x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Berlin deconstructed

A walking tour of the German capital's architecture leaves Caroline Eden with a better understanding of the city's past and present.

The east facade of the neoclassical Neues Museum on Museum Island, Berlin. Built in the mid-19th century and restored after seven decades, the museum is now a must-visit attraction.
The east facade of the neoclassical Neues Museum on Museum Island, Berlin. Built in the mid-19th century and restored after seven decades, the museum is now a must-visit attraction.

The floor-to-ceiling windows of the hip Amano Hotel in Berlin allow guests a perfect wide-angle view of the city's historic core. Gazing through the glass early one morning, I can see the old Jewish quarter of Berlin slowly coming alive, like a Polaroid developing. Morning sunlight catches the tops of buildings, custard-coloured taxis cruise along and elegant locals swoosh by straight-backed on their bicycles. I'm in the lobby, waiting eagerly to meet Peter Grosch, a long-time Berlin resident and an architect with 20 years' practice, who is to take me on a walking tour through Berlin's new architecture.

Peter and I set off along the understated but unshakeably fashionable Augustrasse. Boasting up to 100 independent galleries and many eateries, this street could keep a tourist entertained for a morning at least. Art students and media types flock to Do You Read Me?, a shop that sells hundreds of small press magazines, while shows at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art draw in art lovers. In this bona fide local community there are no high-street chains; instead, independent shops and cafes rule supreme. Little by little, I start to take in the combinations of teetering old buildings leaning up against the newly constructed.

"Eighty per cent of Berlin's architecture was destroyed during the war, but many of the old buildings can be found around here where you can see GDR [German Democratic Republic] styles mixed with the new," Peter tells me. He points out Plattenbauten (prefabs) as well as renovated 18th- and 19th-century apartments. Berlin is widely considered to have more innovative buildings designed by eminent architects than any other European city. This is partly, of course, a result of its unique opportunity at the turn of the last century to reconstruct a contemporary international capital more or less from the ground up.

We continue walking with the beautiful Neue Synagogue continually in our sight, its dome and towers golden in the sun. The synagogue was built in 1859 and survived Kristallnacht (an anti-Jewish pogrom in Nazi Germany), and was carefully rebuilt after the Second World War. As we approach this holy landmark, a low thumping bass flows out onto the street from the unmarked door of an indistinguishable building. An art installation, I wonder? A fashion shoot? A squat, even? As I pass the door with ever increasing fantasies, I notice that Peter seems oblivious.

"I want to show you something in here, upstairs," he says and leads the way up a footpath to a giant tumbledown building, set back from the road, resplendent in all its peeling paint and exposed brickwork glory. We walk up some creaky steps, dust speckling in the dim light, and are met with a large, exquisitely romantic ballroom. The room has been left exactly as it was before the Second World War - old velvet-upholstered chairs and gilded Baroque-style stucco evoke old-time dances and gatherings.

"This used to be a place people danced before the war. It's not changed much, and now people come here to dance again - young, old, everyone. Now around here it's mainly designer bars for the new rich, but this is worth a visit," Peter says nostalgically. The Clärchens Ballhaus (www.ballhaus.de) is indeed a sight to behold - a bit bizarre, but a nice stop on the tour and one I would never have found myself.

Creeping out again, I ask Peter how he feels about the swift gentrification of Berlin. "Some things I don't like, but the thing about Berlin is that here you can really live however you like. It's still a city that is proud of its rough edges." We walk on towards the more touristy area close to Museum Island to visit the new Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm Library, much lauded as a architectural masterpiece.

The library, with its Rationalist style and Jura-marble facade, stands cold and proud - like a monumental temple - with its back to the graffiti-covered factories behind. Built at a cost of ?75.5 million (Dh362m), it opened in October 2009 - in celebration of Humboldt University's 200th birthday. Since then, the building has drawn international praise for its ingenious design. We notice that the long, thin vertical windows, dull from the outside, are aligned perfectly with the bookshelves inside, creating eye-boggling long, thin columns through the building's interior. Hundreds of hushed readers sit hunched over books, their "communication cubes" also in line with the windows and shelves. All in all the effect is dazzling - sombre yet active, quiet yet energetic - the building a homage to books, learning and the 29 Nobel Prize winners that the university had produced.

"It's an Orwellian building, you know, open with everyone watching each other, which still manages to deliver perfect flow - like an architectural machine, built for its purpose," Peter says. Clearly impressed, and with a flick of his hand for emphasis, he continues: "No ornamental waste, this is what happens when form really follows function. It is also only possible now in the new Berlin; there was no money for it before."

I feel that I understand the building through Peter's dialogue, why it has been built and why it is important to Berlin. We learn that there will soon be tours to the library so that visitors with an interest in books and architecture can experience this example of modern urban German architecture. It is definitely worth a visit. Just as I am beginning to mentally absorb the library, we start moving on to our next site, Museum Island. With its ensemble of different neoclassical museums, it is home to most of the country's cultural bounty. Many of the buildings, predominately built in the 1830s, sit like giant blackened grand dames, unscrubbed and, until recently, unloved. Now, major refurbishment is under way to spruce them up and to preserve their exteriors before they succumb further to the elements.

The Neues Museum (www.neues-museum.de), home to the Egyptian Museum, Papyrus Collection and the Museum of Prehistory and Early History, sat derelict for seven decades until the leading light of British architecture, David Chipperfield, elaborately restored its status from bomb-scarred shell to the "must see" sight in Berlin. It boasts hundreds of artefacts - including the 3,400-year-old bust of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti - and people have flocked through its doors since it re-opened in October 2009.

As we walk through the museum, Peter discusses the link between "craftsmanship and decay" and tells me how the original architect Friedrich Stüler's interiors were "highly decorative and varied, tailored to the artefacts they housed". In the Grecian, Egyptian and Pompeian rooms, it is easy to see this - the refurbishment and the original design are absolutely engaged with the contents of the rooms. "It's quite something, the way that the rooms are so varied and how the original traces are all there," I remark.

"Yes, and it's given us Berliners really something to be proud of," Peter replies. I have to agree: any city would be proud of this museum. The mix of old and new architectural design is, again, prevalent in this masterpiece. I can see a pattern emerging - Berlin has a wonderful tradition of preserving its past, yet integrating new design too. Our last stop on the tour is the SOLON headquarters (www.solon.com) in Aldershof, which opened just under a year ago. Peter is going to end our tour with an insight into cutting-edge German architecture - no traces of history or the past, just fresh design. As one of the largest manufacturers of solar panels, the company's motto, somewhat amusingly, is "Don't leave the planet to the stupid". I am keen to see how they are backing this up.

To get there we travel through the city's outlying neighbourhoods, all changing fast, like water over rocks. The old flophouses, squats and derelict buildings are deserted - something Peter laments. "I used to come to this part of East Berlin and it was radical and a bit scary, not very welcoming, but exciting too." In the amber light of afternoon, and with its refined shell structures, solar panelling and extensive use of glass, the SOLON building stands out in an otherwise uninteresting business park. Inside, we are given a quick tour and experience a rare paternoster lift (a step-on, step-off lift that continually moves, with an open carriage), moveable work stations and a completely walkable rooftop. I conclude quickly that this stop is probably best suited to real architecture aficionados - it is an impressive addition to Berlin's portfolio of new buildings but is a little disappointing compared to the other sights we've seen.

After parting with Peter on the U-Bahn train, I reflect on our breezy canter through Berlin's urban planning. We covered a lot of territory in our few hours together, and I feel like I have a much better grasp of Berlin past and present as a result. As Ernest Dimnet, the French writer and early proponent of the self-help genre, stated: "Architecture, of all the arts, is the one which acts the most slowly, but the most surely, on the soul." If this is true, then surely Berlin, with its jumble of architectural styles and careful restoration projects, is chicken soup.