In the Footsteps of History

This is how the architects of Herzog & de Meuron describe their urban development concept

There is almost no other city in the world where the layers of history, whether created by constructive or destructive forces, are as clear and tangible as in Berlin. This creates an urban fabric that is composed and shaped by a variety of urban and architectural influences, marked by the injuries of war, the post-war years and the Berlin Wall that cut a deep void into the fabric of the city. For so long, this void significantly impacted on large parts of Berlin. These vacant lots harboured huge potential, an openness arose, a free space that was exploited in so many different and exciting ways. Berlin became an experimental field for urban planners and architects on the one hand, and a playground for culture and subculture on the other.

The site at Tacheles is one of the last large undeveloped sites in central Berlin. When we were commissioned to develop a plan for the area, we found a place that was half parking lot and half left to nature. An empty, wide wasteland, inscribed in the centre of a trapezoidal urban block formed by Friedrichstraße, Oranienburger Straße, Johannisstraße and Tucholskystraße. Only the three outermost corners of the block were developed and being used. The former Tacheles building was a dilapidated ruin, sadly overlooking the empty site. Until recently, a beaten path through the Tacheles Gate Building and across the area reminded us of the old passage and the path that had been followed. The once so vibrant, Kunsthaus (Art House), home to squatting artists who had transformed it into an icon of Berlin after the fall of the Wall, had since lost its attraction and energy. One section of the former Friedrichstrasse Passage had been saved from demolition by the group of artists, but even that had degenerated into a silent monument – without content or context.

These are the circumstances that informed and inspired our urban development concept. We have taken the existing structures, those that history has preserved, and use them to complete the block. We give the fragment its body back, but as a pure structure, an enclosed passage that once again provides the important link between Friedrichstraße and Oranienburger Straße. This is not a reconstruction or simulation, it is our reinterpretation of the historical footprint. The Tacheles building will be integrated into the future development and revitalised for planned cultural use. We want to re-experience the depth of the site’s history and at the same time update it and drive it forward.

The remaining section of the block also pays homage to the historical city plan. We respect the context while also lending the space an unmistakable character and a new identity. We will fill the block completely and then cut out a sequence of differently proportioned squares, courtyards and passages. The block will become porous and permeable. We are adding a new dimension to the edge of a typical urban block, giving it an inner life of its own, enabling a vibrant mix of uses and users within the block. The centrepiece, a large, green square that opens onto Oranienburger Strasse, will define the area and create a distinct sense of identity. Shops, restaurants, cafés and retail outlets line the square’s perimeter and activate the interior of the block. Along Johannisstraße, the planned residential development and a sequence of courtyards will add a sense of continuity to the surrounding development. We have made sure that each of the buildings, as well as their courtyards and adjoining urban squares, are designed using a variety of basic typologies. These range from small urban squares, opening up the area from the south, to a semi-private inner courtyard for hotel use, to a highly intimate, private residential courtyard, overlooked by the expansive balconies of the adjoining apartments. The planned building typologies are excitingly varied. They include a loft building with extra-high ceilings, compact townhouses with city apartments above, stacked maisonettes, a tower building centrally located inside the block and studio apartments along a firewall.

Our fundamental aim in planning the area at Tacheles is to develop a section of the city that does not disregard the human, a curated urban environment that adds a degree of much-needed intimacy; to develop built structures that are robust and direct, both in their construction and in the choice of materials employed; and to create an attractive and lively urban space that serves the community and the individual.

The design was preceded by an intensive appraisal of the site. In order to get closer to the historical depth of the area and its character, we searched for traces in the Tacheles building and around Berlin-Mitte and documented them in over 1,000 photographs.

(Article published in “After Now”, a project publication for EXPO REAL 2016)