Berlin’s chaos defies German stereotype

September 20, 2012

Berlin’s new main airport was meant to become a sparkling gateway to a city roaring back into the league of world capitals.

But a string of delays to completion of the glass-and-steel terminal on the city’s southwestern flank — the opening was postponed again last month — has become a symbol of the un-Germanic chaos that seems to pervade Berlin more than 20 years after reunification.

“Riding the tiger is not an orderly process,” said Wladimir Kaminer, a Russian-born author and one of the city’s most famous chroniclers, whose stories feed on Berlin’s variety and flux.

“Nearly every corner of the city is still a building site,” he said. Still, he added, “To claim the airport delay shows things are going to pot is small-minded and petit bourgeois.”

Residents are familiar with large tracts of land lying barren in the city’s center, where the Berlin Wall split it in two. The site of the old Wertheim department store near Potsdamer Platz, once Europe’s largest, is only now being redeveloped to house a shopping mall.

But political and commercial delays have been joined by technical ones. The airport’s serial postponements since its originally scheduled November opening have been followed by news that the state opera house, which dates to 1741, will not reopen in mid-2013 as planned but in late 2014 at the earliest.

That has added to a sense among Berliners that the city is not working. The scale and complexity of reuniting a city divided for almost a generation means Berlin offers evidence both of stagnation and dynamism, says Manfred Kuehne, head of city planning in Berlin’s Urban Development Ministry.

“Plenty of projects were completed very quickly, even by international comparison,” Kuehne said, mentioning two huge developments at Potsdamer Platz and the new central railway station. “But there are also a lot of projects that took much longer.”

Hans Stimmann, Berlin’s chief architect from 1991 to 2006 and the father of its inner-city master plan, contends that the airport and opera-house projects were hindered by a very German obsession with technological sophistication.

“Germany is the country of the Audi A8 and the Mercedes S-Class,” he says. “We want everything to be technically perfect — and that applies to buildings ancient and modern.”

The refurbishment of the opera house involves, in effect, placing a modern theater within a slender baroque corset, requiring much digging and tunneling in and around the historic building. Unpleasant surprises were almost inevitable — newly discovered ruins are now causing the delay.

At the airport, the designers wanted to install an ultra-discreet, state-of-the-art fire-safety system, but they appear to have told their political bosses too late that their technological ambition had run far ahead of their ability to realize it on time.

While Stimmann is relatively relaxed about the opera house’s problems — “these kind of things happen with old buildings” — he is scathing about the airport delay.

“It is a disaster for Germany’s reputation for technology and manufacturing,” he says. “This is the sort of ‘standard’ big public-works project we are meant to be good at.”

Public-works debacles are damaging the city’s image as a place to do business, warns Berlin’s chamber of commerce. “People always look at Germany and expect things to be very well organized,” said Rainer Schwarz, Berlin Airports’ managing director.

Yet despite a weak local economy, the city has become a magnet for people from all over the world. New arrivals have outnumbered those leaving since 2005, and of the 40,000 who came last year, two-thirds were from outside Germany.

Kaminer, whose first book, “Russian Disco,” is about “the everyday lunacy on the streets of Berlin,” describes the new airport as the place where traditional German caution and a penchant for meticulous planning meet “this Babylonian tower of multiplicity and bombast.”

The city’s chaos offers the chance to turn “this country of insurance companies” into something more daring, he said. “We’re just reinscribing what it means to be German, and Berlin is at the vanguard.”

— Financial Times

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