It is tempting to see David Chipperfield’s eulogy to Berlin – in opposition to London and other cities – as sour grapes. The English architect is after all engaged in two particularly protracted protests from heritage groups regarding his plans for the Shell Centre and the extension to the Geffrye Museum. In Berlin meanwhile he can do no wrong. He is currently exhibiting in the Neue Nationalgalerie and building all over the city. Yet sour grapes doesn’t quite explain it all. His speech quoted in the Guardian and then printed at length therein shows that he fails to appreciate what a huge lost opportunity Berlin was and how it has become an even more staid architectural environment since. If we we look at the architectural history of Berlin since the Wall came down, later even than the International Bauaustellung which brought Rossi and OMA to West Berlin, then we can see that Chipperfield’s speech is more about himself than the city.
Berlin in the 1990s appeared to offer huge prospects to architects from all over the world not simply because of the reconstruction required but because of the intoxicating context in which any work might be done. Architects rocked up in the city expecting a new economic boom and an enlightened architectural culture, given the exciting times in the city’s music and art scenes. As we known the boom was short-lived and the city’s brief construction period ended quickly. A far greater catastrophe however was the sudden arrival of a highly conservative planning culture which sought to level out the huge range of architectural expression that existed in both the former East and West and turn Berlin into “another European city”. As if such a thing existed.