Potsdamer Platz

OR HOW A CUSTOMS GATE BECAME EUROPE'S SUSTAINABLE SQUARE

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Remnants of the Berlin Wall stand as an outdoor exhibit in the middle of Potsdamer Platz

I remember my first visit to the quarter Potsdamer Platz. 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. Just as attention-grabbing were the Berlin Wall remnants that stand as an outdoor exhibit and testimony to the history of the square and the city more generally.

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. Later, I would learn just how many sustainability techniques are to be found in the architecture at this corner of Berlin.

The Sony Center includes a movie theater, several restaurants, a fountain, and of course a Sony store.

Frederick Schinkel drew up this design for Potsdam Gate

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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.

Potsdamer Platz in 1945

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West Berliners look over the Berlin Wall on the west side of Potsdamer Platz

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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.

Aerial view of the area shows the Sony Center (back right) and the green roofs on nearby buildings (source)

 

 

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.

Map of Potsdamer Platz's water storage system (source)

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).

Piano Lake is fed by the quarter's massive water retention system.

Another component of the quarter's impressive green atmosphere is the large park built on former Berlin Wall ground. Tilla-Durieux Park runs 500 meters by 75 meters and is the result of eight years of reconstruction. The park now provides a great place to read a book or just relax and breathe in the sites of Potsdamer Platz. 

Left: The park before reconstruction (source)

Right: Park after eight years of reconstruction

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. As evidence of the influence of sustainability efforts in this quarter, consider some of the businesses that have opened environmentally friendly branches in the area. For example, the shopping mall Arkaden boasts several environmental practices and features live trees (complete with chirping birds) inside. 

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 sustainable space 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. More photos from around Potsdamer Platz: