Germany: Heritage, Arts & Culture

City of Art & Culture

The 1920s were an exciting period in the cultural history of Berlin.  In the new movement of Expressionism, artists were incorporating life experiences into their work.  Practitioners of Dadaism, sought new reality in arts and literature.  Walter Gropius launched Bauhaus, a school of design and architecture, while Impressionist Max Lieberman, was inspiring German artists back to a mainstream of creativity.   

On the literary front, Russian émigré Vladimir Nabokov penned his first novels from a Berlin pension while Erich Maria Remarque, author of  the classic "All Quiet on the Western Front" was an ardent devotee of Berlin's cabarets. 

Filmmaker Ufa challenged Hollywood's domination of the European market with spectacular theatres, gala premieres and star power.  The classic performing arts flourished.  Publications and posters produced by Berlin Tourism touted the arts and culture of Germany's most cosmopolitan city.

Once again, Berlin is at the forefront of arts and culture.  Ironically, decades of separation have enhanced its storehouse of cultural venues which currently number: three opera houses, 150 theatres, 170 museums and collections, 300 galleries and a financial commitment of nearly DM 1 billion to cultural development. 

Earlier this year, I visited Berlin for the first time on a press study tour.  After nearly 30 years of frequent European travel, Berlin was still at the top of my "must visit" list.   As departure day neared, even the outbreak of hostilities in Iraq could not dampen my enthusiasm to visit Germany's capital city. 

On departure day, given news reports of long lines and frustrated passengers, I allowed plenty of time for security at Los Angeles International Airport.   Arriving at LAX I headed straight for Lufthansa's ticket  counters.   In no time flat, my suitcase was inspected, security tagged for transit and locked to protect my possessions.  In just a few moments more, with boarding cards in hand, I was all checked in for my flight.  

No long line.  No frustration.  But more than random good fortune. It was one of today's most elusive commodities - excellent service.     

The 747 that was taking us to Frankfurt was in top condition.  Everything in the cabin was fresh and neat as a pin.  As flight attendants helped passengers with boarding, I settled into a very comfortable seat and just relaxed.    At meal time, the choice of entrees was quite tempting and complimented by an interesting selection of good wines.  After dinner I sat back and took a nice long nap.  

In the morning, I awoke to an appetizing breakfast served prior to our arrival in Frankfurt.  I remember marveling at our flight attendants who were able to remain so pleasant and unruffled after caring for a planeload of passengers on such a long journey.    Our departure was delayed by traffic control but arrival in Frankfurt was ahead of schedule.  That gave me more than enough time to make my way to the departure gate for the short flight to Berlin.

During the cab ride to the city I discovered that Berlin is really a visual treat.   When we arrived at the Hotel Grosser Kurfurst, my thoughts shifted to unpacking, checking e-mail, and a hot shower. 

The hotel was modern and attractive.  Décor was contemporary with a hint of New York chic.  The  mix of marble, mirrors, glass and art was working just right.  A giant horse with a rather Teutonic looking rider was bursting through one of the walls on the atrium lobby.  

Over the next few days I made a few enquiries with hotel staff about the origins of this unusual bit of art but never really discovered its provenance.  

Entering my room, I was greeted with a view of a Berlin skyline through the window on the opposite wall.  The room was nicely appointed and held out an immediate promise of genuine comfort.   Some nice touches caught my attention.  The desk had phone jacks conveniently located for plugging in my laptop and plugs for charging it as well.  The bed was large, with big pillows and a lighter-than-air comforter.   The bathroom was all marble, bright, with twin sinks, separate tub and shower, plenty of  towels and nice amenities.  There wasn't a speck of dust anywhere, housekeeping was superb.  All that was left was a quick flick of the TV remote control and there it was - the Holy Grail of travelers everywhere - CNN. 

A breakfast room overlooked the lobby from the first floor.   It was a clever use of space, well designed with a competent staff that got things right - they remembered you and never forgot your coffee.  Since all of our dinners were scheduled out of the hotel, I didn't get an opportunity to use the Grosser Kurfurst's restaurant.    It had an enticing menu and a cosmopolitan air that would make it right at home in any major city.  Next time for sure.   

The hotel was in the former eastern sector and nicely situated for my movements.  It contributed to a very enjoyable visit to Berlin and I can truthfully say that I would look forward to staying there again. The Hotel Grosser Kurfurst, is four star,  located on Neue Roßstrasse, owned and operated by Derag Hotel and Living.  You can visit them on line by using this link.

By European standards, Berlin is a young capital.  The population of the re-unified city today is three and a half million people.  It has more bridges than Venice and is nine times bigger than Paris.  Berlin is also a city of sublime contrasts.  On its streets and boulevards classic buildings erected by Prussian era architects exist harmoniously next to superb examples of contemporary design.   In addition, the architecture of the former GDR offers a rather stark, social-realistic style of architecture. 

Reunification presented Berlin with a generation of new building sites.  Almost overnight, the cityscape filled with cranes and emerging profiles of new structures in an unprecedented wave of new construction.  There is also a noticeable number of major renovations and restorations taking place as well.  All of this development is interspersed amongst existing buildings with designs inspired by classic Greek ideals and revivals of styles like Baroque, Renaissance and Romanesque.

A good example of Berlin's architectural accord is the new development at Potsdamer Platz where the flowing red canopy of the 26 story Sony Center shelters the Kaisersaal.    Built in 1908 at the behest of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the Grand Hotel Esplanade became an immediate favorite of Berlin society.  In the early twentieth century, it was home away from home for international celebrities like Chaplin, Garbo and Detreich. 

Most of the hotel was destroyed during the second world war.  The Berlin Wall then relegated the broken old building to nearly thirty years of obscurity.  Upon re-unification, the hotel fell under the protection of Germany's Landmark Preservation Laws.   After ten years of expert restoration, the remaining ensemble of public rooms serve as an architectural museum, which once again, are available for business or social occasions.

The rooms dating to the Wilhelmian era include the neo-rococo breakfast room, the neo-baroque Kaisersaal (Emperor's Room) where the Kaiser enjoyed his "Gentlemen's Meetings," the 1950s style Palmenhof (Palm Courtyard) and the Silbersaal (Silver Room).  Three adjacent salons joined by sliding doors on the Gallery level, accommodate about thirty persons each.  The entire facility, together with the adjacent Café Josty will accommodate over two thousand persons.  

On our first night in Berlin our small group enjoyed dinner in the Emperor's Room.  The meal  could have come from the Kaiser's kitchens of nearly a century ago or any top restaurant today.  Lobster soup with ravioli, ribs of lamb in shallot crust, zucchini-potato patties and a cottage cheese soufflé with rhubarb.  A dry Reisling, Grans Fassian, and a  Dornfelder, Kreuzberg complimented the meal. 

Another project next to the Sony Center near Potsdamer Platz, the Bleisheim Center will be Berlin's version of New York's Rockefeller Centre.  In addition to fashionable shopping, the complex will include a luxury 300 room Ritz-Carlton and a Marriott.

There is already an abundance of excellent shopping in Berlin.  Perhaps the most famous of its shopping avenues is the Kurfurstendam.  Nowadays, younger shoppers travel along Ku'damm and Tauentzienstraße seeking the hottest trends.  However, when one crosses Adenauerplatz the boulevard becomes much more exclusive.

The area surrounding the Kurfurstendam, with its turn of the century architecture, is populated with fashionable shops and restaurants.  Here, style, design and cozy little cafes all compete for the attention of each passerby.   

In addition to top labels and designers, Berlin is also home to an excellent selection of antique shops.  There are dealers specializing in all genres popular with serious collectors.  Many antiquarians are concentrated in Schoneberg, (Keith-Fugger and Eisenacherstrasse) and in Charlottenburg (Suarez-Damaschkestrasse, Savignyplatz) and Kurfurstendam side streets.   Some 100 dealers have set up shop in the antique and flea market under the overhead railway arches at Friedrichstrasse stations.  They offer jewelry, dolls, furniture, paintings, engravings and memorabilia of "old Berlin."

But the marathon event for the "shop till you drop" crowd is Berlin's KaDeWe (Kaufhaus des Westens).   Billed as the biggest department store on the European continent, it has eight floors of top brand goods, luxury items and a reputation for excellent customer service.  It also has a floor dedicated to fine foods which in the spirit of Fortnum & Mason boasts over a thousand varieties of cheese, two thousand wines plus a domed restaurant. 

There are a number of eateries featuring all sorts of moderately priced yet delicious delicacies prepared in exhibition style kitchens.  While we enjoyed lunch in the Italian court, we were entertained by a throng of gourmets and gourmands in a frenzy of epicurean delight.

Traveling around Berlin one is exposed to a seemingly endless variety of national cuisines.  The range of restaurants runs from those for the Platinum Card set right down to the cash and carry crowd.   I love traditional German dishes.  But, it is also exciting that German cuisine might be experiencing a transition tending to a lighter touch and new presentation, while adhering to traditional ingredients and local produce. 

A long and illustrious cultural history

Berlin culture has never experienced a period as dynamic as the 1990s.  New museums opened, others were extensively rebuilt as important collections found new homes in Berlin.   The gallery scene has proliferated in Berlin Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg.  The annual art trade fair, "Art Forum Berlin" has brought a whole new art identity to the city.

In the 1990s, the Berggruen collection opened at Stulerbau, "Picasso and his Era" at Charlottenburg and the new Museum of Contemporary Art at the Hamburger Bahnhof gave Berlin new credentials as a world contemporary art center.   

In June 1998, one of the world's largest and most important museums of the old masters opened as the new home for the Picture Gallery at the Cultural Forum in the Tiergarten.   In September 2001, Daniel Libeskind's building was already a critical success when Europe's largest Jewish Museum opened.  In 2002, three new museums opened: the Heinrich-Zille Museum in the Nikolaiviertal,  the Max Liebermann Villa in Wannsee and Mies van der Rohe Villa in Berlin.  

Expansion to the Berlin Armory the German Historical Museum began last May.  Designed by I.M. Pei, the building links baroque with modern architecture.  After extensive renovations, the Armory will reopen by the end of 2004 when the German Historical Museum's collections will once again be open to the public.  Also in 2004, the collection of Friedrich Flick of Switzerland will take residence in the Rieck Halls (300 meters long) at Hamburger Bahnhoff.   The collection presents about 2000 works by 150 artists from the 20th and 21st century.

Museum Island

In no other place is Berlin's standing in the world of culture quite so secure as this plot of land in the middle of the River Spree.  Called Museum Island, it was dedicated to "art and science" in 1841 by King Frederick William IV of Prussia.   (Follow this link to a photo/ map of Museum Island Successive Prussian kings became its patrons.  Ultimately  their collections of art and archeology became a public foundation in 1918 - the Siftung Preubischer Kulturbesitz -  which still maintains the museums and their collections to this very day.

The buildings on Museums Island were heavily damaged in World War II.  In war time, collections were dispersed for safety, only to be divided during the cold war.  For the next few years Museums Island will be in a state of transition.   Collections are being reorganized, museums reconstructed.   The ensemble of Museums is:

The Old Museum (Altes Museum)

The oldest of the museums, finished in 1830.  It was built opposite the no longer existing Berlin Castle.  Berlin's oldest museum building, it was here that the Prussian collection of antiques was first made available to the people by Frederick William III.   Once again, this original collection is now exhibited in part in the Old Museum.  

The New Museum (Neues Museum)

Completed in 1859 and located behind the Old Museum.  Nearly destroyed in World War II, completion of its reconstruction is scheduled for 2009 when it will once again exhibit Egyptian and pre-historic collections.

The Old National Gallery  (Alte Nationalgalerie)

Completed in 1876, to house a collection of 19th century art donated by the financier Joachim H. W. Wagener.  The collection was greatly expanded over the years and ultimately became one of the largest collections of 19th century art and sculptures in Germany.  Badly damaged in World War II, the building reopened after a complete restoration in 2001 housing the paintings of the collections.  The collection's sculptures are now located off the island at Friedrichswerdersche Kirche, a former church.

The Bode Museum

Formerly, the Kaiser-Friedrich Museum, it too is currently closed for renovations .  It is scheduled to reopen in 2006, housing sculptures, late antiques and Byzantine art.

The Pergamon Museum (1930)

Greek/Roman/Babylonian Monumental Art, Islamic Art.  Projected completion date of renovations:  2010?

Whatever your sense of history, a visit to the Pergamon Museum will stir it to new levels of interest.    Carl Humann who discovered the ancient city of Pergamon in the winter of 1864/65, excavated the site  and with the agreement of  the Turkish Government, brought the Pergamon Altar to Berlin. 

The altar, 100 meters wide and dating from King Eumenes II around 170 BC is an incredible example of ancient history.  In addition to its monumental size, (one climbs 20 plus steps to its colonnade level which is about 35 feet above the ground level) the exhibition is remarkable because of the quality of the art and the restorative skills of archeologists and museum artisans.  Another area of the Pergamon Museum houses one of the most famous buildings of Babylon: the Ishtar Gate with five tiers of colored representations of dragons and bulls.   

Museums Island will remain an atelier of the builders arts for the foreseeable future as a new masterpiece of museum presentation is created.   Today, one can sense the future in admiring the gilded copings of the dormers of the Bodemuseum.   In the next few years, an archeological promenade with a subterranean passage will connect four of the five museums.  Visitors will then be able to easily make their way from the bust of Queen Nefertiti in a newly relocated Egyptian Museum directly to the Pergamon Altar where the south frieze has been restored .

Museums Island was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999

The Classic Performing Arts

Berlin is home to great orchestras under famous directors like Claudio Abbado at the Berlin Philharmonic, Daniel Barenboim musical and artistic director at the Staatsoper, and Kent Nagano principal conductor at the Deutsches Symphony Orchestra.

In addition, there are three opera houses offering a variety of classic productions.  Berlin's opera venues are:

Staatsoper Unter den Linden, built between 1741 and 1743 under the patronage of Friedrich the Great it enjoys the richest tradition of all Berlin's opera houses.   Repertory opera and ballet companies offer a variety of outstanding productions each season.   The 2003/2004 season will include 8 ballets with two premieres, Onegin and Cinderella.   The 03/04 opera season includes 27 productions with no less than 6 premieres.

The Komische Oper, a theatre decorated in Viennese late baroque style where all performances take place in German

The Deutsche Oper offers a comprehensive schedule of productions in a season generally running from late summer to mid summer the following year.  In 2002/2003 it offered 34 productions with 161 performances.

The Berliner Festpiele conceives and presents events in all art forms as well as encouraging the creative initiative of young artists.   This autumn, it will present the Mariinsky opera under the direction of Valery Gergiev in performance of three Russian operas of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Berlin, Brandenburg and the Prussian Monarchy 

The rulers of Brandenburg, from Joachim II to Frederick the Great to the last German Emperor built splendid palaces seemingly sparing no expense in the process.  For over 300 years they sought the best builders and artisans to build palaces in and around Berlin.  With the abdication of the last German Emperor William II, Prussian Palaces and Gardens became property of the state and ultimately, accessible to the public as museums.  Today, a foundation created to preserve the cultural heritage of the Prussian Court maintains the 27 buildings, gardens and art collections of these former royal residences. 

In the 19th century a landscape gardener,  Peter Joseph Lenne' created an extended landscape for these royal residences and gardens, the Kulturlandschaft,  that stretched from Sanssouci Palace in Potsdam to Peacock Island in the Havel River.  In all, the collection of Prussian palaces was of  such great distinction that it was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1990.

Palaces and Gardens in Berlin

Prussian kings lived in Charlottenburg Park until the late 19th century, and each left an impression on its palaces and gardens.  The park began with a palace of modest size built for Sophie Charlotte, wife of the Elector, Frederick III. Charlottenburg Palace is the largest surviving Hohenzollern palace in Berlin.  Construction on the central tract began in 1695 and took eighteen years for completion.  The new wing was built in 1740 -1742.  Of special interest are the state rooms of Frederick I, the Porcelain Cabinet, the private apartments of Frederick the Great, his successors and Queen Luise.

Also in the environs of Berlin . . 

Belvedere - Built in 1788 features an extensive porcelain collection illustrating the history of Berlin Porcelain Manufactory (KPM).  The Mausoleum - tombs of King Frederick William III and Queen Luise, Emperor William I and Empress Augusta.  New Pavilion (Schinkel Pavilion) - Built by Schinkel in 1825.  Collections of art from that era including paintings by Caspar David Friedrich, Blechen and Schinkel.  Grunewald Hunting Lodge (Berlin, Zehlendorf) - Dating to 1542 and built for the Elector Joachim II.  Today a museum of hunting history with gallery of works by Rubens and Cranach.

Palaces & Gardens in Potsdam

Remarkably, within the extensive grounds of Sanssouci Park there is an ensemble of four royal palaces.   Work started on the park in the 18th century by Frederick the Great.  In the 19th century it was extended by Frederick William IV .  Its centerpiece is Sanssouci Palace, the summer residence of Frederick the Great .  This superb example of German Rococo architecture houses a priceless art collection, apartments and state rooms. 

The Picture Gallery at the Palace Sanssouci, dates from 1755 and was the first purpose built museum in Germany.  The collection features baroque paintings in Dutch, French and Italian fashion with works by Rubens, van Dyck and Caravaggio.

The New Palace, Sanssouci was the most opulent palace built by Frederick the Great.  It took over six years to construct in 1763.   It incorporates Royal apartments, guest apartments, Marble Gallery, Theatre and the Pesne Gallery.

Charlottenhof Palace was built 1826 - 1829 and is one of the most important examples of work by Schinkel.  Notable for the apartments of Crown Prince Frederick William IV and his wife Elisabeth, Poets Grove and the rose garden.

The Orangery Palace dating from 1851 is the most recent palace built in Sanssouci Park.  

Also within Sanssouci Park are: Roman Baths, c. 1829 with Court Gardeners House, tea pavilion, summer house and Arcade Hall. Church of Peace, c. 1844, modeled on an Italian church, tomb of Frederick William IV and Queen Elisabeth.  Chinese House c. 1754, summer dining room and excellent example of European chinoiserie.  Historic Windmill (replica c. 1787) original was destroyed in 1945, rebuilt 1993 for the Potsdam millennium.  Steam Engine Building c. 1841, this pumping station for the fountains of Sanssouci Park was built in the form of a mosque

Cecilienhof Palace, built 1914-1917 for the last crown Prince William and his wife Cecile.   Today, it is most notable perhaps, as the site of the Potsdam Conference held in 1945 when Harry Truman, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin agreed a reapportionment of post-war Europe.  Other palaces in the outer environs of Berlin may be found in New Garden, Babelsberg Park, Rheinssberg Palace and the Mark Brandenburg.    

On my first visit, I learned that no visit to Berlin is ever long enough and that all visits to Berlin end with a promise to return.  In this article we have but touched on the art and culture of Berlin.  We hope to explore other interesting dimensions of this magnificent city with you in future issues.

Lastly, we want to acknowledge the invaluable assistance of Berlin Tourism and the German National Tourist Office in the creation of this article. 

Recommended links for further information . . .

Berlin Tourism  

The German National Tourist Office

Kaisersaal Salons at Potsdamer Platz

Prussian Palaces and Gardens  

Lufthansa German Airline