Diary of an Expat, Part 76
Architectural disasters
When last we saw our hero, they were prattling on about Berliners being serious, protesting, etcetera. I mentioned that the practice of razing historical sites to build condominiums was a bad example, and then I sort of hinted that I'd return to it.

Here's me returning: it's a bad example because one of the things that Berliners are quite serious about is terrible architecture, and when you're serious about making your city look terrible you will be all over that. Mind you, when I say "Berliners" I mostly mean the government, because average Berliners are too busy being priced out of their apartments to monitor such developments in urban planning and land use.

It's probably not terribly surprising that Berlin lacks much architectural history, since large parts of it were blown up during World War II, and what remained was schizophrenically constructed by diametric forces during the Cold War. Afterwards, however, things haven't gotten any better.

I've mentioned in the past that Berlin has an awkward relationship with its history — demolishing the original buildings at Checkpoint Charlie and then reconstructing the outpost as a tourist attraction, for example. But they also have an awkward, and somewhat unproductive, relationship with urban planning.

Berlin is a very livable city, in general. It's clean, public services are good, mass transit is cheap and efficient, everything is walkable, bikes are everywhere and crime is low. But this seems to have happened largely by accident. Now, the city is growing, and it seems uncertain how to proceed. It has ordered an airport, and then placed it inconveniently far away — having gotten rid of the far more convenient Tempelhof, and set its sights on Tegel next.

It has a pressing need for housing — real estate prices in Berlin are climbing precipitously — but can only respond by offering an open season to whatever developer is willing to pay the highest price. This has, unsurprisingly, resulted mostly in a slew of uninspired and overpriced condominiums slouching wherever there is free space.

This is what gives us the garish obscenity that is the O2 World, a theatre designed for Berlin to import the most insipid that popular culture has to offer. It is also what gives us the... well, whatever Potsdamer Platz is, or is supposed to be. A few architectural oddities desperately shout that Berlin desires to be contemporary. Then, irrespective of their merits, they are smothered with a pillow by the desire of others in the city to reconstruct the 19th century. Or the 1920s. Or the 1950s. Or...

A lingering consequence of this is that Berlin architecture has no personality and no sense of coherence, anywhere. The best that can be said is that Karl-Marx-Allee demonstrates some consistency in its vague recollection of Stalinism. At least, as Walter might say, it's an architectural ethos.

I would ordinarily try for some sage bit of TV-show-ending wisdom here, like: "I can't decide whether this lack of direction is emblematic of Berlin or not. It seems the kind of thing we'd do, trying our hand at urban design and then doing whatever the hell we want in the quiet little corners between parks."

But, no, it's actually just bullshit. Stupid, stupid bullshit. It's bullshit because it's driven from the top down. Berlin has a head of urban design, but his legacy has been laissez-faire total disregard of anything but the wealthy. And since there is no populism, there is no voice save for whoever's cutting the checks to buy up the government land and the old spaces. And no check to prevent things from being lost.

A majority of Berliners wanted to save Tempelhof, the old airport, but because of low turnout that majority still wasn't enough. Now, polls suggest that 70% of Berliners want to keep Tegel open. In Tempelhof's case, the government had declared that they would ignore the results of the referendum anyway. Now, I'm not sure. This seems like a good first time for Berliners to assert themselves.

But it will be a fight. The government, in what I would describe as corruption, presently seems to be in the pockets of the developers. Multiple leaked studies have suggested that Berlin-Brandenburg Airport will not offer sufficient capacity for Berlin. The state disagrees. And this is emblematic of an ongoing problem in the way that Berlin is managed.

So it's not all roses. This being my city, I feel both some irritation and some responsibility. There's a petition circulating now; with 20,000 signatures the government has to respond. If they deny it, it only takes another 170,000. And 70% is a large margin...

But we'll see, I guess.
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