Where I went on my holidays. Part One: Alexanderplatz
In Goodbye to Berlin
, Christopher Isherwood claimed that 1920s Berlin had two centres - the garish commercialism around Bahnhof Zoo or the Imperial Pomposity of Unter den Linden and the Museum Island. Today you'd have to add a third, rather less lauded, except by Alfred Doblin and Fassbinder, who were depicting a very different place: Alexanderplatz
, and the Stalinist plazas and squares that radiate out from it, with their vast streets, prefab towers, wide open roads and fragments of socialist realist public art - a place where, aesthetically at least, the Cold War never ended.
Alexanderplatz was my first proper sight of Berlin on my first visit a few years ago, and with the instrumental half of "Heroes"
playing on my headphones it was the most perfect meld of sound and location I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing. Alexanderplatz and environs is perhaps the most sublime example of East German planning. There is a sense of incredible vastness here - not because the buildings are all that high, apart from the TV Tower they're all pygmies by Canary Wharf standards. Rather, there's an uncanny Scale: everything is too wide, rather than too tall. This collection of towers and Spaceage accoutrements (the best of which being the wonderful atomic clock) is being actively cut down to size by the 'critical reconstruction' demanded by Hans Stimmann, a planner bent on restoring a Wilhelmine 19th century unity that never really existed, with pointless roads cutting into the public space. His blank, ponderous contribition to urbanism is catalogued in Igor Paasch's excellent short film 'Danke, Hans'
The metallic Kaufhaus has already been 'critically' reconstructed into a stripped classical block that evokes Nazi architecture more than anything else (and more of that later). In the 1920s Berlin's socialist head of planning, Martin Wagner (more of whom later too) commissioned the likes of Erich Mendelsohn and Mies van der Rohe to remake Alexanderplatz into a Modernist showcase, something only really achieved under the DDR in the 1960s: fittingly, the individual buildings aren't exactly wildly individualistic, but as an ensemble they have an undeniable power that most affect to find intimidating - yet Jane Jacobs-types should note that it worked just fine as the public space where protests forced the collapse of the DDR. The most remarkable of its buildings, Hermann Henselmann's Haus des Lehrers, is notable for being rather sweet, with its glittering Walter Womacka mural of jolly proletarians.
Henselmann, designer of the towers of the Stalinallee/Karl-Marx-Allee, the one time 'Leninplatz', and the first draft of the TV Tower, is a fascinating character. A bauhaus modernist banned from practice by the Nazis, he was a pal of Brecht's, one one of whose Herr Keuner stories concerned Henselmann's dilemma when he was required to adopt the Stalinist wedding cake style for this colossal boulevard, designed to demonstrate the DDR's anti-modernist populism and grandiose ambitions. Mr Keuner reassures the architect that after a few years the ornament will crumble off and the pure lines could shine forth. Which it did, but post-renovation the Stalinallee towers are in pristine condition, encrustations and all, so the lines in question are encumbered by richly fascinating and perverse over-ornamentation. The nearby Leninplatz is perhaps what he would have done without Party pressure: curvaceous, brightly coloured, prefabricated and stripped down, topped with a stepped central tower and a whacking great statue of Lenin: replaced, on its 1990s renaming as United Nations Platz (from action to inaction) with some random boulders.
Leninplatz was Henselmann's only essay in Plattenbauten, the standardised prefab construction method that pervades practically all East German building, high or low rise. Plattenbau has long been a fetish of hipster folk
in the city, and its easy to see why - for all its quite astonishing lack of inspiration or originality, this is naif architecture: childishly simple blocks upon blocks upon blocks, with pretty 60s patterns and tiles strategically placed. Accordingly, one of the Alexanderplatz towers, the Haus des Reisens, now has a club on top, WEEK12END, which I went to for Ellen Allien
and Sascha Funke. Alas, despite the rather terrifying view, the club was decidedly frumpy. Annoyingly, I've never managed to find the place in Berlin where the people look good and
the music is loud. A few years ago I was fixated with the Des Essientes disco of people like Ada
and Superpitcher, or Michael Mayer (circa 'Amanda' or 'Falling Hands') with their neurasthenic elegance and precise blurts of noise, but I've totally lost touch with microhouse, minimal or whatever we're calling it now. The flip towards electro-house might have been the reason for this - I liked the records, but look at a picture of Booka Shade
or Tiefschwarz - eurgh
. And when something is described as 'the new Daft Punk' my heart sinks (the best house things I've heard in the last couple of years are the decidedly un-hep recent Armand van Helden stuff so my opinion is perhaps moot). Nonetheless, if anyone has any recommendations, please do comment and help me not to miss the boat, again.
Much, much more fun was sitting watching the clones a-jacking to some rather punishing techno in the stunning red leatherette Ostmoderne
Cafe Moskau basement, further down the Karl-Marx-Allee - which resembles an Eastern Bloc Eames in its pretty glass surfaces and cubic elegance. Nonetheless, the missing link that aesthetically joins the minimalism of one period/art form with another is still somewhat mysterious.
Next up: what the various versions of the City of the Future of the DDR, the BRD and the GEHAG are like on a day trip. Title, btw is from the self-description of the Karl-Marx-Allee's Cafe Sibylle. And ta again to my hosts...