No German city has as many unused tunnels and ghost stations as Berlin. An insight into the underground.
Berlin has enormous spaces in long forgotten structures underneath its surface. Leaving those unused is a waste of potential. The historically significant subway station Dresdener Strasse has only recently been filled in to prevent a collapse of the space because the search for an investor paying for the necessary reinforcement failed. The site therefor is lost forever. In order to create a sustainable future for similar structures it is necessary to gain detailed knowledge about them and rise awareness for their historic significance and their spatial potentials.
No matter where one goes in Berlin stories about ‚the underground‘ are to be heard. It doesn‘t take long to figure out that this ominous underground is in fact not just a place underneath the earth, as one would expect it to be from the literall meaning, but can referr to anything that is not well known and many times for that reason is highly appreciated by the local public.
Underground rap, galleries, artists, techno parties, public transport and formerly not existent or unknown venues to eat, drink or simply hang out at that are way cooler than the last are just a few of the various kinds of underground that one encounters when, sometimes literally sometimes not, submersing into Berlins culture.
The reasons for the mentioned local publics increased interest in such things often root in the history of the city and it all began with the division through the allied troops after World War II. The suddenly erected wall cutting right through the heart of the already back then large scale European metropolis left it‘s core wounded. This led to Berlin slowing down on it‘s growth for commerce and politics couldn‘t possibly be executed they would have needed to in order for the city to develop at an among European capitals comparative rate. Also the overall living conditions for the inhabitants of both parts of the city were not as welcoming and friendly. Needles to say that the wall itself was a constant reminder of the hostile situation deriving from the Cold War. The environment suggested anything but a healthy growth despite the good infrastructure the city had to offer still existent from better times. After decades of deterioration when Germany was reunited in the early 1990‘s everything changed in an instant. A phenomenon took place that certainly isn‘t new. The huge unused potentials where first noticed and taken advantage of by a breed of young, hungry visionary people. People that had the creativity to see what really could be estasblished here if only someone would get going. Low rents and a low cost of living in general certainly made it‘s contribution on this vacuum suctioning in the creative and daring as well. Knowing about this demographic uniqueness of a comparatively high density of discovery addicted inhabitants made us aware why we are actually here. Both of us, a Berlin local for one and a ‚Zujezogener‘ for another, share the same fascination for Berlin with many of the people that have turned the city within the last 25 years into the inspiring and fertile grounds it attributes today. The potentials of making new experiences, discovering spaces or laying the foundation for a business in comparison to the cost of living are still in good proportion.
Today it‘s difficult for us to say which way around things took place. We either initially started studying architecture because of our visionary look at the world or it happened the opposite way and our field of study got us to learn approach things this way. Regardless of the starting point it comes down to us always looking for the next experience to make, place to discover or change to envision to improve life for us and for everyone.
This urge to learn about something new and unknown was probably the main reason for us to become curious about this topic which is not only more or less absent in media coverage but in fact literally hidden and out of sight. Right from the start when we first had the idea on our minds to investigate on the mysterious and historically laden Berlin underground we were confident to rediscover beautiful but long ago abandoned spaces that would inspire us to imagine interventions to make use of them again. Not only did we think it‘s obvious that it‘s a waste of enormous proportions to have these places that were only possible to be built under the use of great efforts of labour, machines and material to simply be left to itself and decay but also did we sense that there could be some sort of controversy evolving around them politically. Both of these assumptions that only derived from previous knowledge, or better lack thereof, turned out to be true.
To get started we needed to get a basic overview what sort of spaces lie beneath our feet. As one would suppose the internet was the perfect base to get our research going. Browsing the web we instantly came across the website of Berliner Unterwelten e.V. which we had heard of before but nevertheless surprised us with a great variety of types of underground spaces that are being mentioned. We knew beforehand that they had some tours going on that would take you to WW II bunkers for example but little did we know of the various different enlistments and also of the many other spots that are down there and are unlikely to be seen by anyone but a hand full of people in the near future. This impression of an overload of spaces to investigate on in further detail became even more obvious when we stumbled upon the Gleisplan. A tool that we quickly learned would time and time again be of great assistance throughout the entire research phase.
The Gleisplan is a private project initiated by Christian Stade. A gleisplan, the German word for track plan, basically shows the way tracks are located within a suburban railways system. One may ask if that isn‘t a very ordinary thing as nearly every city with a metro system even hands out such maps for free to it‘s users. However, this is not the case as a gleisplan, as oppose to a standard metro systems map, usually has much more information to offer. This particualar one about the Berlin subway drawn by Stade for instance shows exactly where and how the trains can change lanes, where they can be parked and when in history certain parts of the system have been built. The most interesting and valuable information for us and our research was that the plan would also name and give hints about the location of underground spaces that have been dismissed from the BVG‘s, the company running the Berlin subway, active underground spaces. Some of which have never been put to use in the first place. These partially constructed provisions include huge stations erected only to never be linked up with entire lines that might not ever be completed as it happened with the cancelled U10. This map gave us a good overview of potential places to investigate on further all owned by the BVG. Realizing that those are already a fair amount to work on and having in mind that Berliner Unterwelten e.V. also had loads of other typographies, besides public transport, on offer we came to the conclusion that we would have to make a cut somewhere and focus on a specific field. The decision was done in an instant because we both had already noticed that our hearts beat mostly for the one typography that even though it started growing over a hundred years ago still affects thousands of lives each and every day until now.
The subway system in Berlin is not the oldest, the deepest or the biggest and yet Berliner‘s are pretty damn proud of it. Not everyone might admit that and most of us have also been fairly angry with the BVG for delays, ticket prices and other similar reasons before but still even people that don‘t like riding the metro agree that the iconic yellow train has it‘s own personal flair and the bright colour shouts „Ich bin ein Berliner“ everywhere it passes. Sharing this passion with most of the cities inhabitants we felt it was only right and natural to set the focus here. And our gut instinct didn‘t fail us for we discovered a highly complex controversy evolving around majestic abandoned structures that deserve to be granted access to by a larger audience than some of the involved parties in the discussion would voluntarily agree on.
Berliner Unterwelten or in English Berlin Underworlds is an association that researches the historical developments and documents of the cities utilization of it’s underground for the urban infrastructure. Different typologies of systems among these include the networks for sewage, gas, water, electricity and public transport.
"The soil beneath our feet is larded with unused traffic structures. Berlin is probably the worlds lonely record holder in this respect and can look back at a long tradition of erecting such structures." - Dietmar Arnold, founder and chairman of Berliner Unterwelten e.V.
The association was founded in 1997 by enthusiasts of diverse aspects of the underground coming from a variety of backgrounds. Members are for example architects, historians, lawyers, art historians, economists, town and regional planners, students, craftsmen, justice officials, teachers, policemen, OAPs and pupil to name a few. The different expertise of the more than 350 involved people is a great advantage of the association when handling their issues.
The primary aims of the organization are the exploration and documentation of the city’s underground architecture and to make these spaces accessible to the public. Under the city and closed from the public are caverns, air raid shelters, disused railway tunnels and derelict brewery vaults among others. The idea is to preserve these historically significant spaces for future generations. The gained reputation of the organization over the last years has made it the first address to turn to when investors or public bodies have questions about the underground.
We got in contact with Berliner Unterwelten writing an email regarding our interest in underground structures and especially the ones of the subway and got an immediate reply from René Krüger, who himself wrote his thesis about civil raid shelters in Berlin. He invited us to the archive of Berliner Unterwelten, which is located in Heidebrinker Strasse 12 close to Gesundbrunnen.
We prepaired a detailed questionnaire in advance to fathom the complexity of the spaces, issues and parties involved. On the 14th of July we went there and got to know Krüger, a very kind and motivated employee.
Talking to him we quickly learned that there is basically three different stages of momentarily unused underground subway locations:
1. The, at this point in time, unfilled space.
2. A space that has just been filled in.
3. A space that has been filled in and due to its importance has been laid open again.
The first stage is the still existing ghost station that can be found twelve times in Berlin.
We were eye witnesses of the fatal second stage, the backfilling of the subway station Oranienplatz, just around the corner from Moritzplatz.
An example for the third stage is the Fuchsbau, a bunker from the second world war with a primarily military history. From 1995 until 2005 it was sealed and since 2006 it is listed as a technical monument.
The third stage contradicts the second and gives us some hope for the first.
What is the reason, that not a lot of people know or care about the loss of Oranienplatz? Is it only the missing possibility of reinforcement, so that huge cars can pass the small street? Or is it the missing attention? Or don‘t the people care because of a lack of missing imagination abilities for these precious spaces?
These were important and inspiring questions in our talk with René. He agreed, that it has to have something to do with a lack of imagination for these spaces.
Most of these places are still locked and there are only a few guided tours in some of them.
The lowermost station are Gesundbrunnen (U8) with the longest escalator in 18 meters depth and the partially constructed provision for the U10, Insbrucker Platz, also 18 meters below ground. And there are not only these ghoststations, there are also enormous other underground spaces like the roofed space at Gesundbrunnen, which is now used for the Germania exhibition. Located at the northern exit, it used to be part of the railroad line built in an immersion, there also used to be an old villa, but at some point they decided to roof the whole site. If you go there now, you are standing underneath the surface in front of an inner-outer facade. The reason for rather roofing the site then using the outdoor space is not completely clarified.
And again the question is arising, why there is no bigger interest for these places. It is also the missing infrastructure, the niche topic and because they are technical constructions and part of the city supply. All these facts leed to the reason why, first of all, people are not right away interested and secondly it leads to the missing imagination for conversions.
There are only a few permanent conversions, like for example the black light exhibition at Potsdamer Platz, the Museum at Gesundbrunnen and a Theatre in an old bunker, which is now closed.
Also the subway station Französische Straße is very interesting space. It is expected to be closed in 2019 because of the close by constructed U5 leading from Alexander Platz to Brandenburger Tor. There are several proposals for a conversion of this historically importend and listed construction. Some examples include a swimming pool, a restaurant or an underground jungle because of the warm temperature. Though a conversion in this case seems to be very difficult, because the subway will still pass through without a stop.
The U10 is an unbuilt subway line in Berlin and was part of the 200-km-plan in the 1960ies. The line was planned driverlessly from Lichterfelde in the south-west up to Falkenberg in the north-east. There are two different systems, the wide and narrow gauge track and the U10 was planed to be a wide profile. Due to the devision of Berlin, the U10 has never been realised, but caused most of the „Ghostations“ in Berlin. These stations and tunnelparts are partially constructed provisions that have been built during the construction of other subwaystations in the same locations.
The U-Bahn of Berlin first opened it's service in 1902 back than named "Hoch- und Untergrundbahn". The first line running at that time was established between the stations Warschauer Brücke (today Warschauer Straße) and Knie (today Ernst-Reuter-Platz) and one branch turning off this track to Potsdamer Platz. From here on the popularity of the system and the necessity to improve traveling speed and quality in the city lead to a quick expansion of the network. Today the subway has a total length of 147,5km among which it's 173 stations are spread. The city has 1242 trains to handle approximately 500 million passengers per year. What most of these users don't know is that the system in fact consists of two slightly different types of trains. The "Kleinprofil" was the original size model running on lines 1 through 4 and was later on replaced by the "Großprofil" on the rest of the lines. The different size, as mentioned, is not realized by most customers of the BVG until one has heard of this fact. But once the information is perceived one can not help but notice the obvious variation in size inside the carriages. The difference is so great in fact that each of the two systems needs it's own tunnels and platforms and even it's own maintenance workshops. Even though the complications of running basically two systems in one are still daily business for the BVG the reason for this is quite simple and lies long in the past: the system was always further developed with state of the art technique and measurements and when slightly larger cars became popular Berlin started building new lines according to the new standard.
The subway station Moritzplatz belongs to the U8 and is located underneath the equally named square in Berlin Kreuzberg.
In 1907, one of the world biggest electronic groups, the AEG, planned to expand the subway service to Neukölln and Gesundbrunnen. The plans for the construction of the U8 were sealed to be finished in 1918. The construction was planned from the architect, painter, designer and typographer Peter Behrens. He was known for modern industrial design and also working on the AEG's corporate identity. Due to lack of manpower, they ceased the construction in 1919. The AEG Schnellbahn AG was sold to a subsidiary and in 1927 they opened the line from Schönleinstraße to Boddinstraße and one year later the expanded the 3 stations up north to Heinrich-Heine-Straße. Underneath the station Moritzplatz is an interchange station, which was a preliminary work for an unrealized line from Treptow to Moabit. In 1934 Kreuzberg was using this space as an air raid precaution. After World War 2, plans for the new underground line were pursued until 1985.
Today's U8 was supposed to cross the filled in subway station Oranienplatz instead of Moritzplatz.
Our contact Rene Krüger from Berliner Unterwelten enabled us to do a guided tour in the forgotten ghost station of Moritzplatz underneath the platform of the U8. On the 28th of July we met him and Maria Hielscher to take a look in this underground space. Meeting point was the first layer.
An unconspicuous door was the entrance to this secret place.an narrow staircase leaded us to the second layer, which was just behind the walls of the U8 level and you could hear the trains coming and going, the sound was like a murmur and by closing your eyes it felt like the bass in a techno club. These rooms on the second layer served as an air raid shelter during World War 2. It was like traveling back in time, relicts like pressure compensation machines and manually operated generators were partly still existent though a lot of the wooden parts have been rubbed after WW2 because it has been used as fire wood. The atmosphere was dark and quiet, but also vivid an full of tension, while listening to the history of this forgotten space. A bombing in 1936 caused 36 fatalities of people that were hiding somewhere in these rooms. The place looks abandoned, dirty and it felt like being the first person in 70 years to rediscover a piece of history that has been forgotten because on the one hand people that survived all this wanted to forget and then only a hand full of people knew and carried it on to the next generation.
A second staircase, that was actually like a ladder from an emergency exit, led to the third platform. We were climbing past the U8 to the ghost station of the never finished subway line. This layer seemed even more abandoned that the one above. Time was standing still an there was no emergency lighting on this layer. Our primitive head-lights we only illuminating the next few steps in front of us. The was debris everywhere. Little puddles were cultivating objects were you could not recognize whether they were of biological nature or the result of corrosion. By walking through the different spaces one could recognize the different sizes in height. Some were twice as high as others and there used to be a ceiling because of the still existing remnants of the generators. Some doors were not entering new rooms and you had to watch your step. In one room the fluoresce emergency inscription was still very well preserved and especially visible through black striplights. The trackbed was the lowest point of the ghost station of Moritzplatz only an expert eye could recognize its original function. The oscillation of arriving and departing trains were now coming from above. One had the feeling of being far away from vivid life 18 meters underneath the ground. Time was standing still for a lot of decades and the atmospheric potential seemed huge. After wandering around for more than an hour, we were climbing up the two stairs and by passing the exit, we were still preserving the experience of this secret space with a special awareness of sound, light, smell and construction. A strange feeling remained while we were walking through the streets: "How can spaces like these be forgotten and unused?"
When the U8, formerly known as Line D, was built a station named Oranienplatz was started to be erected under Dresdener Strasse before the first world war. Due to the war the completion had to be postponed and didn’t take place until 1921. And only a few years later in 1927 city of Berlin decided to change the plans for Line D and redirected it over Moritzplatz.
Two main reasons for this significant change were transported into modern times. One of them is that Moritzplatz offered better options to establish a connection hub for the tram lines where already existing there. The other main factor was the fact that Wertheim, a large department store, was located there as well. If one takes the subway from Kottbusser Tor to Moritzplatz or vice versa the uncharacteristically tight curve covering a 90 degree angle can be noticed and is evidence of this change of plans until today.
Already in the 1920’s the Bewag, a Berlin electricity provider, set up a control center inside the preliminary work site and ever since the space was being used as such until 1988. Afterwards the impressive space built with columns from Swedish granite was more or less forgotten until Berliner Unterwelten rediscovered it and started giving tours exhibiting the historical site.
In 2012 a major examination of the station was done and brought to light that the structural consistency was lacking the necessary quality to keep the street above running at it’s regular capacity. To prevent the space from collapsing the Dresdener Strasse was limited to a maximum vehicle weight of 2.8 t immediately and soon after heavy duty columns were inserted to guarantee a safe environment to navigate the street for emergency vehicles such as the fire brigade.
Following the necessary interventions to keep the street safe a row of studies were done to consider how to further proceed with the situation. The outcome was that a corrective maintenance in order to have the street running at full capacity again would cause tremendous costs for the city and therefore a decomposing of the site was preferred among authorities. In 2015 the station was entirely filled in with a composite called liquid soil which becomes as solid as concrete. The entire measure cost one million Euro and is supposedly the cheapest solution for the structural problem.
Berliner Unterwelten is frustrated over this decision for various reasons. Not only had they been involved in the discussion early enough to rise awareness for the significance of the historically noteworthy site but they also had offered a solution costing only two million Euro that would allow up to 16 t again trafficking the street above. The question why the city claims an enormous 30 t each direction is demanded stays unanswered.
We drink fair trade coffee from Sumatra for the good of the orang utang, we welcome refugees from the most crisis shaken spots on earth because we know of their horrible fate awaiting them at home and we wear denim from Japan since values like quality and style have outdated the former main concerns, namely cheap and fast.
It seems as if our digital knowledge of everything has risen a stronger desire for also being physically and mentally more in sync with the world. Besides an array of positive side effects coming alongside this development there is also a detachment of the environment surrounding us on a daily basis to be recognized. The latest developments in human communications such as mobile calling and the internet spread so quickly that our cognitive processes couldn’t keep up pace with the technical innovations and the amount of data that is suddenly available anywhere and anytime. This is why today we have a tendency to lose track of issues at hand.
The same problem evolves around the topic of abandoned underground structures. Clearly it would be one option to leave such spaces to themselves as long as there is no better concept developed for them. If one is able to keep the entrances locked so that squatters aren’t able to settle and ruin the place they should last for a long time. However, for various reasons the authorities sometimes can’t seem to help but to backfill the spaces. Wether it’s the fear of squatting as it happened in Fichtebunker or the threat of a collapse at the subway station Oranienplatz. In both cases one would wonder if it actually is the ultimate and only solution? The Fichtebunker has been cleared out again of the filling material and today there is tours being held which is a bold answer to that question. The backfilling was an unnecessary detour.
The problem surely isn’t that there is a lack of ideas for these spaces. Concepts have been developed for underground swimming pools, galleries and restaurants among others. More ideas are to be found around the globe such as the underground farming that is already done in London or the worlds largest indoor BMX Bike Park in an abandoned mine in Louisville, Kentucky.
Why such ideas are so difficult to carry out remains unclear. One reason is the BVG’s concern that if these spaces get publicity they will soon be opened and victims to vandalism. This is probably the main reason why some of the company’s executives responsible for such issues rather keep these little gems to themselves.
Raising awareness and asking the right questions now is the most efficient tool against more back fillings at this point in time. But also developing concepts. One successful project could cause a paradigm change for the BVG as well as the building departments of the city accountable of underground constructions. Berlin has huge potentials resting below ground and could easily develop a trademark typology from this. And all this would happen on an ecologic basis since most of the energy and material to erect the spaces has already been consumed by digging out the soil and constructing an interior that is capable of holding the rooms.
The future will tell us if and how Berlin is capable of making use of it’s potentials. Hopes are high that the creative and ambitious above ground energies that are currently flowing around the city will soon extend it’s tentacles into the basement of the metropolis as well.