In a rash of building activity, new life is being breathed into Alexanderplatz, the Berlin square immortalized in Alfred Döblin's classic 1920s novel.
Berlin's Alexanderplatz has become a huge construction site
A huge new maroon-colored media market shopping and recreation center is nearing completion across the way from the city's soaring TV and radio tower, which prides itself on being only marginally shorter than the Empire State Building.
Berlin's new mall, Alexa, is a vast, oblong, four-story building which runs for almost a quarter of a mile down a side street off Alexanderplatz.
The multi-million-euro project, due to open in September, will contain 17 restaurants and 180 different shopping units, in addition to a 1,600 car parking facility. All told, the shopping mall covers 35,000 square-meters (115,000 square feet) of space.
Alexa, designed by American architects, is just one of a series of new projects now emerging in and around Alexanderplatz -- a city square in eastern Berlin that has experienced its fair share of convulsive highs and lows over the past 200 years.
By the mid-1960s, the East Berlin's communist authorities began reconstructing the dilapidated square with new prefabricated apartment buildings, a soaring hotel complex and supermarkets.
Its soaring TV tower became a landmark in the 1970s -- and remains one today. But despite its designers' wish to make it the showplace of the German communist state, by the time the Berlin Wall fell in late 1989, the square had little to commend it anymore. Its drab architecture was a constant reminder of a failed era.
Ugly vacant lots around Alexanderplatz robbed the square of any potential elegance, although it did get at least a retail boost when the Kaufhof department store replaced the former state-run "Centrum," and the nationwide chain Saturn opened an outlet there in the 1990s.
Getting a face-lift
The World Time Clock at Alex
More recently, after renewed investment activity, many of the scars of the past have been erased. The square's sole remaining empty plot opposite the Kaufhof Galleria is now being filled. There is a constant rumble as cranes, excavators and dump trucks go about their work.
The US property giant Hines is to build a six-story building on the site titled "Die Mitte" (The Middle). Due to be completed early in 2009, it will occupy an area of 17,500 square meters and house a new Saturn flagship store on four of its floors.
A labyrinth for people passing by the square
"Our sales area will double in the new premises," said Reiner Schemel, Saturn's local business manager. Its current premises are near the lofty Park Inn hotel.
In the wildly optimistic years after Berlin's reunification, city planners had originally intended on reinventing Alexanderplatz, studding it with a dozen or so New York-style skyscrapers.
Star German architects Hans Kolhoff and Helga Timmermann came up with a master plan, envisaging a cluster of 150-meter-high skyscrapers. At the time, Berlin was the biggest building site in Europe, and officials felt the capital would soon be the "engine room" of a united Europe.
In the early part of the 20th century, Alexanderplatz had been a busy trade and commercial center. City officials felt it was destined to become one again.
Writer Döblin, who penned the classic "Berlin Alexanderplatz"
Urban planners predicted towering structures would bring dramatic changes in the city, long renowned for its strict rules governing the heights of new buildings.
Construction of the 45-story skyscrapers was scheduled to start in 2006 and to be completed by 2015. New York's multi-millionaire developer Donald Trump was among the personalities whose names were linked to the project.
But, by the late 1990s, with the Berlin city government billions of euros in debt following the high cost of reunification, the loss of subsidized industry, and a slowdown in foreign investment, city planners had to shelve the skyscraper plans.
Now the mood is more upbeat. The long-depressed property market offers signs that Berlin's economy may have turned the corner. Foreign investors have arrived to take advantage of Berlin's remarkably low-priced residential, office and commercial markets.
Fassbinder filmed "Berlin Alexanderplatz"
Opposite the Park Inn hotel, a printed message adorns the facade of a white-painted building. It reads: "Welcome to Alex. The weather's freezing. Next year -- 1929 -- it will be even colder."
The citation from Alfred Döblin, the German novelist who wrote the famous "Berlin Alexanderplatz" novel, referred to the global depression and political unrest that reigned at the time. In the Berlin of 2007, the words seem less appropriate.
For one, Alexanderplatz is sweltering in a heat wave, and the German economy is roaring ahead. Even struggling Berlin is slowly emerging for its economic malaise.
"There is a fresh spring wind," observes Wolfgang Hummel, who heads the local government's investor relations office. "We used to work hard to get through to people, now they come knocking at the door."