Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Berlin Water Pipes You Don't Smoke

This is a new-fangled blue pipe!
If you've ever taken a stroll through central Berlin, you've probably noticed the massive blue/purple/pink pipes winding along the sides of streets, over streets, and into the ground. In many cities, these structures would stand out starkly and draw a fair amount of attention from residents and visitors, but in Berlin they sort of blend into the fabric of the often-just-dirty-enough urban landscape. The surrounding graffitied walls and ubiquitous construction sites render the pipes relatively unremarkable. They themselves are often adorned with various tags and street art – just another kind of urban canvas to be utilized.

On the surface, the pipes are mere curiosities, but they actually reveal a pretty interesting and oft-forgotten aspect of Berlin's history; namely, that the entire city was built on top of a swamp. The region around Berlin has historically been referred to sarcastically as the "Streusandbüchse", and presented challenges from day one during the settlement of the area. The term Streusandbüchse translates literally as "sand box", but actually refers to a small box containing fine sand that was used to dry the ink on manuscripts. So what exactly does the Brandenburg-Berlin Streusandbüchse look like?  

The Spree-Havel region in Brandenburg/Mecklenburg.
Berlin is situated right in the armpit of the Spree and Havel Rivers, the latter of which flows into the Elbe about 150 km north of Magdeburg. Berlin sits just 35 meters above sea level on average, and just to give you an idea of just how flat this region is, the River Havel drops only 50 meters in its 325-km trip from the already-quite-flat Mecklenburg to the Elbe (see map, with the Havel in dark blue). A quick glance at the whole region shows that the rivers often bulge out into lakes as they pool up on the flat land. The Wannsee in southwest Berlin and the stretch along the Havel bike trail west of Potsdam are great examples.


Historically, Berlin was a late bloomer on the European landscape. As a backwater trading post on the outer fringes of the Holy Roman Empire, Berlin sat on swampy, primarily nutrient-deficient, loose soil (with the notable exception of the Havelland west of Berlin), and Middle Ages settlements were perched on silt islands that rose out of the lake-like Spree of the 13th century. The settlements were important for east-west trade, but for the most part stagnated. Some 400 years later in the mid-1600s, however, following a few spoonfuls of Black Death, a healthy dose of malnourishment and the death or emigration of half of its population during the 30 Years War, the Hohenzollerns looked to reincarnate Berlin, only this time much bigger and better. They called pretty much everybody to come on over, but perhaps most crucial to the expansion of the city were precisely those people who knew best how to build on swampy silt and sand: the Dutch. As Berlin expanded beyond the silty high ground around the river, engineers and architects from Holland came to the rescue, drained the land, and the rest is history.   
Unter den Linden. Notice the copious
construction cranes.



Today, the colored pipes are most commonly spotted near large construction sites. Together with modern pumps, they are used instead of windmills to lower the water table in order to set building foundations. There are also many problematic spots where the pipes are basically permanent, and on these you're more likely to find ads and/or graffiti, depending on what you call art, of course (see photo and check out Pink Pipes of Berlin!). The latest example of Berlin's high water table causing problems is at the now-notorious, to-be-finished-at-an-as-yet-uncertain-date-for-a-much-higher-price Berlin-Brandenburg Airport (BER) being built on the southeastern outskirts of the city. While the massive public project has been delayed for just about every reason ranging from flaws in the fire safety system to a shortage of check-in counters to the actual size and capacity of the airport, if the thing is actually sinking into the Streusandbüchse as this Focus article says it is, all those problems may be a moot. One would have thought they would have learned from the Dutch engineers in the 17th century, or from the myriad water pipes throughout the rest of the city. Lord knows, we'll probably be able to snap pictures of these above-ground pipes at the construction site for the BER airport five years from now!
Photo by rituffo: 'Pink Pipes of Berlin'

(If you're into early-80s German TV documentaries, this one on the Berlin freeway ring gives a nice idea of the idyllic landscapes that are Brandenburg. They mention the Streusandbüchse at 12:00, and unrelated, but the Fisherman at 27:00 has a pretty solid Brandenburgisch dialect)