For city-watchers, there’s something very familiar about the current development debate going on around Berlin’s Hermannplatz. The square, a busy shopping and transit hub in a fast-gentrifying working-class neighborhood, has caught the eye of developers. The Austrian real-estate group Signa Holdings—which also co-bought New York’s Chrysler Building earlier this year—wants to expand a long-established department store it owns there into a shopping mall, creating the usual burst of jobs and economic activity. Many locals are skeptical about the project, fearing it will increase already-rocketing residential rents nearby and cause congestion.
These conditions may ring a bell from other development fights, but the one currently taking place in Hermannplatz has a unique twist. The mall would not be, strictly speaking, an entirely new building. It would in fact be a recreation of a lost building—a Modernist icon of interwar Berlin, last seen intact in 1945.
That lost building was a branch of the (still-trading) Karstadt department-store chain. One of the most unusual and striking retail buildings constructed in early-20th-century Europe, the store might now be resurrected to a new design by David Chipperfield Architects that very closely resembles the original.
Berlin is no stranger to major historic-reconstruction projects. Right now, it is midway through a rebuilding of its vast, war-damaged City Palace, the former seat of Germany’s Kaisers. Karstadt Hermannplatz nonetheless stands out because it is not some old baroque pile, but a less-than-100-year-old work of Modernism. An ostentatious, unapologetically commercial Modernism at that.
Currently, the plan is in deadlock, albeit far from dead. The local borough of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, controlled by a left-leaning coalition headed by the Green Party, has said no to the initial proposal, but the developer is going on a charm offensive, promising to adapt the project to better suit official advice and to deliver not just the usual retail chains, but a genuine mixed-use space with local social assets. And with millions of euros to invest, Signa may ultimately prove difficult for the borough to resist. But is the plan a good idea?
Aesthetically, the building would certainly be a reminder of the forward-looking glamour of Weimar-era Berlin, a period that features heavily in the city’s self-mythology but whose landmarks were largely swept away by the war. Completed in 1929 to a design by Philipp Schaefer, the original Karstadt Hermannplatz was a wonderfully ornate building. Capped by stepped, bunny-ear towers and grooved with proportion-stretching vertical limestone ribs, the store was less reminiscent of Bauhaus influence than of the glossy American Art Deco stylings of Shreve, Lamb & Harmon. Uniquely for Berlin at the time, the store had a direct entry from the subway (something the current building on the site retains), plus 21 escalators and 20 elevators to whisk customers up to its panoramic roof garden.
Looming above an area of grimy proletarian tenements, this condensed skyscraper must have seemed dazzling, almost hallucinatory, when it first appeared. When the SS dynamited the building’s cellar in April 1945, to prevent its supplies falling to the swiftly approaching Red Army, Berlin lost something unique. After this destruction, just one façade of the gutted hulk remained. It was substantially rebuilt on fewer floors, but still as a Karstadt store, in the 1950s and 1970s, and became essentially unrecognizable.
If someone is to resurrect this old monument, then Britain’s David Chipperfield might be the best person to do so. His practice has made a specialty out of the skillful rethinking of historic landmarks, including the new James Simon Gallery, which provides an austerely beautiful entrance for Berlin’s neoclassical Museum Island without any hint of architectural cosplay. Sure enough, Chipperfield’s preliminary renderings of the new Karstadt Hermannplatz look both faithful to the original and rather delightful.
There is, however, a major “but.” The new store’s site isn’t just anywhere in Berlin. It is in the neighborhood at the heart of the most intense gentrification spurt in the city, whose influence has spread to pretty much everything. Lying on the boundary of the boroughs of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg and Neukölln, Hermannplatz’s backyard is an ultra-dense district of pre-World War One tenements that was a former stronghold of Berlin’s working class. Now highly desirable, its rents have been galloping ever higher, making it the site of numerous public fights over displacement, both of people and of businesses.
Much of the pushback has come from the borough itself (Berlin is divided into 12 boroughs). To maintain some level of affordability in the area, the borough is employing discretionary powers to cool the market down and keep existing residents in place, buying up buildings at risk of steep rent increases to become public housing and making new landlords sign no-rent-hike agreements on many other tenements.
This backdrop is relevant to the Karstadt project because the borough worries it will spur further displacement. This is, after all, the same neighborhood where Google withdrew plans for a campus after a local backlash. In an area heavily marketed to international real-estate investors, any major plans are eyed with justified suspicion.
The Chipperfield-designed building might be spectacular, but since renovation costs would be high, the rents for the commercial units inside would be as well, fear borough leaders. Not only does that imply the development would be of limited use to lower-income locals, it also risks making the building a honeypot for businesses catering to wealthy incomers. This would perhaps give them more reason than before to move to the area, adding pressure to rents the borough is striving to keep under control. Add to that the added congestion caused by a retail cluster the size of which the area hasn’t seen for over 75 years, and some of the shine comes off it.
Given the project’s support from Berlin Mayor Michael Müller, and the developer’s promises to be flexible, the reconstruction may well see the light of day in some altered form. Turning down this level of investment might seem insane when viewed from the outside, but the borough may be right to block the plan now, if only to get something with more obvious social utility. Cities aren’t just backdrops for arresting architectural set pieces. They are living, breathing organisms whose balance needs to be maintained if residents’ needs are going to be met. For now, it’s understandable that the borough of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg doesn’t see this magnificent but potentially disbalancing development as the kind of oxygen its citizens need.
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