Alexanderplatz and its urban history

Today I’m at Alexander Platz - a large square in the East of the city that’s known by the locals as ‘Alex.’ Perhaps it’s not the most exciting place to begin a trip in Berlin (by all accounts, it’s pretty ugly and in some ways a little soulless) but it has a truly fascinating urban and political history.  Moreover, it’s a central hub in the city so even if you’re not planning on ascending the TV Tower (which guarantees astonishing views of Berlin) you’ll probably find yourself here at a certain point in a trip.  And for anyone fascinated by ‘socialist architecture’ (which includes me) of the old East, it’s a must-see part of the city.

The history of ‘Alex’ is long and intriguing.  Back in the Middle Ages, it was known as the ‘Ox Market’ but after a visit to Berlin by Tsar Alexander I of Russia in 1805, it was renamed in his honour.  By the middle of the 19th century, it had been transformed into a major transport hub, with the opening of a s-bahn (overground railway) station and by 1913, an u-bahn (subway) station was added. 

Photo: BundesArchiv Bild

Photo: BundesArchiv Bild

World War II was to change everything however - most of the area was devastated by Allied bombing and the subsequent division of the city would make Alexanderplatz the ‘go to’ centre of the East.  The result, predictably, was that the square became a showcase for “socialist architecture.”  A number of ugly, soulless buildings went up, along with the Fernsehtum’ or, as it’s better known, the Television Tower.  Designed with the help of the Swedes, it stands at 365 metres high and at its top is a revolving restaurant (apparently, in the time it takes consume ‘kaffee und kuchen’ you will have turned 380 degrees).  I’ve never felt the need to go up, regarding it as a bit of a tourist trap. but no doubt the views it affords are splendid.

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If you walk around ‘Alex’ today, you’ll see a couple of buildings from the 1920’s that, miraculously, were left standing after the end of World War II.  These are the Aleanderhaus and the Berlina-Haus (both designed by Peter Behrens).  They’re somewhat functional (their style being known as ‘neue sachlichkeit’ (‘new objectivity’ - though I’m not quite sure what that means!)  I know what it looks like though...

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It’s important to remember, however, that during the Cold War, both the GDR and DDR were pouring money into Berlin non-stop, to ‘showcase’ their sides of the city.  Whether shopping malls or monuments to Marx and Lenin, they were dying to outdo each other.  The result was the erection of a few high rises at ‘Alex’ including the “Haus des Lehrers” (Teachers House) and the “Haus des Reisens” (House of Travel).  

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This great experiment in socialist architecture was topped off with two more Proletarian monuments - the Weltzeituhr (World Time Clock) and the Brunnen der Völkerfreundschaft (Fountain of International Friendship).  Actually, I do like the clock - it’s a column planted in the centre of a wind rose, with a 24-sided cylinder on top.  On top is a simple model of the solar system and each side of the cylinder stands for a different time zone.

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But whilst the square was a central hub of the East, its ugliness was oft-remarked upon so, surprise surprise, after the Wall fell,  plans were put in place by city officials to redesign the area.  Everyone was sick of the by-now horribly unfashionable 1960s concrete buildings there - not just ugly, they also represented a regime regarded as oppressive by millions.  What better way than to “erase the past” than to rebuild Alex?

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Even so, the grand architectural plans came to nothing.  The architect Hans Kollhof, who had won the city competition, drew up sketches and subsequently presented a radical design comprising of 10 Art-Deco towers, reminiscent of those built around Chicago's Loop.  Critics railed against it however - they said similar buildings put up at Potsdamer Platz, not far away, had made the area appear 'glitzy,' shiny' and 'unauthentic.'  They argued that certain buildings at Alex needed to be historically preserved and that whilst it is, indeed, a communist landmark, it is worthwhile keeping as a momentum of a bygone era.  They're fond of its drabness, its lack of aesthetic appeal and regard is as a well-loved friend.  So what that on a grey day it's entirely bleak and lacking in style?  They'd rather it were that then gentrified - god knows, they say, there's been enough of that in Berlin since 1989.

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Somehow or other, it seems they got their way.  For now, the future of Alex remains unclear - residential buildings are going up (demand is enormous, and apartments in modern high rise will sell for well over a million euros each) but the basic structure of the platz remains much as it did since its rebuilding after 1945.  And whether you like it or loathe it, it's well worth a walk around because it's loaded with history - social, political and architectural.  Alex, my friend, you've come a long, long way...