on July 22, 2012
The Berlin of my imagination is 1920s and early 1930s Berlin; the Berlin of Sally Bowles and Cabaret and smoky nightclubs. At the heart of that Berlin were the Alexanderplatz and the Potsdamer Plat, and being an ardent fan of Christopher Isherwood’s writing (author of 'Goodbye to Berlin') hearing the name Alexanderplatz always conjures up his stories and characters in my mind. Of course, today’s Alexanderplatz is a far cry from the one depicted by Isherwood. It would be: this part of Berlin was heavily damaged by allied bombing during World War Two and after the war the Alexanderplatz was in that part of Berlin under the command of the Soviets. In the 1960s the East Germans decided to make the Alexanderplatz a showcase of socialist design and erected some pretty hideous concrete eyesores. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall the face of the Alexanderplatz has changed again but in contrast with some other areas of East Berlin, it’s still pretty obvious that this square was in East Berlin. It’s certainly not one of the more aesthetically appealing parts of the city but, as a major transport hub and with a number of popular attractions in the area, few tourists come to Berlin without crossing the Alexanderplatz at least once or twice. Originally a cattle market, there’s been a meeting and trading place on this site since medieval times, when it was outside the city proper. The Alexanderplatz was given its name to commemorate a visit in 1805 of the Russian Emperor Frederick I; today the locals simply call it the Alex. In the 1960s several commercial buildings were constructed here, some of which still stand, re-vamped. Dominating the square is the Fernsehturm (the television tower) the second tallest structure in Europe; for me, the Alexanderplatz will typify East German Berlin whatever other changes are made, as long as the Fernsehturm still stands.It is the Fernsehturm that is the most recognisable symbol of the Alexanderplatz. Nicknamed the ‘Tele-spargel’ (the toothpick), it was built in 1969 and remains one of the tallest structures in Europe at 365 metres. A lift takes visitors up to a viewing platform at 203 metres and a restaurant at 207 metres. We only saw big queues to go up to the viewing platform and decided not to waste our time queuing; later in the trip we took the lift to the viewing platform at the Panoramapunkt at the Potsdamerplatz where there was no queue and the cost was considerably less, though as far as iconic experiences are concerned, I can understand why people still want to do the Fernsehturm. Another sight on the Alex is the World Clock, a structure that is some ten metres tall but still manages to look somewhat squat to me. A revolving cylinder shows all the international time zones and the major cities within each one and from this you can find the time anywhere in the world (so long as you actually know where the place is!). Perched on the top is an orrery (a model of the solar system) which revolves once a minute. It makes me smile to think that projects like this which connect people (at least notionally) in a global way were conceived at a time when East Germans were denied the freedom to travel at will. (Also on the Alex is the ‘Haus des Reisens’ (the House of Travel), an ugly building which seems needlessly vast when you consider how few East Germans actually did get to travel.) When the clock was renovated as part of a regeneration of the Alex in 1997, the cities of Jerusalem, St. Petersburg and Cape Town had been removed. The Fountain of International Friendship was dedicated in 1970 and was created by a group of artists led by Walter Womack; I understand it was renovated about ten years ago but to me it looked rather dated and sadly neglected. The outer ring, where the water pools, measures 23 metres and water cascades down a series of ugly shelves of different heights. An ugly tiled frieze depicts a series of painted images of birds, flower and plants. Perhaps once it was lovely, today it looks rather sad. The Alex is not really a square with lots of places provided to sit so the outer wall of the fountain tends to be the place where people find a place to rest their legs. There are one or two newer buildings which have been erected since reunification but they are, in my opinion, uninspiring and unmemorable. The partial regeneration of the square was overseen by Hans Kollhoff, the man responsible for the massive redesign of the Potsdamerplatz. I’m not mad on what his team came up with for the Potsdamerplatz so it’s hardly surprising that I’m rather underwhelmed by the Alexanderplatz, a large open space that could really handle a statement project. For me there’s nothing that overshadows the iconic honey-comb facade of the former ‘Centrum Warenhaus’, once the largest department store in East Germany and now part of the famous Kaufhaus group.We skirted the Alexanderplatz a couple of times during our four day stay in Berlin and on Sunday morning we lingered there a little longer as we made our way towards the cluster of museums nearby on the banks of the River Spree. It was December and the Christmas markets were in full swing around the city; there are Christmas markets wherever there is enough space to swing a proverbial cat but the one at Alexanderplatz was one of the larger ones we saw and it was extended by the presence of a funfair with rides and sideshows. Personally I don’t care a great deal for the Christmas markets; usually when you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all and this was the case in Berlin where each market seems to be selling the same stuff as any other. Still, the stuff is quite nice and tends to be of a reasonable quality so if you are looking for souvenirs then the Christmas markets will probably have something that appeals. One place that did catch my eye was an Alpine style wooden chalet plonked on the edge of the Alexanderplatz. As I passed by the windows the twinkling of a million glittery Christmas tree decorations caught my eye and, like a magpie, I couldn’t resist. Lauschaer Glaskugelhaus has literally hundreds of different designs from simple spheres and teardrop shapes to baubles shaped like a slice of cake, a curvaceous lady in basque and suspenders and even a glittery Brandenburg Gate. I couldn’t resist and came away with lots of presents for family and friends and treats for our own tree; of course, learning that its a German tradition to hang one on the tree, I had to include a little glass gherkin among my purchases. Although you wouldn’t make a point of visiting the Alexanderplatz just for the sake of it, there are plenty of things of interest to spot when you do happen to cross the square and it is one of the iconic spots in the city in terms of history. In November 1989, during the ‘Peaceful Revolution’ the Alex was the scene of the largest ever demonstration in East Germany, with estimates of attendance varying between half a million and a million (irrespective of the precise number, it was definitely the largest such rally); the demonstration was organised by East German actors and other theatrical professionals and it was notable in that it was the first demonstration organised by private individuals that was given permission by the authorities. If you’re interested in recent German history it’s worth taking the time to find out about the buildings and features of the Alex rather than simply passing through on the way to somewhere else. It may not be the prettiest part of Berlin but it's certainly one of the most interesting.
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