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Save Berlin: Flushing queens

Dan Borden explores three Berlin examples of prosaic plumbing turned into high art.

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Philipp Lohöfener © Wüstenrot Stiftung

Three Berlin examples of prosaic plumbing turned into high art.

The fates of great cities hang on water: first, having enough, and second, keeping it flowing. Berlin is congenitally blessed with wetness – lots of lakes, rivers and groundwater, but our cutting edge sewage system is the gift of a 19th-century prophet named James Hobrecht. In the 1860s, Berlin’s chief surveyor drew up a road map for the city’s future that’s still guiding its development 150 years later. A key element was the sewage disposal system that divided the urban area into 12 zones. Pipes brought wastewater to the lowest point in each zone where a pump station sent it out to a sewage field on the city’s periphery. Its radial form gave the pump stations their names: Radialsystems I through XII. Today, Friedrichshain’s pumping plant has been repurposed as the Radialsystem V arts venue. Berlin is rightfully proud of its infrastructure. Here are three examples of water-related buildings and their designers.

Tubular Frankenstein

Pink pipes are a Berlin trademark – we’re not just famed for the rose-coloured tubes flying over construction sites sucking away pesky groundwater, our city is also home to the mother of all pink pipes. In the mid-1970s, when the new Pompidou Centre in Paris was grabbing headlines for exposing its colourful pipes on the outside, Berlin went one better – we built a monster pipe with a bright blue building riding on top. It’s there along the S-Bahn, just east of Zoo Station: the Umlauftank 2 or Circulation Tank 2 (photo top). Opened in 1974, it’s a kind of wind tunnel for model boats. Water flushes through its 120-metre-long loop at 10 metres per second helping make ships, subs and bionic sharks more hydrodynamically efficient. Researchers from the Technical University collect data in the blue box on top. A just-completed €3.5 million facelift has brought the techno marvel back to peak candy-coloured condition. When the Umlauftank 2 first appeared, its young designer Ludwig Leo was hailed as a wunderkind who’d fused pop art and high tech into a new architecture. Sadly, despite living until 2012, Leo never built again. We have one other Leo building, his 1971 headquarters for the German Life Saving Association (DLRG) tucked away in Spandau.

Indoor plumbing
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Photo by Daniel Cati

Just across the Spree River from Leo’s sloshing masterpiece sits one of Berlin’s original pump houses, the Radialsystem VIII (1890). Today the red brick Moabit landmark has been repurposed as a sports centre, replaced by its neighbour, a modern pump house by Cold War Germany’s most renowned architect (photo right).

In the 1980s, West Berlin was kept afloat by billions of Deutschmarks funding infrastructure projects, and O.M. Ungers was enlisted to join the campaign. Working with Stefan Schroth, Ungers created an iconic postmodern building, a caricature of a house with pointed gable, green roof and four tall brick smokestacks. Here the pipes are all hidden away, in an open basement three levels deep. Unlike Leo, Ungers was a prolific designer, but he’d already fallen out of fashion when he died in 2007. His most distinctive Berlin building, a 1980s housing complex on Lützowplatz, has been torn down and replaced by a generic commercial building.

Septic cleansing

When Ungers’ pump house opened in 1987, West Berlin was experiencing a building boom, dozens of new buildings going up as part of IBA87, the International Building Exhibition, a giant urban development project. Besides Kreuzberg, the district with the most new buildings was Alt Tegel, a sleepy corner of West Berlin that was showered with a dozen grand housing blocks – and one phosphate removal facility. Austrian designer Gustav Peichl turned water filtration into surprisingly elegant architecture. The complex is an add-on to the giant Schönerlinde wastewater treatment plant which pumps 37 million cubic metres per year of sanitised sewage into the Tegeler See. In the 1970s, that water was full of phosphates which fed algae and turned the lake’s water thick and opaque. The new filtration plant improved visibility by a factor of 10, making Tegeler See the cleanest body of water in the city. Architect Peichl modelled his white plaster building on the bridge of a ship, referencing both its water-related function and Bauhaus-era buildings that aped ocean liners with their clean lines, iron railings and porthole windows. It’s both slyly clever and graceful, appropriate for a designer who, now 91, has had a second career drawing political cartoons for Vienna newspapers.

These three buildings are only the tip of Berlin’s plumbing iceberg – 10,916km of pipes lie under our feet – but they make a case that James Hobrecht’s grand scheme is still something to marvel at.