A Symbiosis of Socialism and Capitalism – Karl-Marx-Allee in Berlin

As the saying goes, when the wind blows from the East, this is where you notice it more than anywhere else. Karl-Marx-Allee, formerly Stalinallee, which cuts through the districts of Mitte and Friedrichshain, is one of Berlin’s most iconic road sections. There are few other places where political history, ideological warfare and architecture are so closely intertwined. This two-mile stretch of road is a piece of post-war history located in the heart of the German capital. So-called “workers’ palaces”, some built in the style of Socialist Classicism, also known as “national tradition” in the GDR, some harking back to Prussian Classicism, line both sides of the road, which has experienced a number of name changes over the course of its illustrious history. Before 1949, it was divided into Große Frankfurter Straße (between Frankfurter Tor and Strausberger Platz) and Frankfurter Allee (from Frankfurter Tor eastwards). After the establishment of the German Democratic Republic, its name was changed along with its architectural style: on 21 December 1949, the entire road was renamed Stalinallee in honour of the eponymous leader’s 70th birthday.
Among the most distinctive features of Karl-Marx-Allee is its expansive layout. That’s because it was designed for parades and displays of military power as much as for everyday traffic. The boulevard is bookended by the twin towers at Frankfurter Tor, built in the same style as the Französischer Dom (French Cathedral), and the iconic buildings on Strausberger Platz with their unusual step-like structure, which is reminiscent of official buildings in U.S. state capitals. This area is sometimes marketed as Berlin’s “golden east”, probably due to the location of the workers’ palaces, whose exterior facades reflect the evening sun in summer, casting the entire boulevard into a golden glow.

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The Strausberger Platz.

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The view over Strausberger Platz to Alexanderplatz.

Divided by Architecture during the Cold War

After the Second World War, the famous German architect Hans Scharoun devised a new development concept for Berlin, which became known as the “collective plan” and was designed to foster a decentralised approach to urban development. Although several Bauhaus-style housing blocks with balcony access were in fact built on Stalinallee in 1949 and 1950, they did not prove very popular in the Russian sector. Walter Ulbricht, effectively the East German leader from 1950 until his death in 1973, disliked them so much he ordered fast-growing poplars to be planted in front of them.

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The striking pillars at Strausberger Platz.

With growing political tensions, the approaches to the city’s architectural restoration increasingly clashed as well. While the Western part was rebuilt in the spirit of decentralisation, restoration work in the Russian sector was oriented around central elements such as major roads, squares or monuments. Scharoun’s call for a spacious layout interspersed with extensive green spaces was slapped down. Rather than continuing to implement his collective plan, the political leadership sent a delegation of experts to a number of Soviet cities (Moscow, Kiev, Stalingrad, Leningrad) to investigate the “principles of urban living” according to the Soviet model. The Scharoun buildings were increasingly isolated and eclipsed by giant “wedding cake”-style workers’ palaces, which are among the most extensive housing complexes in Berlin at a length of 285m (935ft). Aesthetic highlights include pillars in their entrance areas and ceramic features adorning their exterior facades. The majority of these residential buildings benefitted from interior fittings on a par with western standards, including lifts and central heating.

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Hauses built in the “wedding cake”-style.

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The Golden East from State Ownership to Private Property
German reunification and the collapse of the Soviet Union ended the ideological warfare between the two competing system. In spite of the stark contrast to architectural styles in any other residential areas in Berlin, including the pre-fab buildings typical of the former East Berlin, Stalinallee – renamed Karl-Marx-Allee in 1961 – has been preserved in its original post-war state. Protected under a preservation order since 1990 and subject to major restoration work in the mid- to late 1990’s, the former socialist showcase project has long since been conquered by capitalism.

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Renovated history in the middle of Berlin.

Many of the former workers’ palaces were bought up and modernised by private investors to live in or rent out. The total housing stock along Karl-Marx-Allee currently consists of 2,767 mostly one- or two-bedroom apartments. Development projects carried out in the aftermath of reunification include restoration and improvement work on the parks and green spaces as well as housing developments such as Skjerven Group’s Central Berlin project on Strausberger Platz. The monumental boulevard still offers a lot of untapped opportunities for development. Located in the close vicinity of Alexanderplatz to the west and hip districts like Warschauer Straße and Kreuzberg to the south, Karl-Marx-Allee is a popular residential area distinctive for its unique architecture as well as its irreducible touch of East German charm. On summer evenings, the sun still casts its golden glow – if there’s one place in Berlin that deserves the honorific “golden East”, this is it.

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Central Berlin at Strausberger Platz.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the history of the former Stalinallee, Ansichtssachen.de offers regular guided tours through this part of Berlin. Olaf Riebe is a geography graduate and a font of interesting information about architecture, socialism and living in the GDR.