At Hauptbahnhof, train travellers get a chilly reception – and it’s about to get colder. Dan Borden explains.
Forget Potsdamer Platz or the Reichstag dome – Berlin’s most ambitious piece of post-Wall architecture is its main train station, aka Hauptbahnhof. German rail company Deutsche Bahn took a billion-euro gamble when they proposed the city’s first central station, binding together tracks from east, west, north and south. The station opened in May 2006 but it’s far from complete: Deutsche Bahn is still digging away, expanding its network of tunnels. The 300,000 passengers who flow through Hauptbahnhof every day confirm Berliners’ commitment to lowcarbon transport and the station as the city’s beating transit heart.
In 1993, Hamburg-based architects Gerkan, Marg & Partners won the design competition for the station, Europe’s largest. Their scheme was inspired by the Eurostar terminal at London’s Waterloo station with its sleek, snake-like glass barrel vault. Budget cuts famously chopped the east end off Hauptbahnhof’s curving glass canopy. Trapped beneath its black office towers, our shortened station is less an elegant snake and more a handcuffed caterpillar.
Still, Hauptbahnhof is an efficient machine channelling passengers between Deutsche Bahn trains and local transit with a little shopping along the way. Just don’t walk out of the building. The area surrounding Berlin’s main train station is a bleak wasteland – and it’s about to get worse.
Hauptbahnhof’s north portal dumps new arrivals onto a chaotic limbo – grandly titled Europaplatz – where they drag their luggage uphill while dodging taxis.
Around the globe, travellers stepping out of central stations are greeted by grand squares offering hotels and cafes with clearly marked taxi and bus stands. Hauptbahnhof’s north portal dumps new arrivals onto a cramped, chaotic limbo – grandly titled Europaplatz – where they drag their luggage uphill while dodging taxis in the shadow of a giant, robotic rocking horse. It’s as if the designers never meant for their building to touch the ground.
Right across Invalidenstraße from the station is a vast stretch of abandoned railyards that’s slowly being transformed into Europacity, 40 hectares of new offices and flats. It’s a blank slate, a place where planners could have acknowledged the station’s importance by creating the grand central square that Berlin deserves. Instead, plans call for a half-hearted extension of Europaplatz on a triangular patch of leftover space, bordered by a tunnel entrance on one side and office buildings on the other. No welcoming piazza. No sidewalk cafés.
The design bears the stamp of Regula Lüscher, Berlin’s Senate Building Director. She describes herself as Europacity’s “design curator”, and the buildings she’s handselected, like the planned 84m-high tower on Europaplatz by architect Allmann Sattler Wappner, have gridded stone facades reflecting her penchant for corporate minimalism. Instead of the lively, decadent Berlin of lore, Hauptbahnhof arrivals will step out into this new district defined by Swiss-born Lüscher’s good taste: uniform, rigid and coldly sterile.
Hauptbahnhof does in fact have a large public square, though you probably haven’t seen it unless you arrived by boat. Dubbed Washingtonplatz, it’s a windswept terrace stretching from the south entrance to the Spree River.
Half the plaza is currently walled off as construction workers prepare for the arrival of Cube Berlin, a building by Copenhagenbased designers 3XN (photo). If the idea of this 72m-tall block of ice landing in the heart of the city provokes dread, you might be a Star Trek fan: the evil Borg species travels in cube-shaped starships. The facade’s fractured-glass motif is equally troubling, referencing either the shattered windows of perception or a dropped smartphone screen. But even more disturbing is what’s inside this Cube: office space geared toward the city’s growing army of high-tech drones.
There was a time when Berlin seduced the world’s youth to come and squander their best years in a smokey, drunken haze. Now Europe’s young arrive at Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof eager to spend long days at computers in climate-controlled boxes, devoting their best years to speeding the wheels of mass consumption. Is it too late to save Berlin’s cold, cold heart?