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Friday18 August 2017

Renovation means goodbye to Berlin

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The history and chaos of the 20th century is embodied in the now-threatened Tacheles.

One of the highlights of last year has to be Chipperfield’s Neues Museum in Berlin. Recipient of several architecture awards, it is the most recent last word in the renovation of old buildings – luxurious, suave, serious.

But a few hundred yards away from Chipperfield’s masterpiece another renovation is taking place that may prove to be the architectural lowlight of 2011.

If you have spent a night in Berlin, the likelihood is that you will have spent time in Tacheles. Likelier still, your memories of the occasion will be a purple haze of beer, graffiti and toilets of a most un-teutonic filth.

Tacheles started life as a department store. Appropriated during the war as a prison, it was bombed, and for most of the history of the GDR, it was little used. By 1990 it was slated for demolition and was saved only by fall of the Berlin Wall. By then a ruin, Tacheles was occupied by artists in search of studio space.

Now Tacheles is open all day and all night; and the curious as well as the countercultural troop through the labyrinth of studios and bars clutching bottles of beer. It has been subject to a renovation of so light a touch that one is barely aware that it has taken place. A steel bridge slung from cracked cornice to broken caryatid are the only sign that anything has happened. No one has made any attempt to clean up the graffiti, or to remove the plants that, springing from its stones, lend the place the air of a Piranesian prison.

Not so long ago, Potsdamer Platz was a sea of mud, the Reichstag roofless, and Mitte, the old city centre, a low-rent slum. Through it all, like a row of rotten teeth, ran chipped fragments of the wall. Now the paintings on the wall are being restored. Mitte is a yuppie heaven, the Reichstag is surmounted by Foster’s dome, and Potsdamer Platz is the largest Sim City outside the computer game. Even barmy proposals to reconstruct the Kaiser’s Schloss (without, thankfully, a Kaiser) have been passed by the city government. Chipperfield’s Museum is one piece in this scheme of regeneration.

Isi Metzstein once dubbed Berlin the Rome of the 20th century. A collage of ruin built on top of ruin, it has been the site of experiment after experiment for a century, from Lang’s Metropolis to Tacheles. Berlin has been, as Tacheles still is, just, incomplete (or ruined), chaotic, and consequently one of the most exciting cities in Europe.

Too much has been said in recent years about the “Bilbao effect” and the public realm. Make cities nice places to be, the conventional wisdom runs, give them proper cultural facilities, and they will work – whatever that means. Berlin has long been the gauntlet thrown down to those who believe that they can make things work, solve problems and, like the people who destroyed the wall in 1989, bring history, with all its unpredictable twists and turns, to an end.

Get rid of Tacheles – and that’s the current plan – and Berlin will become a city like any other.

And then, at last, it will be finished.

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