Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz serves as an example for how the cultural identity of a place can fall victim to the homogeny engendered by multinational corporations. One of the most historically charged places in Berlin, Potsdamer Platz serves not only as a symbol of the city’s turbulent past, but also as an emblem of the victory of capitalism’s consumer culture. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Platz was an urban wasteland torn between the East and the West. The collapse of the Soviet Union reunited Berlin at this square, in fact the first portion of the wall to go was the section which divided Potsdamer Platz. Seduced by the historic symbolism that was sure to attract tourists, conglomerates such as Sony launched rapid commercial development starting in the early 1990’s. As a result, Potsdamer Platz has evolved into a haven of multinational corporations, baptized in fluorescent light and reeking of Western consumerism. The cultural capital that initially rendered the Platz so priceless is paradoxically responsible for diluting its authenticity. Stripped of its character, this urban transformation denotes disneyfication, a word employed to denigrate a society that has succumb to the generic and dull uniformity inspired by corporate globalization. A widespread nostalgia for the former East Berlin, coined by the term ostalgia, unveils an unspoken rejection of the capitalist culture that was embraced seventeen years prior. Disguised as the “American Dream”, conglomerates such as McDonalds, Nike and Coca Cola have homogenized and commodified the cultural identity of the Platz and the city it unites.
HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE OF POTSDAMER PLATZ
Taking its name from the Potsdamer Tor, Potsdamer Platz became the center of Berlin in 1838 with the construction of the Potsdamer Bahnhof railway station. (1997: 26). In the first half of the twentieth century, explains Alan Scott, author of The Limits of Globalization, civic life flourished in the district. Geographically the center of the city, the Platz was initially intersected by five of Berlin’s busiest avenues (Scott 1997:27). Flooded with people coming from all walks of life, the square came to symbolize the vivacity of the city. However, as a result of allied bombing raids and heavy artillery bombardment in World War II, nearly all the streets and buildings of Potsdamer Platz were left in ruins. The Platz became an urban wasteland subdivided by American, British and Soviet sectors. The Berlin Wall, laced with barbed wire, anti-tank obstacles and watchtowers, cut through its center, making a no man’s land of what was once the city’s center.
In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. Amid the rubble and ruins left behind from the decades of dispute, the end of the Cold War was laced with hope. In the years to follow Berlin’s reunification, Potsdamer Platz became Europe’s biggest urban development project. The district was divided up into four parts and sold to commercial investors (Scott 1997: 26). It wasn’t long before the weeds and debris that accumulated after years of neglect were paved over and great monoliths of glass and steel were erected. Freed from the constraints of the communist regime, many embraced the urban reconstruction generated by capitalism without reservations, believing that better days were to come. Commercialized and replanned, the urban transformation of the Platz was regarded by many as a testament of their independence and a symbol of their reunification. With this rapid redevelopment, Columbia professor Andreas Huyssen argues that “the Germans, like everyone else in the Europe of the Cold War, got Disney” (1998: 1) which at first was “a blast of fresh air from a window opened onto the world” (Huyssen 1998: 1). However, decades later, these American imports were to be viewed by many as cultural imperialism. Yet, the commercial development ensuing the fall of the Wall came about so suddenly that the citizens of Berlin didn’t heed notice to the city’s cultural decay until the effects of Americanization were unmistakable. The corporate culture that resulted from this gentrification steamrollered the remnants of the old city center and serve as an example of how quickly multinational corporations colonize places that could yield potential profit.
The monopoly rent of Potsdamer Platz is rendered by the symbolic and geographic significance fueling its tourist industry, but it is also culpable in part for Berlin’s cultural corrosion in that it triggered the onslaught of the conglomerates. Driven by economic interest, they recognized the district’s cultural capital and began heavily investing in its gentrification realizing that its historical importance to Berlin would ultimately manifest as a tourist attraction. The term monopoly rent implies that “culture has become a commodity” (Harvey 2002: 1) that can be profited from. David Harvey employs this term to explain why areas in close proximity to a city’s center or of historic significance often fall victim to heavy commercialization (Harvey 2002: 2). Sony, the former Daimler-Benz, Asea Brown Boveri, Deutsche Bahn and other companies made a rush to build their headquarters on what they regarded as prime real estate. In the year 2000, the Sony Center opened its international headquarters in Potsdamer Platz, erecting seven buildings and a light-flooded arena. (Scott 1997: 26) The Arkaden, American socio-economist Alan Scott asserts, was the next to come (1997:26). Between 1993 and 1998, a completely new quarter arose on the land owned by DaimlerChrysler composed of office buildings, stores, hotels, apartments and restaurants. The shopping and entertainment mecca covers 40,000 square yards and houses over 140 shops and restaurants. (Scott 1997: 27) Where there was once nothing, now lays the Grand Hyatt Berlin, Cinemax, a musical theater, a casino and a sea of tourist.
In less than two decades, Potsdamer Platz has evolved into a haven of consumption. The question of whether this should really to be perceived as progress needs to be addressed. Although for over fifty years the area subsisted as a wasteland, such rapid redevelopment renders an almost opposite extreme, as “the famous hub between East and West Berlin is in great danger of becoming a high-tech mall” (Huyssen 1998: 3). McDonalds, Levi, Reebok, KFC and Coke all serve as corporate cohorts spreading the influence of the American “way of life,” which is rooted namely in consumerism. Before long, Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz will lose its architectural, historical and cultural distinctiveness to this excessive development, as it will become yet another victim of Americanization. Amid the clutter of corporate giants, it will grow increasingly difficult for the Platz to evade the homogenizing implications of this urban transformation.
The widespread ostalgia plaguing Berlin unveils an unspoken social grievance for the loss of the city’s cultural identity to the gluttony of consumerism and the homogeny of commercialization. Disappointed with the present circumstances, ostalgia afflicts the many who knew the East Berlin of the past. This nostalgic impulse serves as a reminder that the social and political differences dividing Europe prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union still exist. After the fall of the wall, Berlin struggled to reconcile the economic disproportion between the East and West, as the East proved unprepared for the abrupt transition from dictatorship to democracy, command to market economy. Over a decade later, the city has yet to mend its differences in the face of overwhelming commercial development, a fluctuating economy and a society torn apart by conflicting mentalities. Many Berlin citizens consider the commercialization bred by capitalism to be cultural imperialism. The onslaught of American products has penetrated Berlin’s society to the point where German citizens are faced with an identity crisis. In a sense, the panic cultivated by the Western world concerning the Domino Effect ironically proved true, however the dominos fell in the opposite direction- towards capitalism, rather than communism- the consequences of which, some would argue, are no better.
As the Americanization of global culture metastasize, the threat of disneyfication grows. Stripping a country of its cultural inheritance, this term refers to the process in which a place undergoes urban transformation according to Disney standards, ultimately rendering it a diluted version of its original. The theme park has, in some respect, become a model for both urban and commercial development. Shopping malls, food chains and reconstructed city centers are all evidence of this societal impulse towards escapism and consumerism. Yet from this “relentless commercialization of culture connected with the Disney Empire” (Huyssen 1998: 2) a contradiction emerges, as the democratic aspirations of a society along with its cultural inheritance are lost to corporate globalization. The more Europe surrenders to disneyfication, David Harvey explains, “the less unique and special it becomes. The bland homogeneity that goes with pure commodification erases monopoly advantages” (2002:4). Thus, the symbolic capital of a city is self-destructive, as it engenders the economic development that inevitably homogenizes it. The cities of the Western World have, in consequence, become dreadfully generic. This unfortunate paradox is evident in Potsdamer Platz, where its cultural capital of is both responsible and threatened by its urban redevelopment. The generic homogeny plaguing the Platz is ironic in that it was the initial inimitability of the district that rendered it a tourist attraction and led to its corporate gentrification. Uprooting its past and exploiting its historical significance, these companies have commodified and commercialized the very thing that rendered the Platz so unique and, in doing so, destroyed it.
The broader social implications of this cultural homogeny suggest that corporations are culpable in part for the loss of non-replicable cultures. The uniqueness, originality and authenticity of innumerable cities have been lost to strip malls littered with fast food eateries and trademark brands. Baseball caps, blue jeans and Nikes sneakers have now become the uniform for teenagers around the world, from Krakow to Santiago. What’s worst, political journalist Ciochetto exclaims, is that many companies consciously use their “products to change the cultural values of consumers” (2006) employing the American Dream as a marketing strategy. Thinly veiled by this disguise, McDonalds, Coca Cola, Starbucks and Levi along with a string of other corporate giants have successfully infiltrated countless countries around the world. Spawned by capitalism, these conglomerates have proven to have the faculty to dilute the cultural inheritance of a place. The Western myths of “affluence, strength, freedom, individualism and opportunity have been some of the most seductive ideas of the twentieth century, and these ideas have been transposed onto these all-American products” (Ciochetto 2006: 31). Blindly, we consume unaware of the role we play in feeding these massive corporations.
The plethora of food and clothing chains lacing our malls and crowding our cities are, despite the multiplicity of trademarks, owned and operated by just a few corporate giants. The implications of this shed light on the unsettling possibility that this economic globalization and cultural homogeny has been executed by only a handful of powerful companies. The strength and wealth of these mega-corporations is evident upon acknowledging some of the sale statistics compiled by socio-economist Norenna Hertz for her work, The Silent Takeover. Together, General Motors and Ford turn a profit “greater than the gross domestic profit of the whole of sub-Saharan Africa” (2001: 304). Even more alarming, “Wal-Mart now has a turnover higher than the revenues of most of the states of Eastern Europe” (Hertz 2001: 304). It is nearly incomprehensible to grasp how so money and power has fallen into the hands of so few.
These multinational corporations are a product of American capitalism, as the United States fosters the only economic system conducive enough to spawn companies of such enormous wealth and unbalanced power. In part, their growth is a result of the competition innate to capitalism, as it triggers oftentimes the centralization of companies. Microsoft, Murdoch and Virgin all serve as examples for how companies over the course of the past several decades have evolved into inexorable economic powers. In fact, “of the world’s 100 largest economies, 51 are now corporations, only 49 are nation-states” (Hertz 2001: 304). Even more unsettling, seventy percent of the world trade is controlled by less than hundred large companies- a majority of which is rooted in North America (Ciochetto 2006: 32). In an age when corporations have so much control on the global field, power is kept in the few. Disguising itself behind a sea of trademarks, these corporate giants mislead you to believe that their product is a manifestation of the American dream, while profiting off your needless and blind consumption.
The cultural homogeny and disneyfication plaguing Potsdamer Platz unveils the implications of corporate globalization. The historical significance of Potsdamer Platz after the fall of a Berlin Wall lent it an unparalleled cultural capital that in turn rendered it an indisputable tourist attraction. Given that culture is commodity in an age of global homogeny, the monopoly rent of the district caught the eye of countless corporations whose aspirations to turn a profit inspired their investment in its gentification. After more than a decade of urban transformation, Potsdamer Platz has become a haven of consumption. The disneyfication of the district renders an unfortunate paradox, as multinational corporations have diluted the authenticity of the historic site. The widespread sentiment of ostalgia serves as testament of the people of Berlin’s discontent with the homogenous repercussions capitalism has had on their culture. This dull homogeny rendered by the corporate gentrification and disneyfication of Potsdamer Platz is just one example of how the Americanization of global culture has infiltrated city after city by means of multinational corporations.
Ciochetto, L. (2006, September/October). Advertising and the Globalization of Aspiration. Adbuster: Journal of the Mental Environment, (67), 31-32.
Harvey, D. (2002). The Art of Rent: Globalization, monopoly and the commodification of Culture. Socialist Register. Retrieved November 7, 2006, from http://socialistregister.com/recent/2002/harvey2002.
Hertz, N. (2001). The Silent Takeover: Global Capitalism and the Death of Democracy (p.304). New York: Free Press.
Huyssen, A. (1998, Winter/Spring). Fear of Mice: the transformation of Times Square. Harvard Design Magazine, (4), 1-4.
Scott, A. 1997. “The Future of Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz” Pp. 25-28 in The Limits of Globalization: cases and arguments. New York, NY: Routledge.