Zeiss Major Planetarium Berlin – an East German Flagship Facility that Still Ranks among Europe’s Finest

The Zeiss Major Planetarium Turned 30 Last Year

Last October saw the 30-year anniversary of an event that was of major importance in the history of socialist East Germany. On 9 October 1987, the grand opening of the Zeiss Major Planetarium adjacent to the new Ernst-Thälmannpark housing project in the Prenzlauer Berg district was celebrated with plenty of pomp and ceremony. The country’s leader Erich Honecker himself inaugurated the iconic new building among general enthusiasm in the political elite. One speaker praised ‘Berlin’s new landmark’ as a ‘striking testimony to the GDR’s socio-economic power’, as the Berliner Zeitung reported on 5 October 2017.

Aerial view of Zeiss Major Planetarium ©SPB / Foto: Hans-Friedger Lachmann

Cutting-Edge Architecture and Technology

The Planetarium’s success was almost a given – after all, it had been designed by the crème de la crème among East German professionals in a collaboration between Erhardt Gißke, one the GDR’s leading architects, and Ulrich Müther, one of the country’s most renowned civil engineers. Gißke’s portfolio of prestige projects includes the Palast der Republik and the ward block of the Charité Hospital, while Müther designed a number of expressive concrete shell buildings including the ‘Maple Leaf’ on Berlin’s Fischerinsel.

Foyer of Zeiss Major Planetarium ©SPB / Foto: Frank-Michael Arndt

Planetarium auditoriumof Zeiss Major Planetarium ©SPB / Foto: Hans-Friedger Lachmann

The two master builders brought their combined expertise and experience to bear on the design of the Major Planetarium. With its distinctive dome made of thin concrete and the computer-controlled ‘Cosmorama’ star projector, the building was an architectural delight as well as a first-rate research and education facility that would garner acclaim far beyond the borders of East Germany. Supported by 69 slide projectors, ‘Cosmorama’ made the night sky come alive in the 23m (75ft) high dome. An audio system featuring 89 speakers created stunning sound effects. As befitted an event of this magnitude, the first Planetarium’s programme bore the title ‘Phantastisches Weltall’ (‘Fantastic Space’).

Planetarium auditorium of Zeiss Major Planetarium ©SPB / Foto: Frank-Michael Arndt

Obsolescence, Million-Euro Modernisation and Renaissance

The public were happy to accept Honecker’s invitation and flock to the new attraction in droves. In the first two years after opening, the Planetarium welcomed more than 500,000 visitors. State visitors were proudly shown around the gleaming new facility, experts from all over the world held their conferences there. Unfortunately, even planetariums are not immune to aging. As the years went by, visitor numbers started to dwindle until they hit rock bottom in 2013.

Between 2014 and 2016, the Zeiss Major Planetarium went through major renovations to the tune of 13 million euros. Now an obsolete legacy model, the trusty ‘Cosmorama’ projector was replaced by state-of-the-art digital technology to ensure survival of the Planetarium’s reputation as the most modern of its kind in Europe. The Planetarium’s equipment includes a 830 m2 (8,934 ft2) projection screen – the largest in Europe – as well as more than 100 slide projectors, a laser show system and surround sound with 89 dual speakers and video projection technology.

Planetariumssaal mit Computertechnik
Planetarium auditorium of Zeiss Major Planetarium including newest computer technology ©SPB / Foto: Frank-Michael Arndt

PCinema within the Zeiss Major Planetarium including newest computer technology ©SPB / Foto: Frank-Michael Arndt

The obsolete star projector has been turned into a star attraction on display in the foyer. Some other relicts from the building’s history have also been preserved. At the reopening in August 2017, the facility’s director Tim Florian presented the uniforms worn by staff members in 1987: grey jackets made from imitation leather for women, suit jackets made of leather and red ties for men. Horn also saved the old leather armchairs in his office as well as three upholstered chairs that are now in the basement. Legend has it that one of them is the chair Honecker sat on during the grand opening all those years ago.