Brenda  Brown

“Water fascinates me because you can never hold it tight . . . it is the element between the individual and the world.”  Herbert Dreiseitl    
Herbert Dreiseitl becomes passionate when he talks about water.  He points to water's elemental importance and pervasiveness -- in landscapes on a large scale, in animals and human beings on a small scale - and the urgent need to recognize and deal with its unique qualities intelligently and sensitively.  “Water is a very mystic and a very deep element that has to do directly with life.  It has to do with life in the best way, yet it can also destroy life. A city lives with water . . . You find water an important part in growing processes, in being healthy or unhealthy. . . If we don't learn to understand water differently, to work and behave with water differently, we'll have no healthy water any more and we'll have no world to give our children . . . water needs understanding; it needs its beauty.”

In the work of Atelier Dreiseitl, water's role ranges from scientifically engineered infrastructure to graceful amenity, from dramatic actor to scenic prop.  Recent projects range from rainwater harvest in Berlin's new Potsdamer Platz to a musical fountain in a Swiss hotel lobby, from a stormwater management plan for a new city to a water-based art and design scheme to revitalize an old spa town. While varied, all reflect Herbert Dreiseitl's conviction as to water's vital significance and his fascination and respect for water's qualities, yet they also reflect his sensitive and playful inquiry into how multi-sensorial engagements can be instigated and employed.

Atelier Dreiseitl's most prominent built water work to date is part of the massive reconstruction of Potsdamer Platz, an often controversial project that has involved some of the world's most prominent designers.  Amidst Potsdamer Platz's conjoined triumphs of contemporary architecture and contemporary consumerism, Dreiseitl's water reads as honest and straightforward.   While in some places oddly rustic, its water staircases are graceful, its flows and ripples knowing.  It brings to mind a glass of clear water in an array of sweetly flavored brightly colored drinks; it suggests a foil or an antidote.  But for its size, one might call it modest.  However, closer inspection reveals one of the largest urban rainwater harvest projects in the world.  Some 1200 cubic meters of water with a one-mile shoreline cover about two and a half acres on the ground, and the catchment area encompasses some sixteen and a half rooftop acres.

Water's grandest kinetic display is in Marlene Dietrich Platz, roughly the plot's center, a newly formed plaza envisioned by its architects as "a central hub and focus of urban life," at the end of the old lime-lined Potsdamer Strasse.  Its "amphitheater" adjoins retail, eateries, offices, residences and a hotel, and continues under the new casino and theater building's protrusion to the Staatsbibliothek (National Library).  Water appears to converge on the plaza from the north and south -- shifting depths, cascading, gliding, shimmering, riffling, rippling -- through a series of interconnected trapezoidal shelves, stairs and slanted slats of stone and as well as through deeper narrow channels. Though the forms containing it are unabashedly architectonic, the water's variety recalls a mountain stream.  Its trapezoidal basins and courses have positive counterpoints in adjacent steps, shores and isthmuses where people sit, eat in outdoor cafes, and talk on cell phones.  However, as the plan shows, Dreiseitl's waterwork extends beyond the plaza to the entire length of the project.

Marlene Dietrich Platz is located at the apex of a slightly broken triangular wedge of blue whose base forms the project's south edge; northwest of the plaza the blue becomes a long rectangle, a channel.  There is a large reservoir "lake" (the main basin) on the southwest and small "ponds" on the south and north.  On the surface these suggest one connected watercourse, but actually there are three different basins: the main, the south, and the plaza/north.

The water 's general shape was deliniated by Renzo Piano and Christoph Kohlbecker in their masterplan for the Daimler-Benz AG site, a scheme encompassing some 75,000 square meters that won the city of Berlin's 1992 competition. The Daimler-Benz (now Daimler-Chrysler) plot was to link the historic Kulturforum -- with its Staatsbibliothek and Philharmonie, designed by Hans Scharoun, and National-Galerie, designed by Mies van der Rohe -- and the new commercial center planned for the Potsdamer-Leipziger Platz.  To avoid formal homogeneity and monolithic structures, the masterplan called for a variety of architects to design the complex's different buildings; so, for example, buildings by José Rafael Moneo and Arata Isozaki, as well as by Piano and Kohlbecker, now stand adjacent to the water.  The Daimler-Chrysler site comprises only a portion of what is now referred to as Potsdamer Platz; another smaller but equally well publicized area is SONY-Center, designed by architect Helmut Jahn and landscape architects Peter Walker and Partners.

Today's Potsdamer Platz bears little resemblance to that of former days.  Originally the site of the Potsdam gate, just outside Berlin on the road to Potsdam, Potsdamer Platz's heyday was the 1920s.  By then it had been part of the city for some fifty years, and was renowned as Europe's busiest square.  Yet it was really more a crossroads, a nexus of stations and train, bus, subway and auto traffic, site of Europe's first traffic tower, an elegant commercial quarter bewitchingly transformed at night by neon lights.  It was a symbol of Berlin's cosmopolitanism, of its industrial modernity and cultural urbanity.
* Excerpt from beginning of article, “Harvesting What You Can’t Hold Tight,” by Brenda J. Brown.   Published in Landscape Architecture magazine, July, 2001, pp.  66-73, 98-99.
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