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Berlin’s water pumps: What’s up with those green water fountains?

As you walk around Berlin, you might notice green water fountains. What are they, what's behind their design, and do people still use them?

Historic water pump at Winterfeldtplatz in Schöneberg. 
Photo: Imago/Schöning

Once you start to notice, you see them everywhere. Water pumps, also called street fountains, are key feature of Berlin’s cityscape. It’s easy to pass them without a second thought, yet these street fountains tell the story of Berlin – and still have a function today. So what’s the story of Berlin’s water pumps, what are their different styles, and what does it take to keep the water flowing today?

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Street fountains were once Berlin’s main water source

When we take a shower, do laundry or make coffee, we hardly ever ask where water comes from – you just turn the tap on and it runs. However, well into the 19th century, this process involved considerable effort. Before there was a central water supply in Berlin, people would have to go to wells for water. Up until the 18th century, every house had a well in the backyard. Later, the draw wells were replaced by pumps with a lever: i.e. by the street fountains that are still in Berlin today. By the middle of the 19th century there were around 6,000 fountains in the city. With the construction of the first waterworks in 1856 in front of the Stralauer Tor, the street fountains gradually fell into disuse.

Street fountains today

Many of these water pumps still serve a crucial purpose: they ensure an emergency supply of drinking water in the event of large-scale disruptions to the central water network.

The fountains became immensely important again during the Second World War

There have been episodes in Berlin’s history when street fountains have been necessary. This was the case during the Kapp Putsch in 1920: Berlin was in the hands of the counter-revolutionary military for 100 hours, which paralyzed the water network. The fountains became immensely important again during the Second World War, as bombing left much of the central water network completely incapacitated.

Today, the street fountains retain this special responsibility, as they are supposed to supply the population with water in the event of any disruption to the public water supply. At least, they are in theory.

Do they still work?

There are 2,079 street fountains in Berlin, of which only 1,614 are functional (as of 2022). This means that Berlin doesn’t have enough fountains for a major emergency. The pumps are operated by the Streets and Parks Departments of the various city districts, and they are thus responsible for maintenance. Around 900 of the fountains are financed by the federal government; the rest are financed by the state of Berlin. According to one estimate, it would take around 20 million euros to repair all the wells. However, officials from the Office for Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance are hesitant to provide funding to the project.

Berlin doesn’t have enough fountains for a major emergency

If you’re lucky and there is a working water pump near your front door, it’s ideal for watering trees, especially in a dry summer. Public use of the fountains is also encouraged by the Berlin Senate, since the regular pumping of water ensures that the wells don’t dry up. So don’t hesitate to try one out for yourself!

In the dry Berlin summer months, the water pumps are ideal for watering the trees. 
Photo: Imago/Sabine Gudath

Street fountains as art

If you take a closer look at the street fountains, you’ll notice that there is a wide variety of design. In fact, one can trace the art history of Berlin along these fountains, from baroque to Bauhaus modernism. One such example is the pipe well at Wöhlertstraße 18 – which just happens to be the last of its kind. This fountain differs from the others in terms of its pump mechanics. Instead of a lever for pumping, it had a handle to pull up and down, which has since been removed. It can also be distinguished by the organic, floral cast sculpture near the bottom of the fountain – this is an early example of Art Nouveau aesthetics. This type of fountain was designed by Otto Greiner and Louis Lohde and was installed in 1877.

The last fountain of this design in Berlin can be found in Mitte.
Photo:  Wikimedia / Boonekamp (also Günter Haase), CC BY-SA 4.0

The so-called ‘Lauchhammer pumps,’ named after the art foundry that manufactured them, were designed by Otto Stahn. These fountains can be recognized by their ornate neo-baroque style. They were manufactured in three slightly different versions: Type I depicts a fish’s head as a gargoyle, Type II has a dragon’s head, and Type III bears the coat of arms of Berlin with a crown adorning the top.

After 1925, the elaborate Lauchhammer pump design was replaced by the simpler Krause design. These pumps are slimmer, and the columns are in a neo-classic design, giving them a dignified, clean look.

In contrast to the Lauchhammer pumps, the neo-classical Krause pumps have a simpler design.
Photo: Wikimedia/Boonekamp by Günter Haase, CC BY-SA 4.0

The production of new wells continued in the postwar period, particularly as the Berlin Wall posed a potential challenge to water production and storage to those living in West Berlin. In the 1970s, designer Fridtjof Schliephacke designed a modern street fountain – function and form became synonymous. The design is based on the Bauhaus model, so good luck finding flowers or dragon heads on this one.

The Rümmler water pumps are the complete opposite of the neo-baroque Lauchhammer pumps. 
Photo: Wikimedia/Boonekamp by Günter Haase, CC BY-SA 4.0

These inconspicuous fountains tell the story of Berlin – through artistic periods, wars and disasters and, since they still work, their story isn’t over yet.