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The crazy, unrealised architectural projects of 20th century Berlin

Berlin has some magnificently wacky buildings, but did you ever wonder about all the great architectural projects that never got built?

Europa Center, 1969. © Engelbert Kremser

For better or for worse, Berlin could be described as a living, breathing Baustelle, the city always being transformed like one great construction site. As we duck under scaffolding and navigate mazes of construction barriers, we get to witness the kaleidoscopic – albeit slow – transformation of the urban fabric around us. But have you ever thought about the projects that were dreamt up but never got the green light? 

Whether too expensive, impractical or outlandish (or all of the above), many drafts for architectural projects got scrapped before they could break ground. Even if they were never realised, these failed proposals still recount the fluctuating design trends in Berlin’s history. We’ve selected nine of the more strange and striking examples for your perusal – as you’ll soon see, Berlin could have turned out very differently. 

Wartehalle at Bahnhof Zoo, 1948

Sergius Ruegenberg, submission for urban development competition “Around the Zoo” – Wartehalle, 1948, collage. © Berlinische Galerie

It may resemble a rather eccentric hat, but this architectural model was actually a creation of the Russian architect Sergius Ruegenberg.

Ruegenberg, who worked closely with Bauhaus bigshots like Mies van der Rohe and Hans Scharoun, made a name for himself with his design for the iconic Barcelona Chair. He also wrote himself into Berlin’s architectural history with the Waldfriedhof Zehlendorf and the Händelallee 59 housing complex in the Hansaviertel. But when a call for proposals went out in 1948 to reimagine the Zoologischer Garten transit hub, Ruegenberg threw his (again, rather eccentric) hat into the ring.

This novel plan for a Wartehalle, or “waiting hall”, obviously wasn’t selected, so now we’re stuck with the glass-and-concrete block housing the current Bahnhof Zoo. 

Rolling Pavements on Kurfürstendamm, 1969

Georg Kohlmaier, Barna von Sartory, “Rolling Pavements” on Kurfürstendamm, 1969, gelatin silver paper. Donation from Elisabeth von Sartory and Georg Kohlmaier, 2015. © Georg Kohlmaier / Elisabeth von Sartory

Think of those ubiquitous pink pipes you see at all the Berlin construction sites, but only bigger and you’re strolling along inside them. That’s what Austrian architects Georg Kohlmaier and Barna von Sartory once had in mind for Berlin’s perennially packed Kurfürstendamm.

As the West Berlin throughway became increasingly car-centric, urban planners looked for ways to take foot traffic out of the equation. Thus emerged Kohlmaier and von Sartory’s solution of “Rolling Pavements”, a futuristic-looking two-kilometre-long tube outfitted with human conveyor belts to shuttle shoppers above street level.

In the end this idea got left behind in the space age, as it was deemed too expensive and too ugly to pursue. 

Europa Center at Breitscheidplatz, 1969

Engelbert Kremser, Europa Center, photomontage, 1969, gelatin silver paper, 41.3 x 49 cm. Acquired from the Berlinische Galerie, Berlin, 2014. © Engelbert Kremser

On your annual trip to the Kurfürstendamm Christmas market, you may have noticed the decidedly dated mall and high-rise planted next door. The Europa Center, with its relentless right angles and sheets of glass, epitomises the sobriety of West Berlin architecture.

But four years after its 1965 completion, Berlin architect Engelbert Kremser reimagined the building with this amorphous alternative. When you’re out sipping your Glühwein at the Christmas market this winter, imagine this structure towering over you instead!

Otto Bartning’s Sternkirche, 1922 (model, 1950)

Otto Bartning, Sternkirche, designed in 1922, model from 1950, plaster, wood, 42.5 x 80 x 79 cm. Donation from the Union of the Evangelical Church Berlin, 2000. © TU Darmstadt, Department of History and Theory of Architecture

While many of the designs we’re showcasing here are decades old, some have a freshness that would have made them stand out (in a good way) in modern Berlin. Otto Bartning’s 1922 design for the Sternkirche is a prime example of this.

Bartning, one of the architects behind the UNESCO World Heritage-designated Siemensstadt Settlement in Charlottenburg, drafted this elegant church just two years later. A masterpiece of Expressionism, the Sternkirche’s domed roof and cascading arches angled it to become an instant icon.

Though the Sternkirche was never realised, another one of Bartning’s churches has fared better in the physical world – the Gustav Adolf Church on Herschelstraße, just a stone’s throw from the Siemensstadt. 

Finsterlin’s Concert Hall, 1919

Hermann Finsterlin, concert hall, dated 1919, graphic around 1960, watercolour on cardboard, 25 x 32.5 cm. Acquired from the Berlinische Galerie, 1978. © VG Bild-Kunst

After World War I, Berlin started looking more towards its future, and a healthy dose of modernity was infused into the city. This shift was also reflected in architectural proposals, such as this whimsical sketch of a concert hall.

Fed up with the austerity of Prussian architecture, Expressionist painter and poet Hermann Finsterlin drafted this plan in 1919 to challenge the imposing styles that had become the norm. This fantastical concert hall, which seems to thrust itself resplendently from the very ground beneath it, never advanced beyond the watercolour stage.

We’re not quite sure how technically plausible it is, but just imagine, what a creative powerhouse it could have been.

(Former) Leninplatz, 1967

Collective Manfred Jäkel, Lothar Kwasnitza, Dieter Urbach, competition design for the Leninplatz residential development, image collage by Dieter Urbach, 1967, repro of the 13 x 18 cm negative. Acquired from budget funds of the Berlinische Galerie, Berlin, 2013. © Dieter Urbach

Though most of the concepts presented thus far were meant for West Berlin, the former East experienced its fair share of failed architectural plans. Here, for example, is a submission for a GDR-era residential complex on Leninplatz, now the site of the United Nations Square.

Architects Manfred Jäckel, Lothar Kwasnitza and Dieter Urbach submitted this layout to a 1967 competition for a new housing development which would have abutted the southwestern corner of the Volkspark Friedrichshain.

Other than the space station-esc columnar structure on the right, this entry feels like it would fit in perfectly with the steely former-Soviet architecture that persists today.

Marx-Engels Forum, 1958-59

Gerhard Kosel with Hanns Hopp and Hans Mertens, Marx-Engels Forum with “Central Building”. Photography: Gisela Dutschman, repro from the 13 x 18 cm negative. © Legal successor Kosel, Gerhard; Hopp, Hanns; Mertens, Hans / Berlinische Galerie

Back before the TV Tower and the since-demolished Palace of the Republic presided over the capital of the GDR, urban planners sought a layout that exemplified their new government’s socialist ideals.

Not far from where the Marx and Engels statue stands over today’s Berlin Innenstadt Park, architects Gerhard Kosel, Hanns Hopp and Hans Mertens proposed this layout for the area in a 1950s urban design competition. With its vast public spaces and symmetrical arrangement, their plan would surely have stricken awe into anyone passing through. 

Bandstadt Grunewald, 1973

Ralf Student, Ursulina Student-Witte, Bandstadt Grunewald, cut, 1973. Repro from the negative 2015. © Student-Witte, Ursulina / Berlinische Galerie

As we all know, Berlin is in an acute housing crisis, and we’re all rethinking how we can use what precious space we have more efficiently. Berlin is actually built over swamp land, meaning that skyscrapers are out. But have you ever thought about building on top of the Autobahn?

Back in the early 70s, Ralf Student and Ursulina Student-Witte devised an ambitious plan to construct a terraced housing complex above the AVUS (Automobil-Verkehrs- und Übungsstraße) between Charlottenburg and Nikolassee. Sounds bizarre, right?

Even though this plan never came to be, you can actually see a similar one in Wilmersdorf, affectionately known as the “Schlange”, where an 1,800-unit apartment complex was built to alleviate the housing shortage after the Wall went up. 

Renovation of the Reichstag, 1992

Foster Associates, competition entry for the renovation of the Reichstag, 1992. A 1st prize, inkjet print, 44.2 x 80 cm. Purchased from budget funds of the Berlinische Galerie, 2013. © Foster + Partners

The Reichstag building has a storied past. Between fires and wartime bombings, the original 1894 structure fell to disrepair. It remained that way until reunification in the early 90s, when Berlin was reinstated as the German capital.

To breathe new life into the old building, the German government sent out a call for renovation proposals. The plan for the iconic glass dome currently perched over the Reichstag, designed by British architect Norman Foster, ultimately won out. But take a look at this alternate plan here, which also came from Foster’s firm.

This unrealised renovation, essentially a massive roof on stilts, would have cast a perpetual shadow over the modernised Reichstag. A far cry from the bright transparency of the glass dome there today!

This article has been adapted from the German by Alexandra Ertman.