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Design scenes enliven Berlin for Berliners and its visitors

Email|Print| Text size + By Christine Temin
Globe Staff / January 4, 2004

BERLIN -- The only way to enter Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum Berlin is to go through a Baroque building that was once home to the Royal Supreme Court. The irony of a building once dedicated to justice being attached to a structure that commemorates one of history's greatest crimes is unmissable. The court building is an exercise in architectural self-satisfaction, bolstered by symmetry and a vivid palette: yellow stone exterior with a red tile roof. The sharp, jagged angles of the Libeskind building, which opened in 2001, could hardly provide more contrast. These askew shapes create a queasy, surreal setting.

The next part of the journey through the Jewish Museum takes you down a long, winding, charcoal gray staircase. The very air seems to turn colder. By the time you reach the bottom, you are also underground, and faced with a choice of three paths: the Axis of the Holocaust, the Axis of Exile, and the Axis of Continuity. Each has a dramatic culmination.

The Axis of the Holocaust ends in a bare, unheated, concrete tower into which visitors are shut for a few minutes that seem much longer. It is not a contemplative, chapel-like space; it feels more like a trap, with a sliver of light and a metal ladder cruelly positioned, so high that no one could reach them.

At the end of the Axis of Exile is a "garden" that is also unsettling. Forty-eight tall concrete pillars are filled with earth from Berlin, a 49th with earth from Jerusalem. The numbers refer to the birth and infancy of the State of Israel in 1948--49. The stone floor slopes; the pillars tilt and trees grow out of them. Making no connection to the ground, they symbolize an uprooted people.

The Axis of Continuity, the most optimistic of the three, leads to a pomegranate tree. In Jewish tradition the pomegranate stands for fertility and abundance. Finally, there are the museum's galleries, which use many media and artifacts to tell the story of Jews in Germany since medieval times.

Libeskind's axes are a grand metaphor for a horrifying period in the history of Berlin, a period not completely put to rest. I had a guide in the city who said he didn't understand why before World War II Jews had to have so many synagogues. Why couldn't they have kept a lower profile? He proved to be an equal-opportunity bigot who was just as resentful of the Turkish Muslims immigrating to Berlin and building mosques. He so objected to cultural mixing that he even complained about a Chinese restaurant in the city that also served Arab food. He was the only person I encountered who expressed such reactionary views; everyone else was warm and welcoming. That this man was only in his early 30s made his opinions all the scarier.

. . .

As with all cities, Berlin's architecture helps define its soul. Here there is no Eiffel Tower-Big Ben-Sydney Opera House equivalent that would stand as a universally recognized symbol of the city. Berlin's tortuous history has led to a wildly diverse cityscape, with buildings ranging from the inflated grandeur of churches and museums built by emperors, to the infamous Reichstag, which British architect Norman Foster tried -- with only partial success -- to transform into an open, transparent space free of past associations.

Berlin's Potsdamer Platz, once the busiest traffic hub on the continent, was bombed in the war and never rebuilt. While the Berlin Wall was up, it was deserted. Since reunification in 1990 (after which Berlin was made the capital again), Potsdamer Platz has become a gigantic, sleek, breathlessly up-to-date office and shopping complex where the creations of star architects including Renzo Piano, Rafael Moneo, and Helmut Jahn vie for your attention. It's hard, actually, to think of any contemporary world-famous architect who hasn't built in the New Berlin -- Frank Gehry, I.M. Pei, they're all here.

The exaggerated size of the Potsdamer Platz buildings makes Berlin's Bauhaus Archive/Museum of Design look all the more appealing. It's on a human scale. True to the Bauhaus aesthetic of clean, simple lines, it lies close to the ground, an all-white building whose signature is a roofline of curves, each glazed on one side to allow natural light into the galleries. Its architect was Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus, who fled Germany after the National Socialists came to power and who ended up at Harvard. The Bauhaus Archive was built after his death in 1969.

The collections inside hint at what might have been built in Germany had tyranny and war not intervened. Drawings, plans, letters, and actual furnishings -- from teapots to an entire doctor's office, with lots of modular steel -- document a movement that was extremely forward-thinking in its day, and still looks fresh, although Berliners tend to see it as a historical movement rather than one that is still relevant.

In the Gendarmenmarkt, a grand square laid out in the 18th century, the French Church and the German Church, mirror images of each other, flank the Schauspielhaus, an opulent concert hall begun in 1818, bombed in World War II, and rebuilt afterward, one of many historic structures Berliners were simply unwilling to give up.

Around the corner from the Gendarmenmarkt is a tiny building also beloved by Berliners, Cafe Octagon. The green, eight-sided pavilion ranks among the world's cleanest and most attractive public toilets.

. . .

"Lounging, dining, chilling" is the slogan on Kula-Karma's business card. The year-old restaurant-club is part of the imaginative, funky New Berlin.

My guide, a.k.a. Mr. Intolerant, had explained the massive amounts of graffiti we saw around town as "a way for people to express themselves. Berlin is a very controlled city." Some Berliners channel their expressiveness into more positive projects, and Kula-Karma is one. The exterior of this once-decrepit building doesn't prepare you for what's inside: a fantasyland of red plush, mosaics, gold leaf, candles in little black metal holders with wings, lighting fixtures of coiled metal wire, gnarled tree branches with little stuffed hearts dangling from them.

It's a nighttime place that opens at 5 p.m. but doesn't really get going until hours later, when the DJ arrives. Kula-Karma's equivalent in London or New York would be snooty, with a bouncer outside to make sure those who got in were sufficiently chic. At Kula-Karma, though, everyone's welcome; there's even a brief children's menu. People of all ages, races, and backgrounds mingle, enjoying the music and cuisine, which the menu (which comes in English) describes as "world food with an Asian presentation." Berliners don't believe in "portion control," so Kula-Karma's take on tapas is a platter with more than enough for a whole meal for two healthy appetites -- all for about $16.

Berlin's lively design scene is nicely summarized in the three hotels I visited: the Grand Hyatt, Ku'Damm 101, and Hotel Propeller Island City Lodge. Lest the name Hyatt put you off because it's a big international chain, be aware that the one in Berlin was designed by Moneo. Right in the heart of Potsdamer Platz, its red sandstone exterior with deep arcades is vintage Moneo, elegant without being flashy. Inside is a massive lobby with stone floors, cedar walls, and large-scale art including a huge, scribbly mural by Otto Zitko. From the backlit alabaster walls in a ground-floor corridor, to the sliding glass walls in the guest rooms that make it possible to take a bath while looking out over the city, to the rooftop glass and steel pavilion that houses the fitness center and pool, the design is lavish but not flamboyant. Moneo refutes all the stereotypes about Spain.

Named for its address (Kurfurstendamm is Berlin's premier boulevard, Ku'damm its nickname), Ku'Damm 101 belongs to that international category of "design hotel." Some of these places are stylish but impractical -- I have stayed in ones where the lighting was so minimal I looked 20 years younger in the bathroom mirror -- but this one is comfortable as well as trendy. The design is all fluid lines, from the swooping walls of banquettes in the lobby bar-restaurant to the desks in the guest rooms made of two ovoids that merge. The TV cabinet is on wheels so you can watch it where you want; a single cordless phone substitutes efficiently for the multiple phones in some hotels. There is nothing on the walls to disturb the spare serenity.

Then there's Propeller Island, named for Jules Verne's sci-fi novel. Its owner, Lars Stroschen, is a man of multiple talents: a composer, visual artist, hotelier, and the ultimate recycler. He designed and built everything in the hotel, all from found materials and stuff he's collected over the years. Each of the 32 rooms he has constructed within the walls of an old apartment block on a quiet side street is unique. The bed in the "Temple Room" sits atop a ziggurat-shaped base. The room called "Four Beams" features four floor-to-ceiling timbers that support a bed tied to them with heavy ropes. The "sink" is a battered metal cylinder that looks like it may have started life as a washer or dryer. The breakfast room walls are covered with Stroschen's large photomurals of flowers; the table bases are cut from tree trunks; the chair seats are plain white Plexiglas. The chairs used to have upholstered seats in motley prints, but Stroschen decided those seats would look better hung on a bedroom wall, where they form a relief that is puzzling until you get the joke.

Stroschen also composed a sound track for Propeller Island, available in CD form that you can buy.

The nearly three-year-old hotel has attracted a loyal clientele. One German woman who has five children regularly visits Propeller Island to escape them. "Each night she stays in a different room," Stroschen says. "She's been in all of them -- except the coffin room," where the "beds" are made of final resting places. "Only children want to sleep in the coffins," he says. "To children, death is a fantasy."

. . .

In the New Berlin, tiny bronze squares are embedded in the sidewalks. In each is etched the name of a Jew deported from the capital before or during the war, and the location where he or she was sent. "Deported to Auschwitz" recurs with chilling frequency. You step into history as you walk Berlin's streets.

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