Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Newfound affection for the drab, East Berlin square.
It was all supposed to be gone by now.
Ever since the Berlin Wall came down, planners have intended to sweep away the hulking modernist blocks surrounding Alexanderplatz, East Berlin’s central square. Largely built around 1970 as communist East Germany’s ultimate urban showcase, this huge plaza subsequently became Exhibit A for people protesting the alienating effect of late 20th century architecture. But while its greying blocks and tatty stores once acted as a symbol of East Germany’s failings, Alexanderplatz’s star seems to be rising once more.
Plans to remodel East Berlin’s heart are being substantially modified, as the city moves ahead with plans to hold off the wreckers and list many of the square’s buildings as historical monuments. So is this evidence of a city slapping on worthwhile preservation orders in the nick of time? Or will the plans fix central Berlin’s architectural aesthetic forever in alienating mediocrity?
Alexanderplatz’s buildings don’t make the most obvious of historical monuments. Large-scale constructions of concrete, glass and steel, they’re similar, if not identical, to buildings constructed (and subsequently derided) in Western Europe (and West Berlin) in the same period, the socialist themes of their occasional decorative murals notwithstanding. The controversial candidates for protection include the 18-story House of Travel and the former House of the Press, which once housed East Berlin’s most exclusive café. Also being considered for historic status are the more faceless former House of Electro-industry and a building named, with almost poetic banality, the House of Statistics.
Smaller and more immediately lovable, the square’s World Clock (whose cosmic camp inspired this music video) and vaguely psychedelic People’s Friendship Fountain seem sure to get listed, joining the already protected Teachers’ House and two 1930s Bauhaus survivals. Together, they don’t make the most immediately photogenic of urban ensembles – on a drab day, Alexanderplatz is about as appealing as a slice of wet toast – but overlooked by the Television Tower’s space-age syringe and the glass hall of the elevated railway station, they’re collectively far from bland.
The ensemble is certainly different from what was first planned to replace it back in 1993 – ten art deco-ish towers from architect Hans Kollhof, sketches of which resembled escapees from Chicago’s Loop. Searching for a positive connection with Berlin’s recent past, these towers would have referenced lost buildings from the post-hyperinflation, pre-Hitler sliver of the city’s modern history that locals still feel good about. Some of these towers may still be built, but shunted to the square’s edges they’re so far from Kollhof’s original intention that he recently criticized the plans sharply.
Keeping Alexanderplatz largely as it is throws up a question many cities need to ask themselves: can architectural merit ever be definitively settled, or will it always remain in flux? While the square’s fanbase is growing, the continuing unfashionability of Alexanderplatz’s architecture would be unlikely to win it any popularity contests for innate urban loveliness. But if we demolished everything immediately as it fell from favor, many buildings that ultimately regained the public’s love would have been lost during their difficult adolescence. And while the poor quality of the square’s prospective monuments might seem obvious to many, the awfulness of many buildings it is now conventional to love seemed equally evident to our forebears.
In mid-century Berlin, it was taken almost as a given that its many historicist tenements built in the years around 1900 were debased and hideous in style, for their eclectic catalogue-bought ornaments as much for their unsanitary overcrowding. After the war, West Berlin’s authorities went as far as knocking the plaster swags of fruit and doorway caryatids off them to make them that bit more aesthetically bearable. To suggest that these now loved, sought-after buildings were worth preserving would have seemed as preposterous in 1950 as would a historical preservation order on Alexanderplatz in 1990.
For some, Alexanderplatz’s architecture is guilty by association with communist East Germany – one local journalist has argued the preservation move meant Berlin would remain like Pyongyang [German language link]. But in this city where so many now unremarked buildings were put up under the rule of bullies and warmongers, the monument plans show how much the city has moved on from its period of division. It no longer needs to make a statement by sweeping away mementos of a difficult past. Berlin has already created a modern but vaguely art deco ensemble on a former East Berlin site – at Potsdamer Platz where Kollhof also designed many buildings – and the resulting space feels inorganic and dull. It doesn’t need another one. While other communist landmarks have been demolished, pedestrian-friendly Alexanderplatz will stay as a reminder of the period, patiently waiting to be loved once more.