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.