Berlin in the 1990s The Charm of the Unfinished

Potsdamer Platz 1996
Potsdamer Platz 1996 | © Michael Lange

Grey façades, empty streets and building cranes dominating the skyline: in the 1990s Michael Lange roamed through Berlin’s centre and captured the cityscape of the post-reunification period in photographs. Some twenty years later he has visited the old places again. His pictures show how the face of Berlin has changed.

When the trained photographer Michael Lange came to Berlin from Lower Saxony in the 1990s, he was not thinking of making a pictorial documentation of the city. He wanted to study journalism and communication studies at the Free University and moved for this purpose to the district of Prenzlauer Berg. “In those days Berlin was an empty city. There were so many unused spaces and vacant houses. I was fascinated by all the grey façades and the Berlin ruins-chic”, recalls Lange.

In his free time he strolled through the city with his camera and snapped pictures of individual streets. Alexanderplatz, Schloßplatz, Friedrichstraße, Potsdamer Platz and the government district: on his rambles he passed all the places that today are fixtures on the sightseeing programme of Berlin tourists. But in his photos from the 1990s, the streets and squares are barely recognizable.

Transported back into another era

Photographer Michael Lange Photographer Michael Lange | © Michael Lange “It was already clear to me then that Berlin wouldn’t remain the same”, says Lange. After reunification, there was building everywhere: the waste land at the Potsdamer Platz would be Berlin’s most exciting construction site for years to come, the entire Spreebogen was tunnelled and the government district newly designed. In Lange’s neighbourhood too the cityscape changed. The old wooden shutters on windows disappeared, the grey façades were given fresh coats of paint in pleasant pastel colours.It was only years later, after Lange had finished his studies and had long been living in a renovated old building, that he pulled out his old contact prints. He scanned them and was amazed by his old black-and-white photos: “I felt transported back into another era. I still knew it and remembered how it felt to walk through these streets”, he says. He thought the photos might also interest other people, and put them on the Net.

At first, interest in the pictures was moderate; there were a few responses and comments. Then, at the end of 2013, the interest increased abruptly. A Berlin publisher became aware of the webpage and asked Lange to visit the depicted places again. Thus arose the idea for a book project in which Lange’s old photographs from the 1990s are contrasted with photos from today. It invites the reader on a little journey through time to a Berlin that no longer exists.

When he looks at his pictures, Michael Lange still becomes himself sometimes nostalgic: “Berlin is still interesting to me, but the city today is simply different. It’s largely lost the charm of the unfinished, but its gained new places and modern buildings”.
 
  • Brunnenstraße (1997) © Michael Lange
    Brunnenstraße (1997)

    “The Brunnenstraße was typical of Berlin back then. Simple, very similar houses without stucco façades and with white windows. You see many gaps and even the firewalls of buildings; on the ground floors there are simple shops. The whole street was virtually rearranged, like all of Berlin.”
  • Brunnenstraße (2014) © Michael Lange
    Brunnenstraße (2014)

    “Over the years the houses were renovated by investors and were then mainly used as offices. The shops are gone. The clubs further down the street in the direction of the TV tower, like ZMF and Solar Club, are also no more.”
  • Alte Schönhauser Straße (1996) © Michael Lange
    Alte Schönhauser Straße (1996)

    “In the 1990s Berlin-Mitte was still hip and the area round the Alte Schönhauser Straße was very popular with the scene. There were clubs, restaurants, cafés and small shops where you could buy unusual clothes ...
  • Alte Schönhauser Straße (2014) © Michael Lange
    Alte Schönhauser Straße (2014)

    ... then, little by little, more and more restaurants and clothing shops opened run by various chains that catered to the tourist trade. The street lost its melancholic charm.”
  • Alexanderplatz (1997) © Michael Lange
    Alexanderplatz (1997)

    “Historically, the Alexanderplatz has always been in transition. After the post-war socialist urban planning, Alex was supposed to become a square as if made from one piece. But this zeitgeist of the 1970s, the rational, the standardized, already began to be reshaped after the turnaround.”
  • Alexanderplatz (2014) © Michael Lange
    Alexanderplatz (2014)

    “The new plans by the star architect Hans Kollhoff provide for a complete redesign of Alexanderplatz, with ten new high-rises. So Alex will continue to change, and in ten years will probably again look completely different.”
  • Schloßplatz (1996) © Michael Lange
    Schloßplatz (1996)

    “During the GDR the Palace of the Republic was the seat of the People’s Parliament and at the same time a cultural department store. In the 1990s the building was shut for a long time, and was later temporarily used for tours and exhibitions. But because of high amount of asbestos in the building, it was decided after years of debate to pull the Palace down ...
  • Schloßplatz (2014) © Michael Lange
    Schloßplatz (2014)

    ... and rebuild the old City Palace, the shell of which can already be seen at the Schloßplatz. Me, I would have let the Palace of the Republic stand as an authentic reminder of history instead of erecting this mock-up castle. In the rebuilt City Palace there’s later supposed to be a room commemorating the Palace of the Republic. That’s really absurd.”
  • Friedrichstraße (1996) © Michael Lange
    Friedrichstraße (1996)

    “Before, the Friedrichstraße was a popular entertainment and nightlife street with cabarets and bars. Then it was to be converted into a bustling shopping street. At the time of the photograph the S-Bahn was just being modernized, a new Underground line was being built and the street re-paved. The first buildings of the Friedrichstadt Passagen must also have been already completed.”
  • Friedrichstraße (2014) © Michael Lange
    Friedrichstraße (2014)

    “After the street rehabilitation, Berliners had to get used again to being able to walk along the Friedrichstraße. At first there were only a few people; there were no trees and very little traffic. Today the street bustles with tourists and tour groups.”
  • Potsdamer Platz (1996) © Michael Lange
    Potsdamer Platz (1996)

    “The picture shows the Potsdamer Platz in the direction of the Beisheim Centre as a huge waste land in which nothing stood for a long time. In the background to the left, you see Hotel Esplanade, about which there was later something of a stir because the architect Helmut Jahn had parts of it jacked up and moved.”
  • Potsdamer Platz (2013) © Michael Lange
    Potsdamer Platz (2013)

    “Today fragments of the Hotel façade and the old breakfast room are integrated into the Sony Centre, which you can see to the left, with its tent roof. The Potsdamer Platz is now an urban ensemble on the American model, which is popular especially with tourists. You wonder why. It doesn’t really fit into Berlin.”
  • Pariser Platz (1998) © Michael Lange
    Pariser Platz (1998)

    “Before, the Pariser Platz at the Brandenburg Gate bordered directly on the Wall and was actually completely cleared. Soon after the turnaround it was already clear that here were going to be quality buildings and the square was to become a visiting card for Berlin.”
  • Pariser Platz (2014) © Michael Lange
    Pariser Platz (2014)

    “Yet instead the place has become an architectural potpourri. If you compare the pictures, you soon notice how swiftly the square has changed. Events and demonstrations are constantly taking place here; the square is often closed off, so it took me quite a few tries before I could get a photograph of it.”
  • Government District (1999) © Michael Lange
    Government District (1999)

    “After a narrow majority of the Bundestag decided to make Berlin the new capital, parliament and government moved from Bonn to Berlin in 1999. At this point the Reichstag had been freshly renovated, but many other parts of the government district were still under construction.”
  • Government District (2014) © Michael Lange
    Government District (2014)

    “Today the Marie-Elisabeth Luders House to the left and the Paul Löbe House to the right are completed. The quarter seems very modern with its large concrete and glass façades, and runs like a “Federal strip” south to the Friedrichstraße. The bridges across the Spree create the impression of a symbolic link between East and West. The silhouette of constructions cranes, typical of Berlin for long time, is now gone.”