When my American friend Ed visited me, he also wanted to see the former Checkpoint Charlie border crossing point. I would have loved to have avoided this rancid tangle of busses, currywurst, Trabant car safaris and patrolling extras in fantasy uniforms. The small-time capitalist flotsam gathered over decades there has come to symbolise the lack of plans and ideas of this self-proclaimed creative metropolis.And yet our short visit showed me once again that the checkpoint, as it was called on the western side (GÜSt, border crossing point in the east), has an almost mystical aura. A magical place has come to life here over the years, a giant, a mythical refuge of the Cold War, from a time when West Berlin was a corrupt island and East Berlin was a dictatorship.
It is not the case that the federal state of Berlin has not even tried to design this historic place appropriately: Right after the opening of the Wall, an American Business Centre was to be built with the support of the American cosmetics billionaire Ronald Lauder. Five office buildings with a total of 160,000 m² of gross floor space were planned on the vacant lots left and right of Friedrichstrasse. Real business in other words. The compact perimeter block development, the urban development principle of the historic Friedrichstadt, was raised to a dogma without consideration for this historic place. Three of the buildings were actually built in this way. Just get drunk. Welcome capitalism. After that, the Berlin office market collapsed. Lauder withdrew and the real estate fund established for the building complex filed for insolvency in 2005. So long capitalism.
Thus, the American business plans were history, but the enormous guarantees of the Berlin Senate remained. And the land became a speculative object, moving from one investor to another. The state of Berlin let it happen. In the end, the site ended up with the insolvency administrator, who rents it out to street vendors for interim use. That is understandable, because urban planning is not his job. Goodbye, city planning.And so, Checkpoint Charlie deteriorated into a year-round rumpus market. Tourists welcome.
In 2007, an Irish group of investors acquired the insolvency claims including land charges; again did nothing and sold to Trockland in 2015 with a substantial (very substantial) profit. They really want to build there and have taken the Senate completely by surprise almost 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. This can only be explained by a lack of historical responsibility for this place or by a general work overload. Foreign visitors in particular recognise the wounds of a city in which the tanks of hostile empires faced off against one another, in a political ice age that still makes people all over the world shudder.
The status of negotiations today: a Cold War Museum is to be built in the basement for around 1 million euros rent per year, and on top there is to be a hotel and a mixture of shops, offices and apartments – 30 percent of which will be social housing. So, something for everyone. Is this urban planning? With a goodie for everyone? Crisis management manoeuvring between the fronts without any own ideas? Who is there to complain? But as soon as the concept is on the table, there is protest. Less on the museum project, that comes later. It is the development of the vacant lots by the investor that is now provoking resistance. The interests of the public are sacrificed for profit, the critics say. Bypassing the general public, the federal state of Berlin is said to have already signed a "Letter of Intent" with the investor. Three months ago, Berlin hurriedly launched an urban planning competition, which is to form the basis for an architectural competition. Seven architectural offices were invited to design the development of the vacant sites. The recently issued condition of the monument protection authority came as a complete surprise – the still existing fire walls of the neighbouring buildings are regarded as a salient symbol of the historic site and are not to be built up. A unique approach. As a result, a compact and reasonably low perimeter block development, as demanded for decades in the urban development plan of the inner city and the conservation statute of Friedrichstadt, is no longer possible. This could be a fascinating starting point for outstanding designs if the construction volumes planned were reduced accordingly. But this is not happening – in order to reach the already pledged cubic capacity and to avoid compensation payments. Now, the Senate administration can also imagine two 60 m high towers. Even without a framework plan for skyscrapers. This is a pragmatic solution: fire walls for height. But sovereign, forward-looking leaders of the process would make other decisions.
It is up to a jury yet to be appointed – and the citizens who were called upon to give their opinion – to decide which draft would best address these questions. They could inspect the designs for three whole days – in the middle of the summer holidays. Thus, citizen participation, praised as "open dialogue", is turned into pure partizitainment. Architects and urban planners often work in the midst of such a muddle of particular interests, wishes and constraints.
But can they meet all these requirements and live up to this site at all?
A 60 m tower creates large clearance spaces, which can hardly be matched to the existing properties. Can building law be observed here at all?
Is this really a particularly suitable place for social housing, i.e. lots of balconies covered in gravel scraper plaster?
Are the firewalls of the neighbouring houses really so decisive for this place? Is there not the threat of such a prior decision destroying the entire ensemble?
Is the importance of this place of remembrance for the world not clearly a priority? Doesn't this function overrule the other uses and requirements?
The struggle with circumstances and uncoordinated and exclusively reactive behaviour threaten to ruin a magical place.
Thomas More was also beheaded. Checkpoint Charlie and More show how well we would do to question the how and who and what of today's urban production and society – and like Thomas More for his time – to develop ideas and strategies for a better urban society, also for us today.