Walkabout: Around Lietzensee - green oasis in the city
by Dagmar Thorau / translation by Rachel Marks
If you were to look down at the city from the Beriln's radio tower (the Funkturm), you would notice a sickle-shaped, green-lined body of water gleaming amid an equally dense sea of houses. Typical Ringbahn riders exiting the Messe Nord/ICC station to the south by way of the long escalator and stopping only briefly at street level to survey their surroundings are not likely to discover Lietzensee. But hardly 100 yards from Germany's most trafficked stretch of Autobahn, the lake lies hidden in a hollow. It is the northernmost of the Grunewald lakes, which are scattered from Nikolassee in the southwest to this western part of the city: a chain of long holes carved and filled by the melting glaciers of last ice age that now, some 20,000 years later, provide a natural escape for urban dwellers.
Turning your back on the Funkturm Berlin, ICC complex, and exposition grounds, head east only a few steps onto Neue Kanststraße to the intersection of Dernburgstraße. Just one block further, opposite the wonderfully old-fashioned Pianocafé , an opening in the foliage beckons. But it's worth first turning right onto Dernburgstraße. Here on the left (No. 44-52) stands one of Berlin's most important examples of expressionist architecture. The Oberpostdirektion  was built by Willy Hoffmann 1925-28 with five to seven floors and four wings. Grape leaves creep across the white façade, window frames, and plinths, while the vertical edges are accentuated with terra cotta stones; the south wing is capped by a six-story tower. Slightly set back from the property stands the red-brick landmark Hedwig-Rüdiger-Haus , named after the social reformer who initiated the "residential home for single female governmental postal and telegraph employees" in the 1920s. Misogynist contemporaries snidely called the house "Drachenburg," or dragons' fort.
Continuing along Dernburgstraße you will discover a green gate tucked between two houses on the right-hand side (No. 35). The other side of this portal holds the garden plots Kleingartenkolonie der Bahnlandwirtschaft e.V.  whose densely planted parcels extend between Lietzensee and Halensee and from the S-Bahn tracks and A 100 highway all the way around Westkreuz station. Paths bordered with small fences and shrubs lead left to the Autobahn bridge, where the allotment holders grow pumpkins, potatoes, pears, and berries in addition to their beds of flowers - as per a century-old ordinance that 30 percent must be for edible plants - in the shadows of their tiny weekend getaways and the immense concrete pillars. The ICC complex silvery façade glimmers in the background while birds twitter in the fruit trees. The noise of traffic is ubiquitous, but "you don't hear it anymore" a woman clearing weeds explains with a thick Berlin accent from behind her fence. Take a peek - or a long, awestruck stroll - through this very typical parallel universe in Berlin before returning to Dernburgstraße.
The street curves gently past old and new buildings as the traffic subsides until it opens onto a square of sycamore trees lined with elegant residential buildings from the first decade of the twentieth century. The stairs bordering the Große Kaskade  lead down to the southern half of Lietzensee, which has been divided by Neue Kantstraße since 1904. In 1910 Charlottenburg, still its own municipal entity, acquired the park built by Minister of State Wilhelm von Witzleben in 1826. The east side of the new property was sold off for further development, while the western half including the green strips along the water's edge were beautified by landscape architect Erwin Barth. The city soon grew around both park and lake without smothering them, and the area came to be considered one of Berlin's top addresses. When the politicians from Bonn relocated to Berlin in 1998-99 a brochure from Berliner Bank recommended settling in "this top neighborhood amid actors, artists, and successful creative types." Strolling along the park's rolling paths and flower beds, through the meadows, playgrounds, and groves of splendid old trees you'll hardly sense an air of pretention. The residents seem to cherish the quality of life of this venerable and well-situated quarter more than any promise of social prominence.
An afternoon coffee or evening beer are part of the Lietzensee experience: the path along the water dips under the Lietzensee bridge and leads to the lake's more lively northern half where a small café  with a large terrace on the narrow side offers simple Italian dishes, cheese and bread snacks, and an enticing selection of cakes. In the winter, when the lake is frozen over, ice skaters warm up here with a hot glass of grog. Life is good; the sun sets slowly behind the Funkturm Berlin.
The way back to the Ringbahn is easy to find by walking back along the lake's west edge and ascending the stairs at the large flower beds with the two balconies past two fountains to Wundtstraße. Distinguished pre-war buildings look over the lake, now again hidden behind the trees, and as you cross the intersection of Riehlstraße and Herbartstraße you leave the little inner-city oasis behind you. Then the street meets the bridge over the Autobahn and Ringbahn tracks, and you view the Funkturm Berlin no longer over the treetops but beyond the thunderous stream of traffic, greeted by the city noise. Fortunately, however, those green oases are just as much a part of Berlin as its inhospitable infrastructural nodes.
1. Pianocafé | Wonderfully old-fashioned pastry shop with opulent cakes, which are accompanied by live piano music three afternoons a week | Neue Kantstraße 20
2. Hedwig-Rüdiger-Haus | The engaged women's rights and social reformer Hedwig Rüdiger financed the former residence for single female postal and telegraph employees in the 1920s by organizing a club with share certificates for the women | Dernburgstraße 58
3. Die ehemalige Oberpostdirektion | The formidable five- and seven-story, four-wing postal service building was built according to the design of Willy Hoffmann 1925-28. It is now a registered landmark and houses subsidiaries of Telekom | Dernburgstraße 44-52
4. Entrance to Kleingartenkolonie der Bahnlandwirtschaft e.V. | These garden plots stretch from Lietzensee and Halensee, from the train tracks and the lanes of the A 100 all the way around Westkreuz station | Dernburgstraße 35
5. Die Große Lietzensee-Kaskade am Dernburgplatz | Thoroughly renovated in 2006, the fountain was commissioned in 1913 to help provide the algae-plagued lake with oxygenic water - one of the world's first water restoration projects | Dernburgplatz
6. Evangelische Kirche am Lietzensee | A little gem tucked between the trees: built on a five-point design by architect Paul G. R. Baumgarten in 1957-59, this church is considered one of Berlin's most beautiful. The two sides facing the park are constructed completely of glass; a path leads up the hillside | official entrance at Herbartstraße 4-6
7. Ehemaliges Knappschaftshaus | Rudolf
Hartmann built the brick building on the prominent east bank of the narrow lake
in 1929/30. Originally an administrative building for the miner's social
insurance and professional association, it served as a registration office for
refugees from the Soviet zone in the 1950s. Today it is called the Medienhaus (oder Mediahouse?) and holds offices for the creative
economy | www.medienhaus-berlin.de
8. Bootshaus Stella am Lietzensee | The large terrace is always full because the location on the water looking out to the radio tower on the horizon is simply gorgeous. Opening at 11 am, the café serves pizza, snacks, sausage, cake, and ice cream.
9. Ehemaliges Reichskriegsgericht | The courthouse erected in 1908-10 was used from 1936 through 1942 as the highest military court. At least 1,400 death sentences were pronounced here during WWII, including the well-known trial against the "Rote Kapelle" in 1942. None of the judges were sentenced after the war. Later the Superior Court of Justice was housed here. Most recently the long-since empty space has been transformed by a Dutch investor into 106 luxury apartments; the columns, ornamentation, wood paneling, and chandeliers were saved. A plaque outside the door reminds visitors (and residents) of the victims of the NS "justice" system | Witzlebenplatz 1-2, Witzlebenstraße 4-5
10. Engelbecken | A
highly lauded restaurant (evening reservations required!) without any fluff:
the unostentatious ambiance complements the first-rate cuisine, and you don't even
have to get dressed up | www.berlinonline.de/.../restaurants
11. St.-Canisius-Kirche | The holy structure - two giant cubes of exposed concrete and larch wood designed by architects Büttner, Neumann, and Braun - was inaugurated in 2002 and is worth the short detour | Witzlebenstraße 27-29 | www.baunetzwissen.de/objektartikel/Beton_St.-Canisius-Kirche-in-Berlin