.

It involves 2711 dark grey oblong pillars, evenly and tightly spaced but of varying heights, spread across an area the size of two football pitches. As there is no single entrance, visitors make their own way through the maze to the centre

 where the blocks are well above head height,

tending to convey a sense of gloom, isolation and solitude, even though Eisenman insists his intent was to create a 'place of hope'.

Highly contentious was the hiring of German company Degussa (now Evonik) to supply the anti-graffiti paint for the block, since they are a daughter company of IG Farben, the company that produced Zyklon B, the gas used in the Nazi gas chambers.

Personally I have doubts as to how well it works as a memorial, as a place of remembrance of so many lives lost: people climb on the pillars to take selfies, kids use it as a playground, running around the maze and riding their bikes at great speed.  But, I might be wrong in my reservations and maybe the fact that it's used like this is just an affirmation of life and hope, as the architect intended.

The entrance to the underground information centre that relates the life stories and plight of some Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

We then crossed the road and entered the Tiergarden, Berlin's largest and most popular park.

Almost immediately we came upon the Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted under Nazism. A 4m-high concrete tube, it remembers the 54,000 people who were convicted of homosexual acts under Nazionalsozialismums. An estimated 8,000 died in concentration camps. The monument mimics the pillars commemorating Jewish victims but also contains

a window behind which

plays a film of same-sex couples (alternating between men and women every year or so) kissing.

We explored the garden for a while

and soon we came across the Global Stone Project which consists of ten stones. Five stones are placed in the five continents of their origins, while the other five are placed in a circle right here, in the centre of Berlin. Once a year on June 21 the light of the stones connects all ten by reflecting the light beams.

We eventually reached the Gate again

and a little further on is the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism, commemorating the half-million Roma and Sinti that died at the hands of the Nazis.

Through the gate

is a circular pond, surrounded by rough stone flags.

At the centre of the pond is a rock upon which a single fresh flower is placed every day. This flower has supreme significance as the murdered Sinti and Roma lie in unmarked plots in huge cemeteries with only plants growing above them. The flower lies on a triangle which represents the triangle the Nazis forced all gypsies to wear.

We then walked on to the Reichstag which was restored as the seat of the Bundestag, Germany's Parliament in 1999. An imposing 19th century Neoclassical building, it has as its main attraction the giant glass dome that was designed by Richard Rogers.

We have now visited Berlin twice and we still have not managed to get inside the building. Both times we tried to book in advance but were unable to obtain tickets - the only ones available were very late at night, and we did not fancy this. We could have queued for a very long time to obtain access, but we did not fancy that either.

Right by the entrance is this monument in memory of 96 members of the Reichstag (Parliament) of the Weimar Republic who were murdered by the National Socialists.

We moved on to this grassed-up area

where a lot of people were having fun with the fountains.

At one end is the Chancellery

Angela Merkel's Downing Street

and at the other end this gorgeous modernist building, the Paul Loebe Haus.

The Social Democrat Paul Loebe was a member of the constituent National Assembly that drew up the Weimar COnstitution during the years 1919-1920 and President of the German Reichstag from 1920 until 1932, when he was forced out of office by the National Socialists. He was held for several months in concentration camps in 1933 and 1944. After WWII he took part in the rebuilding of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD)

We circled the building

and reached the café at the back, which is by the waterfront

the bank of the river Spree belonged to West Berlin, whilst the river itself was the territory of East Berlin.

Where the west wall met the riverbank, the White Crosses memorial was erected in 1971. The crosses serve as a memorial to all those who lost their lives attempting to flee from East Germany to West Berlin after the border was closed. Guenther Litfin was the first refugee to be shot at the Berlin border by East German border police after 13 August 1961. Chris Gueffroy, the last to be killed, was shot while trying to escape in February 1989 - nine months before the border was opened.


  1. Thank you for your tour of Berlin. I have never been, but heard a lot about how it was before and during the war. When young I always wanted to see the Pergamon museum, and the head of Nefertiti.
    It must be frustrating not being able to get in to see the Foster dome - such a brilliant idea - but according to a German relative who visits Berlin often, there are always crowds. She has given up trying now. Obviously everyone wants to look down on their politicians - heh!

  2. Olga, I fell in love with Berlin last time we visited, and also felt that I had unfinished business there. Now I feel that I've finished with all the business, even though I would love to visit again. It's not a beautiful city like other European capitals, (well, parts of it obviously are), but it has a buzz, it's vibrant and exciting and there's so much going on there. A bit like Athens really: not that good to look at, but it's alive and exciting and you feel that you're in the middle of everything.