Nikolaiviertel – The DDR Disneyland

by Alex Watkinson

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The contradiction couldn’t be starker. In East Berlin, on the eve of the city’s 750th anniversary, the SED decided to reconstruct the historic centre of the capital. With plattenbau! It can be hard to notice, especially to an unsuspecting tourist; take a stroll through the ‘medieval’ quarter and you’ll be struck by its beauty and apparently long, uninterrupted history. But don’t let them fool you. The communists may have gone but they’ve still got a few tricks up their sleeve. Like most of this city, if anything looks too old you can be pretty certain it was reconstructed after World War 2.

Take a look up and you’ll see how authentic it really is. The architects did a convincing job in parts, putting in place cobbled walkways, whilst installing ornate lamps, signs and windows on the buildings. But only on the bottom third of the buildings, encompassing the standard line of sight of visitors. Up above, rows of concrete slabs make up the majority of the building’s structure. The architects coloured them in pleasant shades in a vain attempt to make them more authentic, but there’s no escaping the brutalism of the corrugated texture. Moreover, higher up the architects resorted to modern styles for the windows akin to those in the vast housing complexes so common in the GDR. Once you notice this you can’t see the place in the same way. What makes things worse was the arbitrary decision to fully reconstruct some buildings in their full glory, while leaving the majority in a hybrid of modernist plus ornamented style. Where they could be bothered the accurate reconstructions were beautiful. Take the Ephraim-Palais for example, an exceptional Rococo building remade from original sections. Ultimately, this results in a mostly hollow aesthetic that leaves both styles sitting uncomfortably together, neither fulfilling their respective purposes of function and beauty.

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One wonders why the party leaders felt this was appropriate: a bizarre synthesis of two completely antithetical styles. The whole point of Plattenbau was to escape the decadence of lavishly decorated buildings in favour of incredibly efficient dwellings for every citizen of the ‘Workers’ and Farmer’s state.’ Of course, by the late 80s the leaders were starting to recognise their hopeless dogmas and the need for beautiful things wherever they may come from, be that the pre-socialist world or elsewhere. I certainly don’t condemn the notion of reconstructing the city’s beautiful and historic core. The problem was its implementation. We’re currently left with a communist Disneyland, a better looking version of Marzahn, falsely claiming to be the old Berlin.

However, I don’t just blame the communists. Capitalists and communists, they’re as bad as each other! After the DDR’s shoddy reconstruction, the FRG was happy to take credit for it. You won’t find a single piece of information on the quarter’s reconstruction anywhere on the site, and scarcely anywhere else for that matter. Indeed, the Berlin authorities only discuss part of the centre’s past and it’s the same with other places like Gendarmenmarkt. It’s as if the city government just wanted to claim something beautiful and untarnished for once without having to qualify it with pesky historical truths. But the checkered history of Berlin’s old town is precisely what makes it and Berlin special. The Gendarmenmarkt is beautiful and the Nikolaiviertel has its moments. Indeed it’s a pleasant place to spend time and a unique part of Berlin, but to deny the real history of places like this makes the whole thing more tarnished than a truthful depiction ever would.

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All photos by Gabriele Offenbroich

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