Living History

In 2012 Berlin’s Senate, under the auspices of the current Mayor Michael Müller, applied for Karl-Marx-Allee – including Strausberger Platz – to be added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. And rightly so!

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image courtesy of Goulden / photocase.de

The wheels may be turning slowly, but the jackpot is worth waiting for: the recognition of Karl-Marx-Allee as a world heritage site. UNESCO’s list of worldwide cultural and natural monuments is not an especially long one – just over a thousand sites have been deemed worthy. Incidentally, UNESCO owes its existence to a German – the forestry scientist, Bernd von Droste zu Hülshoff.

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image courtesy of s.schabbach / photocase.de

The route onto the World Heritage list involves successfully navigating a committee of 21 members representing all continents and cultures. The committee sets the bar for acceptance very high and, once on the list, sites are always under the microscope. This constant review process led to the first ever delisting of a site in 2007: a wildlife sanctuary for the Arabian Oryx antelope in Oman was taken off the list after it was decided to reduce the size of the reserve by 90%. The award of the World Heritage title comes with an obligation to preserve a site. This is just as true for architectural monuments. In the case of Karl-Marx-Allee (together with Strausberger Platz), the listing would secure the architectural ensemble once and for all, especially given Germany’s seriousness in relation to world heritage designations. The Allee is already an architectural monument. Signs along the street announce to visitors that they are standing on “Europe’s longest architectural monument”. The stretch between Strausberger Platz and Proskauer Straße measures 2.5km in a straight line. The signs certainly help to enhance the current UNESCO application.

It also helps that there are two very special architectural situations in Berlin, arising from the ideological ping-pong between East and West. Applying as a “double pack” reflects this. To the west is the Hansa Quarter, created in 1957 as a response to Karl-Marx-Allee and erected as part of the International Construction Exhibition. With designs by architects such as Alvar Aalto, Egon Eiermann, Walter Gropius, Arne Jacobsen and Oscar Niemeyer, the Hansa Quarter is a demonstration of the diversity of modernity, whereas in the East it was decorative, regional historicism, under the stewardship of Herrmann Henselmann, which dominated.

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image courtesy of Delpixel / fotolia.de

There is no other site on Earth where architecture and urban development were so shaped by the political confrontation between East and West as these two quarters in Berlin. The fall of the Berlin Wall transformed these conflicting buildings into complementary architectural ensembles. Political systems made tangible through architecture; because power has always liked to create monuments. It is not only the fact that the two quarters are so close to each other (less than thirty minutes from Strausberger Platz to the Hansa Quarter by car) that makes them so special: it is the housing conditions, living spaces for people, created according to wildly different political and philosophical approaches that (should) make this a World Heritage Site. A smidgen of understanding and sensitivity are required to appreciate the extraordinary aspects of these two opposing architectural poles.

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image courtesy of HG Esch

The fact that there is an ever-increasing readiness to recognize these unique architectural features is noticeable along Karl-Marx-Allee and at Strausberger Platz. The residents are getting younger and younger and there are waiting lists for apartments; this is now regarded as one of Berlin’s “hippest” addresses. Both sites fully deserve the World Heritage Site title – and as a mixed double, the pairing is unbeatable.

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