Johannes Novy

The battle for Molkenmarkt: Will Berlin turn to its past, present or future?

A design jury scandal, changing city building directors and the 'Molkenmarkt Charter'. Will Berlin's famous square ever get on the path to redevelopment?

Anyone visiting Molkenmarkt, a short distance from Alexanderplatz, may need some imagination to realise that it is Berlin’s oldest square. In fact, it takes a lot of imagination to even recognise it as a square. Little of its history survived the 20th century and what was once the heart of late-medieval Berlin became an oversized traffic junction.

The foundations of an 18th-century building are seen at a construction site in front of the ‘Old City Hall’ (Altes Stadthaus) near Berlin’s Alexanderplatz earlier this year. The massive construction site at Berlin’s Molkenmarkt yielded a trove of archaeological discoveries pertaining to the city’s recent, and not so recent, history. (Photo by John MacDougall/AFP via Getty Images)

Molkenmarkt passes as one of those places cultural critic Andreas Huyssen famously referred to as “voids” – empty spaces resulting from the Second World War and subsequent historical events that to him constituted a defining feature of Berlin’s cityscape. Few of these voids, once so characteristic of the city, have remained since Huyssen published his essay The Voids of Berlin 25 years ago, and of those that do, the Molkenmarkt stands out as the largest and most emblematic. 

However, its days too are numbered. The first ideas to heal the wounds of wartime destruction and subsequent car-oriented urban renewal date back to the 1990s, and in 2016 plans to transform the area became official with the adoption of a land use plan. A “‘non-place’ of 20th century urban and transport planning”, as it says in the preamble of eight subsequently developed guidelines for the development of the area, is to become a “vibrant urban district of the future”, offering a mix of housing, commerce and culture and breathing new life into what was the nucleus of Berlin.

So far, so uncontroversial. However, urban development in Berlin is rarely, if ever, uncontroversial, certainly not when it comes to places as important as this and so it is hardly surprising that the question of how exactly Molkenmarkt should develop is the subject of considerable debate. A debate that, at its core, revolves around a dispute that has bedevilled Berlin since its reunification, namely the question of if, and to what extent, Berlin’s future should be modelled on the city’s past.

Molkenmarkt and urban planning

In the 1990s, when key decisions were made about the future of the newly reunified city, adherents of a traditional urban planning approach were victorious in setting the urban planning and architectural course of the time. Espousing the view that Berlin did not need to, and in fact should not, be reinvented and calling for a reappropriation of the urban virtues of “the” traditional European city and, along with it, a return to traditional building styles and typologies, what became known as “critical reconstruction” became the quasi-official planning doctrine.

This was also reflected in the so-called ‘Planwerk Innenstadt‘, an initially informal and then, in 1999, officially adopted master plan for the inner city, which drew heavily on the historical layout of pre-divided Berlin to deal with the consequences of destruction and division as well as decades of post-war functionalist planning. Architects in the inner city had to adhere to strict guidelines concerning their buildings’ shape, size and appearance. They stipulated that pre-war streets and blocks be restored, that a mixture of uses is provided (typically street-level commercial spaces topped by housing or office space), that buildings should be of a uniform height (the so-called ‘Traufhöhe‘), and have stone exteriors in preference to glass and steel or other materials. 

The result was that the “new” Berlin architecturally turned out not nearly as exuberant and experimental as one might have expected, considering the bold, daring visions and proposals that were making the rounds after the city’s reunification. This was a relief to some and a cause of frustration for others. To Huyssen it was more of the latter. Berlin, according to him, was caught up in a battle between two flawed visions, one rooted in “banal images of a national past” and the other in “equally banal images of a global future” – that is, “international high-tech, facade ecstasy, a preference for mostly banal high-rises and floods of computer-generated imagery” – and on course for a “false start into the 21st century”.

Is Berlin really progressive?

Berlin may enjoy an image as a progressive and innovative European capital, but crossing its historic centre, say from Brandenburg Gate towards Alexanderplatz, it is hard to see why. Much of what has been built is not so much an expression of a vision of the future as of another past, starting with the curiously underwhelming Pariser Platz next to Brandenburg Gate, whose architects had a particularly rigid regulatory straitjacket imposed on them, and culminating with the recently completed reconstruction of the Berlin Palace, aptly described by the Guardian as an “an imposing Disneyland castle minus the fun” at the eastern end of Unter den Linden. 

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In the 1990s especially, proponents of critical reconstruction had been at pains to distance themselves from neo-traditional phonyism. Critical reconstruction, they claimed, aimed to restore Berlin’s historic urban tissue and feel, not by mimicking but by (re)interpreting traditional concepts of city planning and building. Yet to the extent that critical reconstruction, was ever truly “critical”, it certainly became less and less so as time progressed. Indeed, if its buildings are anything to go by, Berlin is a city in reverse.

Not only the almost literal reconstruction of vanished landmarks such as the Berlin Palace, but also much else being built in Berlin today illustrates a turn towards an unapologetically retrograde architecture, much to the delight of a small but vocal scene of die-hard traditionalists for whom the “critical” in “critical reconstruction” was anathema from the start. Evoking neoclassicism (early 19th century), Gründerzeit (late 19th century), warly modern/art deco (early 20th century) and, disconcertingly, the austere aesthetics of the 1930s, the New Berlin Style, as it is sometimes referred, has become increasingly unhinged in its historicising tilt without even a hint of postmodern playfulness or irony. It is particularly popular with high-end developers who seize on it to project distinction and exclusivity and maximise the return on their projects, resulting in swathes of Berlin being redressed in a faux historical skin.

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Of course, this trend does not go unchallenged. Berlin wouldn’t be Berlin if it didn’t also have a vibrant scene of architects, planners and activists who question and confront it. Many consider the Berlin Palace not only a bore but an absurdity, and there is a lively debate about the political subtexts behind its resurrection and that of the “neoconservative current in architecture” making strides not only in Berlin but throughout Germany, and the extent to which these are linked to and reflective of nationalist and historical-revisionist agendas. Indeed, for those critical of the reconstructionist veneration of the past, Berlin is not a lost cause.

As a result, interesting and innovative projects embodying alternative approaches to architecture and planning, as well as to the city’s history and commemoration, do get built and, for a while, hopes ran high that this could also be the case at the Molkenmarkt. Developed in an elaborate, multi-year collaborative process, the planning guidelines for the area suggested as much. They promised a sensitive approach to the diversity of historical traces and the contemporary context of the site, the creation of diverse public spaces and cultural facilities, a focus on environmentally sustainable design and construction, the provision of “innovative” and much-needed “affordable” housing and, crucially, that the site would not be sold to private developers, as was the case with similar projects, but would remain in public ownership.

German architecture could get stuck in the past

However, since their adoption, several developments have cast doubt on this. Until 2021, Swiss architect Regula Lüscher was Berlin’s Senatsbaudirektorin, or city building director in charge of overseeing the Molkenmarkt’s planning process. Lüscher had made no secret of the fact that she considered Berlin’s austere and inflexible approach to architecture and planning to be at odds with the spirit of the city, and that it made little sense to her to base the development of a 21st-century city on models derived from an idealised and selective interpretation of the past.

Accordingly, she sought to create more space for architectural innovation and diversity by doing away with overly rigid architectural dictates and introducing more collaborative and process-oriented planning approaches in their place. This made her the target of sharp attacks from conservative circles but earned her recognition from those on the other side of the spectrum advocating openness and experimentation. At times they criticised Lüscher for not being bold or effective enough to bring about the kind of change they wanted, but they still considered her an ally or at least someone they could work with, leaving them all the more disappointed when her term came to an end and a successor was selected who, instead of continuing on Lüscher’s path, promised to reverse it.

Petra Kahlfeldt, a vocal advocate of neo-traditional architecture who mainly made a name for herself designing luxurious private residences and restoring historical monuments, took office at the end of 2021, causing considerable uproar and culminating in a petition calling on the government to rescind her appointment. Kahlfeldt stayed on and so it fell to her to see through to the final stages of a multi-phase design competition for the Molkenmarkt that Lüscher had initiated.

In November 2021, two teams had been tasked with further developing their proposals in consultation with the public. Eerily symbolic of the rival currents shaping the urban development discourse in contemporary Berlin, the first was led by Bernd Albers and Silvia Malcovati, two prominent advocates of critical reconstruction, while the other consisted of two younger architectural practices – OS arkitekter and Czyborra/Klingbeil – who are more known for smaller projects centred on collaborative and flexible design, as well as social and environmental sustainability.

The former, as was to be expected from a team representing “traditional urbanism”, had come up with a design that proposed to restore the pre-20th-century urban layout, including its fine-grained plot structures, as far as possible, even demolishing existing GDR-era buildings to this end. The latter, on the other hand, took more account of present circumstances and proposed a design that was less historically inspired but arguably more promising with respect to the goal to realise a model neighbourhood that would set new standards in terms of social and ecological sustainability.

The jury meeting concluding the competition in September 2022 ended in something of a scandal. Contrary to what had widely been expected, no winning design was selected and the announcement was made that both designs would be used to develop a “Molkenmarkt Charter” serving as a basis for the future development of the area. Kahlfeldt and the head of the jury insisted that this had always been the intention, but evidence casts doubt on this. Kahlfeldt herself had claimed the contrary at least once at a public event in April, internal minutes leaked to the media suggest otherwise, and even the project’s website read differently until it was edited a day before the jury meeting.

The accusation levelled against Kahlfeldt is a serious one: did she object to the selection of a winner to prevent the design by OS arkitekter and Czyborra/Klingbeil, which was reportedly favoured by the jury, from being recommended for implementation? Critics of Kahlfeldt and the media suspect that this was the case and that she wants to use the development of the so-called Molkenmarkt Charter to cement a more traditional urban planning approach than the design by Czyborra/Klingbeil would have allowed.

There is no proof of this, but where Kahlfeldt’s inclinations lie is no secret. Prior to her appointment, she was an active member of the Planungsgruppe Stadtkern, a think tank that has long campaigned for a “reclamation” of the city centre along traditionalist principles (and in which Bernd Albers, who died in spring 2022, was also involved). If the Planungsgruppe had its way, even iconic ensembles of GDR post-war planning such as the open spaces around the Fernsehturm (television tower) would give way to new developments inspired by the city’s pre-20th-century urban structure.

Proof that Molkenmarkt could succeed

For critics, such musing amounts to a purposeful escalation of what they claim are recurrent acts of ”urban revanchism”, aimed at undoing the legacy of the GDR and (re)appropriating the inner city for the middle and upper classes, sacrificing open and green spaces for mostly upmarket, private developments in the process. Such concerns also echo when it comes to the future of the Molkenmarkt, a key worry being that building historically – besides an alignment with the old, small-scale plot structure, there is also talk of historically inspired architecture, possibly even the reconstruction of individual buildings – would result in higher building and operation costs and almost inevitably jeopardise the goal of creating genuinely affordable housing and lead to new debates about the need to sell plots of land to private investors. 

Following the jury meeting in September, several hundred initiatives, institutions and individuals signed an “appeal for a social and ecological model quarter at Molkenmarkt” to prevent this from happening, calling on the city to honour the guidelines that came out of the extensive consultative process for the site. At the same time, however, a new player entered the scene with a big bang in the form of the “Stiftung Mitte Berlin – Für das Herz der Stadt” (Foundation Mitte Berlin – For the Heart of the City).

It was founded in July 2022, but did not go public until September and pursues similar goals to those of the Planungsgruppe Stadtkern, whose founding member Benedikt Göbel serves as the foundation’s executive director. Its website states that “as many pre-1933 squares, buildings and monuments as possible in the area of the former historic city centre” are to be restored, and what that might look like is demonstrated by numerous glossy visualisations of retro utopias with cobblestone squares and cute buildings in historic drag.

For the foundation, the key to Berlin’s future clearly lies in the city’s past. Whether it will have its way or whether a different stance will prevail will be decided in no small measure on and around the Molkenmarkt.

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