3 October 2009

An anniversary in Berlin, or Brasilia on the Spree

Today marks an anniversary in Berlin, no - not the 19th anniversary of German unity, but the inauguration of East Berlin's Fernsehturm (television tower) 20 years earlier in 1969 in time for the 20th anniversary of the GDR on 7 October 1969. Since then - and even more since unification- it has become as much a trademark of Berlin as the Brandenburg Gate. The Fernsehturm was part of an attempt by the GDR's rules, "secure" behind the Berlin Wall, to create a new "socialist" capital for the GDR and demonstrate the superiority of socialism over capitalism. However, as the Mitteldeutsche Zeitung reports, Horst Oehlrich one of the building engineers who made the tower possible was missing from the official reception given by state- and party leader Walter Ulbricht for the engineers, architects and construction workers on 3 October 1969. «I refused to serve in the army because of my Christian convictions», Oehlrich told the Mitteldeutsche Zeitung. «That was certainly the reason why I could not be present for the the reception with Ulbricht.»

The television tower was just one part of a much wider programme of building a new capital for the GDR which in some respects mirrors the attempts of Brazil to build itself a new capital at Brasilia. Like Brasilia the socialist capital of the GDR was a political statement as much as an architectural ensemble, but while the Brasilian capital was hewn out of the jungle, the socialist GDR capital - on a much smaller scale - was hewn out of the rubble and remains of the centre of Berlin. There is it seems increasing interest in the motifs of modernism in GDR architecture, a couple of books have coined the term Ostmoderne, for example, while a recent book sets out motifs of Brasilia's architect "Oskar Niemeyer -a legend of modernism" - to be found in East Berlin. On the other hand there are also apparently motifs from East Berlin architecture that Niemeyer placed in Brasilia.

For the German speakers among you here is a book on the theme:
Symbolsuche. Die Ost-Berliner Zentrumsplanung zwischen Repräsentation und Agitation
(The search for symbols: Planning and the East Berlin centre between representation and agitation)

The planning of East Berlin's city centre is is like no other construction project of the GDR shows the close links between politics, ideology, economics and architecture. The plans for the "socialist transformation" of the area between Alexanderplatz and Kupfergraben, especially the history of the monumental tower that the SED wanted to erect on "Marx-Engels-Platz as a demonstrazion of their power and prestige demonstrate in an exemplary fashion the possibilities and chasms of political iconography. It was precisely the historic centre of Berlin, which was for more than forty years, the political centre of the GDR, that became the setting for an explosive debate about style in which both 'conservative modernity' as well as the planned city of Brasilia were the inspiration for a socialist symbolic architecture. Selected examples show the the evolution of DDR-representation architecture as an expression of personal and intra-party power struggles that raged particularly between Hermann Henselmann and Gerhard Kosel, between the local level and the state.

For English speakers, there is an
article in English by Peter Müller on "Counter-Architecture and Building Race: Cold War Architecture and the Two Berlins".

PS: The picture shows the Marienkirche in front of the Fernsehturm. Originally the Marienkirche was to be removed from this showcase of socialist planning but it remained, a symbol of the place of the church in the GDR.


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