Twenty-five years after the fall of the Wall, Berlin still struggles with its unsatisfactory urban form: its gaps, its duplications, and its unfinished nature. It is a city that has always been in flux, so complicated by its histories and counter-histories that its urban fabric seems to resist all attempts to reorder it.
Despite this, or probably because of it, Berlin seems to have become a great city again, and no one is more surprised than the Berliners themselves. To them it isn’t clear whether they live in a great political European capital, or a charming hippy town of pop-ups and clubs. They don’t know whether to be happy that old Tegel lives on or furious they don’t have an international airport. They don’t know whether they really want the Stadtschloss rebuilt, and they don’t know whether the arrival of Frank Gehry and his twisted tower on Alexanderplatz will be the beginning of a bright new future or the end of an innocent era.
They know they don’t have a beautiful city, but they feel strongly about how it should be and how it should look. Berliners have maintained a sense of participation and even ownership that seems to have been lost in so many other cities. This is why Berlin fascinates. It is not only poor and sexy but engaged and vital, a reminder of the more messy, contradictory and organic qualities that all cities should have but are elsewhere being replaced by homogeneous commercialism and a more extreme segregation of rich and poor.
London, Doha and Shanghai have become investment centres welcoming development that brings wealth and image but little civic substance. Against this Berlin seems charmingly reflective and suspicious, its citizens rather unimpressed by the apparent imperatives of private investment and global image.
Why is Berlin different? The division of the city had left West Berlin the task of reorganising its infrastructure. From every point of view this was a complicated process. Having lost, as it were, so many important cultural and symbolic institutions to the eastern side of the city, Berlin had to once again try to reassemble its civic order, to make a whole city out of half of one.
This opportunity wasn’t lost on the architects, planners and politicians of the time. New social, cultural and administrative structures needed to be built. Counter-institutions were needed to replace those lost to the east, while a new urban orientation had to be given to this disjointed and now isolated part of the city.
Reconstruction prolonged by the division of the city and then its reunification means that while other European cities have been rebuilt, Berlin still has gaps, physical, social and economic, maintaining strange physical proximities and rich social overlaps that have elsewhere been smoothed out by urban gentrification.
So this Berlin apparently manages to maintain a sense of itself, or rather is engaged in a continuous process of self-description. This confused, less than beautiful, apparently dysfunctional city – the physical result of so much trauma and division – becomes charming, full of life and the envy of other cities, not for its beauty or its wealth but because of its vitality.
Cities record our fragile attempts to make ideas of society in physical form.They are physical records of our visions and our mistakes. We have always been clumsy in this undertaking. It tends to be a clumsy process, partly because of the decision machinery and partly because of the mismatch between the tendencies of investment and the poorly articulated expectations of the citizen.
Unfortunately, when we travel the world we see that we are becoming clumsier in this respect. The form of our cities seems to have little to do with our ideas of society, rather investment seems to look over our heads in order to pursue its own needs and to enjoy the momentum of global economics.
We are now at a time when image dominates, when we are more susceptible than ever to judge by appearance. Architecture has increasingly moved into this world of consumerism. New buildings seem more concerned with what they look like and less concerned with what they are and what they do.
In Berlin, where appearance isn’t everything, where so much seems arbitrary, where the great waves of recent history have done so much damage, we should admire what has been achieved since 1989. In this time, Berlin has found something it didn’t expect: that it is not defined like other cities by its wealth or its industry or its commerce, but rather surprisingly by its own fascinating complexity and contradictions.
• This is an extract of a speech given at the Neue Nationalgalerie to celebrate the contribution of architects Mies van der Rohe and Hans Scharoun to the rebuilding of Berlin
David Chipperfield is a Stirling prize-winning architect.