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As I’m leaving for Berlin in a few hours, I figured I would get my creative juices flowing like a well-broiled bratwurst’s and focus on another German space. This week’s sustainable space can be found right in the heart of Berlin, where, incidentally, you’ll be able to find me during the next five months. Without further ado, let’s take a look at Potsdamer Platz.
I remember my first visit to this quarter. After craning my neck at the Brandenburg Gate for a half hour I decided to take a little walk and after a few blocks found myself at an open square filled with shoppers entreating themselves to everything from pretzels to handbags at a pop-up market. Following the throng of tourists, I then proceeded into a more confined square with an open glass roof overhead, the sound of water nearby, and the smell of fresh pastries seemingly all around.
I was standing in the middle of the Sony Center at Potsdamer Platz and felt a wave of modernity sweep over me. Later, I would learn that the Sony Center’s impressive architecture reflected the impressive architecture and sustainability efforts that define 21st Century Potsdamer Platz.
Before we delve into that sustainability, though, let’s delve into the area’s history. Back in the 17th Century Potsdam Gate was created as an entrance into the city of Berlin and the customs area west of the gate was aptly named the “Square in front of Potsdam Gate”. Into the 1830s, the importance of Potsdam Gate and the construction of a railroad station there led to the area’s increasingly popularity. Soon hotels, restaurants, and wealthy homes populated the square. Even a “Millionaires Quarter” developed alongside a shopping district. By the early 1900s Potsdamer Platz was one of the busiest squares in all of Europe and it was here where in 1924 Europe’s first traffic tower was installed.
When the Nazis took power, though, this golden era for the square ended. Many homes were taken over to create a People’s Court and Euthanasia Headquarters, while many more were demolished to be replaced by Nazi monuments. World War II brought even more significant destruction to the area. Although stores soon reopened amidst the rubble, and traffic increased once more, the creation of the Berlin Wall prevented a full return to a glorious past. The wall was built right through the square and the area to the wall’s east was razed to allow guards to keep watch more easily. Meanwhile, in the west, people flocked to small lookouts constructed to allow curious residents to peak over the wall. The fall of the Berlin Wall meant more than the opening of the border; it also meant the opening of an opportunity for redevelopment and a return to the greatness of the quarter’s past.
Although Hilmer & Sattler won the city’s contest for redevelopment, Renzo Piano, an architect hired by primary landholder Daimler-Benz, ultimately had the most impact on the area’s new design due to the unpopularity of the original proposal. Today Potsdamer Platz consists of 19 buildings totalling 500,000 square meters. There are 11 acres of rooftop, 37.5% of which is covered in vegetation forming a massive collection of green roofs. Underneath the site sits a huge water retention system capable of holding 819,020 gallons, which feed three nearby artificial lakes after passing through filtration beds that drastically reduce urban runoff pollution. The entire volume of the system, nearly four million gallons of water, passes through filtration beds every three days. No air-conditioning units were installed in the Daimler-Benz buildings and instead innovative ventilation and facade systems and a heat co-generation system are responsible for temperature management. In this way, energy use was reduced 50% over conventional methods (source). Supply centers for the buildings were built underground, helping the quarter reduce CO2 emissions 70% over conventional methods. All these features together helped Potsdamer Platz become Berlin’s first quarter to be certified by the DNGB (source).
But perhaps most significantly, these green innovations were all completed without any architectural sacrifices. Indeed the sustainable elements add to the feeling of modernity conveyed throughout the quarter. The gentle sound of the artificial lakes, the impressiveness of the Sony Center, and lack of large trucks above ground all combine to create a welcoming experience and relaxing experience in Berlin’s new commercial center. It’s also a space where tourists meet residents and together meet sustainability, a sure way to signify Germany’s new chapter of sustainability and prove sustainability need not be stifling. In that way, Potsdamer Platz lives up to Space of the Week standards by serving as a positive force for sustainability to all visitors. Potsdamer Platz is also an incredible story of perseverance, the story of the “Square in front of Potsdam Gate” that became a European leader in sustainability.