50 Years of the Berlin TV Tower – Between Everyday Life and World Politics
On October 3, 2019, the “Berliner Fernsehturm” celebrated its 50th anniversary. On this occasion, the exhibition “50 Years of the Berlin TV Tower – Between Everyday Life and World Politics” was created on the initiative of the “Open Center Berlin”. The exhibition, which was realized by members of the Initiative Offene Mitte Berlin Matthias Grünzig (conception and texts) and Theresa Keilhacker (organization) in cooperation with the State Monument Office Berlin, was opened by Dr. Klaus Lederer, Senator for Culture and Europe and the State Conservator of Berlin, Dr. Christoph Rauhut. The Freiraum exhibition was shown until October 31, 2019 in the area south of the Marienkirche, then on the eastern side of the television tower until January 6, 2020 and will also be presented with some panels in the Stadtwerkstatt, Karl-Liebknecht-Straße 11, 10178 Berlin, on the 1st floor in the arcades, from 24 th of February until 27th of March 2020.
1.The Television Tower – Early History
„Cold War of buildings“
Building the Berlin Television Tower was very much connected with world conflicts of the sixties. At that time Berlin had a unique political significance: the City was divided between the two big power blocks of the Warsaw Pact and NATO, and the Berlin Wall represented something like a front line between the two. Consequently, their competition in Berlin was fierce. One field, in which this battle was fought, was architecture. In both city sectors great sums were invested in spectacular building projects; each sector vied to outdo each other with the most extraordinary buildings and projects that were possible. Well known examples are: the Hansaviertel and the Karl-Marx-Allee; the Springer-Hochhaus and the Leipziger Straße; Mehringplatz and the Fischerinsel; Gropiusstadt and Marzahn; or ICC and the Palast der Republik. Due to these building projects both sectors of Berlin became unique experimental grounds of post war modernism.
Duel of Towers
The rivalry between East and West Berlin was also carried out between the television tower projects. At the latest since the opening of the Stuttgart television tower in 1956, television towers caused a furore in both East and West. The Stuttgart television tower was virtually over-run by visitors. However, also in GDR the early television towers which were built mostly in the countryside and without viewing platforms, evoked a great interest amongst the visitors. It follows that since the 1950s, television towers in East and West Berlin were consistently planned for.
The West Berlin television tower projects were, however, not blessed with success and this deficiency was used by the GDR leadership for their great Coup. They decided on 14 July 1964, that they will erect the East Berlin television tower in the very centre of Berlin. From this position the Tower could also be clearly seen from West Berlin, thus demonstrating the ineptitude of the West Berlin Senate.
In Focus of World Politics
The East Berlin television tower caused sheer excitement in both sectors of the city. Its visibility was a daily embarrassment for the West Berlin Senate since it punctuated its incompetence. Even a more explosive consequence was that the new tower stood directly in the flight path to the Tempelhof airport, particularly since the aircraft flew often lower than 300 metres. Thus the air traffic to Tempelhof was severely curtailed by the position of the television tower. It was a further loss of prestige and a political shortcoming since Tempelhof was seen as the “Gate to the World” of walled-in Berlin. Notably it was also the airport of the most powerful occupying state-namely the USA, with Tempelhof being closely linked to the “Luftbrücke 1948/1949”.
As a consequence USA, Great Britain, and France protested against the building of the TV tower in April 1965. Due to the world-political significance of the project in East Berlin, the protest was not made to the GDR Leadership but directly to the Government of the Soviet Union, which ignored it. The western media and press followed up with panic-like reactions which expressed a mixture of anger, shock, but also with a touch of admiration.
Due to the confrontations of Cold War the East Berlin television tower and its environs became focally significant in world politics. The situation was meticulously registered by both East and West powers and the tower siting became exceptionally relevant. Indeed the area advanced to be the central “Room” of East Berlin´s city development and a shopfront of GDR and East Germany. This significance demanded extraordinary expectations of success, with no tolerance for mistakes which could embarrass the East Block and GDR.
Consequently the design of the television tower and its environs led to a vast endeavour. The best architects and city building experts of GDR were engaged to participate on the construction of the building complex. The best products of GDR were readily available and if necessary these were imported from the West. The Nirosta-Steel for television tower sphere came from West Germany and its glass from Belgium; the air-conditioning plant and the lifts were bought from Sweden. Likewise the insulation for heating was delivered by the Bayer-Works in Levercusen and the security lamps were produced by Siemens. Even the ultra modern Computer IBM 360/40 was imported from USA for application along Rathaus Strasse and Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse. Additionally the designers were permitted to study similar structures in the West.
The planners and architects were given an unique chance to plan for an ideal-city without restrictions-and they took it, as a Beacon of Modernism in city planning and architecture.
2. City Planning
The Utopias of Modernism
The television tower was not an isolated project. Above all it was the catalyst for a much bigger city-planning ensemble between Alexanderplatz and the Spree, which would bind it to an attractive environment. The planning of this ensemble began at the same time as the design of the television tower in 1964. To fulfil this task the very elite of GDR architects were selected to participate, amongst them were; Gerhard Kosel, Hanns Hopp, Hermann Henselmann, Hans Schmidt, Josef Kaiser, Edmund Collein and others.
They designed an ensemble which was inspired by the “Zeitgeist” of the 1960s, when both in the East and West one witnessed an unbroken euphoria of advancement. From 1950 Europe
experienced an unprecedented economic boom which benefitted broad segments of society.
New technology and widespread social programs enabled an unforeseen growth of affluence.
New developments in computer and robot technology, space travel and industrial building,
promised boundless progress. The future bespoke a promised land in which nothing seemed
impossible and this optimism was a reflection of that era; pleasure in experimentation, innovation and optimism were the markings of it.
This enthusiasm also marked future city-development. The planners dreamt of bright and sunny settlements in green fields and housing flooded by light. The longing for “Light, Air and Sun” was omnipresent as was the demand for large-scale public areas which offered space for diverse activities. Opportunities for culture, leisure, education and gastronomy uses were to achieve a high quality of life. New “Ideal-Cities” such as Brasilia or Chandigarh were seen as the incubators for a better future.
The TV Tower Requires a Surrounding Environment
A significant aim of city planning was an imposing staging of the Tower. For this reason a large open field was selected, enabling attractive views and its dimensions were carefully preset to coordinate with the height of the Tower. The length was so generous that the Tower height could be viewed from all vantage points. At the foot of the Tower an expressive building-collar surrounded its base, creating a vibrant counter-point. An axial-symetrical design of the surrounding landscape further enhanced the exposed siting of the Tower. The open space was flanked by two symmetrically placed building elements, creating a powerful framework. The western end was framed by the Palace of the Republic where its Foyer enabled a panoramic-view of the Tower-ensemble; the Marienkirche; and the Red “Rathaus”. Thus, the overall design ensured a visually powerful stage-setting of the television Tower.
An important aim of the planners was to provide a wide range of functions. To this effect the area around the television Tower became a broad mixture of housing, offices, shops, restaurants, cultural and social facilities, as well as parks.
This abundance was a reaction to previous mistakes: between 1871 and 1914,
the areal surrounding the Marienkirche underwent a radical restructuring.
The initial mixed-use precinct was turned into a mono-functional Office City which proved to be a big mistake. The separation of functions led to more traffic and long pedestrian ways between housing and work place.
This problem became evident in the 1960s. Hans Schmidt the Swiss architect and CIAM founder who was practising in the GDR between 1956 and 1969 analysed the changes in Berlin’s inner-city. Consequently he demanded the building of housing and parks in the inner-city and these demands were met and applied.
A further aim of the Tower ensemble was to present Modernity. For this reason various ideas of the Modern Movement were collected in unique abundance, turning the area into a theme-park of modern city planning and architecture. The Tower symbolised space-travel enthusiasm which was omni-present in East and West.
The glittering Sphere was a “homage” to the first Sputnik satellite; and the hyperbolic tower-shaft with its bull-eyed windows reminded one of a rocket. At the time space-travel stood symbolically for the limitless possibilities of technological advancement.
The Tower´s surrounding building collar of folded concrete echoed the shell construction applied by Candela and Nervi. Building complexes along Rathausstraße and Karl-Liebknecht-Straße were influenced by Le Corbusier’s buildings. The liberal arrangement of buildings followed the principles of modern city-planning, so that particularly the housing areas were bathed in sunshine. A large component of these had spectacular views over the city.
3. The Television Tower
The Television Tower was built between 1965 and 1969. Project ideas were developed under the leadership of Hermann Henselmann, whilst working drawings and contract documents were prepared by the team comprising Fritz Dieter, Günter Franke and Werner Ahrend. The
architecture of the Tower celebrated and reflected the “vogue” of the times in East and West – namely, “Space-Travel” which conjured endless possibilities of new technologies. The spherically formed head of the Tower with its glittering outer skin took a visual association to the “Sputnik” satellite and the hyperbolic shaft with its bullseye windows reminded one of a rocket. Through such design features the euphoria of progress, characterised the “Zeitgeist” in East and West.
4.TV Tower-Building Surround
The building-surround was designed by Walter Herzog and Rolf Heider. The expressive staging of the building complex deliberately contrasted with the shaft of the Tower. Whereas the Tower emphasised the vertical line; the building-collar surround emphasised the horizontal lines. The static presence of the Tower differed the dynamic composition of the building-surround with its folded concrete roof structure. The enclosed form of the tower-base contrasted with the open and transparent construction at the foot of the building. Aside from the function of the entrance area with its floating roof-forms, the building complex became a central place of culture and gastronomy.
The planners laid worth to the careful repositioning of Marienkirche which was achieved by angling the western building tracts by 120 degrees. The tower’s enclosure formed thereby a close relationship to open-space and with its large glass-front formed areas of protective cover for functions such as the open stairway. GDR´s building engineers and architects in the 1960´s and 1970´s embraced the context of international building technology and architectural development such as the concrete construction techniques of Pier Luigi Nervi and Felix Candela. Similar examples followed in GDR where Ulrich Müller worked on spectacular shell construction and used his machine park to develop concrete spraying machines for diverse application of construction techniques.
The design of open-space occurred in two phases, 1969 and 1986. the eastern area between 1969 and 1973 was designed by Hubert Matthes and Dieter Bankert. The final design of the western followed between 1984 and 1986 upon the concepts of Anton Stamatov and Helmut Viegas. The designers conceived an attractive public green-zone with multiple functions.
In this sense the open-space was articulated in diverse areas: the central axis offered panoramic views of the TV Tower; the Palace of the Republic and the Cathedral. Likewise the rose-beds, playful water installations, and the Neptune Fountain were carefully illuminated, resulting in in an impressive scenario. Not forgotten were other public amenities such as garden-chairs, benches, pocket-gardens, flower-beds and bushes, all offering repose to visitors. Allowance was made for picnics and the areas west of Spandauer Straße which were in shadow, offered protection on hot days.
The water-games were designed by Walter Herzog, G. Franek and W. Stockmann;
whereas water and electro-technology was provided by VEB ORSTA – Hydraulics.
The official opening took place on 29th of April, 1972. The resulting cascades were
amongst the largest installations of this kind in Europe. They comprised over eight
basins of water, with an area of 1076 square metres and 560 jet-sprays which by
the use of various pumps enabled various forms of water scenarios. Upon every
new hour a fifteen-minutes programme was initiated. Particularly spectacular were
the scenes of water-games when darkness struck and the fountains were lit by 296
The characteristic white steel chairs designed by Berlin´s metal-sculptor Achim Kühn
soon became one of the most popular items in open-space areas. The chairs were
adjustable and one could choose where to sit, with most preferring to sit near the
water-games and relax.
6.The Town Hall Passages
The town hall passages were built between 1967 and 1972 to designs by a collective under the direction of Heinz Graffunder. The aim of the planners was to create a multifunctional building complex in which the various uses should be arranged under one roof. This solution was inspired by the concept of Le Corbusier for large housing units, the planners also visited the Corbusierhaus in West Berlin during the design work. This variety of functions should provide the residents with short distances to the daily errands and thus more free time.
In fact, 360 flats, restaurants, shops, offices, medical practices, common rooms and a kindergarten were realized in the town hall passages. These functions were arranged one above the other. In the lower two shot emerged, shops, restaurants and offices, over it were arranged medical practices, common areas and a kindergarten. On the upper floors, finally, the apartments were housed.
The town hall passages have also broken new ground in the subject of “Art on Building”. The building was next to the complex Karl-Liebknecht-Straße, the first new building in the GDR, in whose planning an artist collective was involved. Under the leadership of art historian Gerhard Stelzer, artists were gathered to ensure a synthesis of art and architecture. They created a variety of sculptures, ceramics, fountains and murals that contributed to the distinctive look of the building.
7.The Karl-Liebknecht-Straße complex
The building complex on Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse was built between 1968 and 1973. The planning was carried out by a collective led by Wolfgang Radke and Manfred Zumpe. An important role in the planning also played Hans Peter Schmiedel. The complex comprised 725 apartments, shops, restaurants, a Hungarian and a Polish cultural center as well as a covered market. Offices and artist studios completed the usage mix.
Also this building was influenced by the international architecture development. Manfred Zumpe and Hans Peter Schmiedel were among the leading tower building experts in the GDR. They had studied residential towers all over the world and wrote a two-volume standard work on this subject. In addition, they corresponded with important architects, such as Walter Gropius. These experiences flowed into the planning of the complex Karl-Liebknecht-Straße.
The terraces on the commercial floors, which were originally open to the public, play a central role. They provided access to the higher located shops and offices. Above all, however, they afforded as a kind of “city balcony” charming views of the town hall forum. Part of these terraces should also be used gastronomically according to the original plans. On other terraces were landscaped areas, sitting areas, plant basins, pools and children’s playgrounds planned.
Restaurants and Shops
Exclusive shops such as the delicatessen “Agrar special”, the porcelain business “Form and Decor” or the confectionery “Compliment” were characterized by a high-quality equipment and a select range of goods. “Flagship stores” of well-known companies such as the furniture store Zeulenroda, the household appliance shop “AKA electric” or the business of the Rathenow Optical Works offered products that were in short supply elsewhere. In the market hall many small retailers offered a colourful range of goods.
Even the restaurants offered offers that did not exist elsewhere. In the “Feast of the Sea” exquisite fish dishes were served, in the “Wernesgrüner Bierstuben” the popular but rare Wernesgrüner beer was tapped. Legendary was also the “fish bar” under the “Banquet of the sea”, which came up with an extravagant designed by Siegfried Hausdorf interior.
The complex Karl-Liebknecht-Straße accommodated several cultural institutions. An important cultural institution in East Berlin was the “International Book”. Not only were books sold in the GDR’s largest bookstore, but there were also readings and autograph sessions with prominent writers and artists.
Cultural highlights were provided by the Polish Cultural and Information Center and the House of Hungarian Culture. Both institutions offered films, concerts, exhibitions and readings. Finally, the Writers’ Association and the Association of Visual Artists of the GDR were housed in the complex Karl-Liebknecht-Straße. Here regularly exhibitions took place.
For the Marienkirche the building of the television tower was a stroke of luck. Although the church, built from 1290, has always been considered an important architectural monument. At the same time, however, it was until 1965 in an unattractive environment that was avoided by tourists. This situation changed fundamentally with the construction of the TV tower and the new ensemble. The Marienkirche now became part of the central ensemble and suddenly found itself in an exposed position. It was frequented by tourists who connected a TV tower visit with a trip to St. Mary’s Church.
The community of St. Nikolai-St.Marien, but also other representatives of the Protestant church, responded to this change with enthusiasm. They saw an opportunity to make their religion accessible to a much wider public than before.
“With the town hall, television tower and Neptune fountain as well as the representative high-rise residential buildings and their still expanding business passages in the Rathausstraße and Karl-Liebknecht-Straße, the Marienkirche forms an ensemble that is also admired by foreign visitors, in which a unique solution was found.” Helmut Orphal, pastor of St. Mary’s Church, 1970
The central location of the Marienkirche also had an influence on its structural condition. Thanks to its new location, the church has become the “central representative church of the capital”. Consequently, both the state and the church authorities were interested in the best possible state of preservation of the Marienkirche. Therefore, parallel to the construction of the television tower from 1968 to 1970, a complex renovation of the church. The costs of about 750,000 marks were borne equally by state and church authorities. The completion of the renovation was celebrated with a big festival week in October 1970.
But even after 1970, the renovation work continued. For example, the baroque altar and the pulpit were renovated by Andreas Schlüter.
In the church renovation from 1968 to 1970, the Marienkirche was supplemented by new elements. The Berlin metal sculptor Achim Kühn created a new, copper-driven entrance portal. The Magdeburg glass artist Reginald Richter, who also designed the glass flower in the “Palast der Republik”, created a window above the entrance portal.
Thanks to its central location, numerous events were held in St. Mary’s Church. Ecumenical services became known nationwide, with prominent preachers performing. In St. Mary’s Church, for example, the American civil rights activist Ralph Abernathy, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Donald Coggan, the Exarch of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church for Berlin and Central Europe, Metropolitan Philaret or the Secretary General of the Ecumenical Council of Churches, Philip Potter preached, On special occasions, such as the XX. World Festival of Youth and Students 1973, special youth worship services took place. The organ concerts enjoyed great popularity. And the art service of the Protestant church regularly organized art exhibitions in the Marienkirche.
9.The Palace of the Republic
The Palace of the Republic was built between 1973 and 1976 to a design by a collective led by Heinz Graffunder. The Palace of the Republic was a multifunctional building that offered a variety of dining and cultural events. There were several restaurants here. Café’s, a large multifunctional hall with 5000 seats, a theater, exhibition space, a youth club and a bowling basement. Thanks to these uses, the Palace of the Republic was a magnet for visitors, in which there was a constant flow of life.
The design of the Palace of the Republic was determined by its urban location. The building formed the hinge between the historic suburb of Unter den Linden and the modern urban space at the TV tower. The planners respond to this situation with a large public foyer, which opened both to the street Unter den Linden and to the open space at the TV tower. From here, visitors could enjoy an impressive panoramic view of the TV Tower, St. Mary’s Church and the Red City Hall.
The Palace of the Republic was closed in 1990 due to asbestos pollution and demolished from 2006 to 2008. In its place, the Humboldt Forum is currently being built.
10.The palace hotel
The construction of the palace hotel was linked to the construction of the International Congress Center (ICC) in West Berlin. West Berlin did not have enough hotel beds at that time to accommodate the guests of this huge congress complex. In this opportunity, the GDR leadership saw the opportunity for additional foreign exchange earnings. Therefore, the Palace Hotel was built between 1976 and 1979, reserved exclusively for western hotel guests.
The realization of the hotel was transferred to the Swedish company SIAB, the design was provided by the Stockholm architect Ferenc Kiss. Kiss designed a luxury hotel with 1000 beds, which offered many amenities. It offered various restaurants with Asian, French and Berlin cuisine, a spa area with indoor swimming pool, saunas, solariums, gym, massage and bowling alley, as well as various conference rooms with state-of-the-art technology. The Palace Hotel opened on June 6, 1979, just two months after the ICC. In 2001 the palace hotel was demolished and replaced by the cathedral Aquaree.
The Nikolaiviertel was built between 1981 and 1987 according to a design by the collective Günter Stahn. It included 782 apartments, shops, restaurants, cultural institutions and museums in the reconstructed Ephraim Palace and the rebuilt Nikolaikirche.
The background of the project was in turn the competition with West Berlin. In West Berlin, an International Building Exhibition (IBA) was planned from 1978, which should have its center of gravity in the city center. In addition, celebrations for Berlin’s 750th anniversary in 1987 were prepared in both parts of the city. The construction of the Nikolaiviertel was a response to these challenges.
The design of the Nikolaiviertel reflected the changed zeitgeist of the eighties. The enthusiasm for progress of the modern age had passed its peak, instead a greater appreciation of the past began. In this spirit, the existing old buildings were renovated in the Nikolaiviertel. The ruins of the Nikolaikirche were rebuilt with great effort. In addition, disappeared buildings such as the Ephraimpalais and the restaurants “Zum Nussbaum” were reconstructed. The new buildings adapt to the old buildings with pitched roofs, balconies and arcades. The goal of the planners was to revive a piece of “Old Berlin” around the Nikolaikirche.
The Ephraim Palace between East and West
A special chapter was the reconstruction of the Ephraim Palace. The palace had been demolished in 1938, while some facade parts were salvaged and stored. These facade parts were after 1945 on the territory of West Berlin. In the post-war period, projects for the reconstruction of the Ephraim Palace were developed in both East and West Berlin. The West Berlin Senate planned in 1975 the reconstruction of the Ephraim Palace next to the Berlin Museum in the Lindenstraße, here should move the Jewish Department of the Berlin Museum. At the same time, reconstruction of the Ephraim Palace at its old location on Mühlendamm was planned in 1977 by the East Berlin City Council.
However, the relaxation of German-German relations and the conclusion of a cultural agreement between the GDR and the FRG in 1981 led to the abandonment of the West Berlin project. Instead, in 1982, the return of the facade parts to East Berlin was decided, this decision was implemented in 1983. The rebuilt Ephraim Palace together with the historic facade parts was finally inaugurated in 1987 on Mühlendamm.
12.The Marx-Engels monument
The Marx-Engels monument appears at first glance like a monument to the GDR state ideology. In reality, however, the monument was associated with sharp conflicts between the GDR leadership and artists. For the original plans of 1973 provided a monumental relief wall with the portraits of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels at the Palace of the Republic. Against this concept, the artists involved protested, no artist wanted to design this relief wall. The GDR leadership finally relented and granted the artists the required artistic freedom.
The realized concept for the Marx-Engels monument was developed in 1973/74 by the sculptor Ludwig Engelhardt. He was not concerned with a heroic representation of Marx and Engels, but with the implementation of the Marxist philosophy of history. He designed a memorial complex that tells a kind of “socialist salvation story”. The prelude is the marble relief by Werner Stötzer, located to the west, depicting the oppression of the people in the exploiting society. To the east are the bronze statues created by Ludwig Engelhardt by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who were considered to be the initiators of the socialist revolution. On both sides of the statues, eight stainless steel steles have been arranged, dealing with the struggle of the international working class for the liberation of humanity. The design was done by Norbert Blum, Arno Fischer, Jürgen Frenkel, Hans Gutheil, Günter Köhler, Friedrich Nostitz and Peter Voigt. The completion of the monument was the two bronze reliefs of Magret Middell, which were arranged east of the steel stelae. They symbolized the liberated life in socialist society.
Finally, Ludwig Engelhardt was able to enforce this concept against the resistance of leading SED officials. April 1986 saw the inauguration of the monument. Nevertheless, Engelhardt’s obstinacy had consequences: From then on, the monument was largely hushed up by the GDR media.
Exhibition “50 Years TV Tower – Between Everyday Life and World Politics”
– Local Promoter: Initiative Open Center Berlin (Initiative Offene Mitte Berlin)
– Concept and texts: Matthias Grünzig
– Organization: Theresa Keilhacker
– Exhibition cubes: Michael Feith
Many thanks for your support to the Berlinische Galerie, the Bundesarchiv, the Landesarchiv Berlin, the „Neue Deutschland“, the Saxon Architects Foundation Dresden, the Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin, the Scientific Collections of the Institute for Spatial Social Research (IRS) Erkner and the housing association Berlin-Mitte mbH (WBM)
Special thanks go to Rolf Heider for the energetic support of the exhibition.