Berlin Alexanderplatz: the plot thickens

2008.05.27

God knows, Berlin has some ugly buildings. But occasionally something gets built whose sheer awfulness makes it worthy of note.

The new Alexa shopping centre at Alexanderplatz is just such an edifice. Perhaps it’s the way the strange mottled pink ceramic facade panels clash with its gold-tinted atrium canopy. Perhaps it’s the way the canopy extends into the building and frequently reappears as a kind of giant floating turd motif. Perhaps it’s the fact that all that cladding is bespoke; somebody expended serious money to make it look this awful.

What’s it meant to be? What does this ‘unique’ use of materials signify?

To be fair, the Alexa (as in Alexanderplatz’s little sister, I presume) does seem to be working, in terms of putting something next to the Platz which someone has a reason to go to. There are now people, lots of people in fact, swarming around the strip of retail buildings running parallel to the station.

When I first visited Berlin in 2002, Alexanderplatz was a confusion of cones, barriers and temporary traffic systems, but with no actual building work going on.  Today it’s worse, but at least there’s some real building work, namely a second new shopping arcade, which currently looks like this

It’s been given the ingenious name ‘Die Mitte’. Because it’s in the middle of Alexanderplatz.

Blog update, July 09. It now looks like this:

In any case, Alexanderplatz has long been a work in progress. A competition was held in 1929 to expand Alexanderplatz into a ‘big city plaza’, based almost entirely on traffic flow – a virtual fetish of urban planners at the time. The actual buildings were of secondary importance, with a required lifespan of only 25 years.

The competition was won by the Lockhardt brothers, but for some reason Peter Behren’s runner-up design was chosen, of which the Alexander and Beroliner buildings are the only survivors. Interestingly, there was a competition entry by Mies Van Der Rohe, featuring seven huge unconnected rectilinear blocks, not entirely unlike the later GDR scheme in its thinking.

Most of the Behrens plan remained unbuilt, due, I guess, to the onset of the Great Depression. Then the war. Then the GDR, who built something else instead. So there’s still a sense of ‘unfinished business’, from a city planner’s point of view.

On the plus side, the new buildings will go some way to banish the ‘windswept wasteland’ feel given it by GDR postwar planning. It’s a shame though that the solution is so entirely based on shopping. The Alexa is huge, and entirely filled with global-brand shops, ensuring that this could be absolutely anywhere. It adds its considerable retail weight to Galeria Kaufhof, and the shops Alexander & Berolina, which will be further increased by Die Mitte.

Berlin (or at least its government) perceives that the only way forward for the city is to become a place like other western metropolises – an international flight hub, shopping ‘experiences’, vast entertainment venues. And they’re probably right; commerce hasn’t exactly been swift in coming to the capital. But something of Berlin’s rough spirit will undoubtedly be lost in the process.

The key buildings of Alexanderplatz, for the trainspotter in you…

Alexander and Berolina buildings. Virtually reconstructioned due to devastating war damage (the Soviets fought their way into Berlin via Alex), with the latest makeover (of Berolina) by nps tchoban voss, who also did the Cubix multiplex south of station.

Berolinahaus

and Alexanderhaus

The 123m Park Inn, originally the GDR’s Stadt Berlin, by Roland Korn, 1967-70.

The GDR’s answer to KaDeWe was the Zentrum department store, by Josef Kaiser, 1967-70. A couple of years ago the building was cocooned and reborn as Galeria Kaufhof, thanks to a rather bland makeover by Paul Josef Kleihues, his final work.

I notice that there’s a substantial monograph available on the project, bizarrely. Maybe I’m missing something? At best it seems nothing special (compare it with John McAslan’s fine reworking of the Peter Jones store in London). At worst, the exterior seems uncomfortably close to the stripped neo-classicism of the Third Reich. I know that Kleihues’ office had no house style, but this seems an unnecessary low point.

You could argue that Kleihues was West Germany’s chameleon architect, and that Hermann Henselmann was East Germany’s. So it’s ironic that across the Platz from Galeria are arguably Henselmann’s best works – the Haus Des Lehrers and the Kongresshalle. Both are largely uncompromised modernism. Compare and contrast with his very compromised work along Karl-Marx-Allee.

Haus Des Lehrers

Kongresshalle (now BCC)

The 17 storey Haus des Reisens (House of Travel) 1967-70, is also by Roland Korn. Along with the unreadable ‘atomic’ clock across the square, this seems like a particularly cruel GDR joke; a travel agency for citizens not allowed to travel, and a world clock to show what time it was in all the places you couldn’t go. By way of interest, I was going to tell of a visit to the Week12End club, which now occupies two floors and a roof terrace. But someone’s said it better here already.

The Electrical Industry Building (now re-wrapped) and in the background the Berliner Verlag building, by Heinz Mehlan 1967-69, and Karl-Ernst Swora 1970-1973, respectively.

To the south of the S-Bahn is the Cubix multiplex, 2001, by nps tchoban voss (their lower case, not my typo).

Next to this is a vast plattenbau facade, which apparently disguises a building by Phillip Schaefer dating from 1930/31, formerly Karstadt’s HQ, then a police headquarters after the war. I read all this in some guidebook, but I’m not 100% sure this is the right building. Not sure where else it would be though. (See comment below – I was mistaken)

And, of course, the TV Tower – first draft apparently by Henselmann, design by Gunther Kollmann and others, with origami-like base buildings by Walter Herzog (and others… these were collective times, no starchitects in the GDR, with the exception of Henselmann himself, perhaps). I’m not going to post a picture of the tower itself – just look upwards when in Berlin – so here’s another bit.

4 comments

  1. Thanks for this. The new Alexa is such a stupendously ugly bit of Disney Late Capitalist Post-Everything that it must surely be the work of a revolutionary socialist hoping that the masses wil rise up to tear it down.

    BTW I don’t think that the former Karstadt building by Schaefer actually faces directly onto Alex? IIRC it is in what I still think of as Hans-Beimler-Straße (once Neue Königstraße?) which from a quick look at Google maps is now Otto-Braun-Straße.

    (Edited to add – just checked the “in der Nähe” footnote against the Haus des Lehrers in my 1990 edition of “Berlin Brandenburg – Ein Architekturführer” and that gives an address for the Schaefer building of Hans-Beimler-Straße 27/37)

    Robert Doyle, June 18, 2008
  2. Indeed – sadly I seemed to be the only person that day hoping to tear it down. Others were more interested in the bargains to be had in H&M…
    Thanks for the info – this makes much more sense re the Schaefer building. Will tour round for a better look at this and post some pics shortly.
    Jim

    jimnkatie, June 19, 2008
  3. “Die Mitte” is far, far worse than Alexa. At least Alexa is so strange and devoid of any style, that it looks interesting.
    “Die Mitte” is a crime. No architectural quality whatsoever, and what is worse, it just destroys the whole concept of the socialist-utopian Alexanderplaz and robs it of its uniqueness. The expansion of Galeria Kaufhof was the first step.
    There is no place for a building of any kind right in the middle of the square, totally blocking the view towards the Haus des Lehrers and the opennes of the Karl-Marx-Alee.
    This typical urge to destroy anything that is not ideologically acceptable at a particular point of time, in this case a complete utopian square of 60s modernism, just makes me sick.
    What I find more disturbing is that somehow noone seems to notice or comment on these issues. Open society?

    И.Е. Станков, July 28, 2008
  4. I’d agree that it completely blocks the view of the Haus des Lehrers, and seems incongruous in the middle of a space that was planned to be so open.

    At the present time the power of retail eems to dictate planning policy; something that may come to be seen by future generations as (another) mistake.

    jimnkatie, July 28, 2008

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