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  • Writer's pictureLucy Walker

A Brief History of Potsdamer Platz in Berlin

What is Potsdamer Platz?

Potsdamer Platz is a Modern public square where one of Berlin’s 18 city gates used to stand, and a cultural and intellectual hub in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Potsdamer Platz tall buildings at sunset

Potsdamer Platz History

Potsdamer Platz began as a diminutive five-cornered crossroads outside Potsdamer Tor (or Potsdam Gate), one of Berlin’s 18 city gates. Originally built in the 1730s, the gate was flanked by an elegant pair of Neoclassical gatehouses that stood in the square until the 1940s. The gatehouses, along with the rest of Potsdamer Platz, were destroyed in the Battle of Berlin, the successful invasion of the city by the Soviet Army which brought the Second World War to its close in Europe.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the square became a busy trading point and thoroughfare; Huguenot settlers and local countryfolk would sell their wares to coach drivers waiting to enter the city. By 1908, around 170,000 cars were passing through Potsdamer Platz every hour. Europe’s first electric traffic lights were introduced here in 1924 to regulate the tangle of buses, trams, cars and horse-drawn carriages that hurtled past anxious pedestrians. A replica of that famous green traffic tower stands in the square today. In his 1912 poem On the Terrace of Café Josty, the poet Paul Boldt describes his surroundings from the vantage of a well-known Potsdamer Platz institution:

Potsdamer Platz in an endless roar

Glaciates all resounding avalanches

The street complex: trams on rails,

Automobiles and the refuse of mankind…

After Hitler came to power, artists and progressive thinkers moved away from this area. Café Josty closed in the 1930s, along with other institutions that had epitomised the freedom of Weimar Berlin, such as the legendary nightclub Moka Efti on nearby Leipziger Strasse. In its prime, Café Josty was a Potsdamer Platz icon. Opened in 1880, it became a haunt for artists and left-wing intellectuals, who would drink coffee on the terrace and converse. Writers like Boldt were attracted to the dynamism and chaos of the square, and captured it in their art. Potsdamer Platz was an assault on the senses – loud, smoky, and overcrowded, the buildings plastered with advertisements and flashing lights – but it was a beacon of modernity and liberality to the Berliners who congregated here.

Potsdamer Platz

After the Berlin Wall was built, Potsdamer Platz was given up by the city authorities. Any surviving buildings and ruins were demolished. Even the Vox-Haus, which hosted Germany’s first ever radio station, was demolished in 1971 because no tenants could be found. The wall divided the square, which became a no man’s land until Berlin was reunited. In the 1980s, a weekly flea market moved onto the West Berlin side of the square – it seemed an inauspicious end for a place which had been a centre of cultural gravity at the century’s beginning.

In the 1990s, however, some of the world’s most famous architects were commissioned to reconstruct Potsdamer Platz. Whether the square has reclaimed its popularity is another question. The futuristic spectre of the Sony Center is the commercial heart of the development, while various nondescript glassy skyscrapers loom above the square. Many Berliners feel that this dislocated, bland style of architecture is out of sync with the rest of their city. The square has become a popular tourist stop, but its sterile aesthetic has prevented it from resuming its previous role as a thriving cultural and commercial centre for the people of Berlin.

Planning a trip to Berlin? Get to know the city through our GPS audio tours of Berlin.


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