Alexanderplatz – Rising Into The Future?

  by Eleanor Hurt

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From its humble beginnings as a cattle market on the outskirts of Berlin in the early 17th Century, Alexanderplatz has progressed ever onward and upwards. The 19th Century showed is transformation into one of Berlin’s largest commercial and transportation hubs, with the almost simultaneous unveilings of the Stadtbahn station and market hall, whilst it was redesigned as a socialist square under the communist era of the DDR. But is Alexanderplatz to become a European New York? Plans for the affectionately termed ‘Alex’s’ gentrification increasingly show a bustling centre determined to ‘reach for the sky’.

The beginning of 2013 saw Berlin Architects, Agnieszka Preibisz and Peter Sandhaus, propose the creation of a ‘garden city’ to be placed opposite the site’s major shopping centre Alexa. Aptly named ‘Green8’, this new skyscraper is to measure 150 metres tall, hold the shape of a twisted figure 8 and have a multi-purpose function, creating living spaces, greenhouses and elevated gardens. Alex, Preibisz comments, “as the centre of the city, is very much lacking in living quality…we want to promote with our concept some new ideas for Berlin.” [1]

However, Alexanderplatz as most residents know it today is a jumbled collection of old DDR constructions and new development, mixed in with the unsightly cables, tracks and overpasses of the S-Bahn and Strassenbahn transportation system. The Fernsehturm and ParkInn already loom oppressively over the empty square, and collectively question the aesthetics of placing even more high-rise complexes in this dynamic space. How much more do Berliner’s wish to become boxed in? Is it really a good idea to formulate Alexanderplatz as a living space when an estimated 360,000+ people already flood through the area everyday?

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After the re-unification of Germany, Alexanderplatz re-emerged as Berlin’s main centre, and in the nature of all architectural change, a competition was proposed to gather suggestions on how Alexanderplatz could grow out of its past and re-incorporate into Berlin’s new post-communist era. Since 1989, the Gentrification fad has swept across Prenzlauerberg and Neukölln, raising walls alongside rent prices. But as with the deconstruction of then Palast der Republik and rebuilding of the reknowned Stadtschloss on Berlin’s Friedrichstrasse, the planned deconstruction of the DDR plattenbau apartment blocks and construction of new high-rise buildings throughout Alexanderplatz raises questions about the need to preserve the past. “Berlin,” according to Daniel Liebeskind, “has always had the idea that if a house can be removed, the direction or course of a street can also be changed,”[2] but is Berlin so obsessed with forgetting and erasing its past that it is willing to damage its future?

In the midst of January this year, Gehry Partners’s design won the Berlin competition to construct a 300-unit residential tower* just behind the already imposing cube of Alexanderplatz’s Saturn department store complex. Explaining Gehry Partner’s victory, Senate Building Director Regula Lüscher commented that; “Gehry’s design is strong in visual expression and introduces an unusually eccentric, new pattern for this location. Nevertheless, the façade radiates agreeable tranquility. In addition, the design blends well with the neighborhood and conveys all aspects of metropolitan living.” [3]

A quick first glance at the computer-generated images of Gehry’s designs (left), do tend to support this opinion. The light colour of his chosen sandstone façade and its Picasso-like skewed angles, could simultaneously merge neatly with the limestone of the Behrens’ constructions that encircle the open plaza, and draw the eye away from their bland box-like uniformity. Yet a longer, more considered second look points it out as the ‘sore-thumb’ that is destined to be. Projected to stand at 150 meters tall,  making it one of the tallest buildings in Berlin (second only to the Fernsehturm) and resembling an elongated version of on his previous constructions to be found in Manhattan, Gehry’s design almost appears as to be a result of failed translation. However, as Berlin remains determined to ‘reach for the sky’ it is interesting to note that it is not the architects that are holding the smoking gun on this project, but the Senate itself. As is evidenced through a comparison images of the runner’s up in this Architectural competition, the height of this soon to be realized apartment block and its precise location were two set guidelines that participating architects had to work with.

As such a significant blight on Berlin’s iconic skyline, one question must but asked about this build – Exactly what purpose does it serve? “Other than flats and a hotel? On current impressions the answer is, not much.”[4] Surely a development that attempted to sync with its surrounding districts, providing “recreation facilities, inexpensive movie theaters and restaurants, sports facilities”[5] would be better than dominative desire to “make Berlin the envy of all other metropli and the most important and richest city in the universe” [6].

But, Fear Not!, citizens of Berlin. There may be hope yet. As of June this year, Local Berlin Newspapers have reported that Gehry’s Skyscraper may be simply too much for Alexanderplatz to handle. Berlin’s transport organisation the BVG have voiced concerns that the immense weight of this new enormous building will damage the structural integrity of the U5 and U-Bahn tunnels running underneath the square. In an attempt to determine an answer to this question, as well as the BVG’s further query about whether this development will interrupt the train services, the Berlin Senate have been forced to put its plans on hold.

Hine’s developers cling to the hope that the project will begin as planned in 2015, but enough is enough. Berlin’s skyline needs to be saved, and the Berliner’s are begging: “please…leave us something that we can remember on this site.” [7]

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*To view the contributions and winning designs of the residential tower-competition visit here!

[1| Quote from Fred Seale’s article  “Architects plan garden city” published on the 13th November 2013 by “The Local: Germany’s News in English”

[2] Liebeskind, “Berlin Alexanderplatz: Ideologies of Design and Planning and the Fate of Public Space”, Published Fall 1995 by the Journal of the International Institute

[3] Rosenfeld, “Frank Gehry Chosen to Design Berlin’s Tallest Tower” Published February 3 2014, by ArchDaily

[4]Minimum Blog , “Gehry Partners to build new tower block on Berln Alexanderplatz” First Published January 29 2014

[5] Liebeskind, “Berlin Alexanderplatz: Ideologies of Design and Planning and the Fate of Public Space”, Published Fall 1995 by the Journal of the International Institute

[6] Minimum Blog , “Gehry Partners to build new tower block on Berln Alexanderplatz” First Published January 29 2014

[7] Liebeskind, “Berlin Alexanderplatz: Ideologies of Design and Planning and the Fate of Public Space”, Published Fall 1995 by the Journal of the International Institute

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