In the Heart of a Wounded City

For decades, there has been disagreement about new plans for the historic center of Berlin. Traditionalists meet modernists, town planners meet politicians, architects meet historians. A construction project with plenty of potential for conflict. With the residential and office building on Schinkelplatz, architect Volker Staab has managed to combine past and present.

It’s early in the morning. Project Manager Dominik Weigel emerges from the site office with two red hard hats. “You’ll have to put this on,” he said. Scaffolding still surrounds the shell, but work is already complete on the façade, and the huge windows have been installed. We climb the stairs.

Once we arrive at the top floor, we can see the Berlin Cathedral and the Alte Nationalgalerie. Work is also going on at the huge Stadtschloss building site opposite, where the Humboldt Forum is set to be housed from 2019. It becomes very clear: this is not just any old building site. It is in the historical centre of the capital.

This location touches a nerve. The Berlin Senate’s Construction Director, Regula Lüscher is well aware of this. “This area is a place of self-affirmation for Germany. Compared to Switzerland, where there was very little destruction, Berlin is a wounded city. Even in people’s collected consciousness,” said the trained architect, originally from Switzerland. The Stadtschloss castle and the Karl Friedrich Schinkel Construction Academy were heavily damaged during the Second World War. The castle was demolished by the GDR government in 1950, while the planned reconstruction of the construction academy was finally shelved in 1956.


Based on historical layouts

The debate about new planning began shortly after reunification. The discussion centers around one question: how much modernity vs. how much tradition? This, and the nature of construction on Schinkelpatz today, is determined not only by the development plans but also the inner city plans, a masterplan for developing the areas within the S-Bahn ring. It was approved by the Berlin Senate in 1999 and is constantly being adjusted.

Regula Lüscher’s predecessor, former Senate Construction Director Hans Stimmann, contributed to these plans. He was vehemently in favor of the re-urbanization of the city center. Stimmann had a clear vision of how the center should look: development and construction should adhere closely to the historical urban layout, and traditional heights should be kept – 22 meters from the ground to the visible edge. Simply put: no experiments. Stimmann was a polarizing figure. Architects such as Josef Karl Kleihues, Hans Kollhoff and Franco Stella were some of his supporters. However, he also had plenty of critics, such as Günter Behnisch, Daniel Libeskind and Michael Wilford.

Stimmann’s heritage still affects architects today, as requirements make for limited space for creativity in design. Volker Staab can confirm this. His firm’s design was one of the winners. “The competition was based on strict requirements due to the construction plan. For example, the building had to have a plaster façade. Even the cubature and color spectrum were prescribed in advance. Initially, we thought that it was too regimented for us, but then we came up with a theme”, said Staab.

Showers of praise and criticism

Staab has proven his understanding for urban areas and conscientious development many times. The LWL Museum for Art and Culture in Munster and the extension on the Maximilianeum in Munich are good examples of this. At first glance, his buildings don’t necessary share the same style. But when you look closer, you see similarities: “Often, it’s a case of challenging the familiar: you work with a recognizable image and translate it into something new,” explained Staab.

For the Schinkelplatz competition, Staab and his team initially started working with historical façades – then they had an idea. “These buildings often rely on a certain plasticity in the façade, from the foundations up to the eaves. We transformed this idea into an abstract relief,” explained Staab.

But when the first draft was presented to the public a few years ago, the praise was accompanied by criticism. Gerhard Hoya, spokesperson for the Society of Historical Berlin called it “intellectual insolence”. Staab and developer Xaver Moll made changes. It was a delicate process, remembers Regula Lüscher: “The construction project was a process of negotiations between many different partners, givers and takers.” Then construction finally began. But the site is as complicated as its history, nothing has changed there. Even when the foundation stone was laid, Lüscher stated; “We cannot afford any mistakes in such a central location.” She is happy with the execution. “It was important to us that value was added to this site. The developers have managed to achieve that.”

Tenancy and sales have already begun

The complex concrete façade is the jewel in the building’s crown without dwarfing its frame. Project Manager Weigel knows just how much work went into it. The plaster image was first magnified tenfold, then translated into a 3D relief by computer before being transferred to a mould. Both planning and implementation had to be incredibly precise. “It only worked because we all worked hand in hand. The production steps were developed even during the construction process – quality was ensured by exact operating instructions and checklists,” he remembers.

Inside the construction office, the plans are still on the wall: the façade was split up into individual sections, concreting sections. Each section corresponded exactly with the contents of one concrete mixer. The formliner was attached to a carry plate and screwed into the casing at the back. The formliners had a standard width of 2.75 meters and varied depending on the height of the story. “These large, heavy casings were moved by crane and had to be adjusted down to the millimeter. The requirements were really extreme. You couldn’t just cut away a formliner, otherwise the pattern wouldn’t fit,” explained Weigel.

Construction at Schinkelplatz should be finished by the end of the year. In the meantime, the criticism has almost entirely stopped. The developers, the Moll Group and Frankonia Bau, have already begun renting and selling the building. The purchase price is still being speculated upon, but there has been talk of prices above 20,000 euros per square meter. The most expensive address in the city is taking shape in Berlin’s historical center.


Photo: © J. Konrad Schmidt