Black and white photograph of a man washing a window inside a modern apartment overlooking a construction site

Interbau exhibition in Berlin, July 1957. Photo: Willy Pragher. Landesarchiv Baden-Württemberg, Abt. Staatsarchiv Freiburg, W 134 Nr. 048903a. Image licensed under a Creative Commons Namensnennung 3.0 Deutschland license (CC BY 3.0 DE)

This summer the Getty Research Institute exhibition Berlin/LA: Spaces for Music examined concert-hall landmarks in Berlin and LA. Exhibition co-curator Emily Pugh earlier offered a sketch of the two cities’ cultural similarities; here she provides context for Berlin’s unique architectural landscape, which for decades was shaped by war, ideology, and the geography of domination. —Ed.

Berlin was a partitioned city from the end of World War II and a city divided by a wall for about 28 years. A foreboding, fortified border down the middle of a city would seem a considerable obstacle to the continued evolution of its built environment. Yet not only did construction continue on both sides of the Berlin Wall from 1961 to 1989, but the division fueled development  in both direct and indirect ways.

Just how did officials on each side go about building half a city? What follows is an overview of architectural development in East and West Berlin, which reveals the extent to which the Wall was perhaps not so much a divide as a “zipper,” in the words of East German poet Lutz Rathenow, “The cement holding the whole of Berlin together.”(1)

West Berlin, Capital without a Country

After the abandonment of the earliest plans for Berlin’s reconstruction, drawn up by a city planning commission led by architect Hans Scharoun in 1946, the ruling powers on each side of Berlin’s east-west border undertook separate construction plans for only those sections of the city they controlled.

In the first decade or so after World War II, the Allied forces, and in particular the US, took a leading role in supporting and guiding the reconstruction of West Berlin. Funds from the US-initiated Marshall Plan were from 1948 used to defray the cost of structures like the office and shopping complex near the Berlin Zoo (Paul Schwebes and Hans Schoszberger, 1955–57) as well as the international building exhibition, known as Interbau, which undertook the reconstruction of the Hansa district and opened in 1957. The US also gifted the city with a number of buildings, including the Congress Hall (Hugh Stubbins, 1955–58) and the America Memorial Library (Fritz Bornemann and Willy Kreuer, 1951–55). These buildings’ strident, modernist style was intended to send a message to the East and to the world that, despite its division, West Berlin was a cosmopolitan, international, and affluent city.

From the 1950s through the early 1960s, construction in center districts was concentrated around the Tiergarten, a large public park near the Brandenburg Gate. In addition to the projects near the Berlin Zoo and in the Hansa district, Scharoun’s Berlin Philharmonie (1960–63) and Mies van der Rohe’s New National Gallery (1965–68) were built south of the park. This area, known as the Culture Forum, was designed to replace Berlin’s historic centers of culture, Museum Island and Potsdam, which were from 1961 part of East Berlin.

Much construction in West Berlin in the 1960s also took place in farther-flung districts, since areas in the city’s former center were, as of 1961, located near the Wall and thus less appealing for residents and developers alike. Large housing projects were built in such districts, including Gropiusstadt (begun 1962) in the district of Neukölln, located to the far south, and the Märkishes Viertel (begun 1963) in the district of Wittenau, located to the far northwest.

As the 1960s wore on, investment in West Berlin became increasingly less attractive to building developers. Not only was the city in a remote location within East Germany, but construction costs in West Berlin were higher than in West Germany. In fact, building materials had to be imported, a result of West Berlin’s continued status as an occupied city and not an official part of West Germany. As developers in these years focused on new construction in outer districts, in central districts like Kreuzberg and Wedding, buildings were left to fall apart. In many cases buildings were entirely or partially demolished, in what is sometimes called the “Second Destruction”—the first destruction having been the result, of course, of World War II.

Beginning in the early 1970s, squatters desperate for affordable housing began occupying buildings illegally. By September 1982, a total of nine out of West Berlin’s twelve districts contained squatted dwellings.(2) Squatting shaped West Berlin’s urban environment indelibly in these years.

Color photo of tall apartment blocks towering over a street in West Berlin

Gropiussstadt complex in West Berlin, view of Fritz Erler-Allee from the roof of Ida Wolf-Haus. Photo: Willy Pragher, May 14, 1981. Landesarchiv Baden-Württemberg, Abt. Staatsarchiv Freiburg, W 134 Nr. 118068b. Image licensed under a Creative Commons Namensnennung 3.0 Deutschland license (CC BY 3.0 DE)

As images of banner-decked squats filled the West German press in the 1980s, officials grew anxious about West Berlin’s reputation, particularly given the city’s significance as a Cold War symbol. In an effort to bolster its image, city planning officials sought to reclaim the glory of the postwar years and bring prestige architecture back to West Berlin with another international building exhibition, similar to Interbau. The exhibition, known as IBA, was celebrated in 1987 and led to the construction of buildings in West Berlin designed by celebrity architects, including Peter Eisenman and Rem Koolhaas’s Office for Metropolitan Architecture.

Color photo of a metal-and-glass modernist apartment building with stores on the ground floor

Checkpoint Charlie Apartments in West Berlin, designed by Rem Koolhaas’s Office for Metropolitan Architecture for the IBA (Internationale Bauausstellung). Photo: Arbalete, 2005–07. Source: Wikimedia Commons

East Berlin, Capital of the German Democratic Republic

East Berlin was declared capital of the German Democratic Republic (GDR or East Germany) upon the formation of the new nation in October 1949. As a result, and unlike its western counterpart, East Berlin was always at the very center of national development plans and a formally recognized center of activity, attention, and investment throughout the period of division. For example, East Berlin was the site of the first major postwar development: the housing complex along Stalinallee, built between 1950 and 1953.

The early 1960s was a period of economic resurgence and architectural experimentation in East Germany, as the nominal excuse for censorship—Berlin’s and Germany’s open borders—had been “solved,” according to the ruling party, by the 1961 closure. The architectural experimentation that followed led to the construction of a number of striking new buildings in East Berlin in this decade, in particular along Stalinallee (renamed Karl-Marx-Allee in 1961). These included House of Teachers conference center (1962–64) and the TV Tower (1965–69), both designed by Hermann Henselmann, as well as the Kino International movie theater (1961–63) and the Hotel Berolina (1961–63), both designed by Josef Kaiser. These buildings were part of a plan to make East Berlin into a grand and impressive capital city, which would both demonstrate the superiority of East Germany and outshine the “other,” non-capital Berlin.

Black and white building showing three 1960s buildings in East Berlin. In the foreground, pedestrians and people on benches

Buildings in East Berlin designed by Josef Kaiser and collective: Kino International, 1961–63, an ice cream parlor (Mokka-Milch-Eisbar, 1961–64), and Hotel Berolina, 1961–63. Photo: Puhlmann, August 31, 1967. German Federal Archives (Bundesarchiv), 183-F0831-0301-021. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The period of openness and experimentation of the early 1960s was, however, short-lived. Throughout the remainder of the decade, the East German government pursued a course of “radical standardization,” with the goal of building ever faster and more cheaply in order to combat a nationwide housing shortage. In 1971 East Germany’s first head of state, Walter Ulbricht, was deposed, replaced with much fanfare by Erich Honecker. The centerpiece of Honecker’s new slate of policies was an ambitious housing construction program (Wohnungsbauprogramm), which promised to build millions of housing units and thus resolve by 1990 the continuing housing shortage. To attack this problem, East German officials doubled down on cheap, quick prefabricated construction. Housing projects comprised of these so-called “Plattenbauten” were built on an ever larger scale, and the largest of these were located in East Berlin. The largest was Marzahn, begun in the late 1970s and ultimately consisting of tens of thousands of apartments.

The most symbolically significant structure built in East Berlin by the East German regime, however, was the Palace of the Republic (Heinz Graffunder and collective, 1973–76). Located in Berlin’s historic center, the Palace combined arts and entertainment venues (an avant-garde theater, restaurants, a bowling alley and disco) with an assembly hall for the country’s parliamentary body, the “People’s Chamber” (Volkskammer). The Palace was an exception within East German architecture in virtually every way. A unique prestige building, it was built with limited prefabrication and with no expense spared. It represented the regime and the East German nation, but was also popularly embraced.

The Palace was in many ways like East Berlin itself. The regime attempted to instantiate the most idealized, utopian vision of what the country could be, a vision that was unrealizable outside the building or the capital city. Indeed, even within the Palace and East Berlin, the vision of a what one former citizen calls the “dreamed-of” East Germany (3) could only be maintained through the use of physical and psychological coercion, a system of control that broke down with the toppling of the regime in 1989.

Color photo of young adults in a large, grand foyer of a municipal building. The space has high ceilings and is lit by multiple globe-shaped lamps

Main foyer of the Palace of the Republic, East Berlin, June 26, 1976. Photo: Jürgen Sindermann. German Federal Archives (Bundesarchiv), 183-R0706-417. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Wall as Architecture

The Berlin Wall itself was, in many ways, the structure that defined Berlin during its period of division. The Wall—which was actually two separate walls separated by a so-called Death Strip (Todesstreife)—physically dominated the central areas of divided Berlin, shaping physical development on both sides, particularly in the areas closest to it, as well as urban plans for the city, whether such plans addressed its historic borders or only East or West Berlin.

The Wall’s infrastructure, located a few feet inside East Germany, was rebuilt and updated a number of times over the course of the 1960s, ‘70s, and ’80s, evolving from a rough, cinder block construction in the early 1960s to a concrete barrier with a smooth, white surface by the late 1970s. In the Cold War west, images of the Berlin Wall filled western mass media depictions of the city, particularly around 1961 when it was first erected and beginning again in the 1980s when the surface of the westernmost wall began to fill with graffiti. The Wall and its graffiti defined divided Berlin in the western public’s imagination as a bastion of freedom and a site of exuberant and even irreverent open, democratic dialogue.

In East Germany, however, the Wall functioned quite differently. East Germans, of course, saw only  the easternmost “hinter wall,” which remained a pristine white through the 1980s. For them, the Wall was a somber reminder of the repression of the East German regime, and some found the graffiti on its western side to be in poor taste. Marianne Birthler, a member of the East German resistance, commented for example in 2011, “we could not understand why someone would want to paint on a gallows.”[4]

The East German regime for its part chose to ignore the Wall in planning East Berlin, treating the former sector border as its final limit. In West Berlin, the question of whether to confront or accommodate the Wall in urban planning was a hotly debated one by the 1980s: to ignore it was viewed as tantamount to accepting it, but, thirty years after its construction, creating a plan for all of Berlin seemed futile. Ultimately, the decision by the East Germans to open the border rendered the question moot. Construction of what is now the capital of Germany began in earnest in 1990, and continues to this day.

Further Reading

Philip Broadbent and Sabine Hake, Berlin Divided City, 1945–1989 (New York, NY: Berghahn Books, 2010).

Christiane F. Zoo Station: The Story of Christiane F. (San Francisco, CA: Zest Books, 2013).

Brian Ladd, Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).

Katherine Pence and Paul Betts, Socialist Modern: East German Everyday Culture and Politics (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2008).

Emily Pugh, Architecture, Politics, and Identity in Divided Berlin (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014).


1. Harald Hauswald and Lutz Rathenow, Ost-Berlin: Leben vor dem Mauerfall, 6th ed. (Berlin: Jaron Verlag, 2014), 151.

2. Drucksache80 / Große Anfrage der Fraktion der SPD über Sachstand der Lösungsbemühungen des Konfliktes um die besetzten Hauser, September 6, 1982, p. 3, Instandbesetzer (1983/84): A 163 / GV 111, STERN-Archiv, Baukunstarchiv, Akademie der Künste, Berlin.

3. Stefan Wolle, Die heile Welt der Diktatur: Alltag und Herrschaft in der DDR 1971–1989 (Berlin: Links Verlag, 1998), 46.

4. Birthler comments were made as part of the discussion following The Rise and Fall of the Berlin Wall: Perspectives on the Wall 50 Years After it was Built, a presentation by Ms. Birthler and Prof. Hope Harrison hosted by the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at The George Washington University on November 9, 2011.