Luxuriously Bland: Berlin’s Newly Extended U5

Jesse Simon takes a ride on the newest addition to Berlin’s public transit network…

Brandenburg Airport may have hogged the headlines with its combination of political intrigue and gross ineptitude, but the long-awaited U5 extension is arguably a finer example of Berlin’s leisurely approach to public works projects.

The new line, which connects the central rail station (Hauptbahnhof) with the tourist and transport nexus of Alexanderplatz, has been in the works for nearly twenty years and, for much of the past decade, the central promenade of Unter den Linden—once famed as Berlin’s most beautiful street—was rendered inaccessible by unsightly fences bearing optimistic estimates of when the work would be complete.

When the extension finally opened at the beginning of December, it was met with a mixture of excitement and relief. On the day of the grand opening, platforms at the new Unter den Linden and Rotes Rathaus stations were swarmed with television crews and enthusiastic Berliners documenting the moment with cameras and phones.

Out on the street, staff members with special U5 face-masks handed out commemorative sweets, and a group of sentimental train-spotters gathered on the platform of Französische Straße station—supplanted after 97 years by the new station a few dozen metres to the North—to watch the first trains pass through without stopping.

Photo by Jesse Simon

It was an historic day, and the fanfare was undoubtedly well-deserved. But once the initial rush of enthusiasm had faded, one was left with the inescapable notion that the extension was concerned more with the city’s international image than the needs of its own citizens.

When the U5 first opened in 1930, it ran from Alexanderplatz eastward toward Friedrichsfelde, and after the city was divided, it was the only U-bahn line located solely in East Berlin; it was, in fact, one of only two U-bahn lines serving the East German capital, which relied more heavily on the S-bahn and its complex tram network. Although the line was extended further east to Hönow during the DDR era, Alexanderplatz remained its Western terminus.

In the West, however, planners at the BVG—the West Berlin transport authority back then—had drawn up a long-term plan for the U-bahn that accounted for the possibility of a reunified city. In addition to a hypothetical new line from Steglitz to Prenzlauer Berg, the plan included an extension to the U5 that would run from the city centre to Tegel airport, meeting the U9 at Turmstraße and the U7 at Jungfernheide. Platforms were even constructed at the two transfer stations, although they have never been used.

After 1991, when Berlin resumed its role as the capital of a unified Germany, plans for the U5 extension were quickly revived. The new part of the line would run beneath Unter den Linden, through the new Bundestag complex and the Hauptbahnhof—both then under construction—and onward to Tegel, perhaps one day extending even further to Rathaus Reinickendorf.

It was a brilliant idea that failed to materialise. Construction began in 2000 on the first new segment, linking Hauptbahnhof to Brandenburger Tor, and lasted nearly a decade. When the U55 finally opened in 2009 it was almost comically useless, a two car shuttle that yo-yo-ed back and forth every ten minutes, usually empty save for a few perplexed tourists. Travellers arriving at Hauptbahnhof for the first time must have been baffled to discover that the sole U-bahn connection to the city’s central station effectively went nowhere.

Photo by Jesse Simon.

It would be another decade before the isolated spur of the U55 was finally connected to its parent line. Segments of the proposed line that ran beneath Museum Island—the site of Berlin’s earliest settlement—were subject to a preliminary archaeological sweep, and progress was further delayed by the notoriously marshy ground which necessitated the construction of a specialised tunnelling machine. During the long construction phase, Tegel airport closed and the westward part of the extension was quietly shelved.

Even in its final form, there can be no doubting the value of the U5 extension: the connection of Hauptbahnhof with the U-bahn network is, on its own, cause for celebration. Government workers at the Bundestag complex will undoubtedly be happy to be less isolated from public transit, and residents of Lichtenberg and Hellersdorf may well be relieved that they no longer have to change trains at Alexanderplatz. Yet these advantages seem somewhat incidental to the real purpose of the line.

A glimpse of the starry interior of the Museum Island station, due to open in 2021. Photo by Jesse Simon.

Many of Berlin’s most conspicuous construction projects in the twenty-first century have been an attempt to bring the city up to the standard of other European destinations, and to create an experience for visitors that is clean, modern and safe. In addition to the new airport, the city has wasted countless millions on a replica of the Stadtschloß, and lavished millions more on Sir David Chipperfield’s James Simon Galerie. The U5 extension seems part of this trend. It’s nominal purpose may be to join Hauptbahnhof with the U-bahn network, but it appears to have been designed specifically to improve the ‘tourist corridor’ that runs from the Reichstag to Alexanderplatz.

These aspirations are reflected in the stations themselves, which have been finished with expensive-looking polished-stone cladding and look considerably different from anything else on the line. Unter den Linden is impressive both for its sheer volume and the way that its volume is placed on constant display: with its plate glass, bright lights, and monumental escalator banks, it is precisely the kind of station one would expect to find at the centre of a modern European city. It probably now has the best circulation of any U-Bahn station in Berlin.

Rotes Rathaus’s white mushroom pillars. Photo by Jesse Simon.

Rotes Rathaus, with its parallelogram motifs and central row of white mushroom pillars, is considerably smaller in scale, but no less concerned with distancing itself from the functional aesthetic of past stations. And when the Museumsinsel opens sometime next year, visitors will be able to emerge from a blandly luxurious station into an equally bland quarter of tastefully recreated neo-classical buildings completely untarnished by lingering memories of the twentieth century.

There is nothing inherently wrong with Berlin’s attempts to fashion the city centre into a modern experience for tourists, but it should not come at the expense of projects that will improve the city for those who live here. Berlin’s U-Bahn is still maddeningly incomplete: between 1961 and 1989—the years of the Berlin Wall—no fewer than eighteen new U-Bahn segments were constructed and opened, including all of the U9 and the bulk of the U7; since reunification there have been only five, including the two phases of the U5 extension.

Although there are a few new projects on the distant horizon, including a long-planned extension of the U8 to Märkisches Viertel and a continuation of the U9 to Lankwitz, most of these are still in the feasibility-study stage and, at present, the city seems more concerned with making unnecessary cosmetic upgrades to unfashionable stations from the seventies.

Slick but bland escalator banks at Rotes Rathaus. Photo by Jesse Simon.

Berlin is growing rapidly, but it seems to think it can simply prop up what already exists with extra busses and trams rather than investing in the infrastructure that will allow it to flourish in the longer term. The U5 extension may have been a step in the right direction, but only time will tell if it was the beginning of a new chapter or the terminal stage in the city’s relationship with useful public transit.

Next in Design & ArchitectureMuseum der Dinge (Museum of Things) »