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.
They’re cheerful, witty, and a little bizarre.
Today, seven of the oddest-looking subway stations in Europe are getting an unlikely accolade: They’re being listed as historic monuments for the first time.
The seven stations are all located in western Berlin, part of a city subway network where preservation orders are far from unheard of—with good reason, given their frequent beauty. What’s striking about today’s plans is just how new the stations are. They all date to that bygone golden age for Europe’s architectural heritage, the years 1980 to 1984. The seven newly protected stations are in one of the last sections of the subway system to be constructed exclusively within West Berlin, extending the network into Spandau, a suburban town still sitting within the confines of the Berlin Wall.
Granting monument status to something so recently built might seem like the architectural equivalent of treating a Betamax video machine as if it were Leonardo’s prototype for the helicopter, but these stations are unquestionably distinctive and delightful.
Designed by architect Rainer G. Rummler, the stations are postmodernist affairs, their brightly colored tiles, pillars, and occasional splashes of shining metal making clear reference to the late 19th century Vienna Secession. There are art deco-ish dark green and gold accents here, a few ancient Egyptian capitals there, while the bold color schemes are part Gustav Klimt, part psychedelic album cover. Cheerful without being sugary, they are a notable bright spot in an often grey city. As an architect whose work is experienced daily by thousands of Berliners, but rarely discussed, Rummler could actually be one of the great unsung heroes of partitioned West Berlin.
Rummler’s designs don’t just sparkle, they have a certain wit to them. Indeed, he deserves credit for giving his underground stations some connection to their above-ground locations. The newly protected station at Rohrdamm, for example, has a decorative scheme of cogs and pulleys and exposed ceiling girders that allude to the factories nearby.
At the Zitadelle U-Bahn stop, meanwhile, Rummler went all-out to evoke the nearby renaissance-era Spandau Citadel, creating exposed brick platforms and a grand, castle-like entrance. Looking at the photo below, it’s almost tempting to assume (falsely and anachronistically) that he had the neighboring branch of Toys ”R” Us in mind too.
When there were no obvious local references to guide a station’s style, however, Rummler truly went to town. Paulsternstrasse Station, for example, is in a bit of a no-man’s land with no obvious landmarks nearby. Lacking local sources to draw from, Rummler got especially creative. His design was inspired by imagining the trees, flowers and stars that might have been visible on a carriage ride between Berlin and Spandau 200 years previously, when the inn of a certain Paul Stern, after which the street was named, was serving travellers. The result is charming, odd, and more than a little trippy.
The seven newly protected stations aren’t the only late 20th century U-Bahn stops to gain monument status this year. In January, Rummler’s 1971 Fehrbelliner Platz Station was also listed, its red and green curves making it look a bit like an old gas station built out of Lego blocks.
Schlossstrasse U-Bahn was also listed; the greatest save here was not necessarily the station itself, but the bizarre, much-loved tower above it, which houses a cafe/restaurant. This tower is always referred to as the Bierpinsel—or Beer Brush—because it’s roughly in the shape of a shaving brush and was built to serve beer.
There’s probably no postwar structure in Berlin that’s sillier, more unlikely, and more instantly likable than the Beer Brush. Obtrusive and essentially functionless, it’s nonetheless a reminder that Europe’s postwar architecture often strays far from its reputation for concrete uniformity. Likewise, Rummler’s newly protected stations show that vital infrastructure can give pleasure, and even be frivolous. Both represent a bright spot of fantasy during a period when Berlin became synonymous with grim political realities. That alone makes them worth preserving.