Old places and new myths in Berlin

By Melanie Sevcenko

Twenty-one years after the reunification of Germany, gentrification is taking its toll on much of the eastern part of the culturally vital but economically troubled capital.

But as property prices creep upwards, parts of the city remain derelict and abandoned. The spaces that once functioned as factories, embassies and government offices under the German Democratic Republic (GDR) remain redundant.

Haunted amusements

Kulturpark Planterwald was the only amusement park in the GDR and remains as a relic of communist childhood in the centre of Berlin's Treptower Park. With an assortment of patched fencing around its parameter and the sort of back-story that would make for a movie script, the park is an essential break-in zone for those who brave the patrolling security.

Since 1989, the former amusement park has been under the ownership of the Spreepark Berlin GmbH Company, headed by Norbert Witte. Shortly after he went bankrupt in 2001, Witte, who was more than $14mn in debt, escaped to Lima, Peru. But in 2004, he was charged with smuggling cocaine from Peru to Germany in the park's flying carpet ride.

Emge Sicherheitsdienste, a security company contracted by the city, now presides over the grounds. But exactly who owns the park remains disputed, which is one reason why potential investors have consistently shied away while moss and grass has consumed the Ferris wheel and rollercoaster, an English village and pirate boat, swan rides, a rusty circus tent and even a love canal that was never put into operation.

The former Iraqi embassy to the GDR stands ominously in a cul-de-sac in Berlin's northeast region of Pankow. Abandoned during the final stages of the first Gulf War in 1991, it inhabitants appear to have left in a hurry. Typewriters and telephones, fax machines and filing cabinets remain with Arabic documents strewn about the desks and floor. The wind blows a delicate lace curtain through smashed doors that lead onto a veranda.

To the southwest of Berlin, in the former East's Potsdam-Mittelmark district, is Beelitz-Heilstatten - a vast hospital complex designed by architect Heino Schmieden. Beelitz-Heilstatten became a military hospital during World War I, when a young Adolf Hitler was treated there for a leg wound.

In 2008, architect Torsten Schmitz took ownership of the buildings and has since been looking for investors to help restore them. But, the resurrection of the old sanatorium is not a lucrative prospect. Irene Krause, a Beelitz historian and tour guide, says it is more economically sound to build a new hospital than to renovate an old one.

Suggestions for the future of the buildings come and go, from school campuses to retirement homes, but nothing has been seen through to fruition. "German investors no longer invest in Germany, they go abroad," says Krause.

After a fatal accident in one of the buildings, the mayor of Beelitz asked Schmitz to lock the facility down - the boarded up windows and doors now add to its ghost town façade. But the boards have not stopped nature from creeping inside and overrunning the barren interiors. A young forest has devoured the entire top floor of one building in the west wing.

Most of the rooms are stripped of their equipment and furniture, but Krause says what remains is evidence of ingenuity in engineering and design. "I hope people will see that this is a place that was made for the next generation, but I don't know if anybody will spend the money on it."

Fading legacy

During the Cold War, the National Security Agency (NSA) built a listening station on top of the Teufelsberg Hill in the former West to eavesdrop on Soviet and East German military traffic. The Allies had originally constructed the hill from the rubble of buildings destroyed during World War II.

But after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the station was neglected and now exists in a state of purgatory between the city investors who toy with the idea of building a spy museum and the Field Station Berlin Veterans Group which campaigns vigorously to erect a memorial there.

"One more theatre of the Cold War goes down," says Barbel Simon of the Cold War Museum in Berlin, "a [sign] that the Cold War and its legacy is starting to fade, unfortunately."

In 1998, the Berlin Senate forcibly reclaimed ownership of Teufelsberg for $43mn. But with no viable investors in the opinion of the city - even filmmaker David Lynch's proposal to construct a transcendental meditation centre on the site was denied - Teufelsberg remains a playground for urban explorers. On any given day, the pulverised interiors and defaced exteriors are strewn with photographers, sunbathers, artists, bloggers, and even campers who pitch tents and bring portable grills.

'Pure urbanity'

In a city that is no stranger to financial instability and shifting political fortunes, money seems to be at the root of the hesitation to rejuvenate these historically and culturally significant spaces.

Mediaspree, a multi-tiered investment project that plans to commercialise real estate on both sides of Berlin's Spree riverfront by converting unused property into lofts, hotels, telecommunication and media companies, has been trying to entice wealthy investors since the early 1990s. But development is a slow trickle, leaving ambitious plans only partially realised.

Christopher David, the creative director of Kooper David Creative Property Development, a company that specialises in transforming utility spaces for arts and creative industries, feels that "Germans are very detailed and bureaucratic, hence progress is more gradual and less about boom and bust cycles".

But not all locals support the ambitions of the development firms. The independent street art blog, Urban Artcore, reported that 30,000 Berliners voted in a referendum against Mediaspree and its gentrification plans in 2008, claiming the investment project contradicts Berlin's affordable urban persona.

Urban Artcore founder, Brenna, feels that abandoned spaces "are an example of pure urbanity, places without ads, places without CCTVs, places without angry citizens".

But Berlin is home to some sites that have succeeded in changing their function after a period of uncertainty. Tempelhof, one of Europe's iconic pre-World War II airports, was closed in 2008 but reopened its gates this year as a vibrant people's park. In 2009, Kooper David Creative Property Development turned a defunct city swimming pool in the Wedding region into a gallery and performance space for local and international artists.

David thinks Berlin offers unique opportunities for such transformations because "two world wars and a dividing wall have left massive amounts of unused industrial space. Combine that space with the very cheap cost of living and you get the ideal location for artists to begin their work".

But Brenna says that the number of abandoned factories in the former GDR is dwindling. "It becomes harder from year to year to find buildings without security guards. I guess the time for the majority of the now-abandoned places to be put back into use is very near."

Rebuilding history

As the epicenter of World War II and the one time dividing line between opposing economic ideologies, Berlin has one of the most turbulently rich histories in Europe.

But most Germans do not believe that these buildings have been abandoned as part of some bid to forget or erase that history. Christine Wolf of the Berlin Monument Authority sees a correlation between abandoned buildings and "major changes like the development of Berlin from an industrial city to a service-orientated city".

Still, one cannot help but wonder why the GDR's central parliament, the Palast der Republik, was dismantled in 2006 on the order of the German Bundestag. The Berliner Stadtschloss (City Castle), the building that has been proposed for the site, is essentially a replica of the historical Palace Square of the old Berlin, which was demolished in 1950.

Martin Sabrow, a political scientist and historian at Berlin's Humboldt University, says that although there has been no overriding move to ignore East Berlin's recent history, there was in the early 1990s "a strong wish to destroy all reminders of the GDR regime, including the whole Berlin Wall. There was also a long discussion about the future of the Palast der Republik. Not only its symbolic value, but also its presence in the middle of Berlin were the reasons why especially the former GDR citizens wanted to destroy it".

But architecture, like the collective memory of citizens, is more than just empty disused buildings - it encloses a history and can speak volumes about a city's antiquity. But Sabrow steers clear from the idea of Berlin as a vast museum or memorial to the past. "There are many old buildings, but for example, Potsdamer Platz is a view into the future. Berlin has its places of memory and many other memorials, but it also has places to live everyday life."