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National Agenda : Blueprint for Berlin : As it prepares to transfer its seat of government, Germany takes the first steps in redesigning the capital.

March 09, 1993|TYLER MARSHALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BERLIN — In the mid-1700s, Frederick the Great dreamed of turning the provincial backwater of Berlin into a city more suitable for the capital of the new, powerful Prussia he ruled.

While he managed some change, his vision of building a cultural jewel--a latter-day Athens of the north--eventually faded, and he retreated to nearby Potsdam and his grand estate, Sans Souci.

The idea of transforming Berlin, however, lived on.

Indeed, no European capital was subjected to such a series of sweeping, grandiose--not to mention zany--plans for renewal as was Berlin.

The imperial Hohenzollerns, the Nazis and the Communists all tried to remake the city into a living statement of their grand ideal.

Now it's democracy's turn.

Although it will be at least another five years before the bulk of the 30,000 federal bureaucrats eventually decamp from the secure, sheltered confines of Bonn and move here, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl has said he plans to carry out some duties in Berlin next year.

Meanwhile, work on the city's latest remake is already well under way.

Last month, leading federal and local officials selected a detailed plan drawn up by local architect Axel Schultes that will put the heart of central Europe's biggest government on a grassy area along the Spree River northwest of the city's main landmark, the Brandenburg Gate.

Here will rise a new chancellery, a new upper house of Parliament and several buildings for supporting administrative staff.

Nearby, the old Reichstag is expected to undergo a major face lift in preparation of its new role as the home of the federal republic's lower house of Parliament. At least 10 other ministries will move into new or remodeled buildings, most within a mile of the new complex.

Cost estimates for the move gyrate wildly between $8 billion and $45 billion, depending on what is counted and who is doing the counting. Prestigious private projects--such as the revival of Potsdamer Platz, the city's pre-World War II hub that languished for most of the Cold War as derelict land--will add several billion more dollars and help make Berlin the Continent's biggest single construction site over much of the next decade.

And that's not counting what more would come in the way of new sports facilities if the city wins its bid to stage the Olympic Games in the year 2000.

This Friday and Saturday, parliamentary leaders and architects will engage in a two-day colloquium in the Reichstag to debate the present design.

Many argue that spending so much is nothing short of madness at a time when money is short and the needs elsewhere grow steadily more acute--especially when the government is perfectly comfortable in Bonn.

But costs form only part of the controversy that swirls around Berlin, a city that for many Germans stands for all that the new Germany hopes to avoid.

For them, Berlin remains a city that is sinister and dangerous--the spawning ground of Prussian militarism and the Holocaust, an unruly, arrogant, irreverent metropolis whose turmoil helped kill Germany's first republic and could well threaten the present one.

The spectacle of Germany's most respected statesman, President Richard von Weizsaecker, being pelted with fruit and eggs as he tried to address a large rally in Berlin last November was merely one more bit of proof for those who hold this view. The city's supporters argue otherwise.

To understand the problems brought by unification and a Europe divided into rich and poor, an all-German government must be in Berlin, they say. They add that, like it or not, Berlin was and is the capital of a united Germany. They say that Germans, especially those in government, must face their country's history, not run from it.

Besides, Berlin has a creative energy, a concentration of the arts and a diversity of opinion impossible to find anywhere else in Germany. Indeed, in many ways, it is the very antithesis of the content, quiet, orderly nation that post-World War II Germany has become.

It is a melting pot in a country conspicuous for its strong provincial roots. It is a powerful centripetal force in a state that takes pride in its federated nature. It exudes a restlessness in a nation where so many revere the status quo.

"The history of this city has been one of change--struggle, power politics, evolution and revolution," summed up Hans-Werner Kock, one of the city's best-known media personalities. "I haven't a rich enough imagination to think what will happen when this army of blue-suited, uninspiring bureaucrats arrives. We've got a great cardiac clinic here, but no one can transplant Bonn's heart into Berlin."

Much as New Yorkers or Parisians, Berliners consider themselves a breed apart, and other Germans tend to agree.

These differences were only accentuated by the city's divided post-World War II existence in which easterners lived under the nose of a Soviet Communist dictatorship and westerners were left stranded on a surreal, free-market island 200 miles behind the Iron Curtain.

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