A Berliner’s view of how war changed the face of her city

Dr. Ingrid Laux-Finnell can remember climbing into a wartime bunker near her Berlin home as a small child, wondering if she was about to go to heaven. She heard the enemy bombs shattering the world outside. That night in the 1940s, and subsequent nights, changed her community forever.

Growing up in Berlin at the time of WWII, Laux-Finnell experienced the impact war can have on a city. The vast majority of Berlin was flattened from frequent bombings, leaving much of the city destroyed and 13 million people without homes.

“We had to take refugees into our house—families. We didn’t like it, they didn’t like it, but we had to get through it,” Laux-Finnell says.

The consequences of widespread destruction were immediate and long-lasting. With so many homes destroyed, the demand for housing was immense. New buildings were erected quickly for utility and thus did not feature the extravagant details and extremely high ceilings of buildings prior to WWII. This resulted in a unique juxtaposition of older, surviving buildings standing next to newer, simpler buildings—an aesthetic result quite different from how Berlin would have looked without the war.

Laux-Finnell’s current neighborhood is a strong example of this clash. Strolling through her neighborhood, she admires the aesthetic beauty of the old while bemoaning the intrusiveness of the new. Her apartment building, completed in 1910, exemplifies the art nouveau-style architecture common at this time but stands next to a plain, utilitarian building. As she puts it, it’s a “horrid thing” that you just have to live with.

“It just got a new coat of paint—it used to look much worse,” Laux-Finnell jokes. “They are now trying to fix up this whole neighborhood, which is a very nice neighborhood. And, thank God, quite a few of the old buildings are still here.”

Her neighborhood is not the only one considering whether new construction should mimic the earlier architectural styles of buildings that survived in order to create a more uniform look for the city. Many neighborhoods across Berlin are currently divided over the issue.

“So, now the question is, do you take them down or do you just see them as part of your history?” Laux-Finnell said. “You can’t take everything down. … There are people who still live in them, and they are still quite happy.

On an even larger scale, Berlin is working to reconstruct an 18th-century palace that was the former home of Prussian kings. While many Berliners are excited to bring historical architecture back to Berlin, Laux-Finnell says, others argue that the city should instead focus on heading in a more modern direction. The conversation is “always a fight,” she says, which has resulted in the infrastructure of Berlin being a strong mixture of old and new.

The sharp contrast of old and new is evident throughout the city. Within Berlin, in one direction, you can see a line of older buildings and just around the corner, there can be a skyline of steel. Potsdamer Platz, in the center of Berlin, has several contemporary structures that have been constructed since the war. This area, unlike the area in which Laux-Finnell grew up, has grown into what she would call “a monster”—full of manmade landscapes and skyscrapers.

Laux-Finnell’s affinity for older architectural style is evident when she reflects on what has disappeared from her native city.

“I remember there was this one beautiful, old building,… and the entrance was fantastic. And they destroyed it. I couldn’t believe it,” Laux-Finnell remembered. “The idea of, ‘Oh no, this is really beautiful, why did we do that?’ came later.”

With frequent bombings making destruction inevitable during the war, she mentions that she and her peers “were so used to [destruction] that it didn’t bother us.” Now, however, Berliners are forced to decide whether to destroy by choice or embrace the eclectic environment.

But the mixture of old and new is not the only influential force on the architectural blend of the city. Berlin is, in reality, an assortment of villages joined together, where inconsistency can be seen prior to WWII

The architecture was further changed when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, a day that Laux-Finnell remembers well.

“I tell you, I cried so much, because I always said, ‘This wall will come down, I know that. It will not be there forever. I will not live to see it, but my children will’,” Laux-Finnell says.

This momentous day added to the hodge-podge style her city had come to know. During the almost 30 years that the wall stood, East and West Berlin, Laux-Finnell describes, developed as “two different cities built in two different styles.” Buildings reflecting utility and conformity lay on the east side of Berlin, and buildings reflecting individualism and the influence of art lay in the west.

The reality of a war fought on your home grounds is that a city is forced to decide how to rebuild in the aftermath. Berlin is unique in its diverse conglomeration of architectural style, but is one of many cities that were almost completely destroyed by bombs.

Laux-Finnell’s career with the UN offered her the opportunity to visit other parts of Germany and witness the aftereffects of war elsewhere. She remembers one visit in particular in which she was in awe over the “beautiful, old buildings” that the war did not touch.

“It’s a totally different situation,” Laux-Finnell says. “Who really paid for this war is the east of Germany. In every aspect.”

While Laux-Finnell is not sure of the direction architecture will take in the future of Berlin, she feels that her eventful life has prepared her for just about anything. “If you grew up walking over dead people, there isn’t much that you can fear,” Laux-Finnell says.