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Catching Berlin in transition

I was in Berlin on the night the German football team thrashed Brazil in the World Cup.  I can confirm it is a party city and it knows how to celebrate.  Berlin has all the benefits of a German city, high quality space for pedestrians and cyclists, great public transport and green spaces but it has a unique personality. It is a proud, challenging, confident and deeply moving city unafraid to face up to its violent and tragic past.


The Berlin wall that divided east and west Berlin came down in 1989 and the civic interventions to rebuild important historic buildings and to stitch the city back together since then are outstanding.    Old and new are interwoven and take turns to dominate.  As my husband observed at the Hauptbahnhof ‘I never thought I could be thrilled by a railway station.’ Once you get over the idea that you might be on the set of the Fritz Lang film Metropolis, you can only be in awe of the skill of the architect and engineer.  The same can be said of so many buildings and spaces in Berlin.


There are artistic installations everywhere that are provocative and emotive. Predictably I found the Holocaust Memorial very unsettling but the simple exhibition at Checkpoint Charlie was also poignant – in periods of my life it was almost daily news that young people, my age, would be shot dead for trying to cross the ‘death strip’ from east to west.  We took our freedom for granted; they never could.


Not all the spaces severed by the wall have been ‘reinstated’ and there are areas where ‘meanwhile spaces’ are occupied by the community.  The Yaam Beach Club by the Michaelbrüke (a bridge across the river near the Ostbahnhof) is a bar with a sandy beach and deckchairs but looks to be under threat of closure. We apologised to the residents of a tepee settlement nearby for invading their privacy; they told us it was a public path, the land had been sold and their future was uncertain.  By the river Morchenpark has been created by volunteers and other land is used for growing food.  An article in a City Guide, Berlin&I, explained that a popular techno club, Bar 25, had established on the death strip but had been forced to close in 2010.  Against all the odds they found financial backing and the rights to develop the area, which will be in their own unconventional way of course.

Yaam 2 Yaam

The centre of Berlin is a giant construction site as new infrastructure is added, squares are re-established, historic buildings are restored and new buildings are created.  Go see it now if you can; eventually it will be difficult to see the route of the wall as the architects, urban designers and landscape architects make such a splendid success of healing the scars of a truly grim era of history.


Outpourings in Portland

Fittingly we arrived at Portland station in torrential rain; the largest city of American state Oregon, Portland was a pioneer in developing sustainable drainage systems (SuDS) in the 1980s but it does have a reputation as a rainy city. All the rainwater down pipes in a huge suburb east of the Willamette River have been disconnected and as a result thousands of gallons no longer feed into the city’s surface water disposal system. As the scheme has relieved pressure on the water disposal system residents get a discount on their water rates – no doubt a popular outcome.  Scattered across the city are ‘Green Streets’ where ‘water sensitive urban design’ is being put into practice.


My hotel overlooked integrated SuDS solutions in Director Park and when I arrived in the downpour I should probably have leapt out, camera in hand, to see the water running but after a 10 hour journey from Vancouver a hot shower and a stiff drink were higher up the agenda.


Rainwater from the roof of the park building collects in a linear plant trough, overflows through spouts onto the ground and then into a second trough; any residual water drains into an outfall. Surface water off the paving drains to ‘sunken’ pits and plant beds. Vegetated areas at a lower level are a key Suds feature; this is a new approach from traditional thinking. It has been usual for the topsoil level of plant beds to be 25mm above the level of adjacent paving so the haunching to the paving edge does not show but also because a slightly domed profile looks better than a dead level surface.  With SuDS solutions the water falls over the edge of the paving into the tree pit or plant bed. It means that a quite different construction detail is needed that supports the paving but is not undermined by the water at times of heavy rain. In effect, it is a water feature where the water drops and rises in level.


Time to get your thinking caps on as to how this detail will work.  On an open space at Portland State University the ‘drop’ was faced with a metal strip but it was hard to see how this was constructed. This space had a clever, permanently wet, water feature that somehow appeared as if the water was going uphill. At the side of the paved area was a stepped water feature which presumably only runs when it rains, feeding into the sunken vegetation areas.  The plants need to be able to tolerate varying water levels and some are permanently wet. This university space is a prime example of how sustainable drainage solutions can be successfully integrated with the hard landscape design.  If they can get in early enough SuDS brings great opportunities for landscape architects to develop creative solutions.  Get out there my friends.