BERLIN — We're surrounded. We stand on an observation deck above the Potsdamer Platz, once among the liveliest intersections in Europe, then one of the deadliest, now a hard-hat zone. Builders' cranes rise on all sides, like skeletal dinosaurs. Dozens of pink and blue pipes suck ground water from the damp earth and snake through the area like extension cords of the gods.
Soon I will be wandering through top-flight museums, communing with artists in gritty studios and panting at the fresh produce in the KaDeWe department store. But first Kerstin Piontek, city guide and lifelong Berliner, has brought me here to the center of born-again Berlin, Europe's largest construction site, where the world's leading architects are at play.
Lured from Italy, England, the U.S. and beyond by historic opportunity and great piles of deutsche marks, they've conjured glass towers, zinc-skinned facades, acute angles, soaring domes, inverted cones, green walls and bright red boxes all over town. But most of the new buildings stand here, on territory that was an urban wasteland through four decades of Cold War. And next month, the nearby Reichstag building--recently outfitted by England's Sir Norman Foster with a 75-foot-high glass dome--regains its status as Germany's seat of government. In many ways the April re-inauguration will symbolically complete Berlin's rebirth as Germany's capital. (Berlin has been the nominal capital since 1990, but the Bundestag, or parliament, has met in Bonn until now.)
Even on a weekday morning in March, the Potsdamer Platz's temporary Infobox building--the first stop for anyone wondering about the emergent skyline--is crowded with visitors seeking updates. Piontek, my guide, turns from the skyline, casts a glance downward and adds this aside:
"We are now more or less on the former death strip."
The former death strip: That would be the no-man's land on the east side of the Berlin Wall, the barrier that separated the frontiers of capitalism and communism from 1961 until communist East Germany's 1989 collapse.
As an East Berliner formerly barred from entry into the west, Piontek remembers the death strip well. And she also knows what lies under that idle lot about 100
yards from here: the rubble of the bunker where, 12 years after taking control of Germany and steering it toward World War II and a Jewish genocide, Adolf Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945.
It's not only the future that surrounds us here, but more than a few 20th century ghosts. For nearly 30 years the leading tourist attraction was a wall erected by a totalitarian state, and now for the first time in most of a century, Berlin's boosters have a more or less conventional city to sell.
Still, wandering around Berlin in 1999 is like watching three, or maybe four, movies on the same screen. Every time you think you've picked out a recognizable figure in one corner of the frame, it's jostled by a startling and contradictory image. The one constant is a city being crafted anew.
I began my five-day visit exploring those new buildings at the Potsdamer Platz. Here, courtesy of Italian architect Renzo Piano, is a 20-screen cineplex, the largest casino in Germany, a Hyatt hotel and the bright, airy towers of a Daimler-Chrysler office. Built at a cost of about $2.5 billion, most of it opened in October, with neighboring precincts, underwritten by Sony and others, to follow in the next year.
I passed several hours marveling at all these shiny new buildings and their affluent details: the 120-shop Arkaden mall (urinals by fancy china-makers Villeroy & Boch, no less); the stark severity of the new Hyatt's lobby; the posters promising the June opening of Disney's "Hunchback of Notre Dame" in the development's new musical theater.
But then I moved to a few other corners of the new Berlin--reconfigured museums, the broad boulevards of Unter den Linden and Friedrichstrasse in the eastern part of the city. At souvenir stands, even after 10 years, purported bits of the Berlin Wall are still a prominent item citywide. Waiting for a sunny day that never came, I didn't get around to visiting the royal castles and parks at Potsdam, where Frederick II held court in the 18th century, and where Churchill, Truman and Stalin dickered over the spoils of WWII in 1945. So I stayed in the big city, commuting via Berlin's easy-to-use system of buses, surface trains and subways.
A visitor quickly realizes that the duplicated municipal efforts of the Cold War have given Berlin a remarkable set of cultural assets, beginning with three opera houses, two zoos and museums by the score, from conventional picture galleries to the free outdoor Topography of Terror exhibit, where visitors can walk the ruins of Gestapo Headquarters in the neighborhood known as Kreuzberg 61.
One of my happiest afternoons in the city was spent admiring the staggering collection of 13th to 18th century European paintings at the Gemaldegalerie, in the Kulturforum near Potsdamer Platz.