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Berlin’s garden festivals

By Peter Sheard
When Peter Sheard first visited a garden festival in Berlin, its aim was to provide open space for isolated West Berlin. What is the relevance of this year’s festival in a radically different city?

In the heart of Berlin is the ‘Tiergarten’, a verdant, wooded English landscape park held in great affection by Berliners. All woodland landscapes have deep cultural resonance to Berliners, indeed to most Germans, as symbols of their country’s vitality and continuity. The ‘Tiergarten’ isn’t Berlin’s only wood: almost a fifth of the city is forest. Indeed, the whole municipal area is 44% open space. This is a city that loves its open space and is blessed with plenty. It is also a city with plenty of history, and this too has affected its urban landscape.

Berlin was infamously divided in two as a consequence of World War Two and the subsequent Cold War. West Berlin remained isolated physically and politically: an outpost of the west in communist East Germany. Meanwhile West Germany’s shattered cities were rising out of the rubble; and in 1951 the first of a series of garden shows (Bedesgartenschau – BUGAs) were adopted to provide new parks. In 1985, after much lobbying, it was Berlin’s turn to have a BUGA to address the city’s unique open-space issues. 

I visited this, and had the pleasure of writing about it for the Landscape Institute’s then magazine (Landscape Design: April 1986). Back then the geopolitical backdrop to the BUGA was volatile and pressing: issues of urban dereliction, lack of green space and the resultant social tensions were evident. The city believed that the BUGA would be an environmental vote winner and would reverse deprivation in a neglected district to the east of the city centre. So the park had its work cut out from the beginning. As the city stated in the 1970s ‘it has become clear to us that a new large scale recreation area... could only be achieved through the vehicle of a garden show’. So the BUGA (now the Britzer Garten) was politically motivated: it tapped into significant federal funding; responded to the prevalent ecological movement’s demands for more varied park planning; and addressed the imbalance of parks in a part of Berlin that could best be described as ‘edgy’. The planning was extremely generous (12 years); the design was an impeccably realized English landscape park; and it was all achieved on time and under budget.

At the time I described it as ‘a tranquil retreat from urban monotony’ with its lakes, hills and meadows providing ‘a wild and open feel... of remarkable complexity for a park less than ten years old’. Fundamentally, it felt like an ‘Arcadia’ in Berlin: a fantasy landscape with hills and streams and trees to compensate for the city’s constrained reality and enforced introspection. Residents spoke to me of Berlin as ‘a big prison’: the BUGA made living in one just that bit better. What was true in 1985 is true now, only more so. It has developed into a mature handsome city park endowed with sturdy woodlands, sweeping meadows covered with wildflowers, and the same sinuous lake now fringed with fetching reed beds. The ‘hard infrastructure’, so evident in 1985, has been mitigated with time; and even some of the park’s pavilions have become enveloped in vegetation. It all hums with insects and birds, and has developed views and prospects which are extremely pleasing and (it has to be said) very English. There are rhododendrons and roses; cafes and curving footpaths; the Britzer Garten speaks volumes about the Germans’ love for this particular style of landscape. But it all felt at odds with the initial aims from 1985 to create a diverse and challenging landscape: the lakes are still only for looking at; no obvious new elements had developed in the park; it was overwhelmingly passive; and you had to pay to get in, which is something I find hard to accept in a public park. This was controversial in 1985 and, to me at least, it is now. Back then many Berliners, and especially the emerging Green Party, felt the BUGA was too exclusive, over maintained, and not nearly ambitious enough. This may still be true, but a park reflects its users and when I visited on a sunny week day, it was packed.

Fast forward then to 2017 and the latest garden festival: what is different and what is the same 30 years later? For a start, Berlin is a capital, not just a reunited city; it is an outward looking, expanding metropolis suffering from the same growing pains as many European cities. In terms of landscape there is the same problem as in 1985: not enough where it is needed, in the suburbs, and the old east. However unlike 1985, the timetable for the IGA (International Garden Festival) did not go to plan and this had a profound effect on the finished park. Initially the IGA site was to be the old Tempelhof airport site ‘as a reference point for sustainable urban development’ according to the city authorities (Senate). The masterplan, the budget and the logistics were all in place, but Berliners had other ideas and the entire plan was dropped as too difficult and contentious.

By September 2012 the Senate had moved the whole, now compressed, IGA to Marzahn-Hellersdorf on the very eastern edge of Berlin, an area defined by one of the largest, communist prefabricated housing developments in Europe with especially poor open space provision. The IGA was to address this problem and extend green policies into the City periphery. However, another factor influenced the choice, and it was a much harder-nosed economic one: the IGA site occupies (indeed expands) an established touristic attraction, namely the ‘Gardens of the World’ (GoW), a sort of horticultural Expo, with a much needed backdrop of established, mature gardens on which the IGA could piggy-back. It is not for nothing the IGA was co-funded by Senate departments for both the environment and economics as a way to justify and achieve such huge expenditure in a city that has described itself as ‘poor but sexy’.

So, after a challenging start, is the finished 100 ha, 130 million Euro IGA a success, and is it indeed sexy? The answer is a bit of both, but to assess that we have to look at the three component parts; the expanded GoW; the wooded Kienberg Hill; and the adjacent Wuhletal Valley, each representing three themes, namely Garden Art, Sustainable Urban Green and a Landscape Strategy for the City respectively, all in their own ways exploring man’s relationship with his environment as custodian, not onlooker.

Firstly, the GoW, which on paper might sound a bit cheesy, but is in reality delightful. More than 20 gardens from five continents are disposed amongst a curvaceous parkland (not unlike the Tiergarten) and all are beautifully realized and maintained. If you are going to have gardens in a garden exhibition, make them permanent and genuine. The Chinese Garden for example, used Chinese materials, designers and workmen in its construction, and became a sort of cultural exchange as well as a piece of garden art. These ‘exhibition-gardens’ in the past were often ephemeral, whereas in Berlin these spaces and pavilions will continue to educate and inspire. New gardens by such designers as Vladimir Djurovic, Zhu Yufan and Tom Stuart-Smith all showcased gardens as elements of well-being, whilst a new 5000 seater arena provides a vibrant focal point for the district.

Secondly, the Kienberg Hill, which dominates the whole area, will become a wild and wooded area for locals to use. As the Senate expresses it ‘as suburbs become increasingly important... the opportunity to live close to nature is in high demand’. However, this was already the case pre-IGA, and many residents vociferously insisted the exhibition only had a very light touch when it came to their beloved Kienberg. So the IGA has put in place strategies to manage the wooded landscape, exploit recreational potential (a superb natural bobsleigh track for instance), and establish a dramatic, symbolic folly (the ‘Wolkenhain’) in the form of a cloud-like observation platform which will hover permanently over the woodland, reminding local residents of their park and its relationship with the city.

Meanwhile the third piece of the IGA puzzle, the Wuhletal Valley (effectively a large, natural drainage swale), will be managed to safeguard existing biotopes and habitats to diversify the landscape. The restoration of the water systems together with control of scrubby woodland into the species-rich meadows will make this a valued resource. Indeed, its management will sometimes involve residents, as it did sporadically in the communist era; and will also use endangered breeds of sheep, cattle and horses. The valley snakes between the suburbs for many kilometres and its benefits will be felt over a large area by many people, so in some ways this is the most profound legacy of the IGA.

There are other highs (and lows), too numerous to relate here, but a number of personal observations seem prescient at this stage. The BUGA in 1985 was the first of the German garden festivals I visited; I have seen 10 others since. Their primary value is that they are effective vehicles for change rather than landscape architectural masterpieces: they are safe, solid and dependable. They promote the art and science of landscape architecture; help assemble land and disparate funding streams; and put ‘Green’ at the heart of political decision-making. Tellingly, their ability to change perception of a place is just as strong now as it was in 1951 when they started. Moreover, they have changed and adapted over the years to address evolving issues and public concerns, which is as it should be; even if to the landscape profession in Germany they are rather predictable and repetitive. To me, Berlin’s IGA did seem a little patchy, disjointed and slightly over-commercialized in places, but I was just a visitor, a tourist. I am not the end-user. If I lived in one of those slab apartment blocks, I would be deliriously grateful that the IGA had bypassed Templehof and landed on my doorstep.

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