From City Gate to City Centre
It all started with the “Platz vor dem Potsdamer Tor”, a five-cornered crossroads in front of Potsdamer Tor, one of the 14 city gates of Berlin. In 1838, Berlin Potsdam Railway Station was opened here. Because the train stopped just outside the city wall, Potsdamer Platz became a major cargo transhipment point within just a few decades – and one of the busiest squares in Europe.
After the founding of the German Empire in 1871, Potsdamer Platz first experienced accelerated growth marked by the construction of large buildings and numerous restaurants – and then a real boom. Berlin was in a period of economic upturn, its wealthy citizens settling just outside the city gates and building the famous Tiergarten villas. The “Grand Hotel Bellevue” and the “Palast Hotel” opened before the turn of the century. The “Fuerstenhof” followed in 1907 and the “Esplanade” a year later. Within a mere 70 years, a bustling quarter had evolved.
Fast Days, Long Nights at Potsdamer Platz in the Roaring Twenties
If you wanted to feel the pulse of Berlin in the Roaring Twenties, then Potsdamer Platz was the place to be. It was the busiest traffic knot in Europe with rapid transit train, underground, 26 tram and five bus lines. Each day more than 20,000 cars crossed the square, and around 83,000 travellers were counted at Potsdam Railway Station. In 1924, the five-cornered traffic tower was erected – Europe’s first traffic light. It became a landmark, the symbol of the pulsating metropolis Berlin.
The face of Potsdamer Platz was continually changing. Old was torn down to make way for new; Classicism was replaced by the New Objectivity. Midst the grand hotels and flourishing business life of the roaring twenties, Potsdamer Platz developed into a centre of middle class entertainment. Legendary establishments like the giant, German pleasure palace “Haus Vaterland” or the “Ufa-Filmpalast” and the “Europa-Tanz-Pavillon” come to mind instantly when imagining the Roaring Twenties in Berlin.
In the “Rheinterrassen”, one of the many restaurants in “Haus Vaterland”, thunderstorms with electric lightning flashes and rain from water pipes were staged several times each evening. The books of detective novelist Volker Kutscher still vividly convey how the city and its centre formed a melting pot of cultures.
War and Destruction
Potsdamer Platz in Ruins
Potsdamer Platz was almost completely destroyed during World War II. Only Weinhaus Huth and the ruins of the Hotel Esplanade were left standing in the once so lively square. When the war ended, Potsdamer Platz became the “border triangle” where the Soviet, British and American sectors met and the site of a flourishing black market. The introduction of the German Mark in the western sectors and the onset of the Berlin Blockade in June 1948, changed the picture dramatically. In August of that year, the border between the Soviet sector and the adjoining western sectors was marked with a line on the asphalt. In the expectation that Potsdamer Platz would soon be rebuilt, many buildings had been re-erected in a makeshift fashion. However, during the people’s uprising of 17th June 1953, they were burned to the ground once again. The widespread vacancy that followed combined with unresolved political circumstances turned the quarter into an uninteresting fringe area for decades.
The Iron Curtain is Drawn across Potsdamer Platz
The construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, marked the start of 28 long years of division. Potsdamer Platz became part of the border zone and the widest point in Berlin’s death strip. Nearly all buildings still standing in this “no man’s land” were torn down. The ruins on the western side of the wall were purchased by the Berlin Senate and carried away bit by bit. The remains of the Prinz-Albrecht-Palais, the Vox-Haus, the Natural History Museum, the Haus Vaterland and even the railway station Anhalter Bahnhof farther to the south, were all gradually carted off in this way.
Plans were made for constructing an urban expressway across the now empty quarter, but this concept was not realised until after reunification – in the form of the Tiergarten Spreebogen tunnel.
Potsdamer Platz as the Stage for Reunification
From the building of the wall in 1961 until its fall 1989, Potsdamer Platz was the widest point in Berlin’s death strip, a massive wasteland. When the Berlin Wall fell on 9th November 1989, interest in the area awoke virtually overnight. After decades of neglect, a completely new situation had arisen. Just a few days after the decision to open the wall, a large section of it was broken down at Potsdamer Platz and a makeshift border crossing created on 12th November. In 1990, shortly after the wall opened, the former no man’s land between Potsdamer and Pariser Platz witnessed what was then the largest rock concert in history. Amid the ruins of the wall, head of Pink Floyd, Roger Waters and his band played the legendary concert “The Wall”.
Potsdamer Platz as Europe’s largest urban construction site of the 1990s
Before the fall of the wall, Potsdamer Platz was nothing more than wasteland, a piece of the border strip. Once the wall fell, however, the area quickly turned into Europe’s largest urban construction site. To organise this massive undertaking, the square was divided into four subprojects. Each of these areas was assigned its own management, who worked hand-in-hand with the contracted company. Berliners and tourists alike could watch the progress from the “Infobox”. This bright red building at Leipziger Platz with a view of the construction site was a major tourist attraction from 1995 to 2001. Completing the traffic infrastructure alone foreshadowed just how complex building an entirely new city centre for Berlin would be: the tunnel segments of Federal Highway 96 and Underground Line 3 as well as the Intercity Railway Station were built directly underneath Potsdamer Platz. All were important milestones in reintegrating Potsdamer Platz with urban life in Berlin.
Europe’s most Famous Construction Site at Potsdamer Platz
After reunification, the Berlin senate sold the plots of land at Potsdamer Platz to the former Daimler Benz AG, and Potsdamer Platz turned into Europe’s largest urban construction site of the 1990s. The area was roughly divided into two separate complexes: the north-western Sony Center encompassing approximately 27,000 m2 and Potsdamer Platz with circa 70,000 m2. The Sony Center, designed by American Helmut Jahn, comprises a cinema, a film museum, offices, apartments and flats as well as Sony’s European headquarters. The Deutsche Bahn high-rise marks the end of the Sony area direction Potsdamer Platz, with the buildings designed by architects Renzo Piano and Christoph Kohlbecker joining to the South.
Potsdamer Platz as a Vibrant Quarter in the Heart of the Capital
Today Potsdamer Platz is again one of the most attractive locations in Berlin. The quarter’s charisma arises from its incomparable blend of high-class entertainment, shopping, restaurants and culture, harmoniously combined with living and working opportunities. With underground, rapid transit train and railway connections, Potsdamer Platz is one of Berlin’s main transport hubs.
The architectural variety, the wide range of outstanding cultural events and the many sightseeing destinations in the vicinity, make this city quarter a central attraction for domestic and foreign tourists. Every day Potsdamer Platz attracts up to 100,000 visitors. They come to experience the bustle, excitement and international flair at the heart of the capital.