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5 Reasons Why Berlin's Urban Form is Different from the ...

5 Reasons Why Berlin's Urban Form is Different from the Rest of Germany

Many visitors that explore Berlin are often puzzled by the eclectic appearance of its sea of buildings, and often dislike this incoherence. Generally,  people wonder why Berlin lacks a coherent style that is undeniably representative of it. The German capital is often compared to other major cities scattered throughout Germany, like Munich and Stuttgart, that

by Brittany Garcia January 8, 2018
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Many visitors that explore Berlin are often puzzled by the eclectic appearance of its sea of buildings, and often dislike this incoherence. Generally,  people wonder why Berlin lacks a coherent style that is undeniably representative of it. The German capital is often compared to other major cities scattered throughout Germany, like Munich and Stuttgart, that hold distinctive German baroque and Gothic architectural styles. However, what many do not realize is that Berlin’s current architecture reflects its tumultuous history during the 20th century — that is, making it extremely representative of its identity as Germany’s capital. Each of the national governments based in Berlin — the Margraviate of Brandenburg, Kingdom of Prussia, the German Empire of 1871, the Weimar Republic, Nazi Germany, East  and West Germany, and now the reunified Federal Republic of Germany — began ambitious construction programs, each incorporating its own distinctive style to the city's architecture. However, aside from its dramatic history, Berlin has been influenced by a multitude of different forces, which have also molded it accordingly throughout the decades. Here are five factors that shaped the urban planning processes within Berlin in the past century and ultimately transformed the face of the German capital:

  1. Berlin Was Built on Swamplands

A part of the wall of the Eastside Gallery, where you can see the pink water pipe stretched out in the background

Berlin is surrounded by several lakes, such as Wannsee, Müggelsee, and Tegeler See. It also resides on the Spree River. With groundwater in Berlin rushing about six and a half feet (around 2 meters) under the city’s surface, it is virtually impossible to dig any tunnels without the risk of flooding the German capital. It is speculated that the word ‘Berlin’ may derive from the Proto-Slavic language, with the literal meaning: a swamp. Geoff Manaugh of Gizmodo stated, “There really is an underground lake on the rise, albeit in the form of the region's natural water table, and it is beginning to interfere with the world of architecture perhaps foolishly constructed above it. What's so interesting is that, in parts of the city such as Potsdamer Platz, Berlin is already engineered as a kind of hydrological bulwark against these encroaching waters, but perhaps the rest of the city will have to follow suit in the decades ahead. The purpose of the purple and pink pipes, you can find throughout Berlin, was to pump water from the ground and transport it to the local canals. This allows the city to drain basements and to facilitate the urban works, like the U-Bahn and S-Bahn. A company called Pollems has been responsible for the water system for more than a century. Bernd Kempf, managing director at Pollems, told BBC that many years ago the company contacted a psychologist to find out colors they should paint the pipes. She suggested having the pipes be painted pink and purple because they are mostly preferred by children.

  1.    The Hobrecht-Plan

Plan from Berlin and surroundings to Charlottenburg: outline map of the development plan of the surrounding areas of Berlin, Germany. Image: Plan from Berlin and surroundings to Charlottenburg / recorded u. signed v. F. Boehm, Gest. v. W. Bembé. Central and Regional Library Berlin (Public Domain).

James Hobrecht was the Prussian Director of Urban Planning, who finalized the plan "Bebauungsplan der Umgebungen Berlins” (Building plan for the surroundings of Berlin), which prepared the city and its neighboring municipalities for the Greater Berlin Act of 1920, which greatly extended Berlin's size and population.

The Hobrecht-Plan allowed for large areas of dense urban city blocks known as 'blockrandbebauung structures’ to be constructed. These structures are mixed-use buildings that reach to the street and offer a common-use courtyard. These were extended with additional court structures to house more people when Berlin’s population dramatically increased. Berlin was the target destination for many emigrants and resulted in rapid growth as the Prussian capital during the Industrial Revolution. Additionally, after the Napoleonic Wars, Berlin’s population increased by 10,000 inhabitants every year. Berlin, thus, needed to have a metro area that could occupy the millions by the end of the century. Many planned cities were built on the perimeter of the block to cover the rising demand for housing. Additionally, Hobrecht’s plan could even be called a pure “alignment plan” — that is, he specified the course of streets and squares, down to the associated sewer system. The plan also avoided concentrating on the center, thus laying the groundwork for today's polycentricity in Berlin. The German capital doesn’t have one designed city center, unlike the majority of other major cities. 

Moreover, according to scientific assistant, Felix Bentlin of the Institut Für Stadt- Und Regionalplanung “the Hobrecht-Plan defined a new set of urban patterns, forms and spaces in 15 section plans and a range of public space typologies defining Berlin's cityscape. The plan developed a spatial and structural framework using three different urban design elements: the ring boulevard, the harbor square, and the neighborhood square. These key organizing elements have helped public spaces remain the effective planning units of Berlin's neighborhoods.” Hobrecht's plan has continuously been compared to the urban planning development of Paris by Baron Haussmann, since it has extremely similar features: wide avenues, expansive urban parks and squares, as well as modernized sewers.

  1.   Berlin as the Third Reich’s Capital

Ruins of the Reichstag in Berlin, 3 June 1945. The Reichstag after the allied bombing of Berlin, Germany. © IWM (BU 8573)

Berlin was devastated by bombing raids during World War II. The German capital, during the 1940s, was the Third Reich’s capital. Hitler had his bunker in Berlin down Mohrenstraße, which is now located in the Mitte district. Numerous buildings that survived the bombs were demolished in the 1950s and 1960s, in both West and East Berlin. The demolition of these buildings was initiated by municipal architecture programs to build new residential or business quarters and main roads. Check out this video to see the level of destruction Berlin received during World War II.

  1.    Berlin Was Divided into East and West Germany

Adjacent Plattenbau apartments in Wedding, Berlin, Germany

The last remnants of pre-war Germany west of the Oder-Neisse Line was divided into four occupation zones after the end of World War II (as result of the Potsdam agreement). Each zone was controlled by four occupying powers of the Allied Powers — which were, the United States, the United Kingdom, Soviet Union, and France. Berlin was also divided into four zones even though it was technically fully within the Soviet Zone. This is because Berlin was the seat of the Allied Control Council.

Political turmoil heightened between the Soviet Union and the other occupying powers two years after Germany was divided. One of the main disagreements the Soviet Union had between the four occupying powers was the reconstruction plans of Germany. The Allied Powers desired to make post-war Germany self-sufficient and as a result, created detailed accounts of the industrial plants, goods, and infrastructure that was exploited by the Soviets. This allowed for them to approve an extension to the Marshall Plan and thus, combine the non-Soviet zones of the country into one zone for reconstruction.

Gray Plattenbauten housing complex in Wedding, Berlin, Germany

Though the Allied Powers sought to rebuild Germany, the Soviet Union looked to establish re-construction plans that reflected their ideals. The Stalin Allee (which is known as Karl-Marx-Allee) in East Berlin is a road of buildings developed with a Stalinist style. The eastern parts of Berlin still have many Plattenbauten, which are buildings that are constructed by large, prefabricated concrete slabs. The word is a compound of Platte (in this context: panel) and Bau (building). Plattenbauten is a reminder of Eastern Bloc ambitions to develop full residential areas that are composed of fixed ratios of shops, kindergartens, and schools to the number of residents.

Plattenbau apartments were highly sought after in East Germany due to the lack of any other feasible option. The housing that remained in East Germany, especially Berlin, were overcrowded, deteriorating, wartime buildings with heavy damage still visible. Numerous plattenbau apartments were built in enormous settlements, mostly on the edge of cities (e.g. Marzahn and Hellersdorf in Berlin) to compensate for the lack of livable housing. However, though many Plattenbau apartments were constructed, housing, in general, in the city has become incredibly competitive to attain for locals and expatriates due to Berlin’s recent boom in popularity. Though East Berlin has many Plattenbauten within each district, renowned architect, David Chipperfield has said that the plain appearance of Plattenbauten housing actually does not promote gentrification; instead, Plattenbauten housing actually preserves social continuity for local residents and neighborhoods.

  1. The Majority of Berlin’s Buildings are Covered in Graffiti

A storefront in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin covered in graffiti

Berlin has become a haven for graffiti artists. Every building in the German capital is a canvas to paint on. Though this so-called street art can be seen virtually everywhere in Berlin, it is illegal. To give you a perspective of the scale of graffiti found in the German capital, The Local stated that Berlin had 15,000 graffiti offenses reported in 2007 that resulted in €30 million in damage. According to Matilde Velho Cabral, “After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the city witnessed a complete artistic revolution, with western graffiti artists heading to Eastern Germany; truly motivated by a thirst for new spaces, they were eager to make art while hoping to convey what it really meant to be free – instead of resorting to violence, they opted to manifest themselves into images or striking phrases, boosting the artistic impetus of the city and elevating the so-called graffiti to another level.

A public green entrance in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin covered in graffiti

Though graffiti is a form of artistic expression, not everyone sees the beauty that it conveys. Graduate student based in Berlin, Phillip Wells-Rhoden, stated “I think for the most part the buildings here are beautiful and intriguing to gaze upon. But the buildings that are covered in graffiti are hideous to look at because it destroys the original beauty of each building." However, Cabral sheds light on certain measures that Berlin can consider to prevent graffiti as a form of vandalism: “promoting urban art festivals, create legal graffiti areas, Government incentives, and urban rehabilitation programs are some of the examples that can promote street art everywhere and encourage young creatives to pursue their dreams.”

Does your city look drastically different from other cities in your state or country? How has history or planning shaped its form? Share your thoughts and your city’s stories in the comments area below.

Credits: Images by Brittany Garcia. Data linked to sources.

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Urban Planning Blogger

Brittany is a Berlin-based graduate student with a penchant for environmental sustainability and urban planning. Her research focus centers on how urban agriculture revitalizes local economies. Follow her to discover why Germany's capital is a gritty...

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