Albert Speer, car traffic, and Swedish meatballs
by Julia Cornelius / translation by Max Bach
There is something surreal about arriving at Südkreuz – the broad, nearly empty train platforms under the oversized glass-and-steel hall, the glistening light shining through the Berlin gray, the scattered travelers standing around with huge packages ... the first-time visitor wonders what's going on.
A few destinations present themselves. One exit leads to a parking garage that integrated the clock tower of the old 1889 station. Another goes into the company's premises. A further wanders past a bright concrete desert to a forlorn Gründerzeit (the period of rapid industrial expansion) house spared from Albert Speer's Germania plans and WWII, where the "Club for Middle-Aged Folk" has found its home, a society clearly dedicated to the golden years.
The Südkreuz station has foremost an eastside and a westside. The main exit of the station, the western one, leads to the Hildegard-Knef-Platz (singer of "Für mich soll's rote Rosen regnen"), designed by the Berlin landscape architects Topotek 1. Behind it unfolds a gray panorama of commercial parks and the Autobahn. Given the sheet metal overload, it is easy to have doubts about whether this is the best exit to take. Then again: Traveling by foot in a world made for cars is also a fitting way to experience the urban.
The east General-Pape-Straße exit opens onto a narrow pathway, where hordes of pedestrians trek towards a blue-gold department store to pay homage to Swedish furniture design. The abundance of heavily weighed-down people on the train platform suddenly makes sense: It's the IKEA family! Incidentally, on Saturdays they can hire children immigrant workers to cart their purchases from their Swedish origin to the S-Bahn station for a few euros per trip.
In the direction of the mass migration one can also glimpse Gründerzeit houses, the former Tempelhof switch yard, the Autobahn and some recently built furniture stores in a new business center – the layers of Berlin's urban development are laid bare here.
The Südgelände begins only a few steps away over a pedestrian bridge – here, nature strikes back. Forced into a deep sleep when the Iron Curtain was hung and the industrial age came to an end, this area today resembles an enchanted urban land. Overgrown railway tracks and turning platforms of the former switch yard lead into a wood in whose clearings the noise of the street Sachsendamm mixes with the rustling of the trees, and old industrial chimneys alternate with huge billboard letters. A citizens' group in the 1980s saved this area and its unique inner-city existence from being wiped out, and made it into an impressive idiosyncratic space for local recreation, bringing together nature, art and technology.
However, something completely different could have been: Südkreuz played a central role in Hitler and Speer's plans for remodeling the imperial capital of Berlin. A 120-meter-wide north-south axis was to be ripped through the city and all of the important National Socialist offices, company headquarters and cultural institutions were supposed to be located along it. At its intersection with the Ringbahn, a monumental Südbahnhof (south station) was planned, bigger than New York's Central Station and connected by a broad gauge train to the yet-to-be-conquered Moscow. Across from its front square a victory arch of over 100 meters was meant to serve as an entrance gate to the new city center. The gigantic concrete cylinder of the Schwerbelastungskörper (load-testing structure) on General-Pape-Straße, built to measure the ground's carrying capacity, still attests to the megalomania of the epoch. With the discontinuation of the Germania project in March 1943, the plans for the Südbahnhof were almost ripe for development.
Today, almost 70 years later, the thought of what could have been is enough to make one happy about what now is.