Ornament und Verbrechen
by Gernot Schaulinski / translation by Rachel Marks
The small, castle-like turret of Prenzlauer Allee's Neoromantic station towers over the tracks' deep crevice. A long staircase leads from the platform up to the hall clad in ornamental brick. A mighty chandelier of sorts floats high over head, casting a soft light on the passers-by below. It is rare to find such a well-preserved building from the Ringbahn's past; this station, however, was opened in 1892 - though it might have been just yesterday by the (good) looks of it.
The decorative flair that enchants us today was a crime to the architects of the Weimar Republic. The mantra of Neues Bauen: "Away from ornament to clear forms." People and their everyday needs were to be the new focus of architecture, not the beautiful embellishments of earlier days. Bruno Taut led the way, planning and constructing the Carl Liegen Residences only a stone's throw from Prenzlauer Allee in the late 1920s. The elegant housing blocks line Erich-Weinert-Straße, punctuated by green space and old preserved trees. Red, blue, and green window- and doorframes subtly accentuate the sand-colored facades. And what a contrast to the turn-of-the-century neighborhood with its ornamental facades and cramped courtyards! Named one of six "Settlements of Berlin Modernism," the residential area has been included on UNESCO's world heritage list since 2008.
The Ringbahn station stood in the shadows of two enormous gasometers until 1984 when they were demolished to much local protest to make way for the new Ernst-Thälmann-Park. In its place the aluminum dome of the Zeiss Planetarium now shines. The Cosmorama projector bejewels the concrete interior surface with over one thousand stars. Germany's largest planetarium had real star power in the GDR. The public stormed the venue; here one was free to travel – through the endless universe. Even today, people are clearly proud of the prestigious project. The radio drama under the stars has been a beloved favorite for years. The audience lounged stoned in the armchairs or sprawled on the floor during the show of Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The planetarium promptly cancelled further readings of the series.
Directly next to this palace of artificial flight, the abysses of German history reveal themselves. "Who disappeared in the basement?... Who heard the screams at night?... Where did the first punch land?" These questions and others wind around the corner building on Fröbelstraße on a black band. The artwork fragen (questions, 2005) by Karla Sachse recalls the crimes committed here. The building originally belonged to the hospital and infirmary, a prototype of urban health care. The Stalinist secret police set up a prison in the basement in May of 1945, interrogating and torturing actual and supposed opponents to the Soviet occupation. The victims included former Nazis but also democrats, religious Christians, and even Communists and innocent bystanders. For many of them, here began a journey of no return to the Soviet sector's labor camp system. The Stasi later used the grounds as the base of their Berlin operation.
Here on the Ringbahn, history has been condensed. The old turn-of-the-century quarter to the southwest tells of a bygone GDR bohemia; to the north the buildings of the late 1920s attest to the innovation of a dying republic; the erstwhile hospital to the southeast hid the tortures of Stalinism, while the high-rises of Ernst-Thälmann-Park (link to Greifswalder Station), home to the most loyal comrades, rise up behind it. A keen eye will spy both ornament and crime on Prenzlauer Allee.