These sad encounters happen all the time in Berlin: first-time visitors make the mistake of booking their hotel at what appeared on the map like downtown. Culture buffs drawn to the city by films, books, art and music – one of the world’s greatest orchestras, some of the world’s best techno clubs – expect some kind of volcano, only to find themselves in an extinct crater.
Why does the centre of Berlin look like an abandoned shopping mall on the edge of Omaha? Empty pavements, vacant stores, unoccupied office buildings: high-end blight. Why is Potsdamer Platz so bleak, so ugly, so dead? How did Friedrichstraße, Berlin’s most fabled thoroughfare, become so lifeless?
The historic centre of Berlin was in East Berlin. It was walled off – quite literally – from the ambitions of Western investors, contractors and real-estate developers for decades. When the Wall came down in 1989, the two acres became a site of frenzy. Nowhere was this more palpable than on Friedrichstraße. The street was already legendary long before its glamourous rival Kurfürstendamm was anything more than a riding trail through the swamps far outside the city. The Elector of Brandenburg, Friedrich III, named the street after himself to celebrate becoming the King of Prussia in 1701. Over the course of the next three centuries, Friedrichstraße became home to Berlin’s haute bourgeoisie, as well as craftsmen and workers from Berlin’s budding entertainment industry.
One hundred years ago, passers-by jostled together along the whole 3.3 km length of Friedrichstraße. The street ran through Berlin’s newspaper district, the business district, the banking district, the night-life district with restaurants, theatres and cabarets, and, finally, at the northern end of the street, the red-light district. Even someone as professionally jaded as the critic Siegfried Kracauer delighted in the ‘glitter and excitement’ along the narrow piece of land that must have seemed, to a train driver looking down from the railway bridge, ‘like the world’s axis’.
Shortly after writing this, Kracauer, a Marxist Jew, had to flee Berlin for his life. Twelve years later, the Nazis were defeated. Most of Berlin-Mitte lay in ruins. For the next half-century, Friedrichstraße was cut in two by the checkpoints between the Soviet and the American sectors. It became a border crossing for foreigners, a mainstay in spy thrillers and in the real spy business too. The Americans called it Checkpoint Charlie. The rest of the world would learn this nickname when American and Soviet tanks rolled up on both sides for a sixteen-hour staring competition in October 1961 in what appeared to be the beginning of World War III.
During the Cold War, life went on in Berlin – but elsewhere, not in the old centre. Even after the Wall was brought down in 1989, an astonishing number of Berliners, especially in the west part, wanted little to do with a city centre that was not the centre of their city any more. On the brink of the country’s unification, West Berlin’s then Green Party environmental minister wanted to create a park on the grounds of Potsdamer Platz, which had once been Europe’s busiest traffic joint. The minister proposed that with this new park – right next to the already existing Tiergarten – Berlin should host the Federal Garden Exhibition in 1995.
Hanno Klein was not prepared to tolerate such naiveté. As Berlin’s chief bureaucrat responsible for channelling foreign investment into the infrastructure of the soon-to-be capital, he had grand plans to Manhattanise Berlin. Klein was a Social Democrat who, like many Social Democrats, was reputed to be dialectically inclined towards the upper-middle class. In 1990, he coordinated a competition for a dense cluster of new high-rise buildings by world-famous designers for Berlin’s new downtown. He was dealing with designs from celebrated international architects such as Renzo Piano and Helmut Jahn. A gardening zone was out of the question. As he made painfully clear to journalists, Klein couldn’t believe how Berliners were simply unable to grasp the potential of their city. Foreign capital, in all its abundance, was ready to be sown in Berlin-Mitte. It wanted to grow and, of course, become more money. The sheer numbers were evidence enough. East Berlin and West Berlin put together had around 3.5 million inhabitants, and their count was expected to rise fast. Soon it could be 5, 7, 11 million. Berlin lay halfway between London and Moscow, a natural hub between the West and the East. Phenomenal growth seemed inevitable. And if some Berliners didn’t like it, it didn’t matter. Investors were coming in from America, from France, from Scandinavia – from everywhere – and they didn’t care. In a feature film made by local TV station Sender Freies Berlin (SFB) in the spring of 1991, Klein sits in his office, conveying the enormousness of this change, seemingly incredulous himself, but careful to convey that he is only the messenger, that he did not call for all these investments: his job is merely to funnel them. But in spite of this, Klein became a symbol of the new hot-money Berlin – an association that may have cost him his life.
At around 10 p.m. on 12 June 1991, Klein opened the explosive package that had been propped against the door of his apartment in the genteel neighborhood of Wilmersdorf. The apartment was so spacious that his partner didn’t hear the detonation in his study from her bedroom. She didn’t find the body until the next morning.
The police first suspected this partner, and then the wife whom Klein had in the meantime abandoned with four children, the last of whom was the offspring of a third woman who had briefly joined their ménage. Most murders, statistically speaking, take place in the private sphere. But sending letter-bombs is generally considered unusual in family conflicts. For the police – who have never solved the crime, which remains one of the great unsolved murders in Berlin – the clues seemed to lead toward Klein’s professional world, towards the district that bears the official name ‘Mitte’, middle.
‘You will only be able to solve the puzzle if you look into the investment structure of open-end and closed-end property funds, as well as the share of Russian investments in these funds,’ a former member of Berlin’s financial administration told me recently over the phone.
The former Berlin official, who wanted to remain anonymous, suggested money-laundering investors from the Soviet Union could have been behind Klein’s death. He spoke vividly about the men who used to get off the night train from Moscow with very young girlfriends at Berlin’s Lichtenberg station in the early 1990s. They were given suitcases full of cash by local lackeys and were then driven to Friedrichstraße. In the former ‘House of Soviet Culture’, the Berlin office of Mercedes-Benz had quickly set up a branch where luxury limousines were available for cash customers, complete with registration and screwed-on license plates, ready to be driven off the lot.
Now, more than thirty years after Hanno Klein’s murder, the official doesn’t have any particularly nice words for the deceased, whom he thinks was a bit too smitten with the sudden influx of capital into the part of the city that had just stopped being under Communist rule, while evincing a rather socialist nonchalance towards the original owners of the plots.
This official, who himself was from a modest West Berlin background, resented the mixture of Klein’s bourgeois tastes with an absolutist will for influence. The picture he drew of Klein resembled an early-career Robert Moses, the mighty planning administrator who shaped New York City like no one else in the twentieth century. It is not clear, however, whether Klein knew of Moses or saw himself growing into a Berlin version of the ‘power broker’. What is clear is that Klein believed that Berlin’s city centre could be the next Manhattan.
Hanno Klein was born during the Second World War in the small Hanseatic city of Stade. From an early age, he wanted to be an architect. After starting a family and completing his training in Karlsruhe, he moved in 1972 to West Berlin, where he worked as an assistant at several architecture firms and eventually got a job as a clerk in West Berlin’s building authority in the mid-1970s. He worked his way up from the district office in northern Berlin-Reinickendorf to the actual building administration of West Berlin. By the 1980s he was coordinating architecture competitions for public buildings before he became the person in charge of dealing with investors who wanted to build in the historic centre of an only-just unified Berlin. Shortly after the fall of the Wall but before the reunification of the state, Klein, still a clerk, had been dispatched to East Berlin by West Berlin’s building minister to help the Eastern authorities with plans for marketing and building in the central districts of the city. Such people were known as Leihbeamte (advisors on loan). East Germans griped about the increased pay – known as ‘jungle money’– that they received for going to the East. These advisors earned the reputation of fashioning themselves as modern colonial lords. The term Besserwessi crept into the discourse, a portmanteau of Besserwisser (know-it-all) and Wessi – all the more barbed for West Berliners since Wessi was originally a derogatory term they applied to everyone living over in West Germany, far from their island within the East.
Both meanings of Wessi applied to Hanno Klein. He was from northwest Germany, and spoke the ‘pure’ German of the region. As a result, he not only stood out like a sore thumb in East Berlin, where dialects abounded (working-class Berlin dialect among the locals, intellectuals included, and the Saxon dialect among the political elite), but also in West Berlin, where a residual grouchy tone typical of the officers’ mess of the Prussian Army still lingers on today (and which many of the squatters in Kreuzberg cannily adopted to conceal their origins in bourgeois Baden-Württemberg). Since the fall of the Wall, Berlin has resembled one of those vertiginous M.C. Escher drawings with steps that ceaselessly rise in a circle: everybody looks down with utter contempt on everybody else, all at once – West Berliners on East Berliners, East Berliners on West Berliners, West Germans on West Berliners and vice versa, East Berliners on the rest of East Germany, the rest of East Germany on East Berlin, and everybody, all together, on the clueless tourists on Friedrichstraße.
Many people considered Hanno Klein arrogant because he didn’t say hello to them. But his former press spokesperson, Petra Nelken, a woman from East Berlin, told me she didn’t agree. She knew that Klein was simply very short-sighted – and too vain to wear glasses. When someone proactively called out ‘Have a very good morning, Herr Klein’, he was visibly grateful for this acoustic information, and would be receptive and even charming.
Klein’s poor eyesight supports the thesis that he died because he must have held the letter-bomb up close to his face, just like everything else that he couldn’t otherwise decipher. The not especially large explosive charge sent splinters straight into his brain. Perhaps the detonation wasn’t supposed to kill him but only give him a scare, or a warning. It could mean that he was only meant to be pushed into a particular course of action, or inaction, in the reorganisation and redesign of the centre of Berlin. And Klein would have needed to be violently pushed because he wasn’t viewed as corruptible.
Dorothee Dubrau, the then councillor for building in Berlin-Mitte – herself another East Berliner, who took up office after the fall of the Wall, after having been involved in local citizens’ action groups – described Klein to me as upright and charming. But she did often feel dismissed by him as a ‘naive little Easterner’ at crucial committee meetings, when in actual fact she was making much more important decisions than he was. Klein only prepared the decisions. But that was precisely the source of his power: everything went through him. He decided which building projects by which investors and with which architects ended up on the decision-makers’ table. It was a position in which a lot of people wanted something from you.
Klein drove a pre-owned red Porsche 924. The 924 was not considered to be a ‘real Porsche’ by certain aficionados because it consisted mainly of parts from Audi and Volkswagen. The engine wasn’t even in the back but in the front to make room for a spacious trunk, almost like in a family car. To make matters worse, it came at a relatively affordable price. The model was known derisively as an ‘Aldi-Porsche’. Klein’s opponents at West Berlin’s biggest contractor, Klingbeil, were meanwhile collecting Ferraris and turning up in Rolls-Royces for meetings. Yet these men were duly informed by Klein that they were ‘too small’ to be allowed a share of Friedrichstraße. This was perhaps Klein’s way of broadcasting that he could do without the corruption and vulgarity of the self-complacent sharks in the pond of old West Berlin.
When I spoke to people from East Berlin who remembered the Hanno Klein case, they were generally inclined towards the view that the letter-bomb must have been sent by men involved with West Berlin’s construction companies: businessmen who were keen to be seen as dominant figures and now found themselves dismissed by Klein. People who would have liked a piece of the action but kept finding Klein standing in their way. People driven by greed for profits and fear of losses.
Roland Ernst, a leading construction magnate from Heidelberg, said at the time that the bomb must have come from his own area of business. Ernst himself was one of the contenders very keen to build on Friedrichstraße. But Klein blocked him (probably for being too small). Ernst fought back – but only after Klein had been killed – by locating the precise point at which Klein’s big plan was most vulnerable: the heirs to the old owners of the many different pre-war plots, which either the Nazis or the GDR administration had long ago expropriated. In the centre of Berlin many of these plots had been Jewish-owned. The Claims Conference, the body that pressed for compensation and restitution to the descendants of the previous owners, was arguing for their return. The days of lump-sum compensation, common in the West immediately after the war, were long gone, and now the principle ‘restitution before compensation’ applied. No one would have expected the former owners or their heirs to rebuild their bombed pre-war houses on their jigsaw-piece parcels of land on Friedrichstraße. But as long as they could still lay claim to them, they threatened to block any large-scale projects. Roland Ernst would be one of the first to buy up these claims en masse: it was a win-win for buyer and seller. That was how Ernst acquired his block on Friedrichstraße. (It happened to be the one that under Klein had been allocated to French department store company Galeries Lafayette – which had already swept away one of the last signature projects of the late German Democratic Republic.)
If Klein was a resentment magnet for West Berlin construction men, he faced as much opposition from old East Berlin bureaucrats. Back in the 1980s, the East Berlin building authority had made big plans for Friedrichstraße. The Communist government wanted to make it into an entertainment and shopping district, complete with covered passages to be christened the Friedrichstadt-Passage. At some point in the 1980s, politicians and city planners in the GDR had rediscovered the myth of 1920s Friedrichstraße and wanted to relive it. East Germany’s leader Erich Honecker wanted Friedrichstraße to become the ‘most attractive shopping street in the capital’, not least as a way of enticing flâneurs with hard Western cash across the border in pursuit of amusement. The urban phenomenon of the ‘passage’ was also designed with the flâneur in mind; that was one of the great subjects of the Marxist prophet Walter Benjamin, who had recently come back into fashion.
The GDR’s biggest state construction company – Baudirektion der DDR – had historically understood the land it was building on as its own property. Under the prevailing logic of state socialism that question was irrelevant. But as the process of re-privatisation got under way after the fall of the Wall, the question of who actually owned the land became more than interesting. Land prices in Berlin-Mitte, after all, had sky-rocketed.
But in 1990, East Berlin’s half-finished project for Friedrichstadt-Passage was halted under Klein’s aegis. His department filed an application for demolition, officially because there was no underground car park. In fact, Klein wanted everything reorganised, replanned and rebuilt, but according to Western guidelines. Western Germans ridiculed the whimsical art nouveau ornaments that GDR planners had wanted to use to spruce up their prefabricated building facades. The shell of the Friedrichstadt-Passage was mocked as an ‘Uzbek railway station’. Naturally, this generated bitterness among the Easterners from the GDR’s former building authority who had worked for years on the mammoth project.
Today if you talk to West Germans who remember Hanno Klein, many are convinced that former agents of the GDR’s Ministry of State Security – the Stasi – were behind the assassination. The Stasi certainly knew how to carry out such an operation. Just a few days after the attack, an anonymous caller from Klein’s office alleged to the police that two of his closest colleagues, both of them East Berliners, had previously been with the Stasi. Did Klein somehow threaten the Stasi’s post-Wall retirement plan of enriching its former agents through real estate? Nothing was ever proved. Nevertheless, West Germans still like to point to manipulated entries in the Berlin land register which date back to the early days of reunification.
In the documentary that Berlin public television broadcast a few weeks before Klein’s death in 1991, the old land registers of Berlin-Mitte are piled up in the basement of a court building like the lignite briquettes with which most of the houses in East Berlin were still heated in those days. Anyone who wanted to make something disappear, or wanted to add something, would have had quite an easy job. ‘The office was previously engaged in dispossession,’ the sonorous voice-over in the documentary intones. ‘Private property was transferred to public property. Now it’s the other way round, and sometimes done by the same people.’
Hanno Klein makes a striking appearance in the documentary. In an elegant Italian double-breasted suit, he leans over a map of the city and counts off the pending investments with his index finger. For Friedrichstraße alone he lists figures of between 8 and 9 billion Marks. Smiling, he leans back into his chair, and his whole comportment seems to ask: do all those little naysayers who accuse me of megalomania have any idea what is actually happening here? How much pressure from foreign money is involved? ‘At the bottom end you’ve got small investors, starting with 50 to 100 million,’ he explains to the camera. ‘But I’d also say that the investor who wants to make a billion relatively quickly in Berlin isn’t that much of a rarity. Berlin is seen globally as the most fascinating city in this respect. I don’t know. Perhaps because we’re all caught up in it, suffering from tunnel vision – as Berliners.’
Klein had no compunction about telling Berliners that he thought they were hopelessly provincial. He believed that the time of the village-like idylls in the various neighbourhoods – Kreuzberg, Charlottenburg, Wilmersdorf – after the fall of the Wall was over. The wind of the big world was now blowing into the reunited city, which would presumably soon be the seat of government again, on top of everything else. Klein preached what came to be known as the ‘St James’s philosophy’, a phrase that still makes former colleagues smile. He wanted the 600-metre stretch of Friedrichstraße between Unter den Linden and Leipziger Straße to be like the St James’s area of London. For people who weren’t familiar with the British capital – East Berliners, for example – he explained: ‘There will be no cheap or medium-range shops there.’ Investors had to be chosen on this basis. The major US developer Tishman Speyer was already building on the ruins of the GDR’s Friedrichstadt-Passage. Bouygues Immobilier, the biggest construction company in France, would be building next to it: an art deco orgy dreamed up by Henry Cobb of the star New York firm Pei Cobb Freed & Partners. And next to that: Galeries Lafayette from Paris!
Klein himself had explicitly specified that not even department stores would be tolerated on Friedrichstraße. Normal department stores, in his view, were far too mainstream, too cheap, for his St James’s philosophy. But Galeries Lafayette had approached the government of the GDR early on. In the year or so between the fall of the Wall and unification, France had been remarkably committed to East Germany. It was widely rumoured that, on the last stretch of negotiations, President François Mitterrand still hoped to halt the unification of the two Germanys. Or at least profit in due course from it as an emerging market. Faced with this French persistence, Klein finally decided that ‘a small fashion house with French flair’ did indeed have his approval. What was more, it would be built by Jean Nouvel, his favourite Parisian architect. Nouvel had wanted to build a ‘Tour Infini’, an ‘Endless Tower’, 400 metres high, on the former slaughterhouse between the working-class districts of Prenzlauer Berg and Friedrichshain. But the prospects didn’t look good (too many petty-minded naysayers). Nouvel instead would erect for Galeries Lafayette a spectacular building of curves and glass, with a funnel interior, on the corner of Friedrichstraße and Französische Straße. The funnel was supposed to be seen as an inverted version of the dome on the Galeries Lafayette building in Paris. Anyone who failed to recognise that would at least be astonished at the lavish waste of floor space.
Officials in the economic administration of the new Berlin raised their eyebrows at the unfolding plan for Friedrichstraße. Three different investors – Tischman Speyer, Bouygues Immobilier and Galeries Lafayette – each aimed to replicate the same blend of shopping, offices and gastronomy on the street. They would be connected by an underground passage which would run, as in the old GDR plan, parallel to the actual street – competing with it by adding even more shopping and gastronomy. The projects’ rents and returns surprised some city experts. But any scepticism was deafened by the roar of capitalist euphoria about the potential for growth in the city. Berlin was unified again! Berlin would soon be the capital once more! Berlin was applying for the Olympic Games! A gold rush was in the making, and anyone who wasn’t there, anyone who failed to stake a claim, would go away empty-handed. Those were the noises that blocked out everything else.
As the frenzy on Friedrichstraße took off in 1990, Hanno Klein met with real-estate developers in double-breasted suits whose lapels pointed as jaggedly upwards as their soaring share prices. Men whose chauffeurs held the doors of their limousines open for them as they came eagerly springing along. Men like Mark Palmer, who had until recently been the US ambassador in Budapest. Palmer was now developing an American Business Centre at the famous Friedrichstraße border crossing known as Checkpoint Charlie. He aimed to enlist American starchitects of the calibre of Philip Johnson – the kind of men that Hanno Klein liked.
Alongside Western and Eastern business interests, one motive for Klein’s murder stared the Berlin authorities in the face. After Klein’s murder, the police had received a message claiming responsibility for the attack. They initially dismissed it as inauthentic, a bit of bandwagon-jumping: the letter was from hard-left opponents of gentrification. They didn’t identify their faction or group. A few weeks before his death, Klein had prompted extreme displeasure with a few remarks that he had made in the national weekly, Der Spiegel. Berlin needed ‘a new Gründerzeit’ (the rampant period of German urban construction in the late nineteenth century) ‘which would be striking and brutal’, he said. Klein declared Berlin was under great pressure to grow and appreciate. Nothing could be done about it. Those who could no longer afford apartments in what was still the idyllically decaying bohemian neighbourhood of Prenzlauer Berg, when they were all renovated and whitewashed, would have to go live on the edge of the city – ‘in the vacuum cleaners of Marzahn and Hellersdorf’. ‘Vacuum cleaners’ was the term Klein used for the large pre-fabricated slab buildings in which half of all East Berliners still lived.
Police suspicion fell principally on the Revolutionäre Zellen (Revolutionary Cells, RZ), a loose association of outwardly respectable West Berlin terrorists from Kreuzberg, the traditionally left-wing area that begins where Friedrichstraße ends in the south between social housing blocks, which in Klein’s terminology might also be vacuum cleaners. (Klein being Klein, he had plans to reopen the pedestrianised cul-de-sac to motor traffic and pep up the area with shopping and gastronomy.) The RZ sometimes carried out attacks, but hadn’t gone underground like the terrorists of the Red Army Faction (RAF), who had a few weeks previously claimed responsibility for the assassination of Detlev Rohwedder, the director of the Treuhand Anstalt, the West German privatiser-in-chief of national property in the former GDR. It was after the murder of Rohwedder in April of 1991 that, according to police files, Hanno Klein was reported to have said: ‘I’ll be next.’
When I looked at the investigation files another fact struck me: at the time of his murder, Klein had already resigned from his job. Most likely Klein wanted to stand down because he had lost a power struggle against his old colleague Hans Stimmann. In their youth, they had both been members of the JuSos, the Young Social Democrats. In those days, Stimmann and Klein had campaigned together against the city autobahn that was supposed to lead across Potsdamer Platz, just where the Green Party later wanted to create yet another park instead. They used the informal Du with one another, as is traditional among Social Democrats. In matter-of-fact correspondence they passed on greetings to each other’s wives. But in April 1991 Hans Stimmann had been appointed as Berlin’s first Director of Building since the famous and influential Martin Wagner in the 1920s. That made him the superior of Klein, whose plans for the city he did not support. Klein wanted Manhattanisation; Stimmann wanted a return to the old Berlin. Within the Federal Republic of Germany, Berlin is a federal state in its own right; it has ministers who are called senators. Klein was often addressed as Senator for Building by investors and, as his staff later told reporters, he often didn’t bother to correct this mistake. It was widely assumed that the actual senator for building and city planning, Wolfgang Nagel, had installed Stimmann to put Klein back in his place. Stimmann and Klein were not only old acquaintances and members of the same party, but both were also equally ambitious and equipped with a pronounced ‘will to power’. (Stimmann with his wrathful moustache even looked a bit like Friedrich Nietzsche.) Now Stimmann occupied the much more powerful position. Klein was furious. A friend who had seen Klein and his girlfriend drinking in an Italian restaurant on the evening he would be killed told the police that even then Klein – that very evening – was raging against the incompetence of his bosses.
After Klein’s death, and even a bit before it, Stimmann had already eclipsed Klein’s name and fame. By the mid-1990s, among the investors and builders flocking to Berlin, Stimmann was one of the most feared figures. He became the single most hated man in Berlin among architects and builders. Only the least imaginative investors were willing to sign on to Stimmann’s fearlessly stubborn conservatism: a roof must be at 22 metres, facade must show more stone than glass (he would come with a gauge and a calculator to check), windows must, please, stand as upright as Prussian soldiers.
Klein had once studied with the famous German modernist Egon Eiermann, and he championed internationally acclaimed architects like the Frenchman Jean Nouvel and the Italian rationalist Aldo Rossi, whose approaches to building he considered to be an aesthetic and intellectual gain for the new Berlin. Stimmann, who had insisted on learning masonry and bricklaying from the bottom up before studying architecture, was less impressed by big names. On the contrary, he forced them to play by his strict rules when they proposed new work for Berlin, just like everyone else, or he simply scared them away. In any case, he seemed to favour buildings that came without the name tags of internationally famed designers. Commitment to certain local traditions was more important. After all, the typical Berliner Altbauten – or pre-war tenements – that have become the most desirable buildings in the city are also rather anonymous architecturally. But the construction that happened in the 1990s in Berlin-Mitte turned out to be quite different, technically, from the construction around the 1900s. Stimmann’s demand for stone facades was not met with artful masonry or bricklaying. Instead, thin stone slabs were glued to otherwise modern constructions like a veneer. When the slabs fell off, which happened occasionally, a face of coarse concrete was unveiled. Even when these slabs remained, their imitation of genuine stonework – by suggesting a balance of weight and buttress – was clearly perceptible as a simulation. Similar issues arose on the larger block constructions. These were sometimes meant to look like a cluster of independent houses by gluing slightly different facades to various portions of the building. To avoid the impression of Disneyland, ornamentations such as cornices and mouldings were mostly flattened and minimised, as if to indicate a contemporary detachment from the original style they were replicating. Facades that were meant to be modest and of noble, civic-minded decency, instead came out dull. The rigid height restriction of 22 metres incited building owners to hide as many stories as they could in slanted mansards. It was an attempt at mimicry that not only failed aesthetically, but was also a risk economically, since many investors were being lured in with guaranteed rent revenues – as if demand for office and retail space in these buildings would never be a question. Unfortunately, that would not be the case.
High hopes for rapid growth soured quickly in Berlin: in fact, the city even shrank for a while. More people were leaving than moving in. West Berliners lost the sumptuous subsidies that had been paid to everyone for holding out in the ‘front town’ of the West. East Berliners, previously privileged among East Germans, were hit with mass unemployment and poverty. The Olympic Games Berlin had applied for were lost to Sydney. If the nineties are remembered today as one of Berlin’s most flourishing eras in terms of culture, that was due to the low cost of living, the low rents, and the empty space in the inner city. It was a great time for artists and bohemia. For real estate developers – not so much. But most of the projects on Friedrichstraße were already under construction by then.
When I spoke with Stimmann on the phone in 2021, he was admirably combative in the defence of his record: he told me he wanted to ease the crushing pressure of the waves of capital breaking on Berlin; he wanted to ‘break down’ large-scale investments to get closer to the grid and plot structure of the pre-war city; and he wanted to correct the mistakes of his predecessors, who allowed wholesale developments in old building districts and green-lit inner-city autobahns running through anti-historical, late-modern ‘urban landscapes’.
Hans Stimmann told me he particularly regretted how the area around the Tiergarten, once favoured by the Jewish haute bourgeoisie, was being razed and replaced with a free-form arrangement of modern buildings called the ‘Kulturforum’. He now thought he might have been able to prevent similar destruction of the historic centre of Berlin by enlisting the descendants of the former owners of the buildings. He believed his mission was to keep the history of streets and plots from being swept away by developers.
Stimmann was responsible for the strict realignment of Friedrichstraße. Under his supervision, the street lost almost all the spatial extensions accrued during the war, some of which had been turned into green squares under Communist administration. Stimmann had always wanted the street to return to its pre-war glory. He has often been blamed for the fact that that’s exactly what didn’t happen.
Philip Johnson did eventually build something on Friedrichstraße. What became the Philip-Johnson-Haus was the worst design he ever did. His hatred for the building is on the record. In 1995, when a Berlin journalist asked Johnson how he envisioned Friedrichstraße in five years’ time Johnson is famously reported to have replied: ‘Empty.’ When I scoured the issues of local daily Der Tagesspiegel, I found a report of an uproarious meeting at the Akademie der Künste: intellectuals mainly from East Berlin protesting ‘architectural banalities’ in Berlin’s centre. ‘In Mitte, they are building bankruptcies,’ one man shouted. It had become apparent that things were not working as planned.
Today Stimmann could argue that even Cobb’s art deco follies didn’t save his luxurious building from bankruptcy and vacant stores. There was a rumour that Nouvel’s shiny Galeries Lafayette only survived on Friedrichstraße because the French state did not allow it to retreat from such a prestigious address. But, as announced this August, Galeries Lafayette will be gone by next year. The French department store chain is closing all of its branches abroad. Berlin’s cultural minister, Joe Chialo, has suggested using the building for housing the city’s central library. The local trade association immediately endorsed the idea. The future epigraph of Friedrichstraße may yet read: ‘Silentium!’
Symbolism is all that Friedrichstraße has left to offer. It was once an emblem for the golden days of pre-war Berlin, until it became a symbol for Berlin’s division in the Cold War. Today Friedrichstraße is the symbol of the New Berlin with a capital N. Or more precisely: it is the symbol of the New Berlin trying – and failing – to resemble Old Berlin with a capital O. Social Democrats like Stimmann and Klein shared a romantic love for the big city, the metropolis, even at the price of glorifying a social stratification that their Social Democratic forefathers once fought against. The German Greens, by contrast, the rebellious offspring of Social Democracy and German Romanticism, and the culturally dominant force in most parts of Berlin’s inner city, often harbour a passion for the small town, the village, the countryside. Thirty years after the Berlin Greens had tried and failed to turn Potsdamer Platz into a landscaped garden park they tried to turn Friedrichstraße into a landscaped village square – a pedestrian zone with makeshift wooden patches and benches spread across the road. Not even enough of their own constituencies really wanted to stroll let alone sit down here and stare at empty shop windows and grimly gridded facades. In the last elections the Greens were turfed out of office in Berlin. Even by their own account: because of Friedrichstraße.
It’s difficult to say what Hanno Klein would make of this today. The area around Friedrichstraße is no London, no St James’s. In the rest of the city, however, he was astonishingly prescient in the prognoses for which he may have been killed. Today, Berlin’s population is growing drastically and at great speed. There are almost no more crumbling old buildings with low rents left for less affluent people in formerly bohemian neighbourhoods like Prenzlauer Berg. They are being renovated and painted white and have become dazzlingly expensive. Even in the ‘vacuum cleaners on the edge of the city’ things are getting tight now. Berlin is, once again, considering a bid for the Olympic Games.
Friedrichstraße might now offer a reason for hope, even excitement. To have a such a site of high-end decay in the very midst of an otherwise brutally booming town is astonishing. Dancing on the ruins was once seen as the new Berlin’s recipe for success. It created much of the cultural capital on which the city still subsists. Who’s to say that that wouldn’t also be possible with the investment ruins of Friedrichstraße and Potsdamer Platz?
Investors will be able to write off their losses. (Much of the profit of Berlin’s allegedly high-yield construction in the centre came from tax breaks anyway.) If the people of Berlin paid for outside investors’ enrichment from ghost buildings, they should at least be permitted to dance in them, play music, open up artists’ studios and rehearsal rooms. Everything that has no affordable room elsewhere in the city could find a new haven in the centre. There are hardly any residents to complain about the noise. The ghost of Hanno Klein probably wouldn’t even raise objections, except to specify that, in this part of town at least, it would need to be top-notch noise.
Photograph © Harf Zimmermann, Grand Hotel Friedrichstraße, 1994