Landmarks and Distance – The TV-Tower

by Jeppe Kamstrup

What I am about to write may shock you. This architecture critique is about my favourite building in Berlin. It has changed a lot while I have been living here, but I have had to succumb to this truth: my favourite building in Berlin is the Fernsehturm.

Built between 1965 and 1969 by the government of the GDR, the Fernsehturm was a prestige project of an East Germany that needed to show its strength in comparison to the brother in the west, still high on what is called the “Wirtschaftswunder” of the fifties and sixties. The architects behind the tower were Herman Henselmann, Fritz Dieter, Jörg Streitparth, Günter Franke and Werner Ahrendt. As the name of the tower would suggest, the Fernsehturm is a broadcasting tower, built to be able to transmit East German radio and television broadcasts to East Berlin and the surrounding area. But it is much more than that. In the sphere that spins around the tower is a restaurant where you – back before a restoration in the nineties – could only sit for a full 360 degree spin which took an hour. Then you had to leave your seat for someone else. By the foot of the Fernsehturm is a pavilion, which houses several cafes, a small casino and generally places where tourists can pay a lot for very little. In many ways, the Fernsehturm has very little going for it. This giant structure of steel and concrete is not the most loved in the world.

I understand that it is ugly. I will also even say that it is a bit ridiculous both in where it is built and how it is used. But for me, the Fernsehturm has come to represent Berlin. The beauty in the tower come from its history and the feeling you get when you see it on the horizon. That’s the thing about the Fernsehturm – it is very hard to lose in a city that is not that tall. When I shop for groceries at Kurfürstendamm I can see the Fernsehturm, when I go out of an Eckkneipe in Lichtenberg I can see the Fernsehturm. The need for a compass in the city of Berlin has been eradicated by the grace of the GDR. Another thing is the local folklore. When the sun shines upon the sphere, it creates a reflection that looks like a cross – the popes revenge as it is called, or Saint Walter after Walter Ulbricht, the leader of the GDR. It was an ultimate embarrassment for a state that had banished religion.

The Fernsehturm is in my eyes one of the interesting buildings that do not work when you are close to it. It is in many ways a travesty that it is on Alexanderplatz, where the opportunities for using the square for something very interesting are nonexistant because of a tourist trap of a monstrosity. If you doubt me on this, please go there. You will find it to be one of the worst parts of the city. But when you venture out into the city – go away from Mitte, the Fernsehturm for some reason works as a landmark. It becomes beautiful in my eyes. That is the paradox of the Fernsehturm: it works and it doesn’t. It is a matter of distance.

As a citizen of Berlin for half a year it has been an interesting journey with the Fernsehturm for me. In many ways this landmark for Berlin truly is a landmark in my mind. This wonderful city should not have a palace like the Versailles or an old tower like Big Ben. This city is contemporary; most of it rebuilt in the fifties and later and should not be thought of as another European city with medieval or baroque architecture. I find it fitting that the landmark is something which makes people have a feeling towards it.

One thing I will take with me home is the loss of an ever-present guide in the city. I have made a lot of fond memories in this city, most of them with the Fernsehturm as a backdrop or as a looming presence. My favourite building in Berlin is the Fernsehturm because it is inescapable.

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