Top 10 architectural sites in Berlin

Berlin has been a UNESCO city of design since 2006 and walking the streets of Berlin it’s easy to see why. Whether product design, fashion, graphic or corporate design, Berlin has more than 2,400 companies working in these fields. Berlin’s relationship with design is not just reflected in the industry here, but also in the very buildings themselves. From elegant pre war buildings to 1950s post-war pomp through to sleek, modern constructions, Berlin has an eclectic mix of architecture filling it’s streets and plazas, including buildings by some of the most famous architects in the world. Below is a pick of some of the best.

The Reichstag

The German Parliamentary building has an incredible history, from Germany’s imperial splendour through the darkest hours of Nazi terror and the final bloody days of WWII. Restored by Norman E. Foster in the 90’s after reunification to become once more the German Parliamentary Building it has a spectacular dome made from 3000sq metres of glass where 360 mirrors reflect sunlight directly into the Plenary Chamber. Visitors can visit the Dome for free, but also recommended is registering for a tour inside the building where you can see real graffiti left by Russian soldiers at the end of the War, or some of the art works specifically commissioned for the restored building. Be aware in summer these tours book out well in advance, so pre-register online as soon as possible.

Reichstag

Potsdamer Platz

Once the bustling nightlife hub of the 1920’s, Potsdamer Platz suffered terrible damage through the bombing raids of WWII. After the war it was positioned directly on the border between East and West Berlin, meaning when the Wall went up dividing the city, most of the remains were simply removed. After reunification in 1990 Potsdamer Platz was a huge swathe of empty land in the centre of Berlin, and as such, became a massive re-development site. A cooperation between major corporations and the government, it was the symbol of the re-birth of Berlin, full of hope and euphoria for a Berlin which would now boom. Nearly 20 yrs after completion people debate whether the re-development has been a success. But one thing’s for sure, here you have buildings by some of the most reknowned archtiects of the world including Helmut Jahn, Richard Rogers, Renzo Piano and Arata Isozaki.

Olympia Stadium

Not many examples of Nazi architecture remain in Berlin. Many were destroyed during the War, or deliberately removed afterwards as part of the ‘denazification’ of Berlin. Of the ones which remain, none are as impressive as the Olympic Stadium. Designed for the 1936 Olympics hosted in Berlin, this was to showcase Hitler at the height of his power, at a time when the world was still relatively trusting of the ‘new’ Germany. Designed by Werner Marsch, Hitler overrode the architect’s initial ideas to insist on a very Classical style structure of immense proportions. Renovated for the world cup in 2006 it is home to Berlin’s notoriously bad football team Hertha and is open for visits and tours when there’s no match playing. The original Bell tower is still accessible and from the top you get a phenomenal view out over Berlin.

Olympia Stadium, Berlin

Charlottenburg Schloss

Berlin’s last surviving royal Palace was originally completed in 1699 as a summer palace for Queen Sophie Charlotte, who became the first queen of Prussia. Initially a small building, later were added to additional wings to create a formal reception courtyard and the impressive cupola. Still later, Frederick the Great added to more wings to extend the Palace even further in his distinctive Roccoco style. Almost completely destroyed during WWII it has been lovingly and extensively restored and is open to the public. The gardens are beautiful in summer, and in the evenings you can transport yourself back to the 18th century by attending a dinner concert in the Orangerie where musicians play baroque music of the era in period costumes. Particularly good to visit if you don’t have time for a day trip to Potsdam.

DZ Bank

Situated on the Pariser Platz, right near the Brandenburg Gate, sits a rather inconspicuous building called the DZ bank. Because building codes around the Gate are so strict – nothing is allowed to be higher that the Gate, nothing is allowed to overshadow the Gate with flashy architecture, the frontages of the buildings here tend to be rather… well… dull. And looking at the plain facade of wall and windows no-one would ever guess that the DZ Bank is a Frank Gehry creation. Known for flowing organic forms this building seems to be a true break from his distinctive style – until that is, you go inside. As you step inside the building you can see what is lacking on the outside has simply been transported within. A huge, curving internal roof looks more like a sculpture than a conference room, glass panels allowing the rooms to be streaming with sunlight. Gehry himself in an interview said he felt it was the most perfect shape he’d ever designed. Open to the public for viewing during normal banking hours, except when private functions are being held.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Why is a memorial also an architectural highlight? Come and see for yourself. Designed by Peter Eisenman it consists of 2711 concrete stellae (hollow blocks). All at a different angle or a different height they cover an area of 4.7 acres. The play of light sometimes creates an optical illusion of a graveyard. At times with the sunset the blocks turn shades of pink and orange. In the snow the white caps on the blocks form a stark and bleak visual statement. From its beginnings this memorial has been surrounded by controversy and to this day opinion is divided. One thing’s for certain, it gets people talking. Underneath the abstract ‘above ground’ design is an information centre with a chilling exhibition on the Holocaust which is well worth a visit. It’s free and is open every day except Mondays.

Jewish Memorial, Berlin

Jewish Museum

The Jewish Museum tracks Jewish history here right the way back to the middle ages and beyond. But it does have a specific wing dedicated to remembering the Holocaust which was designed by Daniel Libeskind and which really launched him as an architect on the international stage. The whole three-stage wing is designed to be experiential. Doors are set on angles, floors are slightly sloping. There are several architectural installations such as the Garden of Exile, the Void, or the Holocaust Tower. For people wanting to have more than just the experience of visiting the exhibits, you can book a personal guide to take you through various parts of the museum, including the Libeskind wing and explain the conceptual basis of the design in great detail.

Neues Museum

One of the most visited museums on Museum Island, it was literally in ruins for decades because of the damage sustained during the war years. Eventually restored by David Chipperfield in collaboration with Julian Harrap it only re-opened in 2009 and now houses the extraordinary Egyptian collection, including the bust of Nefertiti (yes, it’s here in Berlin, not in Egypt!). What’s remarkable about this restoration, is the architects fought very hard to be able to keep as much of the damaged building as possible, and wanted to be very clear where the original ends and the new begins. Therefore inside you can see bullet holes in the pillars left behind by Russian soldiers fighting for Berlin, you can see where the old walls merge with the new to create a striking mix of neo-classical next to modern design.

Boros Collection

Most people go to see the Boros Collection for the modern art, and perhaps overlook the architectural significance of the building itself. One of the last remaining above ground bomb shelters in Berlin, it has been at various stages a prison, a vegetable storehouse (known as the ‘banana bunker’), a night club, and now a private art gallery. Christian Boros bought it in 2003 and built his penthouse apartment on the top floor. His private modern art collection is one of the best in the city and has been open for private guided tours since 2007. Of course, whilst visiting the incredible collection you get to walk right inside a relic from WWII, a piece of history still standing after all these years.

Berlin Philharmonic

Designed by Hans Scharoun in 1963 this building with it’s golden tiled exterior is easy to spot from any viewing platform in Berlin. A much overlooked architect in Berlin, the Berlin Philharmonic is his best known work, and is considered to be one of the most successful buildings of it’s kind. It was known as a ‘democratic’ concert hall (important in the ideological scheme of things, as the Berlin Wall had just been erected next door to the site) this is because the orchestra is in the middle- ‘in the round’ so to speak, and as such this hall has some of the best acoustics of any concert hall in the world. You can even sit behind the orchestra and watch the conductor from the front (much better than only seeing the back of his head in my opinion!). When Simon Rattle is conducting tickets sell out within hours, so be prepared and book early. If you do miss out there is a free lunch time chamber concert in the foyer at 1pm on Tuesdays.

Penelope Hassmann is Owner of Berlin Private Tours.

Comments (2)

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  1. Christine says:

    Nice article, but a few corrections needed… “Frank Geary” should be “Frank Gehry”. The correct name for what you refer to as the Jewish Memorial is “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe” also known as the “Holocaust Museum”. I’m surprised the “German Chancellory” or “laundry machine” wasn’t listed.

  2. Paul Johnson says:

    Thank you, Christine… I’ve made those corrections.

    Paul

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