Save Berlin: We go high

Dan Borden on the women who are (literally) building a new progressive era in Berlin.

Image for Save Berlin: We go high
Work has already begun on the new Axel Springer building designed by Dutch star architect Rem Koolhaas.

Dan Borden on the women who are (literally) building a new progressive era in Berlin.

At the dawn of the Donald Trump era, as the planet’s political pendulum swings to the right, Berlin is bucking the trend. Last September, the city elected the most left-leaning city government in decades. The new “red-red-green” coalition shares power between the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), Die Linke (the former East German Communists) and the Green Party.

Berlin’s housing crisis is only one of many headaches facing re-elected Mayor Michael Müller. His coalition has set a surprisingly progressive agenda, and for the first time, the top three urban planning experts mapping out Berlin’s future are all women.

The lion tamer

Regula Lüscher has tamed uncooperative city bureaucrats and twisted the arms of developers.

The old-timer in this Frauen-triumvirate is Regula Lüscher. The Swiss-born designer became Berlin’s Senate Building Director in 2007 and declared war on mediocre design by inventing the Baukollegium Berlin. As head of this new architectural star chamber which oversees all new Berlin buildings, she’s tamed uncooperative city bureaucrats and twisted the arms of developers to achieve victories like Axel Springer’s new publishing building by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas (photo). Her star slipped during last year’s protracted competition for a new Kulturforum museum – until the winning scheme by Herzog and De- Meuron (of Tate Modern fame) was embraced as a Berlin design icon of the future. The red-red-green coalition signed Lüscher up for a third term with expanded powers.

The road warrior

It’s not surprising that Green Party member Regine Günther plans to put solar panels on all of Berlin’s public buildings, or that she’ll fight tooth and nail to protect parks (no apartments on Tempelhofer Feld this decade!). But the new Transport and Environment Senator’s greatest impact will be in how Berliners get from A to B – don’t even think about driving. She’ll push for more tram and U-Bahn routes at reduced fares. A €51 million-per-year plan to expand and safeguard bike paths is matched by a push for more car-free zones – Unter den Linden will close to private autos in 2019. And the destructive march of the A100 highway through Friedrichshain has come to an end.

The people power pusher

Katrin Lompscher (Die Linke), Berlin’s new Senator for Housing and Urban Development, grew up during East Germany’s Plattenbau era, the 1970s and 80s, when nearly two million new apartments were constructed in 18 years. So, her goal of building 55,000 new flats over the next five should be a piece of cake. The coalition’s plans shift Berlin’s housing priorities from luxury condos for the rich to low-cost flats for the poor, elderly and homeless. One snag: as ground was broken for a new public housing tower in Mitte, neighbours complained they’d not been consulted. Lompscher halted construction and insisted on public input for all future housing projects.

Is Berlin’s turn to the left a throwback to the past, or are Berliners – once again – setting future trends? Just five years ago, Klaus Wowereit – a man obsessed with wealth and celebrity, who cheered new luxury apartment buildings while shutting down the city’s public housing programme – reached his political peak, winning a third term as Berlin’s mayor. His administration included finance minister Thilo Sarrazin, notorious author of anti-immigrant books, who sold hundreds of city-owned properties to developers at bargain-basement prices. In December 2014, Wowereit resigned in disgrace over his mismanagement of Berlin’s new airport, taking his neo-liberal policies down with him.

The new red-red-green coalition will sit in Berlin’s driver’s seat until 2021. Let’s hope that with these three women at the helm, we can steer the city away from the Wowereit era toward a more design-focused, socially responsible future.