The Potsdamer Platz is a small agglomeration of blocks in the south-west of Berlin. Originating in the mid-seventeenth century it was first merely a square exterior to the city walls, given its name by the Potsdam Gate which opened on to it and the road to Potsdam, an affluent suburb of palatial vacation estates such as Sans Souci. Gradually increasing volumes of traffic between Potsdam and Berlin established a market district along the road. In 1838 the Potsdamer Bahnhof was opened in the Potsdamer Platz, Berlin’s first train station. The Platz quickly became a center of commerce and culture maintaining the famous Kempinski Haus, the gaudy Hotel Esplanade and the Café Josty where aesthetes and actors would go to smoke and watch pedestrians dodge traffic in the rather dangerous circle that sported another Berlin first: a traffic light. This off-center city center became for Berliners the image of their technological modernization and the speed and advancement that characterized their ‘natural progression’ into modernity, it was their Times Square.
When National Socialism came to power in 1933 Berlin became the headquarters of the Third Reich and there was a covert shift in the tone of the Potsdamer Platz. The Gestapo's "administrative" headquarters and court were set up in a building off the Platz and where once it had represented only the bustle and schizophrenic movement of urban life it now was invested with the sinister air of death sentencing and social engineering. The Kempinski Haus became Haus Vaterland. (An exhibit called the Topography of Terror offers a walking tour of the sites affected by the Nazi program in that area of the city.) World War II quickly descended, and the street-by-street bombing tactics of allied warplanes decimated Berlin, and consequently much of the Potsdamer Platz was destroyed. Near to the site of Hitler’s infamous bunker and, due to the train depot, a major hub in war transportation little of the Platz was left standing. The Columbus Haus and Hotel Esplanade alone remained salvageable.
During Berlin’s post-war occupation the Potsdamer Platz was unique in that it existed at the meeting place of three of the four districts: the British and American zones both met the Russian sector in the middle of what had become a wasteland of rubble. This made it the center of a new type of commerce. A black market thrived between the confused and ill-patrolled borders by jumping from one jurisdiction to the next.
In 1953 workers in East Berlin demonstrated their dissatisfaction with their conditions by marching to the Potsdamer Platz, which at the time housed a section of the East German police in the rebuilt remains of the Columbus Haus. The demonstration ended violently with the deployment of Soviet tanks. Incidents such as this, and problems like the black market contributed to the construction, in 1961, of the Berlin Wall. The Wall, enforcing the East / West division of Berlin along the sector lines, consequently cut straight through the Potsdamer Platz’ old heart. This division is the subject of Wim Wenders' “Wings of Desire” (Himmel Uber Berlin) in which the Platz’ appears as the topic of a melancholy interior monologue given by an aging Berlin native. Nick Cave also makes a guest appearance in a bar scene that takes place in the semi-rebuilt Hotel Esplanade. Preparations for a Pink Floyd concert on the site unearthed and detonated a faulty missile that had entrenched itself in the rubble and the explosion killed a number of German workers.
Urban development was handled with numerous differences on either side of the Berlin Wall. In response to the Soviet’s stark affirmation of a division, planners in West Berlin constructed a cultural center, designed by Hans Scharoun, that directly abutted the Wall. One of its centerpieces, the Staatsbibliothek, faced a blank cement façade toward the Soviets in a gesture of impertinence. Growing animosity between political powers fueled civil unrest and finally in 1989 the Wall fell. The downhill trajectory of the Potsdamer Platz had ended with even the brooding symbol of a disjointed nation no longer standing in its space.
Plans for the site had gained potential even before the fall, but with the wall gone a number of large corporations were attracted to the site by political negotiations giving off land at ridiculously low sums. Daimler-Benz and the Sony corporation both invested in contiguous plots of land in the Potsdamer Platz. The amount they paid for the land stirred up an intense controversy about corporate finance using Berlin’s slump to force bad deals on the strapped government. The redevelopment of Berlin was supposed to play out as a democratic redesign process, and this kind of action was seen as a near-immediate derailment of the opportunity. The corporations, in the end, were forced to pay appropriate sums of money for their large plots.
Ten years after initial proposals the Potsdamer Platz is nearly completed. The Sony Center, designed by Johannes Wolfe is finished: a unique, domical, coliseum-like structure enclosing a large central court ringed in movie theaters, restaurants, and the Sony Style Center. Renzo Piano’s Daimler-Benz complex is an intersection of residence, commerce, and corporation tied together by the Arkaden, a length of glass-ceilinged malls which end in a spherical IMAX theater. Piano also designed the amphitheater which was to meet Hans Scharoun’s Staatsbibliothek along the old Berlin Wall. Evidence of the wall has been completely removed, except for the almost perfect negation of its presence, which somehow speaks more loudly. The existing structures of the Weinhaus-Huth and the Hotel Esplanade were incorporated into the new buildings. A media blitz calling the Potsdamer Platz Berlin’s “Neue Mitte” (new center), accompanied by flashy websites and a steady disregard for some of the more sordid aspects of its history, have enabled corporations to convert ruin into spectacle for the cause of currency in record time.