Berlin hints at private development in largest park, bypassing landslide referendum

“The law’s construction ban won’t be overturned, only the paragraph that contains it.”


In a controversial move that stunned Berlin’s park users and fans of its abundant green space, the Berlin city council recently announced it is free to ignore at will a construction ban in its largest park which was formally enacted by a citizen referendum that won by a landslide less than two years ago. The park, Tempelhofer Feld, is a former airport with an airfield the size of Central Park, one and a half times the size of Berlin’s next-largest park, the centuries-old Tiergarten, and the referendum – which was not merely advisory but understood to have the force of law –  dictates that it remain in its current state, an undeveloped airfield crossed by two mile-long runways, with a ban on landscaping and permanent structures except for a handful of restrooms and kiosks around the perimeter.


The airport closed in 2008 and lay in a state of limbo for 6 years, its airfield open to visitors as a provisional park devoid of any facilities and its terminal – built in the 1903s by Hitler and for decades the world’s largest building – largely empty although occasionally rented for trade fairs and corporate events. Citizens undertook the city’s arduous referendum process (petition, then an entire second petition, then vote) to save the field and runway as a park, enact an inviolable 10-year construction ban and rescue the site from its likely fate – backed by the mayor, the city government and deep-pocketed developers – as a residential /office/ retail complex with golf courses, with non-binding promises of unspecified amounts of “affordable” housing. Some renderings showed a heavily landscaped, resort-style park in the middle. The ensuing voter referendum won 64 – 36 %(I covered the story here).

Then in December 2015, the city decided it needed some area within the park boundaries for refugee camps (yes, they call them camps; more on that below) and stated its legal right to ignore the referendum which virtually all parties agree has the force of law. Citizens were outraged.


Berliners, taking on City Hall and big business, rescue its largest park from commercial development

Locals fought back against gentrification and saved a beloved yet stark, almost ascetic park. Outrage over the country’s flood of colossal public works boondoggles probably helped.


Tempelhof pano 1 wide
In 2014 Berliners fought for, and won, the preservation of the airfield of Tempelhof, the decommissioned main airport near the city center, as an extraordinary and striking park instead of turning it over to developers for housing-retail-office complexes. I was in the fall and loved the sweeping uninterrupted emptiness which in good weather fills with people doing everything people do in parks.

It’s more an un-park than a park as we know it. They didn’t just vote to keep it as green space, they voted in a law to preserve the airfield untouched and completely ban alterations and permanent structures of any kind. There will be no landscaping, no trees, no sports fields or playgrounds. Just one flat featureless grass expanse the size of Central Park, crossed, of course, by runways. In my hour or two there I saw no benches or rest rooms. (I later learned there are four of the latter, on the the outer perimeter. Central Park has 16 scattered throughout.) But that hasn’t stopped the park from becoming enormously popular.


The near-anonymous architect who defined the postwar German cityscape – and why boring design is important

1970s social housing surrounded by green in the middle of Berlin.

1970s social housing surrounded by green in the middle of Berlin.

Pass-through to the kitchen was innovative when Stallknecht designed it around 1959. Photo is from 1974.








I recently learned that virtually nothing in English has been written on the man who was arguably the most important German architect since World War II. And so I wrote what is only the second English-language article (and only Wikipedia entry) on Wilfried Stallknecht*. By “important” I mean “had the greatest influence on buildings in Germany”. He didn’t redefine architecture as we know it or create a revolutionary visual language, and his buildings are neither beautiful nor dramatic, but he may have had the most influence on the largest number of buildings. The wide influence stems from two innovations dating from 1958: prefabricated apartment buildings that went on to house millions, and a single-family house design of which 500,000 were built.

Stallknecht and his team were the first to build apartment buildings using prefabricated panels. (more…)

Landscape with Sheep and Stadium, Munich

Rare heathland habitats thirty minutes from city center


Froettmaninger Heide - urban nature reserve at Munich Arena  03


Recently I saw in a documentary these sheep next to the high-tech Herzog & de Meuron starchitect stadium in Munich (about twice the size of New York’s Citi Field) and had to find out what was going on.  It turns out the area is a nature preserve consisting of rare chalk heathland remnants and it is indeed adjacent to the stadium. Nothing in English has been written about the site, to my knowledge. The stadium by the way is as futuristic as it looks and I will write about it soon.

This type of heathland was once more common in Europe, although never greatly widespread. I’m not sure whether it’s a good thing or bad thing that the stadium is right alongside. On the one hand it’s great to protect nature so close to busy places. On the other, since they were building on a site where there wasn’t a stadium previously, you’d think they could have found someplace less environmentally important and fragile.

The site, the Fröttmaninger Heath, is one of a handful of similar small patches in a mosaic of villages, outer suburbs, small farms and former artillery ranges traversed by highways on the city’s northern fringe. The North Munich Heathlands Association, a partnership of local towns, vigorously protects them by means of an exhaustive ecological planning, research, and restoration program along with recreation management and a supermodern visitors center. And yet the combined size of the eight sites covers less area than JKF airport. I don’t recall ever seeing a comparable depth of documentation online for a US nature reserve except the very largest, such as Yosemite. It is publicly funded and not a private non-profit organization relying on donations.

Nature in Europe is interesting because their conservation works the opposite of ours. While we promote biodiversity by keeping people out of wild places and letting nature run its course, they do the opposite: promoting biodiversity by letting people in. When I first learned this it took me a while to wrap my head around the concept because we are so used to the idea of wilderness and wild places.


World longest building: Beach resort built by Hitler, never used, still standing


n_23056_1compare - all Manhattan w Bklyn, nJc0dfbc5ba6ba4e496654797a0255e3d8

The world’s longest building is a never-used Nazi-era resort called Prora which would stretch the entire width of Manhattan and across the Hudson River to New Jersey. Built by Hitler on the Baltic Sea to provide recreation for the masses, the buildings were completed and are still standing, but the resort never opened. Just under 3 miles long, it has capacity for 20,000 guests and is nearly impossible to photograph in its entirety because it shrinks to a hairline in any comprehensive view.

aerial bing 1 crop enhance 50Prora resort is highlighted


The buildings lay vacant from 1939 to 2011 apart from sporadic, partial use by the former-East German (more…)

A ghost neighborhood in St. Louis, depopulated due to flooding

These are former residential streets in St. Louis that have been permanently evacuated in the 2000s and most of the houses demolished due to severe, persistent flooding, mainly in the basements. There are definitively no plans for resettlement. The problems had been noted in the 1950s by the Metropolitan Sewer District and persisted until the demolition, and still persist in varying degrees in nearby inhabited streets. The cause of the flooding seems to have been poor sewer and city planning dating back at least to the 1940s. My understanding is that, in short, there should have been either more sewers or fewer buildings. and the fate was sealed decades ago, leaving no other option apart from vacating entire blocks.

The collapsed house is the only one like it in the immediate area. Nearly all the others were razed without a trace; the few remaining (more…)

The Stalinist DUMBO known as Industry City

Saturday I was at Industry City, a gargantuan 100-year-old factory and warehouse complex of a dozen buildings each fully as long as two football fields on the waterfront in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, 9 miles /14 km from central Manhattan. The original name, Bush Terminal, was changed to Industry City in the 1980s.

The place was teeming with designy design people buzzing around designy design studios and Brooklyny artisanal food stalls with enough repurposed wood and rusted metal to reach from here to the sun. The whole thing is pretty icky, basically like DUMBO* on a Stalinist scale and manages to combine the worst elements of both so a friend and I are calling it Stalinist DUMBO. Heartreaking that so much dramatic space and the memory of all those 20th century factory workers seems focused now on $4,000 chairs.

*extremely gentrified former-warehouse area in Brooklyn – Down Underneath the Manhattan Bridge Overpass for our overseas readers



x2scrap6 b


Kiel University going carbon-neutral

Kiel University in Germany has a plan to be climate neutral by 2030 with zero net carbon emissions in the areas of electricity, facilities management and mobility: Climate Neutral University

Purple area shows their carbon emissions have already declined, about 5% from 2013 to 2104.


Winter in the Berkshires

The resonating caused by rocks hitting the ice was one of the most unearthly sounds I’ve ever heard.

Rest Room Signs of North Rhine-Westphalia, Baden-Württemberg, Saxony and Berlin

I forgot to take a picture of the one where I didn’t realize I was in the women’s room because the erratic swoop I thought was peeling paint was, in fact, a “D” for Damen. A woman walked in on me – just washing my hands – and let out a firm but smiling “mm-HM!” which I figured must be quirky Cologne dialect for “Hi!” so naturally I said “Hallo” back, still thinking the bathroom was unisex.

The chicks were at a Japanese restaurant in Berlin.

St. Louis opulence 1880 – 1925

St. Louis was one of the three or so richest US cities around 1880 to 1920 and has perhaps the country’s most extravagant collection of residential architecture in a single neighborhood. Sadly, the houses lie just a few blocks from equally remarkable levels of poverty and desolation of a type unknown in the crowded northeast today.

Especially poignant is the house where Scott Joplin, ragtime composer (“The Entertainer”) and a key grandfather of jazz lived during the height of his career. The house lies preserved in an empty wasteland where the decay was so extreme the neighborhood of once-stately row houses has been wiped clean, leaving only the occasional auto body shop.

St. Louis – The Largest Collection of Original Victorian Pavilions Outside of Kew Gardens

St. Louis’ Tower Grove Park is said to have the largest intact collection of Victorian-era park pavilions – a dozen or so – outside of London’s Kew Gardens. Also, there is  abundant evidence of St. Louis’ once-large German population, long since dispersed and assimilated nearly without a trace. The zinc stag came from Berlin; there are statues of Alexander von Humboldt and Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben (sometimes called “father of the American military” for his essential service in the American Revolution and who was trailed by rumors and public accusations of homosexuality), and others by a German sculptor.


Bonn, the former West German capital, is full of extraordinary 19th century buildings in the approximate German equivalents of Victorian and Art Nouveau styles (Gründerzeit and Jugendstil) plus a bit of 60s-70s modern government architecture at its best. The old houses manage to look stuffy and whimsical at the same time which is quite a feat. There is lots of asymmetry. The main national history museum is there (bottom photos).

The West German parliament met in a room that looked like a bare-bones college or church hall with a bunch of ordinary-lookng people in chairs pulled into in a semicircle. In photos it looks like a PTA meeting and then afterwards they’ll set up the room for bingo.

We missed a tour of the stunning 1963 supermodern chancellor’s house because we didn’t know you need your passport. I’ve always been told passports must be kept in a safe place and not on your person, which I now know can limit spontaneous access to, well, former chancellors’ houses.



Cologne is the size of Tampa yet has both subways and streetcars, endless immaculate car-free shopping streets, world-class museums, and you can get anywhere by bike. It is generally considered Germany’s most relaxed city as well as its gay capital, to the surprise of those who know only Berlin’s international reputation.

1-4: Lots of Cologne looks like this. Plazas with cafes and car-free streets.

5-6: Free book stalls: take free books and/or leave your unwanted books. I found a fantastic one on urban green spaces such as the vine-covered wall behind the very stall where I found the book!

7: Landscape Protection Zone in central-city park

8-11: OMG functioning well-maintained first-world transportation infrastructure! Tablecloths in a train cafe, which haven’t been seen in the US in 50 years!

Dresden 1960-2014

The glass box is VW’s Transparent Factory, 10 minutes from the baroque palaces and churches that most people associate with Dresden and earned it the name ‘Florence on the Elbe’. A literary-philosphical talk show called ‘The Philsophical Quartet’ was sometimes filmed there during its 10-year run, because Germany is the kind of place that has literary-philophical talk shows. To prevent birds from hitting the glass, outdoor loudspeakers play ‘territory taken’ bird sounds.