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Berlin’s construction chaos defies German stereotype

The main terminal of Berlin-Brandenburg Willy Brandt International airport, Sept. 11, 2012. Its opening was delayed again this month.


Berlin's new airport was meant to become a sparkling gateway to a city roaring back into the league of world capitals.

But serial delays to the glass-and-steel terminal on the city's southwestern flank, whose opening was postponed again this month, have become a symbol of the un-Germanic chaos that seems to pervade Berlin more than 20 years after reunification.

"Riding the tiger is not an orderly process," says Wladimir Kaminer, a Russian-born author and one of the city's most famous chroniclers, whose stories feed on Berlin's variety and flux.

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"Nearly every corner of the city is still a building site. To claim the airport delay shows things are going to pot is small-minded and petit bourgeois," he adds.

Residents are familiar with large tracts of land lying barren in the city's centre where the Berlin Wall split it in two. The site of the old Wertheim department store near Potsdamer Platz, once Europe's largest, is only now being redeveloped to house a shopping mall.

But political and commercial delays have been joined by technical ones. The airport's serial postponements – it was meant to open in November – have been followed by news that the royal opera, which dates back to 1741, will not reopen in mid-2013 as first planned but in late 2015 at the earliest.

This has added to a sense among Berliners that the city is not working. The scale and complexity of reuniting a city divided for almost a generation means Berlin offers evidence both of stagnation and dynamism, says Manfred Kuhne, head of city planning in Berlin's urban development ministry.

"Plenty of projects were completed very quickly, even by international comparison," Mr. Kuhne says, mentioning two huge developments at Potsdamer Platz and the new central railway station. "But there are also a lot of projects that took much longer."

Hans Stimmann, Berlin's chief architect from 1991 to 2006 and the father of the city's inner-city master plan, reckons both airport and opera were brought low by a very German obsession with technological sophistication.

"Germany is the country of the Audi A8 and the Mercedes S-Class," he says. "We want everything to be technically perfect – and that applies to buildings ancient and modern."

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The refurbishment of the opera involves, in effect, placing a modern opera house within a slender baroque corset, requiring much digging and tunnelling in and around the historic building. Unpleasant surprises were almost inevitable – newly discovered ruins are now causing the delay.

At the airport, the designers wanted to install an ultra-discreet, state-of-the-art fire-safety system, but they appear to have told their political bosses too late that their technological ambition had run far ahead of their ability to realize it on time.

While Mr. Stimmann is relatively relaxed about the opera's problems – "these kind of things happen with old buildings" – he is scathing about the airport delay.

"It is a disaster for Germany's reputation for technology and manufacturing," he says. "This is the sort of 'standard' big public works project we are meant to be good at."

Public-works debacles are damaging the city's image as a place to do business, warns Berlin's chamber of commerce. "People always look at Germany and expect things to be very well-organized," says Rainer Schwarz, managing director.

Yet despite a weak local economy, the city has become a magnet for people from all over the world. New arrivals have outnumbered those leaving since 2005 and of the 40,000 who came last year two-thirds were from outside Germany.

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Mr. Kaminer, whose first book Russian Disco is about "the everyday lunacy on the streets of Berlin," says the new airport is the place where traditional German caution and a penchant for meticulous planning meet "this Babylonian tower of multiplicity and bombast."

The city's chaos offers the chance to turn "this country of insurance companies" into something more daring, he says. "We're just re-inscribing what it means to be German, and Berlin is at the vanguard."

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