The Rise and Fall and Rise of Karl-Marx-Allee

Jesse Simon untangles some of the contradictions behind one of Berlin’s most fascinating streets…

If you live in Berlin—and there isn’t a global pandemic going on—the chances are high that your friends will want to visit. As a conscientious host, you’ll probably want to show them around. If they’ve never been before, you’ll be duty-bound to take them to the Brandenburger Tor, and they’ll almost certainly want to see what’s left of the Berlin Wall, which will mean a visit to Bernauer Straße, the East Side Gallery or Checkpoint Charlie.

When that’s out of the way, you can take them to Karl-Marx-Allee. As you watch your friends snapping photos of the street’s distinctive socialist architecture, you may recall the first time you saw the street yourself, how you too were awed by the excessive decoration and intimidating scale. Regardless of how your rational mind may feel about the architectural styles or social ideologies, the brash monumentality and sincerity of expression are enough to take your breath away. And rightly so, for Karl-Marx-Allee was engineered, above all else, to be impressive.

Karl-Marx-Allee, 1967. CC BY-SA 3.0. Bundesarchiv Bild 183-F0416-0025-001

As the first major post-war reconstruction project in the newly formed East Germany, Karl-Marx-Allee had to be a show-stopper: it wasn’t merely a chance to put socialist housing ideals into practice, but an opportunity to demonstrate to the allied powers watching from the Western sectors just how quickly and efficiently such a vast undertaking could be achieved in a well-organised socialist state.

What emerged was an improbable marriage of progressive post-war urbanism and neo-classical bombast, a grand boulevard as impossible to discount as it was to ignore. Some seventy years after its first buildings went up, Karl-Marx-Allee remains an unresolved mess of stylistic and ideological contradictions, and one of Berlin’s most endlessly fascinating avenues.

Modest Beginnings

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Große Frankfurter Straße was a broad road that passed through Berlin’s eastern neighbourhoods on its way towards the villages of Lichtenberg and Friedrichsfelde. It did not run all the way to Alexanderplatz, as it does today, but started at the point where Kaiserstraße and Kleine Frankfurter Straße converged (both streets vanished after the War, but they would have met near modern-day Schillingstraße).

The route had long been in use as the main eastern road leading, as the name would suggest, to the town of Frankfurt on the Oder. By 1930, however, it was a bustling metropolitan avenue, and it’s arterial importance within the city was confirmed with the opening of U-Bahn Line E (today’s U5), which ran beneath it.

As with so many parts of Berlin, the neighbourhoods around Große Frankfurter Straße were damaged extensively by Allied bombs, and at the end of the Second World War there were many sections from which nothing could be salvaged. For Berlin’s citizens the war had been an immeasurable tragedy, but for its planners it was the chance of a lifetime, the opportunity to say goodbye to the chaos of the industrial era, and rebuild the heart of the city according to the principles of modernism.

The initial plan for Große Frankfurter Straße was conceived in 1948 under the stewardship of Hans Scharoun, an architect who had been involved in designing one of Berlin’s last great pre-War housing estates—the Großsiedlung Siemensstadt—and who, in 1946, led the first planning committee to rebuild the destroyed capital. His plan involved a mix of slabs, high-rises and clusters of smaller residential units, laid out within a loose network of smaller streets and landscaped open-spaces.

Deck-access residential slab from the pre-DDR plan (1949) by Ludmilla Herzenstein. Image by Jesse Simon.

Only one section of this initial plan was constructed: a long, low five-storey slab with deck-access flats, designed by Ludmilla Herzenstein, which today faces the street across from the Kosmos event space; behind it on Graudenzer Straße lie a series of diagonally arranged four-storey slabs separated by green space. These buildings give us some idea of what the residential district might have become if it had continued to follow Scharoun’s design. However, changes in the city’s political situation soon caused the planning direction to take an abrupt turn.

Stalin’s Shadow

In October 1949, the German territories under Soviet control were formally established as an autonomous state—the German Democratic Republic—and the Soviet-run eastern sector of Berlin became its de facto capital. The newly-minted nation lost no time displaying its credentials by renaming its streets after champions of the socialist struggle. As one of the city’s significant thoroughfares, Große Frankfurter Straße was given the honour of being renamed after Joseph Stalin.

Unlike many of the fallen comrades commemorated in the new geographic order of the city, Stalin was still very much alive. The Russian leader, like the Pharaohs and Roman emperors before him, knew that architecture was the cornerstone of any good cult of personality, and under his less-than-benevolent guidance, post-war Moscow had developed a singular architectural style that discarded the formal advances of modernism in favour of a regressive neo-classicism, expanded to a scale designed to awe and overwhelm.

Yet the style, known in some circles as socialist classicism, depended as much on decoration as size for its impact. The buildings were vast but intricately detailed, with stonework reliefs and repeating classical motifs re-imagined for a new socialist world. This overabundance of surface detail, combined with a preference for pale, powdery colours led to the nickname ‘wedding cake architecture’.

The Stalinist approach to monumental urbanism found its way to the architects and planners of East Berlin when they were sent on a trip to Moscow shortly before resuming work on what was now Stalinallee—a visit that signalled the end of any visible modernist influence. A new design, by architect Egon Hartmann, reconceived Stalinallee as something between a grand boulevard and a monument to the collective spirit of the workers.

Where Scharoun’s plan had dispersed its residential buildings throughout a larger area, Hartmann’s plan concentrated its structures along the axis of the boulevard. The blocks were long, tall, and narrow, set back far enough from the original building line to create an impression of vastness. The two ends of the boulevard—Frankfurter Tor and Strausberger Platz—were marked by pairs of towers.

The style of the blocks along the boulevard remains remarkably consistent, yet each was the work of an individual architect: in addition to Hartmann, buildings were contributed by Richard Paulick, Hanns Hopp, Karl Souradny, Kurt Leucht and Hermann Henselmann, who was given responsibility for both sets of towers.

Richard Paulick’s Block C (1952) finds a certain nobility within the state-approved neoclassical style. Image by Jesse Simon.

The architects had no problem adapting to this idiom; Paulick was so adept at neoclassicism that he was later put in charge of restoring the partially destroyed opera house on Unter den Linden. Henselmann was vocally less enthusiastic, although he was allowed to continue working on the project after signing a written statement retracting earlier comments. Despite the restrictive style, many of the architects had trained as modernists and retained certain modernist sympathies. As a result, the decorative surfaces and neoclassical flourishes of the residential blocks concealed a remarkably advanced approach to higher density urbanism.

Most of the blocks are narrow, and many of the flats are allowed to extend the entire width of the building, allowing for maximum air circulation and natural light; the same idea also appears, most conspicuously, in Le Corbusier’s then-still-unfinished Unité. The integration of residential and commercial space is also handled in a novel way, and the parades of shops and restaurants on the ground floors of each block are arguably more successful as social spaces than the centralised shopping precincts favoured in the West.

Yet all of these quiet innovations were wrapped in an architectural and decorative rhetoric that shouted out its ideological convictions with exclamation points to spare. The palatial scale of the blocks, their columns and entablatures, and the library of reliefs celebrating the honest toils of working men and women all contrived to say ‘this is how we value our workers in the socialist state’. And the blocks were executed with such dedication that even today you can almost believe the myth.

Modernism Strikes Back

The abstract Stausberger Platz fountain (1967) was added long after Henselmann’s original towers. Image by Jesse Simon.

The stretch of Stalinallee between Stausberger Platz and Frankfurter Tor may have been intended to herald a new era of socialist housing, but it turned out to be a summation and terminus rather than a point of departure. Socialist classicism was well-suited to the glorification of ideals, but the demand it placed on builders and artisans made it impractical for the amount of new housing that Berlin needed. The style had already started to fall out of favour during the first wave of construction, and with the death of Stalin in 1953 it vanished almost completely.

Architectural authorities in West Berlin monitored the construction of the new boulevard in the East with concern. Stalinallee may have been intended as a celebration of the worker, but for western architects and planners it borrowed far too much from the language of imperialism; stylistically it remained uncomfortably close to the bloated neo-classicism that Hitler and Albert Speer had conceived for Berlin less than two decades earlier.

The West responded with an international exhibition (Interbau 57) for which architects from around the (Western) world were invited to rebuild the destroyed Hansaviertel area north of the Tiergarten. The result was largely an affirmation of modernist principles, an egalitarian ‘city of tomorrow’ featuring an assortment of slabs, high-rises and single-family units arranged in a landscaped area which also included a library, an art gallery, churches, and a small shopping precinct.

The influence of Interbau, along with the decline of socialist classicism, caused yet another shift in the planning direction of Stalinallee. In 1959, Werner Dutschke submitted a new design for the western section of the street between Strausberger Platz and Alexanderplatz in which the rigorous monumentality of the earlier segment was toned down considerably.

Although the line of the boulevard continued to be defined through a series of long, fairly tall blocks, the areas behind the main thoroughfare, extending south to Jannowitzbrücke and North to Leninallee (now Landsberger Allee), featured a variety of smaller blocks set within landscaped spaces, a style that would not have ruffled many feathers among the post-Interbau, post-Corbusier planners in West Berlin.

The decorative excesses of the earlier section had also vanished. The commercial buildings along this new stretch—many designed or co-designed by Josef Kaiser and built in the early 1960s—display a tendency toward the elegant proportions and minimal forms popular in the West. And if the murals and mosaics found on some of the buildings still offer a direct line back to the age of socialist realism, the abstracted sides of the Kino International point towards a mode of decoration in which formal beauty had become less reliant on representation.

The Café Moskau (1964), by Josef Kaiser and Horst Bauer, was one of several restaurants named for Eastern Bloc capitals. Image by Jesse Simon.

Yet the greatest difference in the new plan was its treatment of residential buildings. Where the earlier blocks had integrated commercial and residential space, the new section kept the two functions proximate but separate. Shops, services and cafes lined the boulevard and extended south along Schillingstraße and were surrounded by buildings containing only flats. More importantly, both the surface and structure of these new residential buildings had changed. The new blocks were utilitarian slabs, shorn of grand entrances, obvious focal points, or visual gradations, instead offering an uninflected matrix of windows and ceramic tiles to the street—a single block could, in theory, extend forever in any direction.

This new visual appearance was shaped as much by building methods as architectural ideology. Pre-fabricated reinforced concrete panels had been used in residential construction in Berlin as early as 1935—in the Splanemann Siedlung, a small development in Friedrichsfelde—although even in the cutting-edge Interbau buildings concrete poured on site was still the norm. East German planners were quick to recognise the advantages of Plattenbau building methods: not only did they allow for the rapid and relatively inexpensive construction of new blocks, but a single design could be replicated as often as necessary.

The new blocks on Karl-Marx-Allee, designed by Josef Kaiser and Klaus Deutschmann were the first examples of the new QP (Querwandplatte) building series, one of the designs which would proliferate (in various iterations) throughout East Berlin in the coming decade. The workers’ palaces of the first phase were now a thing of the past, and the age of mass housing was about to begin.

Between new approaches to urban planning and the new styles of the buildings, the boulevard was moving steadily away from its origins in socialist classicism. Its decisive break with the past came in 1961 when the street was renamed after Karl Marx. Not long afterwards, the large statue of Stalin, which had once been such a prominent fixture of the street’s north side—located between Blocks B and C—mysteriously disappeared.

KMA Today

Hermann Henselmann’s matching towers (1952) stand at the Western end of the first phase. Image by Jesse Simon.

In 1990 the German Democratic Republic ceased to exist; and just as the presence of Stalin had once been quietly effaced from Karl-Marx-Allee, so too did the newly re-unified Berlin direct a subtle programme of damnatio memoriae against the recent socialist past.

Karl-Marx-Allee, however, remained. It’s name did not revert to Große Frankfurter Straße, nor did its grand blocks meet the same fate as some of the city’s other monuments to socialist glory (notably the Palast der Republik). Most of the buildings eventually came under the protection of Denkmalschutz, and many have since been refurbished to something close to their original state.

Today the street remains a curious marvel, and its surface grandeur provides an unusual backdrop to the tasks of everyday life. The Kino International remains one of the best places in Berlin to see a film; and while one can no longer enjoy dinner and dancing at the Café Moskau—the street’s other originals restaurants, all named after capital cities in the Eastern Bloc, are long gone—one can still stop for a coffee at the Café Sybille with its glorious (still functioning) neon sign, and small permanent exhibition on the construction and development of the street.

The monumental blocks of the first segment may no longer be the fashionable shopping destination they were in the 1960s, but in recent years the ground floor units have become home to a new generation of attractions, and present day visitors can spend a few hours pressing buttons at the Computerspielemuseum, or checking out some of the art galleries and cafes that have started to move into the vacated shopfronts.

If one is lucky it is even occasionally possible to find a flat in one of the original blocks, which remain part of Berlin’s best post-war housing. The fact that a place in these workers’ palaces is still desirable is a tribute to the architects, who managed to conceal practical, human-scale design beneath the external demands of an inflated style.

Although a larger statue was originally planned for Stausberger Platz, the street’s namesake is today commemorated with a more modest bust. Image by Jesse Simon.

Yet the greatest attraction of Karl-Marx-Allee will always be the street itself. Its ethos is defiantly socialist, its ambitious scale is uneasily imperialist, and its celebratory ornamentation verges at times on the ridiculous; but with the passage of time it becomes easier for us to appreciate this strange boulevard not despite its excesses but precisely because of them.

While its towering surfaces may stand as an unlikely monument to what was ultimately a fleeting moment in twentieth century political history, the discerning and open-minded observer will find that Karl-Marx-Allee still has much to teach us about the possibilities of urban space.

Next in Street ProfilesAt the end of the Chausseestraße »