Discover the history and architecture of Karl-Marx-Allee
With its vast proportions, imposing apartment blocks, and huge historical significance, Karl-Marx-Allee is one of the most immediately recognisable streets in Berlin. Let’s take a closer look at the street, how it developed, and just why it looks the way it does.
Before it was Karl-Marx-Allee, this monumental socialist boulevard was named after another Soviet heavyweight. Known as Stalinallee (until his name became a “dirty word” in the Soviet Union in 1961), and running about 90m wide and 3km long, the street runs from Frankfurter Tor in Friedrichshain all the way to Alexanderplatz in Mitte. It is divided into two parts and, although they share the same massive proportions, the two sections are quite different. Along the more famous and imposing section, from Frankfurter Tor to Strausberger Platz, the street is lined with monumental apartment buildings designed in the socialist classicist-style of the Soviet Union. Contrastingly, from Strausberger Platz to Alexanderplatz the buildings are simpler, prefabricated blocks, interspersed with modernist masterpieces.
The reason for the street’s unique look is down to the original intentions of the East German government, the ideology of the architects, and the fluctuating social conditions of the time. Stalinallee was a display of ideological purity through monumental architecture. The GDR was founded in 1949, and its immediate concern was to rebuild the vast sections of the country which still lay devastated following WWII. At the same time, however, the GDR felt the pressure of exemplifying the power and the glory of socialism (particularly to those snooty West Germans). Stalinallee in the east and Hansaviertel in the west were built almost simultaneously, both as advertisements for the power and productiveness of their respective social systems. Yet as time went on, authorities were a little unsure what exactly they were supposed to be illustrating.
Berlin in 1949 was, understandably, not in the best condition. Even though the war had finished four years previously, up to 80% of the city had been destroyed, and reconstruction was slow to begin. The architect Hans Scharoun (whose most notable works include the Berlin Philharmonic and these spectacular houses for sale in Spandau) had developed a concept for the complete redesign of the whole of Berlin. This so-called “collective plan” envisaged a rigorous redivision and decentralisation of the city, as well as a looser construction with large, open green spaces between the individual residential buildings.
Capitalising on the vast swathes of destruction, Scharoun proposed a “rip it up and start again” approach. The big city would essentially be dissolved into smaller residential areas, breaking any connection with the historically developed layout of Berlin. Though his (admittedly ambitious) plan was rejected by magistrates in 1946, the particularly badly destroyed district of Friedrichshain was chosen as a ‘test case’. In 1949, construction began on two new residential apartment buildings, at nos. 102/104 and 126/128.
These “arcade” houses (Laubenganghäuser) are so-called because of the covered walkways, similar to shopping arcades, which run the length of the houses and provide access to the apartments. The five-storey houses are in the sober, rectilinear, modernist style of the 1920s. The arcades face the street and form a strict grid, with the openings of the individual segments between the pillars. The apartments are mostly studios, with some one-bedroom apartments. Scharoun’s concept was to form a network of residential “cells” out of these arcade houses, each consisting of 4,000-5,000 inhabitants plus trade and commerce, in a similar format to the Siemensstadt housing estate in the west of the city (which Scharoun was also influential in designing in the late 1920s).
Unfortunately, these houses were out-of-date almost before they were completed. The modernist style, strongly influenced by the ideals of Bauhaus architecture, lost support in politics. The Soviet Union recommended that national and regional building traditions be studied in urban development projects and that their typical characteristics be incorporated into the design and structure of new buildings and their façades. Functionalist architecture in the tradition of Bauhaus was now considered bourgeois, decadent and formalistic. Showing their usual tolerance (not to mention a slight flair for the dramatic), the authorities planted fast-growing poplar trees in front of the buildings to hide them from view, and moved on to the next phase.
Phase 2 – 1950-1959
In 1950, an East German government delegation travelled to Moscow, Kiev, Stalingrad and Leningrad to study the urban planning of the Soviet Union, eager to come up with ideas for the design of their grand boulevard. This educational trip resulted in the manifesto "16 Principles of Urban Planning", shaped by the ideal of the "socialist city". The austere constructivist style developed in the 1920s (and illustrated by the arcade houses) perfectly fitted collectivist ideology, but it soon proved inadequate to properly flaunt the glory of the Soviet Union and support the propagandistic image of prosperity. Stalin’s centralised, neo-imperialist system needed an appropriately grandiose style, to project complete authority. This style became known as "Socialist Classicism", and was about to flourish.
Hochhaus an der Weberwiese (Weberwiese Tower Block)
To best understand Stalinallee, it’s necessary to take a few steps away, and head to Marchlewskistrasse 25. This is where you will find the Weberwiese Tower Block (“Hochhaus an der Weberwiese”). This high-rise apartment building, completed in 1951, is the prototype on which the entire street was built.
With this building, the architect Hermann Henselmann had found the perfect style that the political leadership of the GDR had sought for the reconstruction – a decorative regional historicism. With its stout rectangular base, strong sense of verticality and crown-like roof terrace, the tower block clearly takes inspiration from buildings such as Moscow State University and the Palace of Culture in Warsaw. At the same time, the cladding of high-quality white ceramic plates and decorative elements from the Meissen porcelain manufactory hearkened back to Karl-Friedrich Schinkel, star architect of the Kingdom of Prussia 120 years previously and responsible for many of Berlin’s most famous buildings (such as the Altes Museum).
The interior of the building was no less lavish. These were spacious, two-bedroom apartments, with central heating, electric ovens and even a communal television antenna (a little premature, as there were not yet any TV programmes, but commendably forward-looking). In total, the construction costs for each apartment were nine times higher than the average. And in keeping with communist principles, 30 of the 33 new apartments were allocated to workers’ families, with the others given to a police officer, a teacher and an architect.
With its imposing grandeur, the Weberwiese Tower Block suited the image of socialist stability and control, while its recognisably Berlin features blended it into the existing tradition of local buildings. It at once exemplifies centralised control from Moscow, as well as indicating some level of devolved local governance. Plus, the apartments were modern, well-equipped, and given to ordinary workers at a fair price. The perfect piece of architectural propaganda.
This propaganda was soon to be implemented on a much larger scale. In November 1951, the East German government published an appeal for the reconstruction of Berlin, with Stalinallee as the focal point of a district of high-rise residential buildings and as a model for capital-city architecture and urban planning. To this end, the population was called upon to carry out voluntary, unpaid work to clear the ruins. At the beginning of 1952, excavation began for Block E-South in-between the arcade houses and in February, Prime Minister Otto Grotewohl laid the symbolic foundation stone there for the entire newly conceived street.
Once the dust had settled following eight years of intensive building, the street had changed beyond all recognition. Massively wide, it stretches over two kilometres in a dead straight line, lined by five enormous apartment buildings, each with up to 13 floors. The ground floor is given over to shops and other commercial premises, with residential apartments on the other floors.
These buildings are truly magnificent. Though all share the same design ethos and plan, they are each subtly different. Like the Tower Block at Weberwiese, the façades incorporated many “Berlin Classicist” elements. They blend familiar local decorative ornamentation with quotations of antique forms, such as Doric or Ionic columns, or ornamental gables with friezes depicting idealised socialist scenes. The entrance to Karl-Marx-Allee 77-79, for example, has a wonderful portico lined with Doric columns. The tiered levels of the buildings play the same trick as at the Library of Ephesus or Disneyland, using perspective and verticality to draw the eye upwards and make everything appear even larger and more massive.
To the east, the boulevard is bordered by Frankfurter Tor. Modelled to look like a city gate, two huge domed towers were built, based on the towers of the German and French churches on Gendarmenmarkt. The other end of this section of the boulevard lies at Strausberger Platz. Similarly, here Henselmann designed imposing, matching high-rise buildings, inspired by American Art Deco architecture of the 1930s.
The result is some kind of architectural Gesamtkunstwerk for promoting socialist ideology. Every element, from the street layout, to the exterior embellishments of the imposing tower blocks, to the (then-)modern comforts within the apartments, coalesced into the epitome of GDR propaganda. From the late 1970s, Stalinallee was used for military parades and communist demonstrations, and served as part of the protocol route during state visits. The street was the perfect advert for “life in the GDR”.
The construction of Stalinallee has another, less explored but no less momentous, role in history. Despite the best propaganda efforts of its rulers, there was general dissatisfaction with the economic and political situation in the GDR. In 1952 alone, 182,000 people left the country for the West, and this was the time that the border between the two states began to be strengthened.
Grievances with the ruling classes had a number of causes, including the accelerated construction of socialism, and the leadership's associated ignorance of the needs of the working class. After the Central Committee ordered a general increase in labour targets by 10%, workers at the building sites on Stalinallee (actually at the pretty rose garden which you can find at no.103) downed tools and called for a strike, on 16th June 1953. First gathering at Strausberger Platz, the protesters marched towards the headquarters of the Council of Ministers (close to the Nikolaiviertel), the numbers swelling until they reached 10,000. Word of the demonstration spread and, on the 17th June, there were demonstrations throughout the GDR, particularly in Berlin, Magdeburg, Leipzig and Dresden. The number of people involved in the protests cannot be determined exactly, but figures fluctuate between 400,000 and 1.5 million people. Martial law was declared, the Soviet Union effectively took control of the country, their troops moved in and the uprising was crushed within a few hours.
This was already an intensely turbulent period, coming during the bitter struggle for succession that had broken out following Stalin’s death in March 1953. The warring factions were grouped around the powerful Minister of the Interior Lavrentiy Beria, who favoured a release of the GDR in the interest of international détente and in the hope of German economic cooperation, and Nikita Khrushchev, who feared that the uprising would set an example to other Eastern European states or to nations within the Soviet Union. Khrushchev was victorious, overthrowing Beria in a coup in June 1953.
The uprising had indeed acted as a political signal to the people in the Eastern Bloc states. In Yugoslavia, for example, the uprising was described as “the class protest of the German worker against the state-capitalist conditions imposed on him by the occupying forces.” As a result, the Warsaw Treaty was ratified in 1955, which militarily bound the Eastern European states and the GDR to the Soviet Union, consolidated the division of Europe, and crushed any possibility of a reunited Germany in the near future.
Phase 3 – 1959-1969
Contrary to the original plans, Stalinallee was not built uniformly all the way from Frankfurter Tor to Alexanderplatz. A major reason for this was the high construction costs of the Workers' Palaces – the GDR could not afford to house everybody at nine times the average cost. Additionally, a change in style had occurred in the meantime. In 1955, two years after Stalin's death, a decree to eliminate excess from constructions was issued, and few things were more excessive than these apartment buildings. It was not only developments in taste, but also in socialist ideology. Excess and classicism were out; functionality and modernism were very definitely in.
The Worker’s Palaces were completed in 1959, and construction on the next phase, between Strausberger Platz and Alexanderplatz, began. In contrast to the magnificent confectioner's style-edifices, simple eight to ten-storey prefabricated buildings were built as residential buildings with wide green spaces and shopping pavilions facing the street and between the blocks, similar to Hans Scharoun’s original plans over a decade previously.
Catching up to Modernity
These buildings were intended to set a new accent in socialist building culture, which was now more oriented towards international modern architecture. At the same time, East Germany’s prefabricated concrete manufacturing industry was switching into high gear, making housing construction considerably cheaper.
The residential buildings along this section of the street, particularly leaving behind the Workers’ Palaces, are definitely underwhelming. Yet there are a number of incredibly interesting and striking buildings here. The Kino International at Karl-Marx-Allee no.33, is one of the most famous and recognisable, a spacious cinema and event space. Made from a three-storey reinforced concrete skeleton structure clad in light sandstone, the cinema’s spacious foyer juts out nine metres above the ground without supports.
Directly opposite, you will find Café Moskau, a hugely popular local meeting spot, serving Russian culinary specialities. The yellow tiling shows the barest hint of continuity with the Workers’ Palaces, but the rest of the design could hardly be more of a disruption. Its transparency is striking, which was achieved through an open atrium construction and glass windows along each wall. The entrance area is decorated with a huge mosaic entitled “From the Life of the Peoples of the Soviet Union”, and for the opening of the restaurant, a life-size copy of the Sputnik satellite was attached, a gift from the ambassador of the USSR.
Technically, “Stalinallee” only existed for 12 years, between 1949 & 1961. A 5-metre-high bronze statue of Stalin, which had stood on Stalinallee for 10 years, was demolished overnight in the late autumn of 1961, following a process of de-Stalinisation in the Soviet Union. During the fall of the monument the street signs were changed, the only indication that the name of the street had also changed, to Karl-Marx-Allee. Stalinallee was no longer.
Attitudes towards the monumental boulevard have long been mixed. Aldo Rossi, Italian architect and one of the leading exponents of postmodernism, called it “Europe’s last great street”. Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez remarked, “it’s dimensions are as overwhelming as its tastelessness.” Yet there is no denying that it is one of the most impressive, intriguing and illustrative streets in the whole of Berlin.