Give Me an A

There’s nothing quite like it anywhere else in the world: a Museum of Letters. Whatever might that be and what on earth does it have to do with Karl-Marx-Allee?

There used to be a brilliant neon sign advertising a pet shop in blue letters edged in yellow neon tubes on one of the towers at Frankfurter Tor. Dating back to the early 1980’s, when the city was still divided, the sign was a colourful eye-catcher in the uniformly grey cityscape of East Berlin. After the fall of the Wall, the Austrian-born graphic designer Barbara Dechant moved into the tower at the very end of Karl-Marx-Allee. Her apartment afforded her a view of the illuminated display. We met in the early 1990’s when I was working on a feature for the then-trendy magazine MAX. Relations between long-time residents of Karl-Marx-Allee and newcomers from the West were a hot topic at the time.

Barbara Dechant was one of the many new arrivals who had been drawn here by the allure of the boulevard’s unique architecture. The neon display was an additional bonus. When the pet shop went out of business in 2009, the sign would have been switched off forever if it hadn’t been for Barbara Dechant and her partner Anja Schulze, who worked in the PR department of the Stadtmuseum Berlin. Four years previously, the two women had come up with the concept for a “Museum of Letters” and started rescuing any illuminated signage and adverts that had lost their practical relevance.

After raising enough money to add the “Zierfische” sign to their collection, there was no stopping the two neon enthusiasts. Their museum, which today houses more than 1,000 exhibits, is one of a kind. And after moving four times, it has finally found a permanent home not far from another design and architectural gem, the Hansaviertel.

Claudio Divizia_Shutterstock_Hansaviertel_Berlin
Hansaviertel in Berlin. Image courtesy of Claudio Divizia,

Designed as a Western “counter-project” to Karl-Marx-Alle und Strausberger Platz , the radical reconstruction of the Hansaviertel as part of the 1957 International Building Exhibition was one of West-Berlin’s first flagship projects to showcase concepts of modern living and urban renewal pioneered by architects such as Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer. This meant no-frills functionalism in the Western part of the city and functional, Bauhaus-style apartments behind classicism-inspired fronts on Karl-Marx-Allee in the East.

The Museum of Letters, too, pays testament to these divergent building styles, albeit in the guise of signs, illuminated displays and billboards in different shapes and sizes, fonts and materials. They form a public alphabet that is every bit as quirky and unique as Berlin itself.