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Big plans in Berlin

When the Berlin Wall came tumbling down in 1989, little did East and West Berliners know they were paving the way for a huge Sony entertainment complex to rise up in its place at the infamous Potsdamerplatz .

Destroyed in World War II, Potsdamerplatz lay a wasteland for 50 years because the wall ran through it. With the dissolution of communism came venture capitalists, Sony among them. They purchased 26,000 square meters in 1990. Now, Potsdamerplatz is filled with cranes as far as the eye can see. Its future is slated to be a vast mixed-use development area that includes the corporate likes of Sony, Bebis (a subsidiary of Mercedes-Benz) and ABB (a Swiss-German Development Consortium). This is the first major international project of its kind that Sony has undertaken.

New Sony HQ

Sony’s portion will comprise six buildings, including Sony’s new European headquarters, which will relocate from Cologne, according to Edgar van Ommen, managing director of Sony Cinemas and Entertainment and managing director of Sony Berlin GMBH. Completion is scheduled for the year 2000 and Sony’s expenditure will be 1.5 billion German marks.

In addition to Sony’s new headquarters, several office towers will be built. One of them is a historic landmark building — the Esplanade Hotel, planned to house 190 luxury apartments and two floors open to the public, including a traditional German coffee house. According to van Ommen, the building’s historic registry was pushed by Sony, and part of the building was even moved 75 meters to the other side of Potsdamerplatz in order to save it — “an amazing feat,” van Ommen says.

Sony will also build a film and media school, the first of its kind in Berlin. In addition to teaching students the art of filmmaking, it will cover film and broadcast history and house memorabilia, including items from film star and singer Marlene Dietrich.

3-D Imax

In the middle of the buildings will be a large covered public space for concerts. An eight-story, 500-seat 3D Imax cinema is also in the works. The first level will house a large railway station connecting Potsdamerplatz to the bullet train going north and south in Germany, while the second level will be home to a 3,000 square meters entertainment center.

“Sony Development in Los Angeles is working with us on a brand new entertainment concept,” van Ommen says. Although he would not reveal specific details, he says it is “totally new and different, including entertainment based on certain technologies that have not even been released to the public yet, as well as certain music and projection techniques.” The complex will include eight cinemas with approximately 2,500-seat capacity. Retail outlets, including a Sony store, and food and beverage outlets will also be in the center.

According to Stanley Steinberg, chairman, Sony Retail Entertainment, the design is still in the concept stage. “We are doing focus groups and trying to make this right for the city and the area,” Steinberg says. “The Europeans want something a little more serious than Americans. They like classics.

“They prefer more live entertainment than Americans do, probably. We are in the learning phase. This is a city in great transition. It is the most challenging and fascinating thing I’ve been involved in.”

Daring Design

The architect for the Potsdamerplatz project is Chicago-based Helmut Jahn, who was awarded the project through a competition. “He is doing facades that were never done before. It is truly 21st century architecture.” van Ommen says.

From a construction point of view, the development is a “huge logistical challenge,” according to van Ommen. A railroad was built in order to remove soil and return 60 percent of it, which is recycled into building materials. Temporary steel-bending and concrete plants were built. A sophisticated ground-water system was also put into place, van Ommen says, “or else the city would fall to pieces because Berlin is floating on a pool of water.”

Berlin transformed

With the German government relocating from Bonn to Berlin in 1998, Berlin is undergoing a transformation unlike anything in its history. “The entire infrastructure is changing. This development will never ever happen in Europe again,” van Ommen says. “Berlin is a great connecting point of East and West.”

Bebis will put up a five-star hotel, a casino, a legit theater, 10 large cinemas and nine small ones, retail areas and restaurants, a residential complex, as well as their own headquarters. The Berlin Film Festival also recently announced that they will move their headquarters and the festival to Potsdamerplatz in 1999. ABB will develop offices, residences and a congress center.

As for future development internationally, Sony is still in the consideration stages. “Emerging countries are great candidates for this kind of thing because they don’t have entertainment. But we’ve got to find the right site in the right city. It’s got to be part of something bigger. We haven’t ruled out China and Hong Kong,” Steinberg says.

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