The Schӧneberg Gasometer

Kyra Giorgi pays gentle tribute to Schöneberg’s gasometer…

Image by Paul Sullivan.
Schöneberg Gasometer. Image by Paul Sullivan.

There is a scene in Wings of Desire in which the camera, following Bruno Ganz’s angel, travels east along the S-Bahn line. On the left, a steel halo rises up from behind the treetops. It seems to quiver faintly against the grey sky, looking suitably mysterious and ethereal for a film about angels. The scene ends abruptly as the camera cuts away; the Schöneberg gasometer has had its less-than 15 minutes of fame.

For most viewers it’s a glimpse of an industrial relic that nicely pads out the cinematic composition—or perhaps an absurd monstrosity that’s completely incongruous with its surroundings. For residents of Berlin’s Schöneberg district, the short scene offers a vivid thrill of recognition.

Whatever the case, even the gasometer’s obsessive, die-hard fans (and yes, they do exist) have to concede that it has neither the stature or fame of the Fernsehturm, the television tower in Alexanderplatz whose elegant, waspy silhouette is stencilled on every other souvenir of the city. The gasometer does not glint in the sunlight, nor does it exude any kind of disco chic by moonlight.

David Bowie and Iggy Pop have never sung its praises, despite the fact that they once lived just up the road. It’s rather dumpy, too: at only about 80 metres, it’s less than a quarter of the height of the lofty Fernsehturm. Not that we’re really counting. The gasometer is rather too old and too dignified for that. For over a century it breathed life into the community, and now life simply keeps on going around it.

The gasworks of Schöneberg’s Rote Insel area were the city’s first, built in 1825 just as the industrial revolution was hitting its German stride. The gasometer was constructed on the site much later, in 1910. At this time gasometers were all the rage in Europe, as they could safely store the huge amounts of coal-produced ‘town gas’ needed to power and heat local buildings. Technically, the gasometer was not much of a meter at all. For this reason, literal-minded folk prefer the term ‘gas holder’, but this doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. ‘Gasometer’ has a poetic quality that seems especially fitting now that it has lost its utilitarian value.

Inside the latticed frame was a steel bell with telescopic storage chambers that contained the gas fed in by pipelines. The bell rose and fell according to the quantity of gas inside, and this one was capable of holding a volume of 160,000 cubic metres. The gasometer kept the gas at an ambient temperature, and regulated the pressure in the pipes, keeping it low.

Gasometer in Schöneberg, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner 1912
Gasometer in Schöneberg, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1912

As the storage chambers adapted to accommodate the changing levels of gas, their movement was almost imperceptible to the eye. The gasometer was a discreet but central player in the rhythm of the surrounding community. As you approach, you can see the upturned meniscus of the steel bell, now resting low within the frame. And you can understand how just as the gasometer brought light and heat, so would it have blocked out sunlight, casting a stealthy shadow upon the land around it.

When the war came, Berlin’s factories and utilities were targeted for destruction, with the Schöneberg gasworks high on the list. Allied bombing raids in 1944 critically damaged the works, which were shut down in 1946. Yet the gasometer itself emerged largely unscathed, and in the years after the war played an essential role in providing power to the shattered city.

Inside the Schöneberg Gasometer
Inside the Schöneberg Gasometer. Image via Wikipedia.

For a great many years after the war, in fact: it was in operation for another half-century, not breathing its last breath until 1995. Changing energy needs and technological developments meant that residential communities no longer had to have huge amounts of gas stored right in the middle of them. But the Schöneberg gasometer had already outlasted most of the others, which were by now decommissioned as relics of the coal-powered and decidedly eco-unfriendly industrial age.

Many had serious image problems to contend with. The Prenzlauer Berg gasometer, for instance, was deemed out of odds with GDR ideals of modernity and progress, and was in 1984 spectacularly blown up to make way for the Ernst Thälmann Park, a utopian assembly of park, community centres and social housing that, positioned on the fringes of a district that’s now heavily gentrified, now feel anachronistic in their turn.

It is possible that the gasometer survived in operation so long partly because the city’s division delayed the introduction of natural gas into West Berlin. Ultimately, though, change was inevitable.

Perhaps it is the benign roundness of them, and the fact that they do not protrude into public space, but many communities have not quite been able to let their gasometers go. Elsewhere in the world they have found new life as theatres, diving arenas, shopping centres and apartments. In Vienna there is even a Gasometer City that in the nineties hosted techno-raves and which now, along with housing citizens, still provides a forum for music—gasometer acoustics are apparently brilliant.

Gasometer City in Vienna. Image courtesy of
Gasometer City in Vienna. Image courtesy of

The Viennese gasometers have beautiful classical brick exteriors and sit like four plump cakes on the city’s skyline; despite its rather more humble visage, the Schöneberg gasometer’s outer frame is also heritage-listed. But its charm is not so much in the frame itself, but in its modest transparency. It is not a ruin, but an exoskeleton. And when the mist descends on Berlin, the gasometer is one of the first things to disappear.

All this is not to get too carried away. The gasometer is no Eiffel tower or harbour bridge, and any resemblance to the Colosseum is strictly coincidental. Nor is it very unique – there are many such structures strewn around the industrial landscapes of the world, forlorn circles of steel that neither capture the sky nor reflect it, and which have been hollowed out in anticipation of future imaginings…

Somehow, though, the future eludes it. The site of the former gasworks is being developed, and the low dome of the gasometer can be used as a function centre. As darkness falls, a logo appears on its south side, white lights marking out a full-moon shape that disappears into a crescent as you move around it; on the darkest of nights, it may even assist in orientation.

Many locals hate this logo, for it signifies the commercialisation and privatisation of a neighbourhood icon. But perhaps if they were able to think of it as something like a celestial body, with the gasometer marking its ground rather than being marked, its meaning might again be transformed.

Berlin—if you’re inclined to see it that way—is a city of the monumental: fragments of walls and bombed-out churches and golden dames plonked atop glistening columns. There are also more temporary monuments to progress: tendrils of cranes sprouting from building sites, and the pink tubes that drag water from them; these come and go as needs be. Of course, the Schöneberg gasometer does not sit easily in either camp. It is a monument not to oppression or development, but simply to labour, to the everyday.

And so, unable to quite make that leap into the future, it stays with us in the present, unassuming and completely unpretentious. Whether it is seen from apartment windows, or from the S-Bahn, or from the street, it is seen from the perspective of humans, not angels. It draws our gaze, just for a moment, into its net, and then gently relinquishes it—no harm done.