Founded in the early 13th century, Berlin had its first period of architectural excellence under the rule of the Hohenzollern, a noble family from whose ranks came the Prussian (and later, German) monarchs, from Frederick the Great to Wilhelm II. Five hundred years of Hohenzollern rule gave the city a rich architectural legacy, from the Brandenburg Gate to the royal palace to the monumental Reichstag building.

After World War I, and the end of the monarchy, modernist ideas took root in Berlin. The "Golden '20s" though fraught with political instability, were also a time of artistic liberation and creative experiment. Great figures of modernism, among them the Bauhaus architects Ludwig Gropius, worked in Berlin at this time. Their work influenced the city's architecture, especially its public housing, well into the 1970s.

Though there were numerous plans to re-design Berlin, only one was actually put into practice. When Adolf Hitler became chancellor in 1933, he intended to rebuild the city after the Roman model, with wider boulevards and bigger buildings. He commissioned Albert Speer to tear down the old structures and rebuild the capital. Speer's demolition crews began work but were shortly interrupted by World War II. In the 18 months of Allied bombing raids, tens of thousands of buildings were reduced to rubble. When the war was over, it was obvious that reconstruction would take decades. Ironically, many buildings that survived the war did not survive the peace.

Several badly damaged structures -- the royal palace, centuries-old cathedrals -- were razed in the 1950s and '60s to make way for government buildings, parking lots and just empty spaces. Since then, preservation has been a fervently debated issue in Berlin. After the war, with many buildings built or used by the Nazis still standing, city leaders experiencing the German dilemma of Vergangenheitsbewaltigung (coping with the past) faced a hard decision: Should they tear them down (and thus, in the view of some critics, erase all visible reminders of the Reich) or save them (turning the city into a kind of museum, as others claimed)? Half a century later, the fall of the GDR presented the same problem.

East Berlin was filled with communist monuments, among them an enormous Lenin statue, Soviet soldier memorials and a monument to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Many Germans felt that demolishing such remnants would complete the 1989 revolution; others saw demolition as a deplorable act of denial. The outcome saw a few monuments removed (including the Lenin statue), but with flagging interest and more pressing problems, many debated structures were left standing.


Source: The Wall Street Journal Book Shelf April 28, 1997 pg. A17