The most beautiful square in Berlin

When you read tourist guides to Berlin they tell you that Gendamenmarkt is the most beautiful square in Berlin. The reason, as we gathered, is that it is flanked by two churches with beautiful domes. What you see in the featured photo is the one called the French church. This apparently belonged to the Calvinist French called the Huguenots, some of whom found refuge in Prussia from persecution under Louis XIV of France. The statue in the foreground is that of the German polymath Friedrich von Schiller. The church was built in 1701, the square built in 1773, and the statue erected in 1871. The companion German church, which was undergoing restoration on the day I was there, was built at the same time as the French church. The main difference between the two was the language the service was held in. The Huguenots used French, whereas the Calvinists and Lutherans across the square had their service in German.

The statue of Schiller stands in front of the concert house. When the former National Theatre was destroyed in a fire in 1817, it was replaced by this building. It’s not very often that you find the statue of a lioness in front of a building, but this had gender balance: with a lion and a lioness guarding the steps. I was able to trace discussions of gender equality in the Prussian parliament to 1902, but maybe these guardian statues tell us that there was discussion of this issue outside the Landtag before that.

We walked around the square. It was destroyed in the war and rebuilt by the 1970s. I followed The Family in window shopping, until we came to a chocolate shop on Charlottenstrasse, just behind the square. I think I was the first through the door! It is a great relief to have a box of good chocolates with you on a day when you intend to walk across a city. As soon as we stepped out of the shop we saw that the clear skies of the morning had given way to threatening clouds. I stood in an archway on the street and took the photo of the other side of the French church which you can see in the photo above.

There was a lot of activity on the roof. I’d never seen anyone trying to replace roof tiles on such a steep slope. We watched the activity for a while, without figuring out whether two people walking across ladders was some kind of safety measure. I’d checked the weather in the morning and it had promised a sunny day. As soon as we left the arcade from where we’d watched the work, it began to rain. It was just two blocks till Unter den Linden, but we were pretty damp by the time we turned the corner and walked into a cafe! So much for weather predictions.

Advertisements

The Reichstag building on a gray day

In the final summer of the last millennium, I was in Berlin and decided to go visit the Reichstag building. One did not need an appointment or security clearance for this at that time. I walked around Norman Foster’s dome and peered down into the debating chamber of the Bundestag. This time around, I’d left it till too late to make the appointment, so The Family and I did not get to go up to the dome. On the cold and rainy afternoon of our last day in Berlin we walked up to this famous building.

As we walked around it we reminded ourselves of the history of this building. The original parliament building dated from the 1890s, and was abandoned after a fire in 1933. The fire was blamed on a Dutch communist, Van der Lubbe, who was found in the neighbourhood. We recalled bits and pieces of the controversy around it. Although the Nazi court sentenced Van der Lubbe to death by beheading (while finding four co-defendants not guilty), there were claims even then that the fire had actually been set by the Nazis. It has been claimed many times that a single person working alone would not have had time to set such a large fire. Goering’s name was associated with the fire multiple times but this was never proved. Historians remain divided over the incident.

What is well-documented is that Hitler used this incident as an excuse to get the then-president, Paul von Hindenberg, to pass a decree which allowed opponents of the Nazi party to be imprisoned (by suspending the right called Habeas Corpus), and to censor and suppress publications which criticized the Nazis (and also allowing the government to examine personal mails). The fire happened 6 days before the German parliamentary election of 1933. So before the election already Hitler arrested many members of the Communist Party, Social Democrats and the right-wing Catholic Center Party. Nazi organizations including the SS and Brownshirts were sworn in as auxiliary police to monitor the elections. We did not remember at that time that the Nazi party still got less than a majority of votes.

A little memorial outside the Reichstag building is devoted to the 92 parliamentarians who were arrested and murdered by the Nazi party. The rain was like a fog which had condensed into drops just large enough to fall. This dreary weather seemed like the right time to remember when large scale political murders enabled the Nazis to seize absolute power and shut down German democracy. The memorial consists of uneven iron plates, about knee-high, on which the names of the murdered parliamentarians are etched along with their party, the prison or concentration camp where each was interred, and the date of their death.

We knew that the parliament never reconvened in this building, but still forget it when we see photos of Soviet soldiers posing in front of it. The restoration work in the 1990s was seen in Germany as the final end to the war. In a sense then, the war which started in 1914 ended in 1989. At least two empires were destroyed during this period, two more arose during it and vanished again in this 75 years long war. Several countries were devastated. Some thought briefly that the end of the war was the end of history.

We walked out on the muddy path that leads to the modern building which houses the offices of the parliament. Signs pointing in that direction said Paul Loebe House. This has the offices of the Bundestag. The inevitable question has a simple answer. The German parliament was called the Reichstag in the 1890s. It is now called the Bundestag. The parliament still debates in the old Reichstag building, but all the offices are in the modern buildings here and across the Spree which seem deliberately low-key.

Free city, Berlin

Our first night in Berlin was cold, wet and blustery. As we walked past St. Mary’s Church towards the Spree, gusts of wind would shake us as we tried to take photos. We’d been warned of a storm, and we later heard that the railways had closed down their service. It was windy enough, but we’ve seen worse because our lives are now marked by extremes of weather. The city hall had closed for the night, but it was nicely lit up. The Family got the featured photo, which shows it looking as red as its name, Red City Hall or Rotes Rathaus, promises. We never saw it looking so red later. We walked around it, and were impressed by the fact that it covered a whole block. But then, Berlin is a free city: its city council is its government. So the mayor’s office, here in the City Hall, is also the seat of Berlin’s government. We later found that the building dates from 1869, and was rebuilt to its original plan in 1956.

The next day we walked past a building where a notice said that the legislature of Berlin sits (photo above). This puzzled us enough that we looked at the government of Berlin as soon as possible after this. The first surprise was that Berlin remained under four power occupation from 1946 right until October 1990! Unified Germany has its seat of government in unified Berlin, although the city itself has its own legislature and executive. The city’s legislature sits in this building: Prussia’s house of representatives from 1899 to 1934 (when the house was dissolved). I didn’t even know about this building although it is extremely close to Potsdamer Platz. When we passed this building we had no idea that it had been used to house the Council of Ministers of East Germany before being given over to Stasi. We also learned too late about the murals and art collection inside. If you do go in, let me know whether you enjoyed it, and whether you recommend that we visit it the next time we are in Berlin.

A well-rounded church

Just behind Bebelplatz and looking on to it is a small church which I’d never entered before. The foundation stone of St. Hedwig’s Cathedral was laid in 1737 on land donated by Frederick the great. It has the distinction of being the first Catholic church built in Prussia after the reformation. We hesitated a bit: did we want to walk on, or go in here? The cold nudged us to make up our mind: in was better than out.

Every round and domed building in Europe reminds me of the Pantheon. The pediment certainly speaks of a neo-classical design. When I stepped back, a guess based on the unaided eye indicated that the imaginary sphere made by continuing the dome downwards would touch the floor. This is the proportion of the Pantheon. The story is that Frederick the great made a sketch of the church, and von Knobelsdorf designed it following this, immediately after he’d designed the Opera next to it.

I took a closer look at the relief work in the pediment on my way in (photo above). If that is not baroque then I will eat the grapes the cherubs are playing with. I don’t know the legend of the Silesian saint Hedwig well enough to tell whether the relief involves her life. Inside the church one can read a little bit about the history of the structure. I was not surprised to learn that the church had been destroyed by bombing in 1943. The story of its restoration in 1963, when it stood in the former East Germany, by a collaboration between architects and artists from East and West Germany was a complete surprise. As much as when I’d first heard that the bishop of Berlin, whose seat this was, denounced the murders and vandalism of Kristallnacht. Predictably, he was hauled off to Dachau.

We sat inside for a while and listened to part of an organ concert. The church has great acoustics. The organ, built by Klais of Bonn, was installed in 1978. This was a replacement of the organ which was destroyed in the bombing. Apparently there are almost 5000 organ pipes, made of wood, copper and tin. The sonorous notes followed us as we went back out into the cold.

Far Kreutzberg

The Family turns out to be a natural-born hipster. While I was busy photographing street art, or admiring architectural points subtle enough to hit you in the face, she took a photo or two which turn out to capture the essence of night-life around Berlin. This happened over and over again, but most noticeably in the far eastern part of Kreutzberg near Oberbaumbruecke. In John le Carre’s cold war trilogy where the spy-masters Smiley and Karla face off, this bridge is the setting where Karla crosses finally to the West. I had a mad moment of imagination when I thought I would search for the gold cigarette lighter given to Smiley by his wife, which Karla stole in Delhi and dropped on the bridge as he crossed it. Instead, I took a few shots of the restored 19th century Gothic bridge (featured photo), as The Family examined what turned out to be one of Berlin’s hot spots: the Watergate club (photo below).

Most people come this far east in Kreutzberg for the many clubs which have sprung up in this area in the last decade. We were too early to start looking for a few sips of beer and music to dance by, but going by past experience, if it had been the right time, then she would have been able to either talk her way in for both of us, or found a different place. By all accounts, the area comes alive around midnight. We didn’t wait so long.

We had come here on a search for one of Berlin’s iconic murals, the one called Backjump by BLU. We stood on the bridge and admired the mural. The light was fading, and it was clear that our photo-walk through Berlin was almost over for the day. The gloomy double-decker Oberbaum bridge was made in that anachronistic Gothic style which we now think of as Harry-Potter-architecture. It was built at the end of the 19th century to take the increased traffic of that time as well as the then-new U-bahn. It was blown up in the last days of the war as a futile defensive measure against the advancing Red Army, and rebuilt in 1994. There was incredibly wild street art at the foot of the bridge (panels above). They were hard to photograph in the narrow space and in bad light.

Under the railway bridge at Schlesisches Tor, Berlin

As we walked back, I was intrigued by a gathering of people under the U-bahn line near the Schlesichser Tor station (photo above). A quick look told me that the kiosk is called Burgermeister, and its main offering is absolutely clear: burgers. This is another of the legendary places around here. I was torn, but decided to give it a miss, thinking of a bigger dinner later. This was a mistake because our dinner experience that night turned out not to be good. But that is another story which ended with The Family’s hipster radar leading her into one of Berlin’s hotspots of street art.

Spot the art project!

The Family had followed the cold war at a distance. Now, she was busy reading at the wall of history which lines Friedrichstrasse as you approach the site of Checkpoint Charlie from what once was East Germany. This spot is a condensation of that chilly history. If you have lived through those years, even at a distance, your eyes will not be caught by the tourist trap of fake military memorabilia, crumbling pieces of concrete sold as part of the True Wall, or the creperie, KFC and MacDonald’s which are signs of something which was once called the end of history.

While The Family viewed history through the posters which line the road, I fancied that I saw it in the pair (father and son?) in the photo above. The older man looks like he would be old enough to have similar memories of the cold war and its end. The younger one has grown up in a world with new problems. I hope that these also come to a clean end.

As I looked around me, I saw art projects all around. Berlin is built on sand. The water of the Spree percolates into the sandy soil beneath the city and has to be pumped out constantly. The pink pipes which you see in the featured photo carry this water. You could call it an art project, but Berliners think of it as just background.

The building with the funny roof was certainly a much-talked-about architectural project of the late 80s, called by the astoundingly inventive name Checkpoint Charlie Apartments. The design team included Rem Koolhaas, Elia Zenghelis and Matthias Sauerbruch. The civil engineer associated with this project was the famous Stefan Polonyi, whose students are even now changing the shapes of structures in Germany. The building on the left was designed by Peter Eisenmann (who also designed the Memorial to the Murdered Jews) as a residential building at the same time.

The art installation really stands out in the middle of the road. It is the light box, of which you see one side in these photos. The face that looks out to the former East Berlin is of an American solider. Looking towards the former West Berlin is the face of a Russian soldier. Both photos were taken in 1994, just before the troops from these two countries finally left Berlin. This is an untitled work by Frank Thiel, commissioned in 1998 by Berlin’s Development Commission.

Alexanderplatz

The vast Alexanderplatz has changed a little since I first visited it more than twenty years ago, but the change is superficial. Then, I’d started walking towards the TV tower (see the last photo below) from the Museuminsel, and reached a windblown square surrounded by grey concrete. My imagination was rife with Doblin’s book named after this square, and in comparison to that, the place looked colourless. I descended to the U-bahn station and left.

The gray concrete structures are now dressed in neon, and surrounded by young people doing exactly what they always do in Germany. On reunification, the property around Alexanderplatz remained in the hands of the East German company Treuhand. Kaufhof bought up GDR’s retail company Centrum-Warenhaus, and part of the deal was its property in Alexanderplatz. This is the building you see in the photo above. Redesigned by Paul Kleihues, it dominates the north-western corner of the plaza. We walked past the spray from the communist-era fountain to get to it, feeling too cold to take a photo. Diagonally opposite is a multistoried Saturn shop. I had forgotten my gorilla pod, and had marked this down as the place to buy one.

We walked past the clock showing time around the world to look at the buildings across the road. There was the Alexa, a large modern departmental store (featured photo). A little further down was the ministry of education (photo below), with its restored Walter Womacka mural from the time this area was still part of East Berlin. Next to this tower is the shallow dome of the Berlin conference center. Both were made by Hermann Henselmann. We turned back into the windy square. The storm was on us. A light rain had begun to fall. It was time to move on.

Alexanderplatz was built in the 19th century. By 1882 the S-bahn station had come into existence. You can see this as the horizontal tubular structure in the photo below. The U-bahn was built in 1913. The square has been reconceived thrice. Once in 1928, an architectural competition was held to build a new square for a metropolis. The de-facto winner was the influential architect Peter Behrens. Only two of his buildings were finished before the global crisis of the 1930s brought the development to a halt. Photos taken immediately after the was show that the two, Berolinahaus and Alexanderhaus (the buildings on the left edge of the featured photo), were heavily damaged during the war. They were reconstructed later.

Photos from that period also show that the S-bahn station was badly damaged. It seems that during the Battle of Berlin, a Soviet T-34 tank drove into the underground tunnel since it did not recognize the entrance to the train line in time. This may have given rise to rumours of Soviet tanks trying to outflank German defenders by driving through tunnels. The war damage was not repaired for a while. Then, in 1964, the DDR made everything over again, in the shape that you see it in now. In 1993 there was yet another architectural competition, and the winning design would replace everything here by ten high rises. These have not got off the ground yet.

For architectural sarcasm you could do worse than read this or this. A little search led me to an interesting article on the maze of unfinished construction below Alex.

A bombed out church

The Family suggested that we should go for a walk along Ku’damm. It was past time for a coffee and cake, but maybe the right time for an aperitif. So we took the U-bahn. When you get out on the road the first thing that you notice is the bombed out remains of the old Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial church, next to the glowing blue box of the new church (photo below). We decided to walk in there.

It was time for a service in the new church, so we went into the memorial to the war. The church was built in 1895 by the Kaiser Wilhelm II in honour of his grandfather, Wilhelm I. It was bombed in 1943, and further damaged by occupation forces after the war. It has been restored since I saw it at the end of the last century, in the year 2000. I learnt that Charles Gray, a pilot in the bombing raid which destroyed the church, was one of the first contributors to a call for funds to repair the crumbling ruin, while retaining it bombed out shape as a reminder of the war.

I had a very clear memory of Plexiglas and metal housing around the church, made to preserve its damaged shape. This seems to have disappeared. I didn’t remember the mosaics inside. It is possible that when I came here earlier they were covered up. But, as you can see from the photos here, they are well worth a visit. Large portions of the mosaics have been restored.

We admired the mosaics, and then walked around one end of the nave which contained a little exhibit about the history of the church, the war, and the restoration. You can see many such stories throughout Germany, and they serve as appropriate reminders against wars. Anti-war sentiments run very deep in Germany, as a result.

The large mosaic of St. George on the floor was hard to photograph because of the number of visitors. I waited patiently until there was a moment when all feet had left the space, and I could take a photo. You can see the blue light of the new church reflecting off the floor. It is a small space, but we were happy with our visit as we walked off into the night to look for a place where one could have a quiet drink before dinner.

Berlin Dom

It was a bright and cold Monday when we stepped out for a long day’s walk. On the fifth centennial holiday to celebrate the beginning of the European religious division called the Reformation, we had planned a walk through most of Berlin’s center. Our first stop was the cathedral which was never a cathedral: Berlin Dom.

Berlin Dom: exterior detail

This was the only major building which we hadn’t seen yet on the so-called Museum Island (Museuminsel). A cold wind blew through the Lustgarten, but did not deter many tourists. We stood there and admired the exterior, designed in the neo-Renaissance style in the 1890s by Julius Raschdorff, and completed in 1905. It felt nice and warm when we moved inside, and out of the breeze. On our way in we passed a panel (photo above) which showed Luther debating. This drove home the point that this was a Protestant church, never the seat of a bishop, so never a cathedral. The Hohenzollern court church was built as a grand gesture of a rising power, where the emperor was also the head of the church.

The interior was both bare and opulent. I later realized that this strange atmosphere was due to the fact that the damage in the war and later neglect has not been completely repaired. Even after its reopening in 1993, restoration work is on, but lack of continuous funding means that it is slow. The restored altar was covered by the dazzling piece of contemporary art by Philipp von Matt (which you can see in more detail if you click on the gallery above). The wooden crucifix from 15th century Italy backed by the 14 meter grid of mirrors seemed to me to be a wonderful expression of modernity grounded in history.

Another eye-catching object in the interior was the organ. I’ve been primed by a friend to examine organs. This was immense, and clearly not a modern organ. It was already installed in the church when it opened in 1905. Built by Wilhelm Sauer, many consider this to be his masterpiece. I wished I had come at a time when I could hear it. As I looked around I complained to The Family that there was nothing peculiar and odd in the church. She immediately pointed out the anatomically impossible singers below the organ and diagonally opposite. These figures (two of which you can see in the gallery above) could well be the origin of Munch’s painting called “The Scream”.

The side chapels contain sarcophagi for the Hohenzollern kings. The souther alcove has two wonderful baroque sarcophagi, one of Friederich I and another of Queen Sophie Charlotte. The figure of a mother and boy weeping by the feet of the king and another of Death at the feet of the queen are wonderful pieces by Andreas Schlueter, who made the whole ensemble. All the Hohenzollern kings of Prussia, except Wilhelm II, who abdicated at the end of the first world war, are buried here. We passed these two sarcophagi, and descended to the crypt before exiting the church.

Hamburger Bahnhof

It was a stormy day over northern Germany when we decided to wait it out in the Hamburger Bahnhof. Built in 1846, this railway terminus became am exhibition hall in 1906. It was massively damaged in the second world war. Although it lay in the British zone of Berlin, it was given to the East German government at the end of the war, but passed back in 1984. The current building was made to the plan of Josef Kleihues in 1996, when it opened as part of the Berlin State art collection.

The oldest pieces of contemporary art on display are probably the pieces by Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg. We moved from these into more recent works, notably a few of the more interesting works by the German conceptual artist Josef Beuys. Our eyes snagged on an incredible work by the Chinese artist Qin Yu Fen. There were some remarkable works by Raimund Kummer on display in a special exhibition.

One of the most interesting works by Beuys on display is the piece called Tallow, which is a cast of the bottom of a pedestrian overpass in Muenster made in mutton fat. The physical properties of this medium were unknown since they had never been used on this scale before. Physicists were brought into this effort to compute the cooling rate and stresses on the framework made to contain the material. The disassembled pieces on show have thermometers inserted into them which indicate that your body heat changes the work slightly.

It would take more than a day to see everything here. So we made our departure from the place as usual when we found our legs beginning to ache. The storm had cleared, but it was decidedly colder outside.