I’m not a great fan of shopping malls. In fact, quite the opposite. But curiosity eventually drew me to the crassly-named ‘Mall of Berlin’, the largest and newest shopping centre in Berlin. It opened last summer to great razzamatazz and also some controversy, as the Rumanian construction workers claimed they had not been paid and dubbed it the ‘Mall of Shame’.

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Construction workers on the march

My main reason for seeking it out was its location on Leipziger Platz. Before the war, this was the site of the biggest department store in Europe. This jewel in the crown of the ‘Wertheim’ chain was built in 1896 and featured 83 lifts and a glass-covered atrium. Georg Wertheim, the owner, was Jewish and his stores were expropriated by the Nazis in 1937. The Jewish workers lost their jobs and the Wertheim family was forced to sell all their holdings. They tried to avoid losing control of the company by making Georg’s ‘Aryan’ wife, Ursula, the principal shareholder. But in the end, this was unsuccessful, even though the couple divorced to keep the shares in purely ‘Aryan’ hands.

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The Wertheim store in the 1920s

The Leipziger Platz building was badly damaged in the war, its ruins were demolished in the 1950s and then the site ended up in no-man’s land between East and West Berlin when the city was divided. After reunification, the area soon sprang to life again and in 1991, one of the world’s most famous techno clubs, ‘Tresor’ (in German, ‘safe’ or ‘vault’) opened in the only remnant left of the Wertheim store, its giant underground vault. The club closed in 2005.

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‘Tresor’ in 2003

In the meantime, the Wertheim site had become embroiled in a lengthy legal dispute between the family’s descendants and several German companies and was finally settled out of court in 2007. For many years there were two remaining stores in Berlin which operated under the Wertheim name, even though they were owned by Karstadt. The flagship store, built in 1969-1971, was on the Kurfürstendamm and converted into a Karstadt store in 2008. The other store, in the West Berlin district of Steglitz, was demolished in 2009 for construction of the glitzy new Schloßstraße shopping mall.

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The Wertheim store (lower right) on the Ku’damm in 2003

The €1bn ‘Mall of Berlin’, an entire new quarter of the city centre with 270 shops, a Hard Candy fitness centre owned by Madonna, a hotel, offices and flats, marks the spot where the grand Wertheim store once stood. At the opening ceremony in September 2015, the then Mayor of Berlin, Klaus Wowereit, paid tribute to its original Jewish owners. “It’s really great that 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we’ve finally managed to close the gap where the great Wertheim store once stood … Leipziger Platz has a historic importance in Berlin. Wertheim stood for quality and innovation and we’re looking forward to continuing that tradition.”

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Grand opening of The Mall of Berlin in 2015

Harald Huth, developer of the three-storey structure, has also paid tribute to the Wertheim store by including giant pictures of it on the walls of the mall and modelling the glass-covered arcade on the one in the original building. These historic touches are, for me, the best thing about the ‘Mall of Berlin’.

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Old photographs of the Wertheim store  on the walls and around the top of the escalators

I also like the political sayings embedded into the flooring; they literally make you stop and think. Barak Obama’s words in the photograph below translate as: ‘Peoples of the world, look at Berlin where a wall fell and a continent united, And the course of history has proved that no challenge is too great for a world that stands together.’ Little did I imagine when I read these words that the United Kingdom was about to vote to leave the European Union.

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The Barak Obama quote, in German

Once you are inside the ‘Mall of Berlin’, you could be anywhere in the world. There are all the usual international high-end brands alongside the high-street chains and the layout is pretty predictable too. In general, the ground floor and the first floor are all about fashion, the second floor is dedicated to shoes, children, and a food court and the basement is home to various stores selling sporting goods, electronics and food. I found a couple of shops selling something unique to Berlin and then we headed to the highlight of the mall – its elegant and airy piazza.

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‘I’ve looked around and we are the trendiest people here’

This open space, with its perfect view of the front façade of the Bundesrat (German equivalent of the House of Lords) has hosted two fantastic classical music flashmobs. There was one last September and another only a couple of months back when 1,000 amateur musicians joined the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester to play Wagner, Verdi and Berlioz under the baton of Kent Nagano. Follow this You Tube link to hear how they sounded.

Teilnehmer des "Symphonic Mob" musizieren am 19.09.2015 in Berlin unter der Leitung des Dirigenten Manuel Nawri (M) in der Mall of Berlin. Der Musik-Flashmob war von dem Deutschen Symphonie-Orchester organsiert worden. Foto: Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert/dpa +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

Flashmobbing in the Mall of Berlin

Another good thing about the Mall of Berlin is its central location on Leipziger Platz, so close to many of Berlin’s historic sites – only a ten minute stroll from both the Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie. The main entrance to the mall is just by the exit of Potsdamer Platz U-Bahn station, while the Wilhelmstraße entrance is very close to the Mohrenstraße U-Bahn station. Buses M48 and 200 stop in front of the mall at ‘U Mohrenstraße’ or ‘Leipziger Straße / Wilhelmstraße’, while all the S-Bahn trains and buses stopping at Potsdamer Platz are only a couple of minutes’ walk from the mall. The Mall of Berlin also boasts 1,000 underground parking spaces, open 24 hours a day.

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A view of the Bundesrat from the piazza

People often ask me where to go for ‘good shopping’ in Berlin. If you are short of time and want to find everything under one roof, then the Mall of Berlin is the obvious choice. But this cathedral of consumerism, beautifully-lit and with classy shop fronts, lacks any true Berlin feeling, other than the fact that it stands on such a historic site. We emerged from its bright lights into the early evening sunshine, and contemplated its essence from a pavement table at a great little Italian café on Leipziger Platz. The verdict was ‘decidedly dull’.

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Restaurant tip on Leipziger Platz

But the scene outside had its merits. The sleek, high buildings of Potsdamer Platz punctured the blue sky and there were groups of locals setting up picnics on the grass in front of us. On the face of it, life felt good; the wasteland of the Berlin Wall death strip has almost disappeared. But I worry that these areas have now been filled up with ministries, embassies, office blocks and hotels. And lots of shops – too many of them. On the plus side, no armoured vehicles on the streets and a United Europe……

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Remnant of the Berlin Wall on Leipziger Platz