Whether on a warm summer's evening or a crisp winter night, there's something cosy and inviting about the Nikolaiviertel (Nicholas Quarter). What could be nicer than a stroll through Berlin's authentic old town? Well...old town...well...town anyway. The thing is that the Nikolaiviertel isn't quite what it seems...
The Nikolaiviertel was indeed right at the historic centre of Berlin, facing its twin town of Cölln on the other side of the river (on what's now known as Fischerinsel). At its heart is the Nikolaikirche, Berlin's oldest church, parts of which are thought to date back to around 1230.
It's worth taking a closer look at some of the other buildings, though, as they point to a rather different heritage. Look up above the shops and you'll see that the facades of many of the buildings are not the coloured stucco you might have expected but rather, painted concrete. The architectural curiosity that is the Nikolaiviertel was actually almost entirely constructed in the mid 1980s, completed in 1987 for the 750th anniversary of the founding of Berlin (the date being taken from the first written mention of Cölln in 1237; the settlement was likely founded quite a few years before that - current archaeology points back to at least 1183). The development included the restoration of the Nikolaikirche and the reconstruction of a number of historic buildings which had originally been found in other parts of Berlin.
If all this seems hard to believe, it's worth taking a look at this picture taken by Günter Bittner in around 1970, from the fairly recently opened Fernsehturm:
As you can see, there's not a whole lot there - there's still a small collection of buildings on the Spree side, plus the ruins of the Nikolaikirche, but a large amount of what's now filled by the Nikolaiviertel's shops, pubs and restaurants is just empty waste ground. This, looked at together with the following picture from 2009, shows just how much was built from scratch in the 1980s.
As with many of East Berlin's redevelopment projects, architects were invited to submit suggested plans for the redevelopment to a competition in 1979. The winner was the plan by Günter Stahn, who had previously been involved with the rebuilding of the Berliner Dom (which, it's interesting to note, also involved a combination of straight restoration and the introduction of modern elements).
His plans reflected a change in the attitudes to architecture and town planning in the GDR, a move towards greater acceptance of traditional town structures and building forms. Instead of being driven by a need to pave a new route into a socialist future, the building of the Nikolaiviertel was driven by a need to route the new socialist state in the German past.
At the same time, there were very real practical issues which had to be solved, not least the GDR's chronic housing shortage and its shortage of funds for addressing it. It was necessary for the new Nikolaiviertel to provide much needed housing, but it also needed to fit the state's budget.
The solution was to use the exact same technique that had been used to build much of East Germany's new housing: Plattenbau. Using pre-cast concrete parts, Plattenbau (otherwise known as large panel system building) meant buildings could be put together quickly and cheaply, the parts being produced in a factory and slotted together on site to form the finished buildings. Using this method, Stahn managed to build 780 flats in the Nikolaiviertel without breaking the budget. More than that, he seemed to be quite a fan of the technique, being quoted in a Spiegel article from March 24th 1986 saying that "Die Platte ist nun mal der Stein unserer Zeit" (the [concrete] panel is just the stone of our era). He wanted the development to contain elements of both modern and traditional, which he executed in a way that shows its most modern face on the side that looks out onto Marx-Engels-Forum, taking on more traditional elements as you work your way into its centre.
The word Plattenbau tends to be associated with the grey, angular developments which line streets like Leipziger Straße, but the buildings in the Nikolaiviertel used panels cast specially for the development. This helped them take on a more individual character, blending more readily with the reproduction and genuine old buildings which they rub shoulders with. Look closely at the facades, though, and you can quite easily spot the joins between the panels.
If you walk into the Nikolaiviertel from Spandauer Straße, along Am Nußbaum, you'll find a gateway on the right hand side which leads into a courtyard behind the shops. Here, you can really see the buildings' Plattenbau heritage in all its undecorated glory:
Critics tend to not have many kind things to say about the Nikolaiviertel - the word 'Disneyland' tends to pop up quite often. Looking at tourists' comments reveals a different view, though. Some don't even realise that they're not walking through Berlin's old town (or at least a restored or rebuilt version of it), let alone that they're walking through what's partly a 1980s Plattenbau development. Even some of the reconstructed historic buildings are ones which wouldn't actually have been there before World War II (though that's another topic in itself).
It was Stahn's intention to create a "vibrant central area with high experiential value". The majority of tourists' comments seem to suggest he succeeded with that, though it does seem to be tourists rather than locals who are most drawn by its 'experiential value'.
The Nikolaiviertel has a definite tranquil air about it, sheltered from the bustle of the nearby main roads. Entering it does feel a little bit like you're stepping into a bygone age...even if that age is more 1987 than 1897.