LA Study Tour with Jack
Potsdamer Platz
by Neal Overstrom


Potsdamer Platz is a historic public square situated near the center of Berlin, Germany (Figure 1).   From its origin more than 400 years ago as a confluence of a few country roads ago it had grown into the busiest plaza in Europe until destroyed during World War II.    After the war it struggled to return as a hub of commerce only to become an abandoned casualty of a divided Germany and the subsequent Cold War.   Today, following the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification, nearly a decade of redevelopment has positioned Potsdamer Platz as a major urban center of international renown, but not without considerable controversy.

Figure 1 Potsdamer Platz, Berlin, Germany (Virtual Earth www.


Potsdamer Platz is named for the city of Potsdam located approximate 25 kilometers to the southwest of Berlin and the road that linked the two cities.   The plaza's evolution began with issuance of the Tolerance Edit of 1685, which allowed an influx of religious refugees from Austria and France that added to the burgeoning population of Berlin.   The medieval fortifications bounding the city no longer enclosed sufficient space for its inhabitants, therefore new settlement districts were established outside the city's walls.   The largest was named Friedrichstadt, named for Frederick William II, better known as Frederick the Great (Figure 2).

Figure 2 Berlin and Friedrichstadt 1710 (Sneider 1983)

By the mid 1700's the development of Friedrichstadt and the other districts was complete and a new wooden wall with 14 gates was built to enclose them (Figure 3).   Though later fortified, the primary purpose of the wall was to provide control points where taxes could be levied on goods entering and leaving the city.   Potsdam Straβe became the main road entering the city at Potsdam Gate. Once inside the gate the road became Leipziger Straβe where a great octagonal parade ground was built
(Leipziger Platz ).

Figure 3 Berlin 1810 (

In the early 1800's the area outside Potsdam Gate began transforming from an informal trading post to a true settlement when many of Berlin 's wealthier citizens began building substantial houses and villas. Architect Frederick Shinkel was commissioned to redesign the gate in 1824 (Figure 4) and produce a garden plan for the adjacent areas. The latter was never implemented. Instead a garden plan developed by the famous German landscape architect Peter Joseph Lenné was built between 1824 and 1826. By the mid 1800s other methods of taxation had made the customs wall obsolete, therefore most of it was demolished leaving only the Brandenburg Gate and Potsdam Gate still standing.

Figure 4 Architectural Drawing of Potsdam Gate (Schinkel 1866

The construction of a railway in 1838 between Berlin and Postdam heralded a new period of growth for the city. Many of the homes and palaces in the vicinity of Potsdamer Platz were usurped for government use and foreign embassies were established on many undeveloped sites. By the 1920s and 30s Potsdamer Platz had become one of the busiest traffic centers in all of Europe where five streets converged: Königgrätzer Straße (northern portion); Königgrätzer Straße (southern portion); Leipziger Straße; Potsdamer Straße; and, Bellevuestraße. It received Europe 's first traffic lights (copied from New York City ), needed to help keep untangled the region's 60,000 automobiles and 40 electrified trolley lines. Potsdamer Platz was the heart of a thriving urban landscape that one writer compared with New York 's Times Square, “at its most modern, wild, greedy, youthful, exciting, and intense.” (Davey 1999)

The heyday of Potsdamer Platz came to an end when it caught its share of the 1.5 million tons of allied bombs dropped on Germany during World War II. Yet only a few months after the war ended commerce emerged from the rubble (Figure 5). Business development was hampered by increased friction between east and west, however, with American, British, and Soviet controlled areas converging at Potsdamer Platz.

Figure 5 Potsdamer Platz 1945 (National Archives of Canada)

The living and working conditions in Soviet East Germany deteriorated under Communist rule fostering discontent amongst the working class. In June 1953, a worker uprising was brutally put down by the Soviet military at Potsdamer Platz. With Cold War tensions continuing to rise, the invisible line of separation was finally made tangible by the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961. This concrete barrier not only divided the landscape above ground, the trains that ran beneath the plaza were forbidden to stop, creating a “Geisterbahnhofe,” or ghost station, below. What had been the busiest thoroughfare and business district in all of Europe became a void in the urban landscape.


The fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 created new opportunities for redevelopment of Potsdamer Platz. Both geographically and symbolically it was believed to be the key to reuniting the city. The German architectural firm of Hilmer & Sattler won the competition for developing a master plan for the area, which was divided into four parts destined for development by major commercial investors including Daimler-Benz (Daimler-Chrysler), Sony Corporation, A+T, and, Asea Brown Boveri. Individual buildings were designed by notable architects: Potsdamer Platz No. 1 by Hans Kollhoff; the Daimler-Benz complex by Renzo Piano and Christoph Kohlbecker; Sony Center by Helmut Jahn, and the A+T building by Giorgio Grassi (Figure 6). From 1992 through 2000, the 20 Billion DM (€10 Billion [1998]) redevelopment of Potsdamer Platz became one of the most ambitious and high profile commercial construction projects in the world.

Figure 6 Model of Daimler Chrysler Development and Piano Lake (Jack Ahern)

As befits a country with a strong engineering and manufacturing tradition, the use of sophisticated technology for energy and water conservation was an integral part of the Potsdamer Platz building designs. For example, the Daimler-Chrysler structures have no air conditioning, but rather are heated and cooled by a state-of-the-art power heat co-generation plant. All windows can be opened and the offices have a sophisticated ventilation and façade system design to optimize temperature fluctuations at different times of the day or year. The totality of these design elements results in 50% less energy usage than traditional building methods and 70% less carbon footprint. But it is the highly visible water conservation system in the Daimler-Chrysler development for which Potsdamer Platz is famous and one of the most notable projects for Landscape Architect Herbert Dreiseitl.

The 19 building roofs have a surface area of nearly 11 acres, 37.5% being green roof. The portion of the 21 inches of annual rainfall not captured by these systems is channeled to a water retention system that includes 819,020 gallons of storage capacity in subterranean cisterns (Figure 7).

Figure 7 Circulation System (Atelier Dreiseitl)

The cisterns provide make-up water for a 3 acre artificial lake called Piano Lake (located at Marlene-Dietrich Platz, named for the famous German-born actress) which collects the rainwater, circulates and filters it through percolation beds featuring aquatic plantings (Figure 7a, 7b).

Figure 7a Biofiltration Beds (Atelier Dreiseitl)

Figure 7b Biofiltration Beds

The entire volume of the system, 3,963,000 gallons, is circulated though the filtration beds once every three days. The biological functioning of this re-circulated water system is very effective. Regular monitoring of key parameters such as ammonia nitrogen, nitrites, nitrates and phosphorus shows a high level of water quality quite suitable for fish and other wildlife

In addition to the ecological advantages, Dreiseitl's water system design has artistic and cultural significance (Figure 8a, 8b). The water is brought out and celebrated in shallow riffles and pools along the Platz' piazza and in rhythmic waves in channels downstream. People can criss-cross the water on stepping stones that symbolize, perhaps more effectively and meaningfully than the surrounding buildings, the reunification of the city (see CRITIQUE). The only aesthetic liability is the seasonal presence of naturally-occurring algae and biofilms. Although some people consider it unsightly, the presence of algae is integral to the health of the system and has come to be accepted by most as an inevitable part of its biological activity (Miller 2005).

Figure 8a Surface Water Elements

Figure 8b Surface Water Elements

Another significant feature of Potsdamer Platz is a massive plaza within the Sony Center that stretches more than 360 feet beneath the expansive cable and fabric ceiling of the space. The plaza was designed by American landscape architect Peter Walker and is mostly open allowing for a variety of programmed uses. Just below the plaza level is the lobby to a Cineplex and IMAX theater, along with cafes and restaurants. Stepped boxwood hedges, arching bands of cobble paving, electrified luminescent metal grates, and a cantilevered glass reflecting pool are notable elements of the design (Figure 9). Walkways adjacent to this central plaza are lined with white birches and minimalist patterns of stainless steel bollards and rectilinear hedges (Figures 10, 11).

Figure 9 Sony Center Plaza (

Figure 10 Cantilevered Reflecting Pool (ASLA Peter Walker)

Figure 11 Birch Plaza (Mike Davidsohn)

Figure 12 Outer Plaza (Mike Davidsohn)


The success of Potsdamer Platz in unifying Berlin and re-inventing a prominent urban area has not been universally endorsed. From the beginning the western-style approach to development was at odds with city government's more conservative vision for the future of the plaza, although to the chagrin of many the former won out (Lehrer 1999).

Howard Watson (2006) wrote in the journal Architectural Design that Potsdamer Platz has a cold, uninviting feeling: “…the Platz now lacks any identity beyond that of a convergence of massive roads that could be anywhere in the world. As a landscape it is so devoid of character and so detached from urban vitality that it seems to deliberately amalgamate the worst of both eastern bloc and American planning. The grey, blank sections of paving that form the pedestrian part of the Platz are completely without personality – alienating and disorienting, their sole purpose is apparently to provide a vantage point from which bemused hoards can view the mixed bag of perimeter architecture.” Others lament that despite height restrictions the scale of the buildings is excessive, disconnecting them from surrounding buildings and the urban fabric (Keating 2001).

Perhaps the most biting critiques, however, go deeper than the architecture. Peter Marcuse (1999) finds troubling the fact that a once great German public space been cut up and sold to private multinational corporations. He sees paradox in the transparent glass of the building facades and closed-door decision making within their corporate boardrooms. Marcuse finds an arrogance and extravagance in the scale and materials of the space that signal the power of western-style capitalism as the new driving force in the political landscape, in his view to the detriment of German culture.

Nevertheless, Watson's hoards do come to the shops, restaurants, and theaters, some 70,000 visitors a day. Many are undoubtedly also drawn to Dreiseitl's waterscape that integrates in such a magnificent and evocative manner engineering, ecological design and art. Regrettably, this feature is tucked back from the heart of the plaza and relegated to only one area of development. How spectacular it might have been if the masterplan of Hilmer & Sattler dictated that water be used to integrate the entire redevelopment of Potsdamer Platz. What if it were a core element with a nexus near the busy Bahnhof station and tentacles that meandered throughout the site? One cannot help wondering if Watson's impressions might be different.


By Train

Potsdamer Platz Subway Station (Line U2)
Potsdamer Platz Elevated Train (S- Bahn ) Station (Lines S1/S2/S25/S26)


Davey , P. 1999.   Potsdamer Platz – design and construction of town square in Berlin , Germany . The Architectural Review 205(1223):32-43.

Keating, P. 2001.   New urban domains:   Potsdamer Platz .   Debatte :   Review of Contemporary German Affairs 9(1):78-84.

Lehrer, U. A. 1999.   Case + study = case study; a methodological inquiry into image production at Potsdamer Platz .   Critical Planning 6:36-50.

Marcuse , P.   1999.    Reflections on Berlin :   the meaning of construction and the construction of meaning.   International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 22(2):331-338.

Miller, C. J. 2005. Water Sensitive Design in Contemporary Landscape Architecture Practice. Master of Landscape Architecture Thesis, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA. 183 pp.

Watson, H.   2006.   Berlin 's empty heart.   Architectural Design 76(3):100-103.