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Breaking down cultural walls

Britons should look to Berlin and heed the lessons of its remarkable transformation, as delegates to the BCO's annual conference discovered. Peter Murray reports

The omens were not good. 'Stinking poor and stupid - the German view of the British' ran the top headline in the Daily Telegraph on the opening day of the British Council for Office's annual conference, held last week in Berlin. As 550 members of the BCO sat down to listen to the keynote address on 'Cultural differences in Europe' given by Keith Warburton, it was clear they were in for something of a culture shock; but outside rather than inside the conference.

Warburton is a consultant to multinational companies, advising on the effect different cultural backgrounds can have on business performance and relationships. Germans, he said, can often seem to be overly direct, rude and undiplomatic.

So perhaps we shouldn't be offended by their views of us, except that, experience at the conference would suggest, they are not far from the truth. Compare our cities, our investment in infrastructure, in architectural competitions, in quality building with what has been going on in Berlin and you do begin to feel rather poor and stupid.

In just over a decade Berlin has been transformed from a drab and pockmarked sprawl into what Senator Peter Kurth told the delegates is now 'the centre for a united Europe'. Some glimpses of how this came about were given in the conference workshops, such as the one where Peter Shaw of RHWL compared working in Berlin on the new Axel Springer Verlag(ASV) headquarters to working in London on the Glaxo Smith Kline(GSK) building at Hounslow designed by Hillier with RHWL as executive architect.

In London, Smith Kline had wanted to develop the old Beecham's tower which the firm had occupied since the '50s; but English Heritage blocked the demolition. 'An organization with a lot of power but little sense of responsibility, ' said Greg White, GSK's head of property.

As a result, the company was planning to move its operations out of the UK when a nearby site unexpectedly became available. A new scheme was prepared, the facade treatment and massing determined and planning received.

In Berlin, by contrast, the ASV job was won as a competition, as is almost every project in the city. It too was the site of a listed building, but the Springer organization was able to get the listing removed and discussion began with the local authority about planning and how much development could go on the site. 'Planning here is about block diagrams, ' said Shaw. ' It is nothing to do with facades.'

The GSK building is fully air conditioned; in Berlin the local Kreuzberg Green Party has banned air conditioning so the Springer building is naturally ventilated. Hounslow allowed GSK 1,000 car spaces, Springer only got 500. The prices of £136.50 per sq m (GSK) and £139(ASV) to Cat A, were remarkably similar.

The biggest lessons for conference delegates came from outside the plush setting of the Intercontinental Hotel, from the technical tours around the wealth of modern buildings in the new capital. The Reichstag tour was a must and had the benefit of avoiding the severalhundred-metre queue of visitors waiting to enjoy Foster's dramatic spiral dome. A visit to the newly completed chancellery - a hybrid of Kahn and Harry Seidler - was called off at the last minute, to be substituted for a rare view of the interior of Frank Gehry's DG Bank building close by the Brandenberg Gate. The Jewish Museum was closed because the objects are currently being placed in the building but Nina Libeskind's virtual tour was an acceptable substitute; the Sony Centre, with its Mount Fuji form roof which covers a spectacular public space has become a focus for tourists, locals and, last Saturday, football fans.

A reception was held in Michael Wilford's British Embassy, but it was the embassy of the Nordic countries, designed by Berger and Parkinnen, that created the greatest interest with its banded copper wall corralling the five individual national buildings within one urban form. Huge infrastructure developments were underway at Lehrter Bahnhof, which will become Berlin's central station. The River Spree had been temporarily realigned and a new rail network built to serve the station.

In his book, The Politics of Order, Alan Balfour wrote of the Berlin Wall: 'Reality will forever rest on the memory of this eternal division.

Such essential order, once split, can never be fully restored.'

Traces of the wall will remain forever a part of Berlin's soul, but one can but stand in awe at the rebuilding that has gone on in just over 10 years to stitch the two parts of the city together again. The courage, commitment and quality with which it has been carried out provided some model lessons to the British developers, agents, engineers and architects who took part in the conference. The city should be required visiting for English Heritage, English Partnerships, RDAs, city authorities and indeed all those involved in planning and urban development in Britain. We may not be that stupid or that poor, but looking at Berlin, you can't blame them for thinking we are.

Peter Murray is MD ofWordsearch The papers given at the conference can be found on the conference website via www.office-plus.co.uk

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