Date of Degree
Rosemarie Haag Bletter
Architectural History and Criticism | History of Art, Architecture, and Archaeology | Urban, Community and Regional Planning
Critical Reconstruction, Berlin urban planning history, Berlin architectural history, post-Wall Berlin, post-modern German architecture
Reconstructing Berlin’s ruined contours after 1990 was one of the most important ways that reunified Germany made a public display of its relationship to the violence wrought by both the Nazis and East Germany during the twentieth century. By integrating historical forms into new buildings in the city’s commercial center, Berlin’s urban planners hoped to show the world that the nation had transcended totalitarianism and was worthy of a prominent place in the new global order. In order to achieve this vision, they adopted an approach called “Critical Reconstruction,” which required architects to follow rigid design standards based on traditional building typologies. In doing so, they also sought to rein in a flood of eager international investors who threatened to turn central Berlin into a landscape of flashy, corporate experiments.
However, because of its strict insistence on historical styles, its ambivalence towards – if not affinity for – Nazi architecture, as well as its rejection of contemporary movements such as Deconstructivism, Critical Reconstruction was interpreted by many observers as reactionary and dangerously conservative. Historians and social scientists commonly refer to it as a controversial, backward-looking representation of German national identity. In this dissertation, I fundamentally reassess the discourse of Critical Reconstruction and argue that this so-called “conservative” turn in Berlin city planning practice was in actuality driven by socially progressive planners making a failed attempt to shape a new democratic society through the regulation of built form. My research thus casts doubt on one of the most central post-Enlightenment claims about architecture: that its aesthetic qualities can both directly represent and influence people and politics.
Critical Reconstruction is mentioned often in recent histories of Berlin, and a handful of architectural historians have also examined isolated aspects of its deployment in terms of its relationship to trends in architecture and urban planning. However, without considering how it functioned discursively on multiple levels and in diverse arenas (professional, economic, and political), scholarly portrayals of Critical Reconstruction are reductive at best; at worst, these accounts risk reinscribing the same rigid and simplistic view of Berlin’s planning culture that they seek to critique. My project offers the first detailed examination of Critical Reconstruction as both a public discourse and a planning methodology, showing how planners’ endeavors to revive Berlin’s landscape in a socially responsible way ultimately gave rise to the opposite: a landscape of homogenous commercial buildings whose construction mainly served corporate interests, while simultaneously bolstering Berlin’s connections with the worst facets of its own history. Additionally, as discussions in the national media revealed Critical Reconstruction’s formal affinities with fascist architecture, suspicions grew amongst the general public that both this theory’s aesthetics and its authors also harbored authoritarian tendencies. The city that resulted from Critical Reconstruction’s intervention was thus, ultimately, a hyper-capitalist landscape that harkened back stylistically to the very moment in its violent history that Berlin desperately wanted to symbolically supersede.
This research goes beyond one-dimensional depictions of Critical Reconstruction as a unilateral statement about German identity, revealing its status as a set of planning tactics situated within a network of conflicting institutional and political formations. As such, it also addresses two fundamental problems faced by architects and planners in the global age: how to productively contend with the forces of capital while advocating for sustainable local growth, and how to make buildings into legible signifiers of politically acceptable narratives about a nation’s history and identity without risking public and professional misinterpretation. The case of Critical Reconstruction, I demonstrate, illustrates just how difficult such a contradictory set of tasks can be; indeed, the means of architecture and urban planning may be wholly inadequate for such a monumental undertaking.
Hohensee, Naraelle, "Building in Public: Critical Reconstruction and the Rebuilding of Berlin after 1990" (2016). CUNY Academic Works.