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Save Berlin: Underground prophet

Dan takes a U-Bahn ride to Berlin’s landmark stations.

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Photo by Sonia Teruel Rabadán

Dan takes an U-Bahn ride to Berlin’s landmark stations.

For most Berliners, the city’s U-Bahn subway system is just a way to get from A to Z. But take the U7 line from Adenauerplatz to Zitadelle Spandau and you’ll get something more: a journey through space and time, back to Cold War-era West Berlin via the restless mind of this city’s second-greatest U-Bahn architect, Rainer Rümmler.

When young Rümmler became the U-Bahn’s chief designer in 1964, West Berlin was a weird place. The walled-in city surrounded by hostile East Germany was kept alive by billions of Deutsche Marks pumped into construction projects – like new subway lines. By the time he retired three decades later, Rümmler had left his mark on 50 stations.

Finding an identity for Berlin’s post-war transport system was a struggle. Rümmler’s 1970 Zwickauer Damm is a typical early design: the floors are naked concrete, and the platform walls are tiled one colour – a chartreuse yellow in this case – with the station’s name in a cool sans-serif font. Intended as an homage to Berlin’s greatest U-Bahn architect and Rümmler’s pre-war predecessor, Alfred Grenander, it is more of a tepid non-design, symptomatic of a traumatised era, when making bold statements or evoking the past (for example, East Berlin’s Karl-Marx-Allee) could be branded as an echo of Nazi grandiosity.

A pop art kick start

Rümmler wriggled out of that design straitjacket by way of pop art. In his 1970s stations like Osloer Straße and (the now redesigned) Adenauerplatz, monochrome walls were replaced by colourful super graphics that playfully referenced their locations.

More importantly, Rümmler jumped from two dimensions to three. For the 1971 Fehrbelliner Platz U7 station, he concocted a bold and completely unnecessary entry building, all sci-fi -inspired curves finished in red tile with a green (digital) clock tower. Its genius lies in its placement: centred in a plaza surrounded by monumental Nazi-era office blocks, Rümmler’s sculptural entrance is a cheeky, candy-coloured middle finger to its fascist neighbours. It’s also Rümmler’s declaration of design independence from his disgraced architectural forefathers.

The planned extension of the U7 line from Adenauerplatz to Spandau put Rümmler on a collision course with the past. The isolated suburb was synonymous with Spandau Prison, then still home to Hitler’s notorious deputy Rudolf Hess. Worse, the architect had to design a station named for Hitler’s favourite composer, Richard Wagner.

Psychedelic dreams

By the late 1970s, architects had begun incorporating bits of architectural history into their modern buildings. Post-modernism gave Rümmler license to finally look backward without apology. At Richard- Wagner-Platz station, he embraced his subject, creating colourful wall panels depicting scenes from the composer’s operas and incorporating century-old mosaics from the demolished Alt-Bayern hotel. At the neighbouring stations, Wilmersdorfer Straße to Jungfernheide, he really let loose with trippy wall patterns made from tiles cut at jagged angles, a nod to 1920s expressionist artists.

How could a city living on handouts afford such decadence?”

The last seven stations ending at Rathaus Spandau show Rümmler at his most liberated and inventive. Some might even say off the rails. Every surface, from marble-tiled floors to coffered ceilings, is decorated. Each station is unique. Paulsternstraße’s giant tiled flowers and psychedelic trees seem lifted from a Peter Max fever dream. Altstadt Spandau has looming lotus-shaped columns in white metal panels with blood red seams. The station at Spandau’s city hall (photo) is so dense with detailing, it feels like Rümmler puréed all of architectural history in a blender then dumped it out.

When the Spandau stations opened in 1984, visitors were stunned, but not in a good way. How could a city living on handouts afford such decadence? But 30 years later, Rümmler’s stations have aged astonishingly well, both physically and in reputation. Last year, Berlin’s Senate put those seven stations, along with Fehrbelliner Platz, under landmark protection. Generations of future riders are assured a chance to watch Rümmler’s career flash by at the speed of an U-Bahn train. It’s well worth the trip.