11 December 2014

Berlin Alexanderplatz.
Past future

Text: Marie-Kathrin Zettl

Alexanderplatz, known to Berliners as Alex, is one of the best-known intersections in the capital city. Every day, tourists bustle over the wide square where places of interest stand cheek by jowl: the World Time Clock, the Berlin television tower, the Fountain of International Friendship, the Neptune fountain and St Mary’s Church. Within the past century, buildings have been torn down as part of new construction projects – and the remains are still underneath Berlin Alexanderplatz. Peter Behrbohm, who studied at Berlin University of the Arts from 2006 to 2013, reveals these neglected places underneath the square in his master’s thesis “Bauvorleistung Alexanderplatz” subtitled “Future Reconstruction”. Back in July this year he received the BDA-SARP Award 2014 from the Bund deutscher Architekten [Association of German Architects] and the equivalent Polish association for the best thesis. 


How did the idea for your thesis “Bauvorleistung Alexanderplatz” come about?


I have always been interested in this square because it is simultaneously incredibly densely constructed and yet extremely open. And then it consists only of the future – demolishing and rebuilding are repeated every 30 years like some kind of ritual. In the past century alone, three architectural competitions have had the aim of removing the existing structures and rebuilding it from the ground up.

The first competition in 1928 focused on a “square for a metropolis”, the second in 1964 required a centre for a socialist capital city and, in the third in 1993, the winning design replaced everything with ten high-rise complexes. For 21 years now, these future high-rises have been casting their shadows over the square without actually having been built. Then I heard of a new competition. It involved the first of these ten high-rises and as I soon discovered, the land for the building appeared to be empty but not like all the others.



How long did you work on it? How did you become familiar with the topic?


At the Berlin University of the Arts, you have six months to write your thesis. This is a lot of time for high demands. But as usual, in the end it is never enough time. I had already guessed that there was something dormant beneath Alexanderplatz. Everyone in Berlin knows the enormous underground train station. I went on a quest for planning materials to find out what there was next to the underground shafts and stations. It occurred to me that every object above ground has an underground plot – as a built space that can be accessed and is often connected to others. The whole square appeared to be thought out from the earth. And while the building upwards has always been changed, with every tabula rasa it has only been added to in the ground, but almost nothing has ever been removed.


Have you ever had the opportunity to see the hidden tunnels and spaces?


I have actually been able to access almost everything. The underground installations are, of course, managed by various different authorities or companies. Most of them didn’t know themselves that they even had a key until I asked for one. On the plans belonging to one authority, most of the installations of another are missing and when an official opened up a room to another room, he would almost certainly find a door to which he didn’t have a key. Once I was with a large group of police officers underground. They were looking for possible illegal access that might be made. But the most illegal things seemed to be the underground spaces themselves – the redundant shafts.



Could we say that the core of your thesis revolves around the development of empty rooms underneath Alexanderplatz? What was your conceptional approach?


I had to understand this place and make an assessment about how to deal with the city and its future. So I proposed to connect the underground installations and to build up into the world above. These small towers would be completely unordered in the urban space, consciously neither fitting in the planned, nor in the current city but in contrast perhaps all the better in the last or previous reincarnation of the Alexanderplatz.

This makes no difference to me because, in contrast to above the earth, these versions still have a parallel below ground. The “Bauvorleistung Alexanderplatz” is an institution that stores things that were not yet realised or will never come to be. Whether these be totalitarian visions or rosy futures – the potential of the city should be researched under the Alexanderplatz. On the one hand, futuristic plans, writings and models would be stored. On the other, it would be the place at which the city could be discussed and thought through further based on what has already been thought. Such a place does not exist in the city yet.

Alexanderplatz appears to have been a projection surface for the future and the idea of a city per se for all times. Taking into account the many competitions, you can say that there is an Alexanderplatz by Mies van der Rohe, an Alexanderplatz by the Luckhardt brothers. There is an Alexanderplatz by Kohlhoff, by Libeskind, by Behrens and Henselmann... – they have all designed one. The novel, “Berlin Alexanderplatz”, by Alfred Döblin should also be included. This square – if it is up to me – above all is all an overlapping of all these eponymous fictions and thought models. 


How many models are there? What are the models made out of?


There are different models. One is made of acrylic glass and bitumen. I call it the Röntgenmodel [x-ray model]. It shows the whole city around the square. Above the earth and under it. We know what is at ground level but in order to construct the city underneath, I had to look at all the plans of the buildings to find out if they had a cellar, if they were connected below ground with other buildings, how the foundations were constructed, where the sewage system was located or if the underground railway goes under the tunnel that supplies the department store with goods. There are a lot of unused catacombs in the area and a lot of installations that secretly use their services. Over the years, everything that was once overlayered, has been buried. The large worm model shows a cross-section of this world. A mesh of space of unused, underground rooms from every age. The model does not only show the old shafts but also includes my interventions and add-ons. Starting perhaps with the rain water channels from the imperial sewer system which snakes its way in the shape of an S under the square. Around the underground train station, there are spaces which were once going to be new lines and stations and underpasses which are now walled up and lie in the sand. Everything meets at the large concrete block in the middle. Directly under the golden high-rise that is due to be built soon are the foundations of another high-rise. Planned by Peter Behrens in the 1920s, it was once intended to stand majestically opposite the Alexander and Berolina building. The foundations had already been made, three railway tunnels fashioned and then the global economic crisis caused the construction of the city’s first high-rise to be abruptly terminated. Later, the Nazis built a large bunker on top and the Socialists added a network of tunnels for cars and pedestrians. The “Bauvorleistung Alexanderplatz” is in all these spaces – with its studies, future reconstruction workshops, the aerial image stroboscope and the space for provisional decisions. The fire detector only gives off smoke when a vision has been made a reality and has to be removed from the archive. Finally, the third model gives an insight into these rooms. Closely packed shelves, filled with white barrels, stand in sterile corridors. In some places, daylight streams through skylights, in others, the cabins of the large paternoster lift disappear through the ceiling into the storage towers above ground. The model shows viewing areas and the future disposal site.



What are you working on at the moment?


I have almost finished producing a film about Zentrum Kreuzberg and its architects. Back then, the house reacted to an ambitious autobahn plan by the senate. The autobahn was never built, nor was the utopian city of which the house represents only a fragment, and remains in their drawings.  The film follows the visionary with his Cadillac on an invisible street through an unbuilt city. 



ALEXANDERPLATZ STROBE from form – Design Magazine on Vimeo.


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