Hans Shtimmann: return the river to the city
Already in mid-September, the shortlist results of the competition for the urban development of areas adjacent to the Moscow River will be made known, and included in the jury are international experts. We met with Hans Shtimmann, Archcouncil member and former chief architect of Berlin, and talked with him about Berlin projects involving waterside areas.
Dr. Shtimmann, you are invited as a member of the Moscow River competition jury. I would like to find out whether there were such competitions in Berlin?
The concept of the Moscow competition for the entire river is not completely clear to me. Each zone in the river is unique, and I think that the Moscow situation is the same as the one in Berlin. As far as I understand, at the moment the technical requirements regarding specific areas are only being formulated, for which a series of panel discussions will be held with developers interested in developing the areas adjacent to the river.
As a member of the jury I am now trying to thoroughly investigate the situation and all of its aspects — regarding these particular territories, and the competition itself. Indeed, we conducted a series of competitions in my time as the chief architect of Berlin for the development and landscaping of the areas next to the Spree River. But I understand quite well that Moscow has its own particularities — the territories in question, and procedures regulating the design process.
And what do you see as the fundamental difference between this competition and those in Berlin?
In Berlin, competitions are held to address a specific issue or for a specific area in which the owner is interested in. For example: Spree flows through the entire city, and in some parts it was a port, in some places industrial zones were along the river, which are now quite popular among young people. For these areas competitions were held to modify the purpose of these territories and the buildings located on them — there mixed zones or residential areas are arranged. In another part Spree comes in contact with the Old Town area and the government area — a different solution is required there. Each zone has its own problems and own owner.
In the 18th-19th centuries, Berlin was called “Athens on the Spree,” which characterizes it as a cultural capital. Mark Twain after traveling to Berlin called it “Chicago-on-the-Spree.” All this shows the importance of the river in city life. As the chief architect of Berlin after the fall of the wall, it fell upon you to engage in its revival, including, if I may say so — “to return” the river to citizens. After all, in the middle of the 20th century the river within the city practically delineated East and West Berlin, and the adjacent territory becoming a buffer zone was virtually deserted.
A river in the city is a type of street on which you can read the entire history of the city. And Berlin is no exception, it emerged on the river.
One of the last major projects in Berlin was the restoration of the town’s castle, standing on the birthplace of the future capital. In its historical significance this place is comparable to the Moscow Kremlin. This project was much debated. In 1993, the first competition was held about this site, but those plans went awry. First of all I think it was because then was not the time. The Palace of the Republic, built in the GDR on the spot of the so-called Castle was demolished in 2005, and only in 2013 the restoration of the Palace under the direction of Francesco Stella began: three baroque facades will be reconstructed in their historical form, and the one that opens up on the Spree will be already in a free modern interpretation. This will be a big museum, which will complement the museum collection of Berlin.
Please tell us about the government quarter, located in a bend of the Spree — one of the first major restoration projects of Berlin.
Until 1918, the seat of power was the city castle. With the advent of a democratic government the Reichstag became the political center of Berlin, it houses the Parliament. When, after the fall of the Wall, it was decided to make Berlin the capital of a united Germany, a priority task was the placement of government agencies. At this point, the Reichstag and the castle were destroyed, and the modernist Palace of the Republic was associated with the breakup of the country.
We conducted an urban planning competition for the government district in which the main idea was to unite the Western and Eastern parts of Berlin, and the river played a key role in this concept.
If you refer to the plan of the city, you will see that the Spree in this area makes a kind of loop. The Reichstag is located in the eastern part of this area, and the administrative offices are in the west, along the axis defined by the river. The buildings go across the river, forming the Ribbon of the Federation — a symbol of a united Germany. In this area there are no residential houses — only government buildings. The arranged recreational area with paths for cyclists and pedestrians, a park and a beach — are no worse than the resorts of Majorca. This is a public space, and the river is part of the park: from it open up views of the government district, here tourist riverboat buses sail by, where you can listen to the history of the city.
I should note that it was a federal project, so everything in it has a symbolic meaning: the public areas surrounding it; the Reichstag building in an updated form, which was previously crowned with a dome resembling a helmet during the First World War, and now a clear dome, showing openness; and the river, which now unites rather than divides.
Museum Island was entirely in East Berlin. Have there been some changes?
Museum Island — this is precisely why Berlin became known as the Athens-on-the-Spree. Here, in the buildings of classical forms built in the 18-19th centuries (in part by the architect Schinkel), are the largest museum collections in Germany. The island was lucky: almost nothing has changed there, except for the demolition of the GDR Palace of the Republic, and I have already mentioned the plans to rebuild the city’s castle.
But downstream is where the problem areas start, as this is where the river divided Berlin as East and West.
These are the areas where in the 1970s occurred the takeover of buildings, which later was legalized? In relation to tourism it is a rather symbolic place: it is where East Side Gallery was formed with a preserved portion of the wall, painted by artists from around the world. It includes the infamous work with Brezhnev and Honecker kissing. What is the situation today?
This area continues to be a problem, but on the other hand, the riverside of the Spree is here — the most rapidly developing areas in the city, because for a long time they were abandoned. Predominately these are the former industrial areas, which during the Cold War were closed due to the proximity of the border: to have production located there was dangerous. Kreuzberg, which was referred to above, before the war was a working area — with industrial buildings and workers residential quarters.
You mentioned a process that began in the area in the 1970s, when youth took over buildings to create their own culture, and this continues today but in a more civilized manner. If part of the residential areas were inhabited in the past, then at the present time we are talking about the actual industrial buildings. Now these factory buildings have become significant for the new Berlin. In fact, it is the center of cultural industries: media and music are here, on vacant lots new buildings arise which are also associated with entertainment. It may be paradoxical, but this area is now the main driving force of the city’s economy. And the river makes it particularly attractive.
This is the new rhythm of Berlin. If previously people used to come here to work and worked from early morning until late at night, then now, when these areas have become the center of the youth scene, work begins with the night and in the morning everything is dying down. Here, you are unlikely to meet with media representatives at 10 am — most likely it will be at 10 pm at some sort of party.
How much is the state involved in the transformation of this area?
I can definitely say that we did not plan this — the movement started from the bottom. Returning to the subject of the river, it must be said that Spree’s current has a varied character — I think, as does the Moscow River. It is difficult to cover the river all at once, simultaneously, in a single competition. So I can say that the Spree does not have a shared history — it is a history of the city itself, in which the river is woven, as its witness and participant.
Were there plans for Berlin to use the river as a transport artery — for example, to have city trams use it?
No, we have not thought about it, even though tourist boats cruise along the river. I must say that now the river is so clean that you can swim in it. One of the latest projects is the creation of a pool in the river near Museum Island. And recently, when production was located within the city next to the river, this idea would have seemed utopian. And this is the main transformation of the River Spree in recent years — its transformation from an industrial river into a river pleasant for relaxing.