Fernsehturm – The Metamorphosis of an Icon

By Runa Falck Langaas

You can eat as much Currywurst as you want to, cross the streets with the traditional East-Berlin Ampelmann lights, and buy “You’re now leaving the American sector”-magnets, bear-decorated shirts or even GDR gas masks to all of your friends and family. However, few things say BERLIN more than the Fernsehturm. Located in the middle of Alexanderplatz and visible from almost every part of town, this building has become one of the main symbols of the German capital.

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History

Fifty years ago, Walter Ulbricht, the leader of the Socialist Unity Party which governed in East Germany, decided that a television tower should be constructed on Alexanderplatz. The tower was needed for transmitting radio and TV programmes, but was also intended as a symbol of the GDR’s strength and power. There were several architects involved, the most famous among them probably being Herman Henselmann, the chief architect of East Belin. The construction began in 1965 and lasted four years. The Fernsehturm was officially opened on October 3, 1969, a day which also happened to be the 20th anniversary of the foundation of the GDR.

What Does It  Look Like?

Like most towers, the Fernsehturm is a tall and narrow building. It is built in steel and concrete. On the top there is a sphere with a rotating restaurant in it, and on top of that an antenna. All in all the tower is 368 metres tall, which makes it the tallest building in Germany. Inside there is an elevator that brings visitors all the way up to the restaurant. The Fernsehturm gives associations to technology and space, representative of the spirit in the 60s. It is said that Berliners have baptised it the “Telespargel” because of its asparagus shape. Personally I think an upside down spring onion would be a better vegetable metaphor.

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Fernsehturm Today

Its original functions as a TV tower and a symbol of power are not that important anymore, as Germany is reunited and modern DAB-technology and web-TV will probably soon phase out the need for a TV tower. However, the Fernsehturm has survived the test of time. It has evolved from being a symbol of the GDR to become a symbol of Berlin after reunification, almost as significant as the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Today it is a popular tourist destination, with a restaurant and a magnificent view from the top. According to its website, more than a million people visit the Fernsehturm every year, both tourists and Berliners themselves. Furthermore, it serves as a helpful point of orientation to confused visitors and inhabitants in this big and widespread city. For the time being it is also working well as an actual TV tower.

The Fernsehturm might feel like a tourist trap, and the restaurant on top is probably more exclusive than the average Berlin eatery. The beauty of the tower is questionable, and it might remind the viewer of a giant phallus or an East German middle finger. However, beauty is always subjective, and therefore poorly suited as a measure of architectural success. The tower has certainly become an indispensable part of the cityscape. Even if the view from the sphere is expensive, the view of the Fernsehturm is free for everyone in Berlin to enjoy.

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The Pope’s Revenge

I will end this architecture critique with a little anecdote I read: The Berlin TV tower is without doubt an engineeral masterpiece. However, there is one thing the engineers did not take into consideration. When the sun shines on the sphere, the light creates the shape of a cross. This was of course quite unfortunate for the anti-religious, communist GDR government. Ronald Reagan once said in a speech that the GDR tried as hard as they could to get rid of the light cross, but without success, the Christian symbol continues to shine on the GDR’s power tower. This is why the Fernsehturm was also nicknamed the Pope’s revenge.

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