June 11, 2014


Essay in the book "Archaeology of the Periphery".

Berliphery, an essay by Theo Deutinger on the everlasting peripheral position of the city of Berlin, was published in the book "Archaeology of the Periphery."

European Archipelago

“Approaching Eutropolis, the European Archipelago of metropolitan areas, formerly known as Blue Banana, from the east, thus coming from China or Japan, the first large outpost one encounters is Moscow. If one leaves Moscow behind and travels onwards, the second, though much smaller, island is Berlin, just a few hundred kilometers offshore the large landmass of Eutropolis.” In the year 1989, the same year the Berlin Wall came down, Roger Brunet, a French geographer defined the Blue Banana, a heavily urbanized zone running form North-West England to Milan. Within this large urban field the “Center of Europe” can be traced around the cities Brussels, Strasbourg, Luxembourg and Frankfurt which accommodate the European Union’s most important institution.
Berlin is left out of this economic and political field of force. Berlin is and always has been positioned at the periphery of Europe. With the reinstallment of Berlin as capital of the reunified Germany, a political and economic offset of the Blue Banana to the east was expected, yet this never happened. The city is just too far away; consequently Berlin has to establish its own zone of gravity, its own economic and political axis. The 2006 inaugurated Hauptbahnhof should help to connect the city better to the international train traffic. The soon to be opened Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BER) has the task to position Berlin as global hub and branding initiatives like Silicon Allee should attract IT companies to settle in the capital. Berlin is under construction.
Even in the glory days of Berlin, when it was one of the top three European cities together with Paris and London, Karl Scheffler still described the city in his book “Berlin: Ein Stadtschicksal“ (1910) as a “colonial- and pioneer city” to underline its peripheral position within the European context. Today Berlin is still a “pioneer city” and lives from the exclusivity of its geographical position, from its position as cultural mediator; too far east to be truly German, but too far west to be real Slavic.
Being out there alone makes it an island in the sea, and oasis in the desert. If Berlin wants to be heard by another metropolitan area, it has to scream loud. Creating links to adjacent islands becomes a major task when the area within a 240km diameter around the city is scarcely populated and is about to lose even more inhabitants in the future. There is nothing but Berlin. In this respect the position of Berlin is very similar to the one of Moscow.
What Berlin and Moscow don’t have to fight for is isolation, a virtue that is often underrated in times of worshiping the global hub. If we believe the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, the island Berlin must be a true product of modernity. He states that “Modernists are island-composing and island-building intelligentsias who, so to speak, act on a topological set of human rights: herein gets the right to isolate (and insulate) combined with the co-original right to connect…” Berlin and Moscow are lucky and only have to do half of the job. Through their inherent islandic nature, these cities only have to call on their right to connect. Ideally this results in the state of ‘connected isolation’ , which enables a city to combine the advantages of a closed system with that of an open system. In this state of co-isolation one can enjoy the luxury of living on an island while being connected to the rest of the world at the same time.
Instead of appreciating its excellent position between two worlds, Berlin tries to become part of the European Archipelago, though the harder it tries to connect, the more it seems to drift off. Berlin has never been further away from the political Europe since it is the country’s capital. But that’s the fate of Berlin and that’s its largest asset. Berlin has to strive forever to become an integral part of the European network of cities to stay sharp and alive at the cost that it will distance itself ever more.


On April 13th 1990, the German newspaper “Die Zeit” stated, that Berlin would become a “magnet-city and a political-economical-cultural supernova” and it was assumed that the city’s population would grow within years from 3,4 million at the time of reunification to 6,0 million. This dream did not come true yet. Today the amount of inhabitants is more or less on the same level as they have been at the times of reunification.
Yet something changed. On some day between 1990, the year Berlin became the capital of the unified Germany, and today, the city turned into a metropolis. Probably it was in the year 1999 when the Federal Diet and the Federal Government moved from Bonn to Berlin ; a logical decision since Bonn has been only the provisional seat of West Germany’s government after WW II and therefore has never been granted with the label ‘capital’.
Still, one wonders on what reason this status of metropolis is based. For sure it is not Berlin’s rank as business location since it ranks 47 out of 50 analyzed German cities as shown by a research of INSM, a German think-tank . Its international infrastructure position neither, since Berlin ranks only 4th as railway and 3rd as aviation (Tegel + Schönefeld) hub within Germany. Not even as culture-city Berlin is able to rank first within Germany but shows up only on 4th place as the city ranking by HWWI/Berenberg shows .
Berlin seems to be not there yet, it is a “metropolis in the making”, a wannabe metropolis and it wants it badly. Berlin’s impatience led to the premise of ‘no results but processes’ which unnoticed turned into a method. This generates sometimes absurd results. In case of the abandoned airfield Tempelhof, it turned Berlin’s largest urban void into a socio-political canvas where all of a sudden any group or individual projects its dreams and ideas onto. Paradisiacal images of parks, mountains and gigantic lakes with little islands are dominating in the mind of the people while developers dream skyscrapers and little Manhattans into the void. In the case of the Berlin Brandenburg airport the ‘no results but process’ approach leads to the constant delay of the opening and subsequently to national if not international embarrassment.
Yet Berlin’s ‘ratings’ to become a true metropolis are good, meaning: the prospects are promising. These hopes are not ill-founded since Berlin has historic evidence for being experienced in metropolis-creation. In 1871 Berlin was elevated to the status of imperial capital of the German Reich and gained instantly, political and later on economical meaning, which fundamentally changed the appearance and the culture of the city. The city grew and doubled its amount of inhabitants to 1,8 million within the following 24 years, with two thirds of the new inhabitants gained by immigration. At the beginning of the 20th century, Berlin was the rising star under the European metropolises. However this fame was short-lived; after serving as pivotal city for two World Wars, Berlin was sent into 44 years of condemnation.

Political Island

In times when most cities think about expanding their directorial reach it is exciting to look at a city like Berlin that took exactly the opposite course. The disintegration of Berlin in a western and an eastern part led to a downgrading of its global status from metropolis to city, but at the same time to an increase of cultural diversity and exceptionality. The longer the separation lasted, the more both Berlins turned into peripheral settlements in the international context. Simultaneously the connection with their own periphery turned close to zero as well. This is most valid for West-Berlin, which was de facto a city without physical periphery, surrounded by a wall, embedded within East-Germany, the city functioned as island, supplied via four road and railway transit routes and three permissible air corridors to its political, cultural and economic main land, West Germany .
In the case of East-Berlin it was not a wall but planned economy and the powerful urban planning instruments of the GDR which hindered the city from outgrowing in its hinterland. The wall around the socio-capitalistic West-Berlin and the strict urban planning in East-Berlin proofed to be isolators of similar strength and at the time of the reunification, the urban form of the two Berlins fitted perfectly together. Once the isolators where gone on both sides, the transition between the city of Berlin and its surrounding periphery appeared to be extremely sudden. This situation was totally normal for the planners from the east, yet to the planners from the west it appeared as “urban oneiric silver-screen, which lacks any political conceptions. The size of the assignments can slowly be traced: a capital of 3 million gets with one stroke a center that needs to be newly erected or historically reconstructed.”
No matter the ideological education of the planner, all agreed that suburbanization which was waiting at the gates as a result of looming capitalist development, needs to be avoided by all means. A new isolator needs to be introduced to protect this beautiful insularity of Berlin. As a first attempt the government of the city-state Berlin and the state of Brandenburg proposed the idea of merging the two states into one entity in 1991 . This administrative fusion of a metropolis with its periphery to a single state would have provided the planners with the administrative and theoretical power of planning city and hinterland alike. While a slight majority of Berlin’s inhabitants was voting for the merger, the people of Brandenburg clearly were against it in a referendum held in 1996 .
Important time was lost to get a grip on organizing the space. In 1998 the city-state of Berlin formed together with the surrounding state Brandenburg, the “capital region Berlin-Brandenburg”, in order to establish a regional development plan (LEP) which was based on the doctrine of “decentralized concentration” . This plan should prevent the capital region from outgrowing urban structures and protect the surrounding nature and landscape of Brandenburg. “Decentralized concentration”, a key concept in German’s spatial planning, refers to the concentration of population, workplaces and infrastructure in cities of different sizes that are spread relatively evenly throughout the country. It is a kind of Neo-Christallerism which does not only look at the central places but also includes the periphery around these central places. The concept focuses on growth regions and aims to decentralize on a large scale while centralize on smaller scale.
Unfortunately “Decentralized concentration” remains a largely descriptive concept. Nobody would really argue with the need to act regionally yet the intersection of two federal structures (state of Berlin and state of Brandenburg) with strong local governments has so far prevented the development of effective regional governance structures. As method developed for growth regions it was entirely misplaced since Brandenburg’s unemployment figures remained high while demographic decline continued and even Berlin had problems to keep its population figures adjust. Additionally the “decentralized concentration” was not able to guide the little growth that happened and could not prevent the appearance of a “Speckgürtel” (bacon belt), a rim of affluent suburbs in convenient distance (~10km) from the center of Berlin.
Unnoticed the strategy of “decentralized concentration” is bearing its fruits, though not in the expected way. Not the periphery of Brandenburg was strengthened but the archipelago Berlin simply added some islands to its system and activated them according to its needs. Well-connected small towns like Oranienburg, Eberswalde and Potsdam (for the more affluent people) turned into affiliates of Berlin. The spaces between these islands remained absolutely untouched from these happenings. In fact the area between these islands is ever more emptying out , leading to the closer of schools and dismantling of infrastructure. These trends are reinforcing ever more the isolating qualities of the periphery. It is cruel but the ‘highly charged nothingness’ of Brandenburg is a better isolator than any spatial plan could imagine. It is not Berlin that isolates itself, it is its periphery that creates the distance to the mainland; thanks to this strong periphery Berlin can call on the status of metropolis.
With the new LEP in 2007, the concept of “Decentralized Concentration” was thrown overboard and replaced by the model of “Strengthening Strengths”, an even weaker and hollower sounding slogan than the one used before. The awareness to stay away from administrative expansion and the attempt to organize the entity as “capital region” should be highly acknowledged, yet the recommendations and planning instruments are too theoretical and the administrative power is too weak. The themes covered by the LEP 2007 are spot on: European spatial planning, energy and climate, BER airport and spatial analyses . Yet it is foredoomed not only because its lack of administrative vigor but also because its bureaucratic abstraction of space which was valid and very helpful at times of strong governmental planning departments and a rather weak private sector. In a reversed reality, with large scale and strong private sectors and a weak, because poor, public body, abstract and generalized models are soon perforated by legal and financial loopholes.

Pleasure Island

There is no project that branded the city more than the wall. The wall took from the city each possibility to grow into a truly European capital throughout the German economic boom in the 1960s but gave the city everything and more back after its disappearance. Berlin will remain the city that once was divided by a wall for a very long time.
The wall did not only change the city but its inhabitants as well. Berlin’s excentric position lead inevitable to excentric people. During the cold war this excentric position was reinforced in West-Berlin since it functioned as an important sign of determination and showcase of strength. For the east, West-Berlin was nothing but an easy target to trigger reactions, as Nikita Khrushchev, First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union explains: "Berlin is the testicle of the West. When I want the West to scream, I squeeze on Berlin." There is no clearer explanation for the peripheral and insular position at the time.
The life of the ‘islanders’ was extreme and fatalistic, thus was not suitable by everybody. By offering special conditions, the city of Berlin could keep its population stable, which was necessary to demonstrate its liveability and vitality in the stormy sea of the cold war where the city functioned as light-tower position as western outpost in the east. For the youth of West Germany, Berlin turned into a sort of Pleasure Island. Everybody who enlisted as citizen was granted with the exemption from the Federal Republic's compulsory military service. Hence Berlin turned into a kind of gated community of like-minded people which have won with one signature up to 18 months of their live.
The play-ground Berlin was not restricted to the youth, also grownups had their fair share of fun. The separated Berlins functioned as prevocational playing field for ideologists. West-Berlin’s kicked-off with the Axel Springer high-rise building, placed exactly at a spot and built exactly high enough to evoke a fierce reaction from ‘the other side’. As expected (or hoped for), the building caused a reaction, which came in the form of a residential complex at the Leipziger Strasse, which should function as a second wall to the west. Like the two hemispheres of the brain the one worked for the other. The western half acted only to make the eastern part react and vice versa. Over 40 years of psychological mind play produced an abundance of unique architectural and urban legacy in both Berlin’s.
Paradoxically the city is doing its best to forcefully erase this uniqueness. Exceptional, iconic legacies from the past get demolished e.g. Palast der Republik and replaced by generic rip-offs like a City Palace (Stadtschloss), or voids like the Potsdammer Platz are filled with developer architecture and turned into one of the dullest places in Berlin. Yet exactly this seems to be the Berlin Style. As Philipp Oswalt explains, “It is the paradox of Berlin that exactly the lack of distinguished historic buildings, makes the city appear as place loaded with history.” Thus there is nothing to fear, as long as Berlin is destroying its past, it will remain the peripheral and isolated Berlin as we know it.
Probably it is also this reckless handling of its most urban substance that peruses Berlin’s constant inner peripheralization. It is astonishing that the number one reason to move to this metropolis with over three million inhabitants is its village-like atmosphere . Even the tourists that visit Berlin on mass are not attracted by its urbanity as the ‘Frankfurter Allgemeine’ newspaper described in its travel section: ”Berlin is Periphery, yet exactly this is its charm: visitors adore the relaxed life in the city, so different to Paris or London – a city without noteworthy traffic jams, without stressed inhabitants, without compulsion neurosis, without fights in the suburbs, without competition, except wrestling for the best seats in the beer garden. So lies in every failure a success and Berlin can consider itself truly fortunate to have found its place in the world at last: as wonderful, enormous, free of charge amusement park with real people and real culture, exuberantly furnished without curfew.”

Islands within the island – the Green Archipelago

To call Berlin an island is oversimplified, in fact its and archipelago. In the year 1709 the Prussian capital Berlin was born out of a merger of the cities Berlin, Cölln, Friedrichswerder, Dorotheenstadt and Friedrichstadt. Thus the city was in its very outline already fragmented. Although the physical structure of these initial cities has been eradicated through Berlins unique ability to continually destroy its architectural past, it’s very spirit seem to have survived. In the mind of Berliners, the city is not consisting of districts but of “Kiezes”. The word originated in the time of the eastward expansion of German settlers in the Middle Age into Slavonic territories, when in many places both communities existed side by side. The word is of Slavonic origin (chyza meaning hut or house) and referred to a Slavonic settlement near a German town .
The persistency of the Kiez throughout time and throughout the different models of governance proves the strongly ingrained polycentricism of the city. Berlin is not only periphery, the periphery is in Berlin – Berlin is not an island but the island is within Berlin. Berlin is an archipelago in which every Kiez is a city or even a home and the periphery is the area between ones Kiez and the next one. The reason for this fragmented structure is that “Berlin has never followed one idea alone, but has been formed on divergent ideas. Theses and antitheses coincide here like breathing in and breathing out. ” A rule that does not result in “a unitary image but a living collage, a union of fragments” as O.M. Ungers explains in his study “City within a city”. This particular perception of the urban structure makes Berlin appear “rather a continent than a city” . The Berliners seem to have found a magic formula how to increase and inflate space through atomizing the city. The fragmentation of the city by the allied forces, the disconnection from the hinterland was not felt as strong in Berlin as it would have been felt in any other city on the planet. Berlin, a city that always has been fragmented and always has been populated by people from abroad is not hooked to the place but understands itself as an accumulation of drifting islands.
Turing West-Berlins insular existence the art of ‘increasing’ space has been developed further into a method for survival. As Manhattan applied the method of surface enlargement via vertical volumes which each could house a city itself, so did Berlin inflate space horizontally via the Kiezes.
The biggest annoyance in both models is the question of hierarchy between the elements. Berlin’s strong Kiez structure and the lack of a clear center get frustrating at times one need to meet friends and relatives that live in other Kiezes. Where do meet in a city without a center? This total absence of a center is the absolute proof of an urban field – a Green Archipelago .
Off course this archipelago is far from being planned. When it comes down to urban planning, Berlin is set on auto-pilot . Unnoticed and unwillingly Berlin followed the “City within a city - Green Archipelago” concept developed by a team led by O.M. Ungers during a design seminar in 1977. Since its reunification Berlin followed “parallel actions of reconstruction and destruction” which led indeed to an “archipelago of ‘architectural’ islands floating in a post-architectural landscape of erasure, where what used to be city is replaced by highly charged nothingness. The kind of coherence that the metropolis can achieve is not that of a homogeneous, planned composition. It can be, at the most, a system of fragments, a system of multiple realities.” Nothingness is the medium in which the archipelago of Berlin is thriving and nothingness is what is surrounding it.
Berlin is the antipode of the ideal city. Berlin is everything but ideal and everything that is real. If there would be a concept for a real city, it would be and is the history of Berlin. Paradoxically the absolute real as well as the absolute ideal city are islands. Two cities that feel the loneliness, excentricity yet exclusivity of the existence at the two opposite ends of a Gaussian curve.