Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Berlin, between Paris and St. Petersburg

Cambridge, April 30, 2013

I was about to write that the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) reshaped Europe, just as I remembered (all the way from grade school in Buenos Aires!) that they were also the match that lit up the independence movements in Spanish America.  In any case, if you look carefully at a map of Berlin dated any time after 1814 you can see how the city was at the very center of Napoleon's path, midway between Paris and Saint Petersburg.

Literally.  Alexanderplatz to the east--at the end of Königs Strasse just past what was left of the fortifications--and Pariser Platz to the west, where Unten der Linden reaches the Tiergarten.

The area of Alexanderplatz served originally as a cattle market for Berlin, and was named by the Prussian King Frederick William III to commemorate the visit of the Russian Emperor Alexander I to Berlin in 1805.  At the other end of the map, Pariser Platz was one of three formal squares created as part of the Baroque extension of the city in the 1730s.  It was known as "Das Vierek" ("The Square") until 1814, when it got its name to celebrate the defeat of Napoleon and the triumphal entry of the Russian, Prussian and Austrian armies into Paris, with the very Alexander I and Frederick William III at the head.

That's the beauty in many names of streets, squares and other urban spaces, that carry extensive historic and geographic information in the most compact of ways.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Berlin in 1789

Cambridge, April 23, 2013

It's 1789, the 46-year reign (1740-86) of Frederick the Great ended only three years earlier and Berlin is one of the great capitals of the European Enlighentment.  Not long after the end of the Thirty Years' War (1618-48) Berlin embarked in the construction of massive defensive system of walls and bastions in the star-shaped Renaissance manner.  But by the time they were completed, the encircling fortications of Berlin had been rendered obsolete by advances in warfare technology and were completely gon in little more than a century.

If you look at a late 18th century map of Berlin you can still see the ghosts of the bastions, but the whole area of the walls is already taken by urban expansion.  Cölln--one of the original areas that formed the core of the city--now appears as "Alt Cöln" to distinguish it from the "Neu Cöln" extension of the fabric over the southern portion of the city walls.  In a similar fashion, Berlin proper has taken over the eastern area of the walls and Friedrichswerder over the western area of the walls.

By the end of the Thirty Year's war, the population of Berlin had dwindled to 6,000 inhabitants.  After a century and a half of peace--via massive military buildups--and religious tolerance, it was reaching 150,000 inhabitants.  And the map of the city reflects this growth, showing large new urbanized areas, extending along both margins of the Spree way beyond the original circle.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Berlin in 1652

Cambridge, April 22, 2013

I've always found the map of historic Berlin, with its large island trapped into a tight circle fortifications, rather puzzling.  Don't ask me why.  But once you understand that Friedrichswerder--the westernmost area within the walls--was a later extension of the city and not part of the original foundational core, everything begins to make sense.

A mid-17th century map of Berlin shows what the foundational core of the city was: Berlin proper to the east and the more elongated area know as Cölln to the west.  This roughly circular agglomeration is bisected by the Spree River and surrounded by narrow canals.  Over time, the western canal--originally a marshy area--will become what is now known as the Spreekanal.  In the map you can even see an earlier incarnation of the Berliner Staadtschloss on the north (left on the map) area of Cölln complete with its Lustgarten and, if I'm not mistaken, the beginning of what would eventually become Unter den Linden, at the time little more than a tree-lined road connecting the palace with the Tiergarten to the west.

Friedrichswerder (1660s) would come later, the first of a series new city extensions to the west of the foundational core, not unlike  Dorotheenstadt (1670s, originally called Neuestadt) and Friedrichstadt (1690s,) except that Friedrichwerden was established just in time to be encircled by the defensive walls of the mid 17th century.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Berlin in 1737

Becket, April 21, 2013

Stephan Pinkau, one of my colleagues in Dessau, has asked me to give a series of lectures on urban topics for his Summer School and I promised him to have one about Berlin just before their field trip to the German capital.

Must confess that I don't know very much about Berlin.  Where to start?

There is a beautiful 1737 map of Berlin that depicts the city during the rule of Frederick William I.  His father, Frederick I, had moved the capital of the newly established Kingdom of Prussia from Königsberg to Berlin shortly after his crowning in 1701.  The Thirty Year's War (1618-1648) had left in the city in ruins, but a century later Berlin had been rebuilt, repopulated and greatly expanded.

The map shows the central role of the Spree River in the development of Berlin's fortified core.  To the west of the fortifications the map also shows whole new areas of the city laid out as grids of rectangular blocks (note that the map is oriented with north pointing down,) Dorotheenstadt to the north and Friedrichstadt to the south.  Within this new fabric you can already identify Unter den Linden as a central axis running from the Palace to the east all the way to the square of Pariser Platz (that will have to wait until the defeat of Napoleon in 1814 to acquire its name) to the west.  Also Friedrichstrasse running north-south and ending in the circle now known as Mehringplatz.

Midway between the square and the circle, the octagon of Leipziger Platz completes Berlin's Baroque extension under Frederick William I and establishes the eastern end of the main axis of Friedrichstadt, Leipziger Strasse.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Clorindo's City

Dessau, April 12, 2013

People like to say that Clorindo Testa--the great Argentinean architect that died yesterday only a few months shy of his 90th birthday--remained a child for his whole life.  When it came to the city, his brand of childishness was expressed in his refusal to accept the well known English proverb admonishing that "you can't have your cake and eat it too."

His two most important buildings for Buenos Aires--the National Library and the Bank of London--display, in Clorindo's both heroic and mischievous way, the kind of architecture that results from having it both ways.

The competition brief for the library required the construction of an enormous building on a small, bucolic park along one of the edges of the city (hardly an innocent choice of site, as it had been the location of Evita and Juan Domingo Perón's residence, and Perón had been deposed only a few years earlier.)  In one of his legendary sketches, Clorindo showed how he intended to both deploy a muscular building and keep the park uninterrupted: book stacks below ground, reading areas way up above, and the park rolling in between, framed by the four elephantine legs of the structure.

If the library's mechanism to have its cake and eat it too is the section, the bank's is the façade.  Again, Clorindo's sketches show how he does it: the monumental and highly expressive concrete piers of the bank not at all shy in their confrontation of the tall Ionic columns across the street while at the same time allowing the life of the city to permeate the public areas of his building.  Then the intermediate structures either cantilever from below or hung from above, allowing the overall interior space to develop a truly urban dimension.