In Berlin, Remaking The City Can Rekindle Old Frictions City planners rushed to erase divisions between East and West Berlin after the wall came down in 1989. But the fate of communist-era buildings can still provoke friction a quarter-century later.
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In Berlin, Remaking The City Can Rekindle Old Frictions

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In Berlin, Remaking The City Can Rekindle Old Frictions

In Berlin, Remaking The City Can Rekindle Old Frictions

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Our location determines a lot about how we see the world. We're now going to hear how that plays out in a city that was physically divided for decades, another story from the NPR Cities Project.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This is an old city.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It's very vibrant.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: It is a fragmented city.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Location, location, location.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Location location location.

MARTIN: And today we're talking about Berlin. The German capital was nearly wiped out of existence at the end of World War II, then it became the flashpoint in the Cold War. Conflict between the West and the Soviet Union split the city in two. In 1961, the Berlin Wall went up, leaving residents on either side cut off from each other in every imaginable way. Twenty-five years ago, the wall came down. East Germans flooded across the border, and the city was made whole. Since then, German planners have been trying to erase signs of that divided past. But in the East, the changes are not so welcome. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson takes us on a tour of East and West Berlin to explain why.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: During the Cold War, most subways like this one I'm on served the West. These trains would slow down but never stop in the heavily guarded stations in the Communist East. East Berliners, on the other hand, rode trams and buses that steered clear of the West. These days, people can use any mode of transit they wish. The unified government has also worked to erase all signs of the division.

I'm getting out in the government district, which the most popular example of the merger. I'm meeting Annalie Schoen. She's part of the team that has worked since the early '90s to create a seamless capital.

ANNALIE SCHOEN: When we started, none of the streets were here, none of the buildings were here.

NELSON: Schoen says there was no debate about construction here because there was nothing to tear down. Architects from around the world competed to design the unified quarter. A key element was the redesign of the German Parliament, or former Reichstag building. It was one of the few existing structures in the quarter, one that was rich in history, but in terrible shape, Schoen says.

SCHOEN: You know that our Reichstag was renovated by a British architect, and that shows also how open we were. I would say that - I don't know - the French or the British probably would not build their parliament by a foreigner; I don't know.

NELSON: By enlisting outsiders to develop the district's striking architecture, the Germans were avoiding the appearance of nationalistic pride. The resulting parliament building is a huge draw for German and foreign tourists who are able to watch the legislature in action below a glass dome. Schoen says the other buildings in the government district with their modern facades and welcoming public spaces also symbolize Germany's evolution into a democratic and peaceful society.

But let's take a short bus ride to another project that many say misses the mark, partly because it erases East German history. It's called the Humboldt Forum, and it's scheduled to be completed by 2019. As I look around, I see no trace of where the East Germans built their communist parliament building in the '70s. It was torn down six years ago. What's replacing it is a partial recreational of a baroque palace, the origins of which go back six centuries. The nearly $800-million project will eventually house a library, university facilities and Berlin's collection of African art. German architect Thomas Krueger is one of those who hates it.

THOMAS KRUEGER: It's not true what you see; it's just a facade, and it has nothing to do with the real history.

NELSON: He says it makes no sense to remove every trace of the East German building that was here, called the Palace of the Republic. It housed not only the communist legislature, but a bowling alley, concert hall and restaurants.

KRUEGER: Every East German I know that told me a story about his connection to this Palace of the Republic and to demolish it is really an act of violence. Colleagues of mine, they made a lot of suggestions how to renovate the old Palace of the Republic, and there was still cultural life in it. That is really unbelievable.

NELSON: Do you feel that there is too much dismissal of East German architecture, that more of an effort should be made to preserve some of what was here during the Cold War?

KRUEGER: I read that more than 180 buildings here in the inner city were demolished since '89. This is quite a lot.

NELSON: Do you agree aesthetically?

KRUEGER: No, no, no. They had also fantastic buildings.

NELSON: Krueger says the problem is that West Germans, especially those not from Berlin, don't believe communist-era buildings are with protecting. They are a reminder of a time in Germany's history they'd rather forget.


NELSON: That includes Alexanderplatz, where I'm headed on the last stop of our tour. The 20-acre square in its day was the showplace of communist East Germany. It's now under threat. Berlin's iconic television tower is here. It's a giant, silver ball on a concrete shaft; at 1,207 feet, it's the tallest freestanding structure in Germany. Also striking are the many hulking, soviet-era buildings that line the square with stark glass and metal facades. They are now full of businesses, stores and restaurants. The square's critics and investors call these old structures eyesores and are pushing to tear them down, something tour guides in Alexanderplatz point out.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: And this plan, calls, basically, to tear down everything - that, that, that, that and that.

NELSON: One West German author and journalist, Peter von Becker, in an op-ed last year, likened the proposed preservation of one of the buildings to keeping Berlin looking like the North Korean capital, Pyongyang. That's not how Katrina Lompscher sees it. She's a native East Berliner who was 27 when the wall came down.

KATRINA LOMPSCHER: (Speaking German).

NELSON: Lompscher now serves in the Berlin parliament as a member of Die Linke Party, which includes members of the political party that succeeded East Germany's ruling Communists.

LOMPSCHER: (Through translator) The Alexanderplatz of my youth, as I remember it, was a major transportation hub and a great place to shop. The best department store was here, and it had a terrace with open stairs like a piazza. Of course, it's important to move forward and develop things. But it's wrong to completely negate what's already here.

NELSON: She's especially worried about a 1993 master plan to build 10 high-rise towers here. After the economy delayed that plan for a decade, work on at least one of the high-rises appears back on track. That high-rise is designed by avant-garde architect Frank Gehry. To Lompscher, it's a slap in the face to East Berliners who feel reunification has meant doing everything the Western way. In the former East Berlin, I'm Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, for the NPR Cities Project.

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