From the viewing terrace of the Reichstag I see a cluster of them to the east. They are rebuilding the Stadtschloss, the imperial palace that once stood in the centre of this sprawling metropolis. Badly damaged in World War II, it was dynamited by the communist regime in 1950 and replaced by the Palace of the Republic, a hideous 1960s' construction with walls of reflective orange glass. Shortly after the Berlin Wall fell, this monument to socialism was found to be full of asbestos and so it, too, was demolished. But what should come in its place?
After much debate, it was decided to rebuild the Stadtschloss. Many of the surrounding buildings had been designed from the perspective of it being the centrepiece of the city: its absence, went the argument, left an aesthetic, visual and architectural gap. Three sides of the rebuilt palace will be updated copies of the original; the fourth, east-facing façade will be modern. But the latest addition to the cityscape will not house the Hohenzollern descendants of the last Kaiser: it will be a museum of culture, art and science – the Humboldt Forum – named after one of the city's sons, the naturalist Alexander von Humboldt.
Unlike its predecessor of brick and stone, the newcomer will be of pre-fabricated concrete panels. Only the outer shell will resemble the Baroque original. In many ways, the new Schloss taking shape in the heart of the German capital is emblematic of the city's renaissance. Before World War I Berlin was a thriving cultural centre, attracting artists and writers such as Liebermann and Kollwitz, Kandinsky and Grosz. Albert Einstein and Max Planck worked and lived here, as did seminal architects Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Such people made Berlin, together with Vienna, one of the great cultural hubs of Europe. Mark Twain dubbed the rapidly expanding capital "the Chicago of Europe" and it was seen as the most modern city in the world.
The body blows that the Great War brought to Europe as a whole also had their effects on Berlin. It ceased to be an imperial capital, becoming instead the centre of a politically unstable and turbulent republic. Cultural and scientific life continued to flourish during the city's "Golden Twenties." As before, the contribution of Berlin's Jewish community was particularly important: in the Weimar Republic's short life, five of its nine citizens awarded Nobel Prizes were Jewish. But when the Nazis took over in 1933 many began leaving the country. Those that remained did so at their peril, with most perishing in the death camps.
Within a few years the city lay in ruins. The victors divided Berlin into four, with the Cold War quickly freezing the American, British and French sectors that made up West Berlin into an island of democracy surrounded by a sea of communism. The Soviet sector became the Hauptstadt der DDR – Capital of the GDR. While in the Western sectors an alternative hippy culture developed, in the East only culture sanctioned by the Politburo was permitted. With the West German government now transferred to a sleepy city on the Rhine and industry, the media and anyone with money having for the most part abandoned the city, Berlin was a mere shadow of its former self, a nostalgic old timer humming Marlene Dietrich songs from a seemingly distant past.
When the Wall fell and Berlin became the capital of a reunited Germany, great were the expectations that it would quickly rise again. Town planners and politicians predicted the population soaring from 3 million to 5-6.million. New office complexes and government buildings have indeed filled the gaps left by wartime destruction and smart apartment blocks have sprouted like mushrooms. Every month, 3000 people move here and it has become noticeably cosmopolitan with its streets and restaurants a Babel of tongues. Even Jews are flocking to the erstwhile home of their nemesis: the city now hosts one of the fastest growing Jewish populations in the world, including some 15,000 Israelis. Yet still only 3.4 million people live in the city on the Spree, a million less than before the war. When, ten years ago, the EU expanded to include eight countries from Central and Eastern Europe, Berlin ceased to be on the "edge of Europe." Today, it sits firmly in the middle and, it is claimed, is becoming the continent's cultural capital. Indeed, the legacy of the Cold War and the duplication of cultural bodies in each half of the city means that Berlin has three opera houses, 150 theatres and over 170 museums.
And yet despite all the activity, something is lacking.
True, since the fall of the Wall, much of the former East Berlin has been transformed from a sombre brown prison into a bright and colourful city. The authorities are encouraging the IT sector and start-ups, making the place strikingly young compared to the rest of the country. Its parties and nightclubs are famous. In districts such as Prenzlauer Berg trendy shops and hip cafés line streets, along which self-consciously ubercool creatives wander and so-called café latté mothers wheel bio-fed children in push chairs. Berlin has become a city of pseuds rather than scientists, of fun seekers not philosophers.
Friedrichstrasse, the treeless, main shopping thoroughfare in the city's central district, attracts more tourists than Berliners, the latter still preferring the broad pavements and busy shops of the leafy Kurfürstendamm in former West Berlin. Compared to the Western parts of the city with their relaxed chic, much of the old East feels as if it is trying desperately hard. It is like a film set with extras walking around on cue, but where somebody forgot to include a script and lead actors.
The Stadtschloss is scheduled to be finished by 2020, a yellow pastiche with its Baroque façade covering concrete slabs. Seventy-five years after the oubreak of World War II, the reconstruction of Berlin is almost complete. Yet the physical rebuild was the easy part. Recreating an intellectual and creative cauldron on a par with that which used to exist here will, I suspect, take even longer. The cultural oeuvre that was pre-Nazi Berlin was not created overnight: it was an organic accumulation of years of growth, development, creativity and migration, the destruction of which began well before the bombs began to fall. It will take more than a contrived veneer to replace it.
Installing a museum of culture, art and science in a rebuilt palace at the nexus of the city is no substitute for the writers, artists and scientists themselves, let alone their creative output. Laptops and lattés may be cool, but in today's Berlin there is little sign of the successors to Kollwitz, Lieberman and Einstein.