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The Ghosts of Berlin

review BOOKS

by Brian Ladd. University of Chicago Press, 1997. 271pp. £23.95

Brian Ladd's subject is Berlin since reunification in 1990: its buildings (whether standing, vanished or proposed), its ruins, its seeming wasteland, writes Andrew Mead. In this 'contested historical landscape', no easy consensus exists about what should be remembered, and how. The city's 'ghosts' - Hitler, Honecker et al - are all too conspicuous. Aesthetic assessments of architecture become secondary to symbolic ones; innocent- looking structures or sites prove disconcertingly charged. For Berlin's citizens, both personal and national identity are at issue.

A historian, Ladd organises his book by a series of case studies concerning particular controversies: over the site of the Hohenzollern's royal palace at the end of Unter den Linden, for instance, and of Hitler's chancellery and its bunkers; over the Reichstag, Potsdamer Platz and, of course, The Wall. In the process he highlights the successive eras in Berlin's history that impinge on its present and the complexities that underlie debate. Competing agendas are lucidly presented. The city is shown to be a minefield in which any decision - whether to build anew, to preserve, or to memorialise - guarantees dissent.

Oddly, Ladd makes only fleeting reference to Daniel Libeskind who, in his Jewish Museum and Alexanderplatz projects respectively, has surely dealt as profoundly as anyone in Berlin with the shades of Nazism and the Cold War. But his book is absorbing. More than a portrait of a fraught city, it is a reminder that not just 'good design' is at stake in the built world and its traces.

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