James Harper risks life and limb exploring Berlin’s architectural past, to learn more about its cultural present
Monday 28 September 2020
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I stare out through a cracked, spray painted window and mutter to myself, “how on earth will I get out of here”.
As waves of rain lash this concrete husk of a building, the ceiling begins dripping. I peer out the third story window and see a foot-high lake swallowing up fragments of broken glass.
And then the ground shakes. A roar rips through the air. I throw myself to the ground as I realise lightning is now striking this industrial wasteland.
This was not how I imagined my lazy Saturday afternoon cycle ride in Berlin’s East would unfold. But now it’s happening, I couldn’t be happier.
I arrived in Berlin in 2016 and had heard the stories of the squatter communes in forgotten apartment buildings. Drugs as easy to order as taxis. Park raves, rooftop raves, forest raves. All of this within five miles of Angela Merkel’s office.
But, for the last 12 months, all I’d found was a 9-to-5 B2B sales career, interspersed with yoga studios and artisanal bread.
Berlin had changed. These stories from yesteryear began after the wall fell in 1989. As the ‘90s progressed, many East German companies withered in the face of West German capitalism. Each factory closure added thousands to the swelling ranks of underemployed East Germans.
In 2017, I press down the pedal of my bicycle and begin a journey from my apartment in Neukölln to one of these closed factories. I’m on a mission to find this vision of Berlin I’d heard so much about on the urban exploration (or ‘urbex’) forums.
An hour later, I cruise into the sleepy village of Rüdersdorf, follow a river, chain up my bike and crawl through a hole in a fence. I tip-toe across a railway line, and push past long grass.
And I’m suddenly surrounded by rotting concrete structures rising higher than cathedrals, tanks of chemicals, collapsed archways. And then rain begins and I dash into the sturdiest looking of all the buildings.
After the lightning strike and rain subsides, I climb up to the top of a 100-foot chemical silo and watch the orange sunbeams set over the forest. My palms leave sweat marks on the walls I’ve touched in an effort to steady myself from the vertigo. One wrong step will send me falling down one of the dozens of holes in the concrete.
I glance to my left and spot a pink light shining against the side of a crumbling chimney. And there it is: my first impromptu rave!
I’m so excited by this find that, six months later, I drag a bigger group of friends along to marvel at this apocalyptic hellscape. But, being January, the frozen winds sap our energy and we soon find ourselves crossing over the river to a local’s pub. The regulars give us warm, if curious, looks.
As we sit eating €5 schnitzels and €2 pints, we spot vintage bunting on the wall with hammers and sickles. This is a vivid reminder to me that these concrete ruins across the river were once the lifeblood of this community. The beige frilly curtains, yellowed by years of indoor smoking, remind me of the statistic that East German incomes are only 86% of their West German counterparts.
The greying regulars would also remember the 75,000 Russians who lived in Little Moscow, the Russian military base in Berlin’s southern forests.
Fast forward six months, a bike rests on my shoulder as bramble cuts my legs. I duck under fallen trees, and spot a clearing in the distance. It looks like a pothole-ridden lane. But as I approach closer, I see it widen, and widen. I step out of the forest into the middle of an abandoned runway. I imagine myself standing here in the 1980s with Soviet Antonovs and Ilyushins screaming off this tarmac.
Cycling past processions of trees for hundreds of metres with no end in sight, the runway’s taxiway springs out of the forest. It leads to a deserted village of apartment blocks, aircraft hangers and munitions stores. The wall paper hangs off the wall like confetti. One reveals a newspaper - труд (“Work”) from 1977 proclaiming 60-лемuю ОКТБРЯ ДОСТОЙНУЮ ВСТРЕЧУ!, the sixtieth anniversary of the October revolution.
After the wall fell, Berlin’s politicians earmarked this area for what would become Berlin’s shiny new airport, Berlin Brandenburg (BER). It made a lot of sense: ample existing infrastructure, a sparsely inhabited area, and just an hour’s train hop to Berlin.
For reasons still hotly debated today, politicians decided to build BER close to Schönefeld (SXF) instead, one of Berlin’s two inadequately small civilian airports. This was arguably the first of an embarrassingly long list of mistakes that led to the project costing over €7 billion, almost triple initial estimates. And while it should have opened in 2013, today it is still not finished. “Lassen Sie uns Berlin einfach auf einen funktionierenden Flughafen verlegen” is one of the many punchlines Germans enjoyed cracking at Berlin’s expense. (“Let’s just move Berlin to a functioning airport”).
Although many Russians left Berlin after the wall fell, today it’s hard to escape Soviet Russia’s influence. Cycling from Alexanderplatz directly East down Karl Marx Allee, stately apartment buildings worthy of central Moscow line either side of an 89m-wide, two kilometre long boulevard. Follow it far enough and the buildings become more cookie-cutter, humbler and, in the case of the former Stasi (Secret Police) Headquarters, foreboding.
Take a right and cycle to Treptower Park, and you will find a war memorial to commemorate the c. 80,000 Soviets who died trying to take Berlin during Hitler’s last stand. It’s truly a sight to behold: a giant statue of a Russian soldier crushing a Swastika is flanked by 16 stone sarcophagi etched with Stalin quotes in Cyrillic and German.
Round the corner of this memorial lies what used to be one of the rights of passage for any urbex connoisseur: Spreepark, a theme park with a ferris wheel, water rides and statues of monsters. The owners fled to Peru in the early 2000s, taking six attractions in 20 shipping containers and leaving behind millions of Euros of debt. The park fell fast into disrepair and swathes of it were set alight, most likely by arsonists, after which security got impossibly tight.
Last year I managed to get inside, but as part of a public open day where the doors were flung open. Crowds of Berliners took photos of the graffiti-ridden T-Rex lying on its back and rusty rollercoaster tracks. Sipping on a beer, thronged on all sides by crowds in designer sneakers and flannel shirts, my friends remarked how bored we were. Was this the end of an era?
The numbers suggest so. Back in the heyday of Spreepark, the city found itself with a glut of apartments and little industry to speak of. I overheard stories of some Berliners paying €200 a month for a three-room, city centre apartment in 2010. But these last ten years have seen hundreds of thousands of new residents. Today you’d be lucky to find that same apartment for less than €1000. Many of the abandoned gems within the S-Bahn Ring (Berlin’s answer to London’s Circle Line) are being converted and renovated.
But Berlin can still offer surprises for just 30 minutes on the U Bahn (metro). A few years ago, I slid through a hole in a fence to an abandoned anatomy institute in the leafy Steglitz neighbourhood. Turning around, I implored the girl I was dating at the time to follow me. She obliged, despite turning her nose up. She stood in horror at the trashed lecture theatre with row after row of smashed seats facing metre high graffiti spelling out “¥€$”. I remarked it was a clever artistic statement, she countered it looked filthy.
A few weeks ago, I took my new girlfriend to the same anatomy clinic. She followed me to the dank basement and yelped with glee seeing the cold metal dissection table. She then excitedly snapped pictures of the stainless steel fridges where corpses were stored. “This one’s a keeper” I thought to myself.
In case you were in any doubt, trespassing is an illegal activity punishable with fines and imprisonment, not to mention the real possibility of injury and death. Which is fine because despite Berlin’s breakneck gentrification, there are countless legal ways to get a kick out of the past.
A great day trip begins with a dip into Teufelsee’s frigid water, a nudist lake popular with the gay community, followed by a trek up to the former US spy station, Teuefelsberg. Surrounded by world class graffiti, you can admire the setting sun with cold Augustiner Helles beers in hand.
Another splendid afternoon begins with a guided tour of Tempelhof airport. This giant complex, once ranked the largest building in the world, is a treasure chest. Above the war bunkers lies the pristine, eerily quiet arrivals hall from decades ago. And above that, an indoor basketball court built for the US soldiers.
Across the complex, you will find dual concrete staircases with landings joining them together. This is one of the architectural hacks required to meet Hitler’s vision of bringing 100,000 people to the roof of the airport in just five minutes. Once perched on top, the public would marvel at precessions of Nazi war machines.
Afterwards, you can grab a Pilsener and sit in the middle of Tempelhof’s runway, watching the windsurfers and rollerbladers. Close your eyes and you can hear the processions of Douglas Skymasters landing every few minutes for months, carrying supplies for West Berlin after the Soviets closed the railways and roads in 1948. After the sun has set, amble over to Sonnenallee for a €3 kebab and then onto the Muted Horn for some of the world’s best craft beers.
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