Alexanderplatz

Maria Deldén

…is an “essential part of Berlin’s cultural history and holds its place on the “mental map” of the Berliners and their visitors alike.”[1]

The year is 1983. I am sitting next to Dietmar and we are enjoying eating ice-cream one sunny day in May.  Alexanderplatz is full of life. We are looking at the people passing by and wishing things would be easier. We live at each side of the wall, I in Sweden and he in East Berlin. I can visit him, he can not visit me. What now is history to us, back then was lived reality.

Alexanderplatz, one of many open spaces in Berlin and one of all open spaces in cities around the world. Like glades in a forest we humans construct squares in our cities, open places that can bring in the light, function as meeting places and let us lift our glaze from the more narrow streets. The square is often described by its activities. One example is ”Från Alexanderplatz till Bahnhof Zoo”[2] by Ulla and Olof Siljeholm were different open places are implicitly identified by the activities taking place there. So is Pariser Platz with its Brandenburger Tor described as a place were leaders and soldiers have passed through during varying times in history using the symbolic power of the tower. The open space serves to contain different types of crowds.  Parizer Platz also includes, among other things, cultural activities such as cafés, restaurants, museum, shops and embassies. The buildings surrounding a square are of importance too, and the architecture talks to us. As the buildings were constructed the policymakers wanted to signal something to the inhabitants, to the visitors and to other policymakers as well as to the future.

So what memories carry Alexanderplatz? What signs of human life, joy and struggle? What do the activities tell us and what can we learn from monuments and the buildings surrounding the site?

The zeitgeist of each time has left its traces on it in very tangible ways and turned the square into a place of bustling economic life, upturn and change par excellence.[3]

During the Middle Age Alexanderplatz served as a cattle market and during the first half of the 19th century it hosted military parades and soldier barracks. The place got its name from tsar Alexander I when he visited Berlin in 1805 during the Napoleon wars.[4] During the 18th century the site became an integrated urban square in Berlin. Some of the buildings at that time were the Königsstädtisches Theater, the Police Headquarters, Berlin’s central market hall and Grand Hotel. In this assignment I will have the focus on Alexanderplatz’ history during the 20th century and I will try to do it from the perspective of Berlin as a border city and its specific relationship to time. I am inspired by Janet Wards discussion of the nature and significance of borders.[5] She talks about a “trans-boundary movement” and tries in her study to do a trans-disciplinary study on the significance of boundaries in the history of Post War Berlin. Berlin’s border was an “artificially inserted political schism”.[6]Berlin as a border-city after the Second World War is a fact, and I will try to look at Alexanderplatz from this angle.

During the 1920th

Let us start in the 1920th. Germany was governed by the Weimar Republic[7]. Alfred Döblin gives us a portrait of Alexanderplatz in his novel Berlin Alexanderplatz.[8] In the 1920th the site was descried by Döblin as a place inhabited by marginalized people. We get to know Franz Biberkopf and the people around him and their life in the neighbourhood of Alexanderplatz. The site in this time was an important traffic square with Berlin’s largest underground and an intercity rail station with 23 tram lines and 9 bus lines. Consequently a lot of people passed Alexanderplatz during a day.[9] So it still is. Nowadays four hundred thousand people pass Alexanderplatz daily for different reasons.[10] Martin Wagner, the director of urban planning in the 1920th had great plans for Alexanderplatz, wanting it to be transformed from a small town square to a world city square. But his plans didn’t get fully realized. The buildings that were constructed were Alexanderhaus and the Berolinahaus in the years 1929-31. They were modern eight-storey steel-framed buildings – a revolutionary way of construction in those days. They are protected as Historic Monuments.[11]As I mentioned Alexanderplatz was a meatingpoint for many different people.  The development towards a rapidly growing metropolis continued in the 20th century with hotels, restaurants, cafés, theatres, cinemas, department stores (Tietz for example), Berlin central market hall and office blocks. The vast site was an integrated part of Berlin.

Photograph from http://www.stadtentwicklung.berlin.de/planen/staedtebau-projekte/alexanderplatz/en/geschichte/geschichte_bis_45/seite2.shtml

Alexanderplatz seemed to be a very interesting place during the 20th. The characteristics of the site are described with various words; lack of architectonic harmony, desolation, impermanence, instability, criminality, insurrection, traffic congestion, commerce, modernity, contradiction. Alexanderplatz during the 20th was very affected by the spirit of the time; the spirit of the Republic and of the modernization of urban environments. The people living, working and passing through there came from different social classes. Thieves and prostitutes lived next to the Police Head quarter. Modern restaurants next to the working class housing. In the narrow streets behind Alexanderplatz, in Scheuenenviertel, lived a jewish population coming from the eastern parts of Europe. These quarters do no longer exist but the few remaining buildings has been restored in due to the memory of the jews once living there and who disappeared during the Nazi regime and to the memory of the underworld people known from Alfred Döblin.[12] So we can see that this history is preserved by the people of the site. Alexanderplatz could be seen as a border site in the sense that it was balancing between the past and the future, and it was the juxtaposing of rich and poor, criminal and lay-abiding, the past and modernity.

During the 1960th

During the Second World War a lot of buildings around Alexanderplatz were destroyed and entering the Cold war the site became part of the Soviet hemisphere. The division of Berlin was completed in 1961 by the construction of the Wall. Alexanderplatz became an important site in the eastern part of the city and the GDR wanted to express this in the architecture of the site. One example: In 1961 to 1964 the Haus des Lehrers, a 12 storey building was constructed. The building was decorated with one of the largest wall paintings in Europe picturing social life in GDR. As a memorial of the 20th birthday of the GDR the Brunnen der Völkerfreundschaft – Fountain of Friendship amongst Peoples – was constructed. Walter Womackas fountain is made of copper, glass, enamel and ceramics. The water pours from pots in different heights and the sides are decorated in different colours. The name is interesting – friendship amongst people. The reconstruction of Alexanderplatz in the 60th can be seen in the light of the border – the Wall –  constructed in 1961 and the polarization between east and west.  So who are these people that are included in the hemisphere of friendship? Constructing a fountain with that symbolic in that particular time tells us how the regime of GDR wanted to be perceived.

Photograph from http://www.flickr.com/photos/margheritadiblasi/5640800618/

The World Time Clock and the TV Tower was constructed at the same time, as some of the buildings that had been destroyed during the war. Alexanderplatz became a show mark for the new modern East Berlin. The TV Tower was built for urbanity and political reasons. East Berlin was a closed city towards the west but the symbolic of the fountain, the clock and the TV tower suggest something else.

James E. Young writes about Holocaust memorials and monuments and even if the fountain, the clock and the tower are not memorials or monuments in the definition of Young  (that they have a relationship to dead persons or important events in the history), Young’s thoughts can put some light on the matter. He writes:

The relationship between a state and its memorials is not one-sided, however. On the one hand, official agencies are in position to shape memory explicitly as they see fit, memory that best serves a national interest. On the other hand, once created, memorials take on lives of their own, often stubbornly resistant to the state’s original intentions. In some cases, memorials created in the image of a state’s ideals actually turn around to recast these ideals in the memorial’s own image. New generations visit memorials under new circumstances and invest them with new meanings. The result is an evolution in the memorial’s significance, generated in the new times and company in which it finds itself.[13]     

So the monuments created at Alexanderplatz can be seen from different angles. For the state it was important to emphasize friendship naming the fountain the Brunnen der Völkerfreundschaft. But how was the friendship coming to the relation between east and west? Almost every German had a relative living on the other side of the border. Dietmar, as I mentioned above and I were friends but he was not able to come and visit me or his relatives in the west. The fountain certainly could give different connotations to different people. And in the language of the people the fountain was given the name Nuttenbrosche, after its colours and the prostitution at the site. Surely this was not the symbolic meaning intended by its creators.

Alexanderplatz today

On October the 3rd 1990 Germany was reunited and Alexanderplatz again became part of whole Berlin. The east-west border disappeared physically but mentally the site continued being a part of East Berlin. During the 1990th the site stayed more or less the same but in 1999 the Federal State of Berlin and investors agreed on a plan of step wise remodelling of Alexanderplatz between 2006 and 2013.[14] The character of Alexanderplatz today still is the vast square with its high grey stone façade buildings surrounding it. Several buildings from the GDR epoch still stand there. The fountain, the clock and the TV tower give their touch to the site. And Alexanderplatz still counts as one of the most important traffic junction in Berlin.

Photograph from http://www.bestourism.com/items/di/1190?title=Alexanderplatz&b=185

”Memory never stands still” says Young.[15] How can a square be part of a collective memory? Because of the characteristics of the square defined by its activities and its architectures with its symbolism, it certainly plays a roll in shaping the identity of the city and its people. Alexanderplatz has changed during the years but somewhat reluctantly. Still there have been changes with relation to the society and the political situation. I have noticed that the policymakers have had some difficulties in modelling the site and that the character of the square has remained more or less the same during time. Even today Alexanderplatz is in focus for big plans and still considered a site that is not finally modelled. I can see that this has been one of its characteristics during the 20th century and maybe this tells us about the identity of Berlin and its people as part of a border city. The policymakers also have tried to create collective memories in Alexanderplatz, for example the Fountain of Friendship amongst Peoples and the World Clock. But what is also obvious is that people fill the site with their own connotations and memories and these are not necessarily those intended by the regime. Art plays an important roll in creating memories and Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz also gives us memories of the site, as does the film by Fassbinder based on Döblin’s novel.

And what happened to Dietmar and to our friendship? Did I once again cross the border at Checkpoint Charlie to visit him? Dietmar decided in 1984 to leave East Germany through Czechoslovakia but got caught and had to spend ten month in a prison in East Berlin. After that he was exiled and came to Sweden to visit me. What we didn’t know back then was that a few years later the wall would fall and he could reunite with his family. No more physical borders. But the memories of the border-city stay alive.

References

Literature

Hake, Sabine. (2008). Topographe of Class. Modern Architecture and Mass Society in Weimar Berlin. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

Ladd, Brian. (1997). The Ghosts of Berlin. Chicago and London: ChicagoUniversity Press.

Siljeholm, Ulla & Olof. (2012). Från Alexanderplatz till Bahnhof Zoo. Wasatryckeriet AB.

Ward, Janet. (2011). Post-Wall Berlin. Borders, Space and Identity. Palgrave Macmillan.

Young, James, E. (1993). The texture of memory. Holocaust Memorials and meaning. New haven and London: Yale University Press.

Internet

Berlin.de http://www.berlin.de/orte/sehenswuerdigkeiten/alexanderplatz/index.en.php

(2013-02-08)

Berlin.de http://www.stadtentwicklung.berlin.de/planen/staedtebau-projekte/alexanderplatz/en/geschichte/index.shtml (2013-02-15)

Berlin.de

http://www.stadtentwicklung.berlin.de/planen/staedtebauprojekte/alexanderplatz/en/heute/alexanderhaus/index.shtml (2013-02-15)

Berlin.de

http://www.stadtentwicklung.berlin.de/planen/staedtebauprojekte/alexanderplatz/en/geschichte/1990/index.shtml (2013-02-16)


[2] Siljeholm, Ulla & Olof. (2012). Från Alexanderplatz till Bahnhof Zoo. Wasatryckeriet AB.

[5] Ward, Janet. (2011). Post-Wall Berlin. Borders, Space and Identity. Palgrave Macmillan.

[6] Ward, p 4.

[7] There were a strong movement of modern architecture – Neues Bauen – in the Weimar Republic that influenced the development of Berlin. (in Topographe of Class. Modern Architecture and Mass Society in Weimar Berlin by Sabine Hake, 2008)

[8] Döblin, Alfred. (1929). Berlin Alexanderplatz.

[9] Ward, p. 160.

[10] Siljeholm, p. 19.

[12] Ladd, Brian. (1997). The Ghosts of Berlin. Chicago and London: ChicagoUniversity Press. p. 114.

[13] Young, James, E. (1993). The texture of memory. Holocaust Memorials and meaning. New haven and London: Yale University Press. p. 3.

[15] Young. (1993). p. x.

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