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What’s up with those pink metal pipes?

It's one of the first questions of any Berlin newcomer. Pink, a bit rusty, and zigzagging their way all over the city. What are those those colourful metal pipes?

Something to do with the wall, maybe? Photo: IMAGO/Pond5 Images

You don’t have to go far in Berlin to stumble across something odd. And in a city well-known for its zany street art and zu verschenken treasure troves on every street corner, walking around Berlin can often feel like an excursion into the inexplicably quirky.

So, what’s going on with those pink steel pipes that zigzag through the city? You’ve definitely seen them – pink, slightly rusty and contorted into bends and bumps as they twist over construction sites, Spielplätze and tram-lines. What actually are they? A massive art installation? A complex and colourful waste-removal system? Gas pipes? It’s one of those questions that everyone who visits Berlin finds themselves puzzling over. 

Photo: IMAGO , Steinach

Welcome to swampland

Here’s an experiment for you. Dig 20 to 50 metres underground pretty much anywhere in Berlin and you’ll find out that you’re basically digging a puddle. The city is built on marshland. In fact, the name Berlin mostly likely comes from the old Slavic root word ‘brlo’ or ‘berl(o), which means “swamp” or “wetland”. That means that whenever there’s construction going on (and there’s certainly an awful lot of that), huge amounts of groundwater need to be pumped out of the earth.

Photo: Morgane Le Breton / Unsplash

That’s what the pipes are for. They drain the ground. And since Berlin has a habit of its construction projects taking longer than anticipated, many of the pink pipes weren’t meant to be around for so long, either. However, in areas where there is constantly a lot of building happening, they can end up as pretty permanent fixtures, staying for years and even decades.

Think pink 

Essentially, nothing could be built in Berlin without these pipes. That’s all very good and well, but it doesn’t explain one key thing. Why are they pink? The company behind the pink pipes, Pollems, was founded over a century ago. When they were contracted by the city of Berlin to create an expansive network of above-ground water pipes, they decided to make a statement.

Photo: IMAGO , Steinach_2

In 1992, Pollems hired a researcher to find out what colour is most popular with children, and the clear answer was pink. That’s why today Berlin’s streets enjoy a good pop of colour in the form of some 60km of pink pipes. In recent years other colours, including purple and red,  have become common too. Pipes produced by Berlin-based engineering company Brechtel can be easily spotted by their signature shade of blue.

Photo: IMAGO , Panthermedia

As for all the quirky bumps, bends and loops throughout the pipe system, well that actually has a pretty straightforward explanation. When temperatures drop below 15 degrees celsius (59 degrees fahrenheit), the metal of the pipes can shrink or break. Having various curves and coils instead of a series of long, straight stretches of pipe helps stop this from happening.

Rosa Röhre

So, where does all this water go? When water is pumped out of the ground, it makes its way through the pipes and empties either into nearby canals, the Spree or – and this is a good twist – into a massive, wacky-looking circulation tank in Charlottenburg. This building looks pretty special. Located on Schleuseninsel in Müller-Breslau-Straße, the circulation tank is basically the big mama of Berlin’s funky pink pipe system.

Rosa Röhre in Charlottenburg isn’t just one of the biggest circulation tanks in Europe, it’s also an officially listed building. Photo: IMAGO , imagebroker

Designed in 1975 by Berlin architect Ludwig Leo, the structure isn’t just one of the largest of its kind in Europe (at 55 metres long with an 8 metre diameter tube), but also a great example of avant garde post-war architecture. Known somewhat unimaginatively as Rosa Röhre (pink pipe), the circulation tank and enormous pink pipe have been a listed building since 1995. You’ve probably spotted it from the S-Bahn as you’ve passed between Zoologischer Garten and Tiergarten.

There you have it – the mystery of Berlin’s most colourful infrastructural system, solved! The story of the city’s pink pipes is just another reminder that, even when it comes to something as banal as removing excess groundwater, Berlin never does things the straightforward way. Want to learn more about all things odd and off-the-beaten-track in Berlin? Click here to read about the city’s hidden gems.