18 January 2012

Jan 18, 2007: Kyrill’s brief encounter takes two tonne fig leaf off central station’s modernism


Shopping Malls ∕ Sick Buildings ∕ Structural Collapse

In a three part series commemorating the five year anniversary of Kyrill blowing I-beams out Berlin’s central station, I take three pot shots at this grotesque (meaning it’s like a Grotto, but also pretty hideous) building, trying to undo it with writing. In Part 1, the faufu (faux functionalist) aesthetic is exposed as a charade to conceal a shopping mall as a train station. Part 2 explores the planners’ devices to artificially prolong our stay in the station and thereby our exposure to its commercial offerings (it’s really true). Part 3 gives a historical perspective for why this building is so putrid and perfidious and why it is tragic that it was errected here, where the excesses of the Gründerzeit spawned functionalism as a medicina mentis (Prozac) with good intentions.

“They float on the landscapes like pyramids to the boom years all those Plazas, and Malls, and Esplanades” Jane Gidion, On the Mall

Circulation heals, soothes sore muscles, sanitizes the bedroom, flushes us with nutrients and minerals. Shops cluster around terminals like micro-organisms and crustaceans around an underwater volcano. A constant pulse of arrival and departures flushes the mall with fresh consumers and drains away the old. Graphs of sales figures rise and fall with scheduled arrivals and departures. Glass and steel Panorama escelators and elevators pierce the station’s numerous shopping levels like surgical equipment, flushing endless concourses of outlets and chain cafes with a steady supply of shoppers. Intake, compression, shop, exhaust.

At midnight on January 19, 2007, the isobar map for northern Germany looked like this, moments after Cyclone Kyrill’s furious winds has swept through Berlin.


Missing from the facade of Berlin’s central station was a two tonne steel I-beam and another one was hanging by its thread. In a single blow, Kyrill had knocked four tonnes of steel off value-engineered supports, and the lid off of most of our conceptions about this building, it’s modernist appearance, and the professions involved in its construction. Architect’s GMP were complicit in the pastiche modernist design, but DB had taken control of the building’s construction and someone had said “these little steel rails that keep the two tonne beams in place and cost us 67 Euros? We don’t need those.”


Fears for the building’s structural integrity were quickly dispelled. Kyrill’s distructive winds had only inflicted superficial damage. The two tonne I-Beam had had little to prop up besides itself and the image of a modernist facade. It had served as one of the massive, but purely decorative, horizontal transoms of the station’s externally expressed structure. St. Thomas, patron saint of architects, had unleashed his fury at this endless square footage of vacuous mediocrity – the latest missed opportunity to translate the promise and potential of early re-unified Berlin into built form – only days after its completion. It had sent Kyrill to expose the applique fig leaf modernism of Berlin’s central station. This publication smelled a rat ever since Kyrill plunged this dubious building into disrepute. They had promised us a “Stadtkrone”, instead we got this mall.


Years later, I found myself literally kicking the brushed steel facias of the nation’s and this station’s most prized glass elevators, down there in the pit of track 7, with girlfriend, child, stroller, and a mound of stuff that parenthood seems to always collect around you. I started to wonder if there was method to this buidling’s wretchedness. I beams that created the illusion of functionalism, crystalline elevators that didn’t live up to their aesthetic promise in terms of effectiveness, convoluted circulation whose sole purpose was to suck you deeper and deeper into the buildings auraless, cold, techno vacuity? I don’t recall ever feeling this much anger at an inanimate thing or building, in my life, not since I was eight. I wanted to kick it in the nuts, kick the life into it, and the shit out of its stoic, disaffected detachedness, fucking with me and succeeding.

I was trapped. After leftist terror attacks in October 2011, my train south had been canceled, and chasing one replacement connection after another, we had been sent on a tour de farce around the train station, experiencing the full brunt of what I was suspecting was a deliberate attempt to trap us in this Moloch of mammon for as long as, and by any means, possible. Eventually you will fold, and buy a croissant, a mini pizza, or some underwear. You might miss your train and have to buy a new ticket. On our fourth and final elevator trip, we felt we were drowning in this building – running, sweating, hope, defeat, not knowing up from down, etc.

“Your next connection is in 10 minutes from Track 12”, said the DB rep. Ok, that sounded good. “So that means you won’t make it”, he concluded. What? It takes 10 minutes to get from the main North South tracks to the main East-West tracks? How can that be, I thought, as this is what this building was sold to us on, that it linked up these two routes beautifully and functionally, as an expression of Germany’s new found unity.

HBF_int09myriad2_900could you move that sign? I can’t see my train

All this physical exertion had only brought us closer to our first family stint on the Tagesschau, but I had to pull my girlfriend away from the limelight, just as she was making her closing remarks, in a last ditch effort to miss our next connection on track six. “I swear they said track six” I said. Of course, there had only been a single PA anouncement , and a four minute notice, to make it to that train. The lone DB rep on the track shrugged her shoulders and shook her head, flapping a blond pony tail around, tied back under her red faux velvet DB cap. Her smart device was not smart anymore. It, too, had conceded to the terrorist’s arson, as had the LCDs, and all other displays, all the other fancy schmancy gadgetry. All they were doing was checking the internet for train schedules, anyway. She could not help me, was like me, just with a hat and uniform, just didn’t have to catch a train. This brief feeling of sympathy couldn’t stop the inevitable from happening. I unleashed a verbal attack that made me look pathetic and helpless. It didn’t seem to phase her one bit, but offered temporary relief from the swelling in my neck and throat I had eperienced, where the feeling of injustice resides. On a deeper level, I had already resigned long ago,when I saw Wolfgang Tiefensee (Germany’s former traffic minister and ironically also in charge when the station openend in 2007) walk up to a rep with smart phone and be turned away like anyone else. We had all become this Moloch’s children.

the nation's elevatorsdescent into Moloch in shiny elevators – a bit slow, but nice to look at

The building’s exterior looks engineered and functionalist, but is, in fact, a carefully crafted image that serves as a decoy. This might be called a train station but is only 20% train station and 80% percent shopping mall. There is really no reason for this to look any different than Alexa or any other Pomo shopping mall. The functionalist appearance here serves the purpose of fooling us into thinking we are confronted with a train station, the aesthetic of “the overall railway-station character of our existence”, to quote Ernst Bloch. Maybe it fooled some officials into thinking they were getting a train station. I suspect a study indicating that people are 30% more likely to shop in a mall if unaware of being in one.

From the perspective of a train station and a user, the functionalist appearance served to mask an architecture of deliberate dysfunctionality. From the perspective of a vertical mall and shopper, it may be a building that is very functional, but the common architecture of functioning malls is not that of the “railway-station character of our existence”.

X ray image through modernist fig leaf of the station's real selfthe station’s real self – X ray image through modernist fig leaf