Old streets, new spaces. Marlene-Dietrich-Platz, Berlin

Lurking behind the dramatic angles and soaring glass walls of the resurrected Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, is Marlene-Dietrich-Platz—one of Berlin’s newest and, without question one its most graceless public spaces. The unassuming Alte Potsdamer Strasse connects the square to the much bigger Potsdamer Platz, some five hundred or so yards away. Back in its heyday, when Potsdamer Platz was reputed to be the busiest traffic intersection in Europe, Potsdamer Strasse was a lively main thoroughfare that connected the government buildings and civil service offices in the vicinity of Potsdamer Platz, with the affluent suburbans district of the city which lay to the south. One can picture the scene in the 1920s, when Potsdamer Strasse was frequented by chauffeur-driven carriages ferrying government ministers between their airy villas situated on the edges of the Grünewald, and the gloomy corridors of power around Wilhelmstrasse and the Reichstag.

Ironically enough, though this small portion of what was once called Potsdamer Strasse is now known as Alte Potsdamer Strasse (having been superseded by a new Potsdamer Strasse to the north), there is practically nothing in its present-day state that recalls its prewar existence. For starters, the new street singularly fails in its prewar task of reaching the southern city district Schönberg. Instead, the Marlene-Dietrich-Platz sprawls languorously in its way, a post-reunification obstacle that has effectively reduced this formerly bustling street to an impotent cul-de-sac. The Alte Potsdamer Strasse is lined on both sides with modern buildings, the single exception being the renovated Weinhaus Huth, which survived both the bombs of World War Two and the subsequent partitioning of the city. When the Wall cut a zigzagging path of destruction through Potsdamer Platz in the 1960s, practically every structure in its vicinity was razed to the ground. The Weinhaus Huth escaped this fate, and for years its empty shell stood isolated in a Cold War wasteland, is if in some sort of architectural quarantine. When the Wall finally came down, and the capitalists moved back in, the German government carved up and sold off the land surrounding Potsdamer Platz to the highest bidders. Today the Huth sits nestled almost lost amongst the modern buildings that make up the Daimler quarter of Potsdamer Platz. Opposite rises the brick façade of the Daimler-Benz headquarters (at the time of my visit swathed in plastic sheets and scaffolding, like a poor Christo imitation) and alongside, the glass-panelled entrance to the upper galleries of the Potsdamer shopping arcade, one particularly successful import of North American culture. Most of the new Potsdamer Strasse is filled with restaurants and cafés, the more upmarket of which cater for the area’s businesspeople, who descend upon them during lunchtime and after working hours, while the more familiar corporate food chains are popular amongst the legions of tourists that throng here. Enclosed by high-rise buildings on either side, and lined with rows of trees on each side of the road, Alte Potsdamer Strasse has a sort of interior feel about it, which attempts a sense of intimacy which ends up feeling odd and uncanny. Clearly the planners and architects tried to bring some semblance of human character to the street, with its trees and café bars and restaurants which spill out onto the pavements. And yet the overall impression is one of discomfort and alienation. This has a lot to do with the fact that, because it sits half-buried by the surrounding high-rise blocks, the street sits in perpetual shade, and is prone to a particularly boisterous circulation of air. But the street is also shot through with an inescapable sense of soullessness. Then there are the ubiquitous brand names scattered about—Starbucks, McDonald’s, Maredo—which are complimented by the architectural artifice of their surroundings. Plastic panels, dry risers and air-conditioning outlets are everywhere, making the street feel simply like a sine qua non for its buildings’ internal functions. Then there are the listless crowds that pass along the street, mostly comprised of tourists seeking happy meals and pints of coffee-sugar solution, or distraction in one of the area’s theatres and cinemas. All of which makes the new Alte Potsdamer Strasse feels like one of Marc Auge’s non-places, imbued with all the ambience of a supermarket or airport departure lounge. One cannot feel at home here; eating, drinking, sightseeing, and the mere passing of time watching people pass by, are reduced to vulgar activites. There is nothing special to see or do, besides buy oneself the same drink or meal, see the same film or show as one might do in any other large town or city in the western hemisphere.

The sense of alienation reaches a climax in Marlene-Dietrich-Platz. Given that this space is a public square, it seems absurd that there is not a single public bench to be found here. The more resourceful urbanite like myself normally seeks out surfaces to perch themselves on: low walls adjoining raised flower beds are a favourite, or steps of a sufficient pitch. But nothing beats retreating to a nearby café, pulling up a seat outside, in order to contemplate the surroundings while sipping coffee. Frustratingly, none of these activities are possible here. The architects of Marlene-Dietrich-Platz designed this space in such a way as to eliminate practically all possibility of sitting down. Even meandering distractedly is hazardous, thanks to the undulating landscape of shallow steps, almost imperceptible gradients and water features. And if one wanted to retreat to a café, then there is not a great deal of choice, bar a branch of McDonald’s.

The buildings surrounding the square are equally uninspiring. Dominating one flank is the Theater am Potsdamer Platz—apparently Germany’s largest—which is all glass façade and sloped angular canopies. The theatre specialises in the best-known global blockbusting shows and musicals, such as Cats, Mamma Mia, Dirty Dancing. And though the promise of such spectacular entertainments are not daunting the coach loads of tourists streaming in and out of the building, I find the theatre entrance imposing rather than welcoming. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, which compels me to step inside.

Instead, I sit discontentedly outside the McDonald’s opposite, sipping coffee from a paper cup, acutely aware of the fact that while the weather today is warm and sunny, the spot I am currently sitting in enjoys its own cool and breezy microclimate. I watch the tourists shuffle in and out of the theatre, wondering how long they are staying in Berlin, and what other attractions they have on their itineraries. Madame Tussauds probably. It occurs to me that Marlene-Dietrich-Platz has been named rather aptly. Like Marlene herself in 1930, though this square is physically situated in Berlin, its spirit is several thousand miles away in Hollywood. There is further irony in the fact that this square, which thwarts the new Alte Potsdamer Strasse in reaching its prewar destination Schöneberg, should be named after the suburb’s most famous resident. Normally I’d prefer a quiet pedestrian square over a busy street of traffic, but on this occasion, as I polish off the dregs of my coffee, I try to conjure up the scene in front of me, as it existed a century ago. I visualise a hive of activity, with hansom cabs, omnibuses, motorcars and wagons vying for road space, while pedestrians take their chances amongst the chaos. Ornate multi-storeyed façades, groaning under the weight of their balconies, balustrades and advertising signs, totter over the activity at street level. Then I strain my ears to imagine the din of primitive combustion engines, clip-clopping horses and the shouts of the hawking street traders.

Abruptly, a cold gust of wind drags me back to the present. I make a hasty exist from Marlene-Dietrich-Platz, in search of some warm summer sunshine.

© Mark Hobbs 2010