Often when visiting a new city I find it worthwhile and orientating to get some perspective on the city from a height. In Berlin, I headed to Kollhoff Tower, a 25-story office building located within the large public square and traffic intersection known as Potsdamer Platz. Getting to the tower involved a pleasant ride on a hire bike across the full length of the Tiergarten park from the north-western corner, where I was staying, to just beyond the park’s south-eastern boundary.
Potsdamer Platz has always been an iconic location in Berlin. It was named after the point where the old road from Potsdam, a city 25 kilometres to the south-west, passed through a gate in Berlin’s city wall. In later years it would become one of Europe’s busiest traffic intersections and the place where one of the first sets of traffic lights in continental Europe were installed. During the Second World War, Potsdamer Platz was almost completely destroyed. From then on it became a largely desolate space, an empty wasteland right in the middle of the city, for almost 4o years. During that time it was bisected and divided by the Berlin Wall and it wasn’t until the early 90s, just after the Wall came down, that Potsdamer Platz was marked for redevelopment. As an important icon of unification, it would become one of Europe’s largest construction sites, attracting big finance and a host of big-name architects.
The Berlin government organised a design competition for the site’s redevelopment and awarded the overall project management to a Munich based architectural firm. The site was then divided into four parts, each financed by a different large scale commercial investor. The Kollhoff Tower, by Berlin architect Hans Kollhoff, was just one of 19 new buildings under the design leadership of Italian architect Renzo Piano in the quarter financed by Daimler-Benz (now Daimler AG). While most of the Kollhoff Tower is office space, housing a number of prestigious law firms, the 24th and 25th floors form a cafeteria and a panoramic open-air viewing platform known as Panoramapunkt.
From the outside, Kollhoff Tower doesn’t look particularly striking architecturally. Its mud-brown exterior resembles something closer to the old classical-style buildings of New York than some of the more modern architectural designs that surround it in Potsdamer Platz. Yet still, it has impressive height and volume and with a grandeur reminiscent of times past, it seems well suited to incorporating an open-air viewing platform on its uppermost floors.
To reach the viewing platform demands a ride in Europe’s fastest elevator which travels up the entire 24 floors in around 20 seconds. Inside the elevator there is almost no sense of acceleration and yet the electronic display indicating the current floor makes jumps from 0 to 4 to 8 to 12 and before you know it, the doors have opened and you are 100 metres above the ground.
Despite being a little overcast and rainy, the view from the top was clear and extensive. I enjoyed a close up view of the architecture of Potsdamer Platz and could admire the vastness of the Tiergarten extending off into the distance. Being up high gives some sense of the extent of a city, its relative density, its degree of modernity and the amount of green space it contains. It allows one to locate points of interest and to orientate oneself within the landscape, although any degree of orientation seems to quickly diminish upon returning to ground level.
In the vicinity of Kollhoff Tower were buildings by a number of highly prominent international architects, namely the Italian Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers from the UK and the American Helmut Jahn. The Potsdamer Platz redevelopment was designed to be a grand symbol of unification yet despite the fact that the area attracts a high volume of visitors, the overall commercialism of the site and its predominantly corporate architecture has made it a somewhat sterile environment compared to other areas of Berlin.
From Potsdamer Platz, I rode my bike north along Ebertstrasse towards the German Reichstag building, stopping along the way at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Jewish Holocaust Memorial). In a site the size of an entire city block and directly opposite the eastern edge of the Tiergarten, the memorial is made up of 2711 grey concrete slabs, each identical in length and width, but with different heights. The slabs are arranged in an ordered rectangular array along undulating ground and visitors are able to wander freely through the narrow alleys that separate them. The architect behind the design, Peter Eisenman, wanted the overall site to represent a ‘supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with reason’ and the slabs themselves to produce an ‘uneasy and confusing atmosphere’.
On approach, the abstract memorial looks like the flattened remains of a city block or a large cemetery. I had the sense that I was entering something akin to a maze, despite the fact that the alleyways between the slabs were arranged in a grid. At first the slabs were lower than waist height but as I progressed further into the memorial, they grew in size and before long they were towering above me on all sides. I was surrounded by a vast array of cold, austere and inhuman monoliths whose presence had disconnected me from the life and sounds of the city nearby. Every now and again I would get a glimpse of someone else, a stranger, as they moved between a gap in the slabs, somewhere ahead of me or to either side. There was the possibility that our paths might cross as well as the equally likely possibility that I would never see them again.