Ol’ German Romanticism under the Freeway
by Gernot Schaulinski / translation by Max Bach
It was in Berlin that Heidelberg became world famous. The lovely Baden city had already received mighty praise by German Romantic poets when on November 22, 1901 the lovelorn play Old Heidelberg had its premiere at the Berliner Theater in Kreuzberg. Thus began a success story that made the city on the Neckar river into a symbol for German misty-eyed romanticism. Although later commentaries from great minds like Bertolt Brecht ("piece of trash"), Alfred Döblin ("barrel organ") and Kurt Tucholsky ("old tear-jerker") are anything but positive, Old Heidelberg still became one of the most-performed German plays, went on Broadway as an operetta and showed up on reading lists for Japanese German students. Can any of this idealized image be detected at the Ringbahn station with the same melodious name?
Today's Heidelberger Platz is primarily a traffic junction in the truest sense of the word: the train platform's staircases lead onto the broad Mecklenburgische Straße, which runs under the A100 freeway and over the U-3 subway line. The old station entrance building from 1892 can be found on the way to the freeway; now it accommodates a nightclub. A car wash's sign glows across the street, marking a favorite meeting point for rideshares to Heidelberg and elsewhere in the country. The intersection of multiple types of public transportation on the way to the A100 makes this location the best way out of Berlin. Built in 1913, the U-Bahn station clearly takes its magnificent neo-romantic inspiration from the yearned-after German city. A row of monumental round granite columns support the double groined vault, entrance halls at each end of the platform are decorated with mosaics, and large photos of today's Heidelberg add to the "good ol' Germany" cliché. Despite the absence of oak barrels, the atmosphere can still give travelers the sensation of merry Baden wine celebrations.
Heidelberger Platz constitutes the northern tip of the middle-class Rheingauviertel, the center of which is marked by Rüdesheimer Platz and its "English cottage style" buildings. The neighborhood, developed since 1910 from building tycoon Georg Haberland, is a typical example of the capacities of private real estate firms. Since the 1860s, these businesses created urban infrastructure in what was then Berlin's environs and further nourished the lucrative new developments until they merged with the capital. The housing development in the Rheingauviertel is considered an early model of spaced-out buildings in verdant settings.
On Schlangenbader Straße southwest of the Ringbahn station is the "Snake," an ambitious building project of a completely different kind. Germany's biggest apartment building is architecturally unique. The 600-meter-long building wing, built between 1976 and 1982, is made up of 1,046 terraced apartments as well as a freeway. A long-fostered fantasy of city planners and architects alike became a reality here. Similar projects were often discussed in the car-obsessed postwar years owing to the emphasis on individual motorized traffic. Today the building is a notion only to its inhabitants and specialists, and the only realized project of its kind worldwide.
Architecturally, Heidelberger Platz and its surroundings do not provide any connection to the south German eponym – the decorative title is rather a product of the former taste of the times for "Teutonic" motifs. At best, Heidelberg can be found underground where the U-3 rolls through a barrel-less wine cellar. Such is how Kurt Tucholsky had hoped the over-romanticized setting of Teutomania would be buried. As he scoffed in "Die Weltbühne" magazine in 1928, "For the most beautiful place, here on this earth / is Heidelberg in Vienna on the Rhine [...]"