Laiserin's Lemma—™Achtung, Baby!
Seen from the perspective of a New Yorker writing from the "East" portion of this formerly divided city of Berlin, the American debate over the future disposition of the World Trade Center site takes on an almost surreal character. Here, where the urban fabric was systematically mutilated (over four decades) out of ideological spite, construction cranes sweep the horizon, as if every load they carry will help sweep away the cultural and political traumata of the past. Perhaps there's a lesson unter den linden.
From a vantage point between the completed Sony Center (by Helmut Jahn of Chicago-based Murphy/Jahn) and the under-construction Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels, one can count seventeen cranes on the horizon. This neighborhood, the Potsdamer Platz, is roughly the same size as New York's World Trade Center (WTC) site, and is sprouting a continuous and contiguous urban fabric that surely must total up to many millions of square feet of space. Just in the few blocks adjoining Jahn's Sony project there are brand-new, world-class buildings by Arato Isozaki (for the Berliner Volksbank) and Renzo Piano (for Daimler-Chrysler), among many others. Whether the Potsdamer Platz precisely matches the WTC's sixteen acres (6.5 hectares) of land and eleven million square feet (1.04-million square meters) of construction is hardly the issue.
What seems important here are the facts on the ground: the entire site is within the no-man's land that ideological warfare caused to be ripped through the heart of this world-class city. Over the years, thousands of innocent people died as a consequence of this political act of urban destruction. I am not implying moral equivalence between the Berlin Wall and the events of 9/11. Rather, I am observing the plucky attitude of Berliners who have chosen to heal their city by seamlessly reweaving its urban fabric, in contrast to some New Yorkers who seemingly would prefer to encapsulate the wound to their city by memorializing a permanent scar on the side of Manhattan.
From the air, the contrast is even more striking. Traveling on business as often as I do, I have had many opportunities to fly over Manhattan since 9/11 and observe the present discontinuity of the WTC site with the city that surrounds it on all sides. While in Berlin, I enjoyed an evening excursion over that city in one of the original DC-3 aircraft that provisioned the Berlin Airlift of the late 1940s; from a slow-moving vantage point at 2,000 feet (600 meters) it is difficult to discern the former line of the Wall that split the city for some thirty years, so thorough and comprehensive has the reconstruction been.
Back on the ground, and strolling the length of the Unter Den Linden, Berlin's most cosmopolitan boulevard entirely within the former eastern sector, there is no trace of prior ideological division. If anything, the hotels and shops here now—purveying everything from Bentley automobiles to Hermes scarves—are more emblematic of the democratizing, globalizing world at large than their counterparts in the former western sectors of the city. In rebuilding, Berliners have chosen to restore the best of their past and to make the place even better and more urbane than it was before.
No one here has forgotten the lessons of history, nor do they dishonor their dead. Instead, it seems to me, here in Berlin they memorialize the dead by celebrating the living, and they honor their past by building a brighter future.
Let me know what you think.
Editor and Publisher, The LaiserinLetter™
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