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Story - Potsdamer Platz
Berlin, Germany, 1992/2000
In 1992, Daimler-Benz held an international competition for the development of a general plan for the Potsdamer Platz site in the Tiergarten district, bordering on Mitte. The square had had a troubled history, and reflected the events that transformed Berlin during the twentieth century: during the years of the Weimar Republic, it was the city’s largest commercial and cultural centre, but was later ousted by the Neuer Westen area surrounding Breitscheidplatz. Having been devastated by the war and scarred by the construction of the Berlin wall, it became the reunified city’s most ambitious urban project during the 1990s. When the first phases of the project began in 1992, Potsdamer Platz no longer existed. The vast area had just one road, Potsdamer Strasse, which was lined with trees that had been protected since the 1950s, and was flanked by Weinhaus Huth, the only surviving building. East Berlin was separated from the square by a large expanse of no man’s land, and the buildings to the west (including the Neue Staatsbibliothek, built in 1972 by Hans Scharoun) stood with their backs to the site itself. The spirit of the square had to be revived, but this would require an entire portion of the city to be rebuilt from scratch within a short period of time.
The competition’s participants had to conform to a regulatory plan for the entire area around Potsdamer Platz and Leipziger Platz, which had been drawn by architects Heinz Hilmer and Christoph Sattler. The area occupied 6.8 hectares, straddling old East Berlin and West Berlin, and extended from the northeast corner of Potsdamer Platz to the National Library in the west, and the Landwehr Canal in the south. The area encompasses a large complex of the Kulturforum, which is comprised of the Mies van der Rohe Gallery, the Berlin Philharmonic and the National Library by Hans Scharoun. Not far off are the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate, where Hitler’s bunker was located during the last days of World War II. The site was traversed by two rows of trees extending towards the south-west. The competition not only involved the fulfilment of the master plan, but also the design of eight buildings. The RPBW project was favoured by 20 of the 21 jurors and Daimler-Benz ultimately commissioned the work to Renzo Piano and Kohlbecker. The project aimed to apply a uniform character to all of the buildings, the construction of which was assigned to RPBW, along with a number of other architects selected during the second phase of the competition: Arata Isozaki, Richard Rogers, Hans Kollhoff, Lauber und Wöhr and Rafael Moneo. The project bestowed Potsdamerstrasse with new importance, with the roadway ending in a new square overlooked by the Theatre and Casino, as well as the pre-existing National Library. The first obstacle to be overcome was the orientation of Scharoun’s Library. It was a building that dated back to 1967, a time when the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Berlin seemed impossible. The original Library therefore saw the wall as an urban boundary and stood with its back to it. In the RPBW design, the library was to be flanked by the edifices of the theatre and the casino, as well as by the covered plaza that would join them. In this manner, Berlin would be wholly reintegrated at a point in which it had once been divided by the wall. The square was the fulcrum of the project, from the standpoints of both form and urban function. It was there that all of the major functions included within the plan would be located: in addition to the Theatre and the Casino, there would also be shops, residences, offices and restaurants.
The surrounding nature, greenery and bodies of water were exploited as connecting elements. The Tiergarten woodland descends from above and invades the site of the project, which connects the Kulturforum to the old Berlin parkland, thus rendering the complex an offshoot of the same. From the Landwehr Canal, located on the southern edge of the site, a lake was born. To the east and north, the project conformed to the urban block layout required by the regulatory plan. The sequence of new buildings extending along Alte Potsdamerstrasse wraps around the eastern edge of the new square and curves along the canal. In the middle of the sequence rises a large cinema. The arc of buildings running along Alte Potsdamerstrasse ends with the tower containing the Daimler-Benz headquarters. The tower is characterized by its height and by its combination of transparent and opaque surfaces. The latter, which are of earthenware material, constitute a double-skin cladding. Starting with the tower, the buildings gradually become less transparent and increasingly evoke the traditional style of Berlin’s brick houses.
The earthenware cladding even serves as a unifying element beyond the RPBW project itself: in fact, the material was adopted by the regulatory plan and was one of the key elements in the projects executed by other architects in the same area. On 4 October 1998, Potsdamer Platz was “returned” to the city. As of the objectives of the original RPBW project, the site is now characterized by an array of functions that animate it both day and night. Of the 6.8 hectare area, only about half of the 340,000 square meters above ground level (another 210,000 square meters are underground) are occupied by office spaces (175,000 square meters). Another 20% of these (70,000 square metres) were earmarked as residential spaces and the remaining 30% were destined for mixed use, and would be open to the public. The complex includes a large Theatre with 1800 seats, with a smaller theatre of 700 seats below, an 8,000 square metre Casino, an IMAX theatre with 440 seats and a multiplex with a grand total of 3500 seats. Another 40,000 square metres were designated for shops and restaurants. The area of the Daimler Benz headquarters hosts approximately 10,000 employees.
C1 – The Debis Headquarters
This is the first project to have been completed: the building was already occupied and operational while the construction work was still in progress. It stands in the southern portion of the site and defines the boundary with the neighbouring building designed by Arata Isozaki, which overlooks the Landwehr Canal. Its overall form is largely dependent on the shape of the lot upon which it stands. The tower rises 21 storeys at the narrow southern end, overlooking an ample and expansive lower portion, with an atrium that’s entirely surrounded by narrow office wings along a central corridor. This atrium is the building’s most predominant space: a multipurpose space that’s 7 storeys high, 82 metres long and 14 metres wide. This project saw the development of the earthenware cladding system that was also later used for other buildings in the area, as well as the determination of an energy efficient approach to the design of the buildings’ facades. The façades are of two types, depending on the height and orientation of the building, which are respectively referred to as “opaque” and “transparent”. The “ventilated” façade is cladded with terracotta rainscreen elements, which overlay the insulated weather-resistant wall and the regular opening windows. The “transparent” façade is built and cladded in the same manner, but is also equipped with another layer of adjustable glass shutters on a steel support structure.
B1: Office towers
Located diametrically opposite to the Debis building, the B1 tower, coupled with the tower by Hans Kollhoff, defines the northern tip of the Potsdamer Platz district. Together, they mark the beginning of Alte Potsdamerstrasse, which leads to Marlene Dietrich Platz. At its highest point, this office building is 60 metres tall. At the base, a glass atrium separates the building’s volume from the ground level which, at the corner, leans forward with a pronounced overhang thanks to the use of recessed circular support columns. It is adorned with two layers of glass overlaying the earthenware cladding: as the body of the building gradually assumes its depth and texture, the cladding is initially comprised of adjustable glass slat elements, followed by overlapping extruded-tile shading elements and finally with the more compact brick cladding of the lower body.
B 10 – The commercial gallery
This group of buildings includes the mall, the renovated Weinhaus Huth, two residential buildings and the IMAX cinema. The buildings seamlessly blend into one another: an element of the urban fabric that partially includes public spaces of extremely diverse character. The mall is intended exclusively for commercial activities: it extends from Alte Potsdamerstrasse to Eichornstrasse, with a total length of 180 metres and a total width of 13 metres. It was designed as a partially open space with gray granite flooring and planted trees on the ground floor, all contained between the earthenware cladded façades, the roof and the glass-bottomed walls. It is built on three levels: a ground floor, a first floor comprised of open galleries over the central space, and an underground level. The ends of the mall are made up of two glass walls, which can be opened completely by turning their hinges outward. On hot days, the sensors activate the electrically-controlled opening mechanisms, and the slabs open automatically, along with the roof. The screen-printed sloping glass plates on the roof protect against direct sunlight and reflect the artificial lighting.
The IMAX theatre B7
The IMAX theatre is situated at the southern end of this block. The spherical auditorium was constructed using a new technique: the concrete was sprayed over a giant balloon, which was subsequently deflated and removed. The exterior is cladded with large ceramic tiles, which are curved in two directions.
Marlene Dietrich Platz: the Theatre and the Casino D1 and D2
Along with the arcade that connects them to Marlene Dietrich Platz, the Theatre and the Casino form a single unit; these elements are linked together to create the focal point of the entire site, and also act as a functional hinge between the site itself, the National Library and the Kulturforum. The building’s cladding is inspired by the context: the lower portion is cladded with the same earthenware system that characterizes the surrounding buildings, while the upper portions are cladded with a more sober version (in terms of both colour and decorative pattern) of the golden aluminium panels used on the buildings by Sharoun. The Theatre and Casino form a single large volume, which is split in half where the two elements appear to be slightly turned in relation to one another. Between them, beneath an extension of the Casino’s sloping roof, there is a large portico, the floor of which is recessed with respect to the level of the surrounding streets: thanks to the huge glass foyer, which is completely open and transparent, the square seems to continue into the Theatre itself. The Theatre’s hall has a capacity of 2,000 seats and has a deliberately compact form in order to optimize visibility and acoustics. The complex staging system (with a tower height that reaches nearly 24 metres) can accommodate performances of various kinds by adapting to the size of the production. The quality of the sound is ensured by a system of wood panels on the walls and ceiling. Movable fabric curtains allow for the acoustics to be completely altered in order to transform the hall into a cinema.
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