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December 6, 2021

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Berlin's Modern twist

Not sure you're a fan of architecture? Berlin's powerful new buildings will set you straight

I know what you're thinking. Spend a day touring a city's modern architecture? Not for you, thanks. Unless, of course, you are heading to Bilbao -- a city none of us would have dreamed of visiting until a certain Frank Gehry plunked his tornado of titanium, the Guggenheim Museum, along the river.

Let's face it, it's surprisingly easy to be seduced by a building that has grand ambitions and a pretty dress. And in a city like Berlin, the opportunities for seduction are plentiful. For one thing, the German capital has become ground zero for cool: its cultural scene is drawing the hottest young artists and designers from around Europe and North America.

Add to that the past decade, during which the city has taken on the biggest urban renewal project since Hausmann overhauled Paris 100 years ago, and you've got some pretty good reasons to discover the new face of Europe's sleeper capital.

The fall of the Wall in 1989 opened up the city in more ways than one. Beyond the ideological and economic divide that had grown during the Cold War, the 100-metre-wide no-man's-land that separated East from West Berlin left a massive physical void. A who's who of international architects was commissioned to build museums, consulates, office towers, hotels and housing developments. The result is a concentration of recent work by international designers found nowhere else, except maybe in a coffee-table book.

High Points, Dark Spots
Perhaps the city's most iconic building is the Reichstag (1 Platz der Republik, Berlin-Mitte; tel: 011-49-30-2273-2152). The historic parliament building was the site of German reunification ceremonies on October 2, 1990 and has been reclaimed as a symbol of the city, but that's not what keeps the tourists lining up. British architect Sir Norman Foster, the man behind London's "Gherkin," was awarded architecture's Pulitzer, the Pritzker Prize, for his work on the building.

The parliament's dome -- damaged during a mysterious 1933 fire that sparked the suspension of civil liberties by the Nazis -- was replaced by Foster's inspired glass-and-steel creation. Views from the rooftop are lovely, but it's the futuristic dome itself that most visitors come for. The large glass bubble hangs over a coiled walkway which spirals around and around a mirrored column, right to the top of the dome. You will become mesmerized by the multiplied images of swirling metal, and the sight of other visitors moving along the passage.

While you're in the area, the discreetly hidden renovation to the DZ Bank (3 Pariser Platz, Berlin-Mitte) by the Toronto-born Gehry is not to be missed. Nothing on the bank's exterior in front of the Brandenburg Gate gives away the Baroque sci-fi addition he's made inside. The womb-like suspended meeting room and undulating-glass atrium are worth a glimpse. Don't be shy; there'll be other tourists gawking inside the bank too.

Most cities would be lucky to have one iconic modern building. In addition to the Reichstag, Berlin has the Jewish Museum (9-14 Lindenstrasse, Berlin-Kreuzberg; tel: 011-49-30-2599-3300;, which is arguably Berlin's answer to the Guggenheim Bilbao. This was the building that launched the career of architect Daniel Liebeskind, now the designer behind the Freedom Tower at the World Trade Center site in New York.

The Jewish Museum was carefully designed to express the anxiety, disorientation and fear of those who were herded into concentration camps. Outside, each jagged section of this daunting steel-clad structure has slits cut into its metal skin to create a few sparse windows. Inside, the photos, key belongings and personal correspondence of Holocaust victims are displayed along two long tunnels with sloping floors and tilting walls. The space itself creates a feeling of unease and disorientation. By focussing on a minimal selection of artefacts, the unimaginable number of lives lost becomes an intensely personal tragedy.

One of the museum's most compelling elements is the Holocaust Tower, a narrow triangular silo with walls reaching 24 metres high. A huge metal door clangs shut behind small groups of visitors, locking them in for a few minutes. The only light in this clammy concrete space is a glimmer from a slit at the top. The museum is a perfect reminder that architecture can be powerful and can quite literally make a statement.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (1 Cora-Berliner-Strasse; Berlin; tel: 011-49-30-7407-2929; ) takes a similarly unconventional approach to design. Composed of a field of grey concrete blocks of varying heights, it covers a city block on what was once the garden of Hitler's Reich Chancellery. The monument sparked controversy for not addressing all victims of the Holocaust and for covering one of Berlin's choicest locations in a brutal field of grey.

Admittedly this is no memorial of doves and angels. Gazing across it, there isn't anything to hold your gaze, not a statue, symbol or inscription in sight. If it seems a little pointless or puzzling from a distance, the impact really kicks in once you walk between the blocks. Visitors walking through seem weak and insignificant against this huge, brutal expanse of grey. The memorial may not be pretty or comforting, but it's definitely powerful.

An underground information centre holds permanent exhibits which commemorate the lives lost, including the Room of Names, where short biographies for over 700 victims of the Holocaust are broadcast over loudspeakers. You'll also find a display explaining the ideas behind the design of the memorial.

Shop To It
Nearby is the completely revamped Potsdamer Platz. This was the centre of Berlin's nightlife during the city's Golden Years in the 1920s and '30s. The once busy square was bombed to rubble during World War II and then engulfed by the Wall's no-man's-land. Since several city blocks had to be rebuilt from scratch, the area has now become a primer of current European architecture.

The neighbourhood includes theatres, office towers, shopping centres and European-height apartment blocks clustered around small squares. Italian architect Renzo Piano designed the razor-sharp wedge known as the Debis Tower and the elegant golden-hued stone buildings of the Daimler Chrysler complex, while German-born Helmut Jahn designed the circus-tent-capped atrium at the Sony Center.

Take the time to explore the side streets: that's where you'll get the best sense of this neighbourhood and how the buildings play off one another. Then, for a surreal view, take a walk down to the tree-lined canal by strolling past the new apartment blocks on Linkstrasse. Each one was designed by a different architect -- it's like a specially assembled collection of the biggest names from England, Japan, Italy, Spain and Switzerland.

If you'd rather do your architectural touring with an added incentive, hit the shops in the Jean Nouvel-designed Galeries Lafayette (23 Französische Strasse, Berlin-Mitte; near the posh Gendarmenmarkt. You may spend more time looking through the racks than the building, but you can console yourself with the thought that Nouvel (who designed the high-tech take on Muslim architecture for Paris' Institut du Monde Arabe) is France's most cutting-edge architect.

Nearby in this high-fashion district is the cartoonish Quartier 206 (67 Friedrichstrasse, Berlin-Mitte). It is particularly worth a look in the evening, when the strategically placed lighting seems to make the building disappear, reducing it to a series of intersecting white lines.

Of course, Berlin isn't just a clean slate for new architecture. No other European city can offer such a palimpsest of 20th-century history -- from gracious Art Nouveau courtyards in the Hackescher Hof to striking Art Deco offices along the Landwehr canal, to World War II bullet holes in the walls of the Neoclassical buildings on Museum Island, to remnants of the Wall or Soviet-era government buildings along Unter den Linden boulevard.

So how to make sense of all this stone, glass and concrete? It's probably best to get a little help from an expert. Ticket B (tel: 011-49-30-617-5452; offers a number of two-hour walking tours guided by architects. And the Berlin Tourist Board (see City Tours under Sightseeing on ) can point you to companies offering individual or group tours.

Alternately, you can sit back and let it all glide past. Like many European capitals, Berlin was built along a river, the Spree, which cuts a meandering path through the city centre. It is possible to get around the city by boat on 197 kilometres of waterways.

Stern und Kreisschiffahrt (tel: 011-49-30-536-3600; offer various tours of the Spree River and the Landwehr Canal, and you can hop on at number of key stops in the city centre. A canal cruise takes you through the city's oldest neighbourhoods, past the 19th-century buildings on Museum Island, the new development at Potsdamer Platz, the city zoo and countless bohemian residential districts, some with funky condo buildings lining the water.

It's a perfect way to see the sleepy country feel of many of the rapidly gentrifying residential districts. Weeping willows drape over the grass-fringed shore, where everyone from students to pensioners comes to read a book, have a picnic or just loll in the sun.

Whichever way you decide to visit the city, try to linger a little longer in the buildings you visit and look around. You never know, you just might like it.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.


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