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Save Berlin: Battles in the sky

It’s not just airports that can’t get off the ground in Berlin. Dan Borden reports on four of the city’s stymied skyscrapers from Alexanderplatz to Neukölln.

Image for Save Berlin: Battles in the sky

Photo by German Palomeque

It’s not just airports that can’t get off the ground in Berlin. Dan Borden reports on four of the city’s stymied skyscrapers.

As world capitals go, Berlin has a surprisingly anemic skyline. Call it the Himmel über Berlin curse: it seems every time a new tall building tries to scrape our city’s sky, the heavens strike back. A dozen long-awaited high-rises sit idly on the drawing board, held back by a diverse conspiracy of forces. Here are a few:

Blocked by the BVG: In 1999, Berlin’s Senat announced plans to turn dowdy Alexanderplatz into a Manhattan-style forest of office buildings. Two decades later, not one has been built. Houston-based developers Hines stepped up to bat in 2013, proposing a 150m-high apartment block next to their Saturn store in the Platz’s northeast corner. Mirroring the nearby Park Inn hotel, Berlin’s tallest building, the sandstone Capital Tower by star architect Frank Gehry promised to be a New Berlin landmark. Construction was slated for 2015, then 2016… but the building site remains empty. Why? Because of what’s below: the U5 subway line. Fearing the Capital Tower would literally crush their train tracks, the Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe (BVG) slammed on the brakes and won’t let go.

Image for Save Berlin: Battles in the sky

Photo by Rainer Zenz

Bulldozed by a highway: The Estrel Hotel, famous for its “Stars in Concert” celebrity impersonator shows, wants to put its little corner of Neukölln on the map with the tallest hotel in Germany. The design unveiled in 2015 expands the complex with 800 rooms and a convention centre. The slant-roofed 50-storey tower is meant as a welcoming beacon into the Hauptstadt from our new airport. So what’s the holdup? The Estrel sits next to the still-in-progress A100 highway, a decades-long attempt to build a ring road around Berlin. The government agencies overseeing the project won’t allow a construction site so close to their own. With the A100’s completion years away, the Estrel Tower will have a long wait before its moment in the spotlight.

Petulant amputation: It’s not just big money developers – even the city’s own housing companies can’t get their towers built. In October, Mitte’s Wohnungsbaugesellschaft abandoned plans to build an apartment high-rise on Fischerinsel, a quiet enclave near Alexanderplatz. This key piece of the city’s affordable housing campaign called for 208 flats in a tower rising 19 storeys. Neighbours revolted, not because its height was so exceptional but because it matched the surrounding 20-storey East German Plattenbau towers, blocking residents’ expansive views. One thousand signatures on a petition were enough to turn the high-rise into a low-rise, robbing Berlin of 28 new rent-controlled flats.

Raising hell: If you’re searching for the cause of Berlin’s skyscraper curse – our High-Rise Original Sin – look no further than Living Levels. Even a worldwide storm of protest led by David Hasselhoff himself couldn’t stop this garish white condominium tower from violating the sacred soil of the former Death Strip next to the East Side Gallery. Since its completion in 2015, the city hasn’t seen a single tall building get off the ground. Now, the residents of the 11-storey luxury condo are themselves up in arms. A hotel is set to begin construction next door, and the tenants are protesting its owner’s plans to raise the height from seven to nine floors. The hotel, they claim, will block the sun, leaving their accursed tower in perpetual shadow.

With land prices skyrocketing, Berlin has to grow upwards. Our last tower to successfully reach the heavens was Upper West, that curvy-skinned hotel rising 119m near Zoo Station. Now its architect, Christoph Langhof, wants to build a 209m-high apartment tower next to the train station, replete with solar panels and wind turbines. Can Langhof’s super green dream tower finally break the curse, pierce the clouds and give Berlin the world-class skyline it deserves?