Greetings from… Berlin

One persistent illusion about Berlin is that it’s a city full of wonderful and interesting architecture. The ostentatious Potsdamer Platz may attract over 100,000 visitors a day, but you won’t find any appealing architecture there. Various dictators and dictatorships succeeded in leaving their mark on the city, and so experimentation is now shunned.

So don’t expect any architectural experiments in Berlin, except for the Dutch Embassy by OMA and the Jewish Museum by Daniel Libeskind. What you will find is tidy, straightforward development that respects the building lines. Luckily there are plenty of other reasons to visit Berlin and combine business (looking at so-called architecture) with pleasure (beach, beer, clubs and cafés). So forget about mediocre Mitte, popular Prenzlauerberg (Berlin’s answer to Montmartre) and Potsdamer Platz (where the bricks on Kollhoff’s tower are already starting to fall down) and head for the awful east where experimentation is blossoming.

First of all, a visit to the Senate department of Urban Development is highly recommended. The permanent exhibition Urban Development – Planning, Models, Projects presents the development of the city very well. Two huge models at scales 1:500 and 1:1.000 show current building initiatives. Also on view is a model made in the latter days of the former GDR (1989) that shows many buildings that have unfortunately vanished in the anti-communist wave of demolition in recent years.

Beer garden

Berlin means beer and beer tastes best in a garden, so make sure you take in a beer garden. Your best option is the Prater beer garden, the mother of all beer gardens. It’s not hip, trendy or urban, but it’s stayed the same for 170 years and is always good. A totally different experience awaits you at Bierhof Rüdersdorf, the architectural counterpart to Prater and the place for a little industrial romance. This beer garden shows just how perfectly Berliners understand the art of transforming abandoned places into attractive venues. Karhard Architektur & Design has converted a former heat-exchange station into a two-level beer garden. They also turned the adjacent former electricity substation building dating from 1954 into Berghain, Berlin’s hippest techno club. Bierhof Rüdersdorf welcomes an interesting mixture of breakfast guests that include ravers returning from Berghain, happily eating side by side with families from the neighbourhood.

Beach bars

Lots more industrial romance stretches along the Spree. Over five temporary city beaches are located on abandoned factory sites. What’s particularly remarkable is the diversity of beaches, from YAAM (Young African Art Market; with lots of reggae) to the alternative Oststrand to the hipper Holz 25. If you want grass rather than sand beneath your feet, then head to Kiki Blofeld – it’s located next to the German Architecture Centre so you’ve a good excuse – where chandeliers hang from the trees and billiards tables stand between the trees. And for those who are allergic to both sand and grass, there’s Radialsystem V. Built in 1881 as one of the first pumping stations for Berlin’s water supply, it’s been extended with concert halls and a large terrace on the Spree, all of it excitingly renovated by architect Spangenberg.

Berlin from above

Make sure you keep away from the Fernsehturm and the Reichstag because of the long queues. If you want to see Berlin from above, do it properly by plane. A flight from Berlin to Mallorca may be cheaper, but circling over the city in a bright red plane is a real experience. Half an hour above the buildings, and a glass of sparkling wine to steady the nerves. And don’t be scared of those dinosaurs among the trees behind the take-off point – that’s Spreepark Plänterwald amusement park, which closed its doors in 2002 and is disintegrating gracefully, so well worth a secret urban exploration.

Another option is to go dancing in Club Week-end, located in a real 1960s tower on Alexanderplatz, where four lifts shuttle between the 12th and 15th levels to spread the dancers even over the two dance floors. The view from the roof terrace on the 17th is always unrivalled.

Farba morgana

For those who think holiday is another word for action, creativity and learning, there’s always an interesting discussion or congress taking place in Berlin. Urban Affairs, for example, was on until August 3 and offered a good insight into Berlin street art. And for those who can’t get enough of the east, take the U5 to Hellersdorf to see a bizarre piece of art in the Europaviertel. The French artists’ collective Cité de la creation has made the largest painting in Europe, called farba morgana. Some of the boring prefabricated concrete Plattenbau façades have been painted over and turned into a row of respectable German middle-class homes. It’s a social-renewal project, because the French painters persuaded residents to paint with them. And so, not even the Plattenbau can escape the ageing process that reigns in Berlin.