Summer comes suddenly in Berlin and last week it had already made its entrance. Not quite bikini weather you might think, but then Bikini Berlin is literally something else…
Having landed at Berlin-Tegel at 9.30 in the morning I was on the Kurfürstendamm only an hour later, sipping a double espresso at Einstein’s on Adenauerplatz. The trees that grace the city centre were in full leaf and the famous Berlin air was warm enough to breakfast on the pavement. It may be an embarrassment to the Germans that their capital’s new airport hasn’t opened yet, but this Londoner is still making the most of the Heathrow to Tegel link.
My first destination was Bikini Berlin, an urban renewal project which opened its doors to the public in March. As with every other new addition to Berlin’s cityscape, Bikini Berlin comes with plenty of history and baggage. Its centrepiece is the ‘Bikinihaus’, a 1950s building between Berlin Zoo and the symbolic ruin of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church at the junction of the Ku’damm and Tauentzienstrasse, West Berlin’s two most prestigious shopping avenues. Berliners love to give their buildings nicknames and the Bikinihaus was so-called because of the impression created by the transparency of second floor. This whole area, including the Europa Center shopping mall, was originally designed to showcase post-war West Berlin. In the late 1970s it had already started its steady decline when nearby Zoo Station became a haven for drug addicts, drop-outs and rent-boys. After the fall of the Wall the big money went into creating the new high-rise Potsdamer Platz complex and regenerating the centre of East Berlin and the increasingly tawdry ‘City West’ got sidelined. Cinemas and theatres along the Ku’damm closed down and cheap chain stores, sex shops and supermarkets sprang up everywhere. The district of Charlottenburg became known as Charlotttengrad suggesting more than a whiff of Russian mafia.
But West Berlin has fought back and the Ku’damm sparkles with elegant confidence once more – and not just when the plane trees are magically draped in Christmas lights. The modern high-rise architecture of Neues Kranzler Eck and the Ku’damm Eck started the trend with their slick steel and glass exteriors. Then shopfronts began to smarten up their act. Notable newcomers in the past two years are the 1920s style Café Grosz at number 193 and Apple at number 26, both with beautifully renovated facades. The landmark Kino Zoo Palast has been upgraded and refurbished without losing its former charm and the Zoofenster skyscraper containing the Waldorf Astoria hotel has brought West Berlin firmly into the 21st Century. But where is the shabby chic which has attracted so many well-heeled visitors to Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg in East Berlin? Enter Bikini Berlin, describing itself as a Concept Mall – ‘a unique combination of shopping,working, cinema, recreation, urban oasis and hotel’.
Marveling at the hugeness and blueness of the Berlin sky, I crossed Breitscheidtplatz and looked up at the ‘Hollow Tooth’ (the Berliners’ nickname for the ruined spire of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church which has been left standing as a war memorial). On my last few visits it has been covered with ugly hoarding whilst it undergoes much-needed restoration, but now the top part is visible and hopefully the rest will be revealed soon. The next step would be to get rid of the tacky wooden snack food stalls crowding its base.
From across the road Bikini Berlin doesn’t really catch the eye – it just looks as if the existing post-war building complex has been smartened up. But then I climbed up the flight of steps to the right of the Zoo Palast cinema and the wow factor of Bikini Berlin kicked in. It was as if I had climbed up the Magic Faraway Tree (you have to be an Enid Blyton fan to understand this concept). Although I wasn’t quite above the clouds, I was in another world which was invisible from ground level. I could walk around outside on the rooftop terrace or explore the designer stores and cafés on three levels inside the shopping mall. In the photo below, visitors to Bikini Berlin are enjoying the view into the monkey enclosures. Most of them seemed to be Berliners or Germans from other parts of the country: Bikini Berlin clearly hasn’t found its way into the guide books yet.
Inside the shopping mall is the ‘Bikini Berlin Pool’ with twenty pop-up stores, the Berlin Bikini Boxes, which can be rented for one year. The Pool also includes Supernova, a large event or exhibition space, currently devoted to The Future of Football. Apparently Bikini Berlin wants to attract ‘a discerning, trend and style-conscious international audience with high standards on quality and shopping experience’, but I’m sure the market will find its own level.
Once I had enjoyed another hit of coffee and a scoop of La Luna ice cream I headed for the 25hours Bikini Berlin Hotel. This ten-storey tower block is built on top of Bikinihaus ‘between the green zoo and the urban jungle’ and reaches into the vast Berlin sky. I took the funky dark lift to the top and enjoyed the stunning views from the Monkey Bar with its tiered benches inside and tables outside on the balcony. In the Zeni Restaurant the menus were tempting and the views equally good, but you need to book well ahead. The concrete staircases with stencilled animals on the walls give this hotel a raw Berlin warehouse feel but back on the ground floor the mood is calm and relaxing. The Bakery serves coffee and pastries and a hammock invites you to ease off the day and scan the Zoo for large mammals.
Bikini Berlin combines a great location with clever retro and modern architecture and when the landscaping has matured it will be an attractive urban oasis. But will it create enough interest and have sufficient edge to put West Berlin back on the map?