Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Solstice-to-Solstice with the Berlin Fernsehturm

Some would point to the Brandenburg Gate as the most prominent Wahrzeichen (emblem or symbol) of Berlin, but in the post-Berlin Wall period, I think more and more people would point to the fantastically pointy Fernsehturm – or TV tower. Love it or hate it (I love it), this icon of the DDR-Zeit reigns supreme over Berlin's otherwise-modest skyline; like nearly every aspect of Berlin's landscape, it has an interesting history that begins with a 300-million-dollar mistake about 20 miles to the southeast. I decided last December that a little Ode an den Fernsehturm was in order, and over the past six months I had the perfect office window to compose it.

Starting in mid-December, with the sun merely skirting the horizon over the course of a day, I decided to take a picture from the same spot in my office window each work day (with a barely-noticeable move one room to the east about halfway through) between 11:30 AM and noon – admittedly I did take a few shots up to an hour late when I was forgetful. As it turns out, this winter was also one of Berlin's (and Germany's) greyest on record, with a grand total of 67.5 hours of sun for the entire winter season. April got a lot sunnier, and those trees absolutely exploded with green at the first opportunity. I particularly like to watch the sun migrate upward over the course of the video as we pass through the equinox toward the summer solstice. I first loop through slowly, then again much more quickly, and finally I end with those precious few days of sun between December and late May. There are 95 photos in total, and the music is "Murs Beat" from RJD2. You can also find the video here on YouTube.
There's a strange beauty in the simplicity of
the Fernsehturm. Maybe it's more beautiful
because of all the hideousness surrounding it.

Das Fehlgeburt auf dem Müggelberg

There is a subtle irony in the story of how the Fernsehturm ended up being built in the center of Alexanderplatz in the former East Berlin, and how it later became the icon of a modern and united Berlin. The DDR party leaders wanted to trumpet the architectural prowess and power of their Communist utopia, but also wanted to improve their miserable radio and television broadcasting reach (something something two birds, something something stones). They chose the highest point in East Berlin, the Müggelberg near the southeast corner of Groß-Berlin, so that their new tower would imposingly lord over the plains of Brandenburg and the plebs obediently working the sandy soil. At the same time, though, they wanted to bite their collective thumbs at the capitalist naysayers of the West. Alas, only after they had laid a 300 million dollar foundation did they think to consider whether the planned 160-meter spire might interfere with air traffic. Sure enough, it did. And it's a wonder they didn't think of it sooner given that Schönefeld Airport is well under 10 km away (as the plane flies) from Müggelberg. Apparently, foresight was about as abundant as luxury consumer goods in the DDR. So before anyone noticed, Walter Ulbricht and Co. dreamt up a much more grandiose plan...

A more typical, and greyer, view of the tower.
Berlin's Third City Center, and a Thumbed Nose to the West

The tower was to be placed at the center of Alexanderplatz, thus putting the finishing touch on the new center of East Berlin. As far as I'm aware, Berlin is the only world metropolis that has three distinct city centers pointing to three very distinct aspects of its history: the 800-odd-year-old city center in and around the Nikolaiviertel (which is now little more than a curiosity and secondary tourist destination), the center of the East at Alex, and the epicenter of West Berlin that was artificially established around Kurfürstendamm and the Gedächtniskirche. So Ulbricht's tower plans grew from 160 to over 300 meters, and they even threw in a rotating restaurant to impress the Muscovite Comrades during state visits. The West had the consumer mecca at the KaDeWe, but Ulbricht one-upped them with a massive silver ball that was visible to all Berliners, East and West. The game was far from over though, as the West soon thought it would have the last laugh: the Fernsehturm's architects formed the tower's sphere such that it reflected the sunlight perfectly into the sign of the cross, and it didn't take long before the more pious Westerners named it the Rache des Papstes ("the Pope's Revenge"), referencing the godlessness of the Eastern and Soviet regimes. Before Reagan single-handedly brought down the Wall with one simple turn of phrase in his famous speech, he jeered the East and their massive 'becrossed' sphere. Piety, however, was not destined to define the future Hauptstadt, though. Today, the Fernsehturm has become the symbol of a re-united, modern, increasingly cosmopolitan, and very much secular Berlin; in the end, the last laugh goes to the Fernsehturm itself, because it managed to transcend its builders, and later its detractors to represent a much better version of Berlin.

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