Berliner Hauptbahnhof – symbolic link in concrete

by Eleanor Fleetwood

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Shortly after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, city planners began to conceive of a central station for the newly reunified Berlin. The federal government ran a competition for the design of a new Berliner Hauptbahnhof (Berlin Main Station) at the location of the former Lehrter Station between Moabit and Berlin Mitte. The competition was won by Hamburg Architect Meinhard von Gerkan in February 1993. Meinhard von Gerkan completed his studies in architecture in 1964, at the Technical University of Braunschweig. The following year, 1965, he established his office partnership with Marg, under the name “von Gerkan, Marg and Partners” (gmp), headquartered in Hamburg.

Production of the Berlin Hauptbahnhof began in 1996 and, seemingly like all Berlin’s construction projects, was plagued from the onset with obstacles. Architects, technicians and engineers struggled with the fine Brandenburg sand, the high water table and static problems. There were numerous quarrels between the 3 major players: the architect, the Deutsche Bahn AG and the Berlin Senate. Deutsche Bahn cut von Gerkan’s planned glass roof so the station would be finished in time for the 2006 FIFA World Cup. Instead of 450 meters the roof was only 320 feet long, much to the disgust of von Gerkan. Von Gerkan believed his designs had been unnecessarily mutilated and was angered by his lack of power, stating “stations and their openings are a political matter, in which the architect has only second place”.

The station was finally completed after 11 years, at an estimated 700 million euro cost to the German Federal Government. It came into full operation two days after a ceremonial opening on 26 May 2006. The completed station is 175 000 m2 composed of 14 platforms, making it Europe’s largest and most modern railway station. For many visitors to Germany, the Berliner Hauptbahnhof constitutes and first glimpse of the nation’s capital.

Like most travelers to Berlin, my first impressions of the Berliner Hauptbahnhof were of the station’s interior, as I arrived in the city by train. I didn’t think much of it at the time, as I was exhausted and stressed to navigate my way to my accommodation in an unfamiliar city of 3.5 million people.

Interior Hauptbahnhof

It wasn’t until sometime later that I first got a look at it from the outside. I was overwhelmed by the sheer immensity of the edifice. It is very impressive to look at, rising up beside the Spree like a giant greenhouse. Two planes of transport intersect in the station building, the east-west plane above, surmounted by a spectacular glass roof, the north – south level in an underground hall. The station makes practical use of natural light, with a sophisticated system of large openings in the ceilings at all levels allowing for natural light to be let in so that it can reach even the lower tracks, despite the station’s monumental proportions. The glass envelope also acts as an indispensable sound barrier, protecting the surrounding environment from sound pollution.

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But despite its external aesthetic panache, the interior of the Berliner Hauptbahnhof is somewhat depressing; plenty of concrete keeps the place quite cold, even on lower levels, and several large empty spaces make unnecessarily long walking routes from one side to another. The lobby offers waiting travelers limited seating, dismal shops and mediocre but overpriced restaurants. During research I interviewed a 37 year old mother of two from Berlin who uses the station regularly to travel for work. She concludes “the Berliner Hauptbahnhof is practical and functional but with a somewhat cold and unfriendly feel. It is not the sort of place one wants to spend a lot of time waiting”.

Ground Level Hauptbahnhof

During planning and construction of the Berliner Hauptbahnhof, special attention was paid to issues of security and fire protection, using components that are designed according to the latest advances in safety and prevention. The building has a very low risk of fire, and several wide exits allow for rapid evacuation in the event of an emergency. In an attempt to keep in line with the international ambition to decrease the carbon footprint, the glass ceiling consists of 11 800 glass panels, among which an area of 2700 square metres of solar panels is composed of 1250 modules. The glass panels are also very practical in protecting the building against wind and weather.

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Despite the usual criticism and complications that goes with any major construction project, it would be fair to say that the Berliner Hauptbahnhof has been largely successful. The building stands as a symbolic link between East and West in reunited Germany, and a major hub of the whole European rail network.

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