Heavy History: Schöneberg’s Sportpalast and Pallasseum

John K. Peck on one of Berlin’s most curious architectural interventions…

Few cities in the world can claim an architectural history as dense, fraught, and multifaceted as Berlin. It’s easy to fall into certain well-trodden tropes when discussing such a complex cityscape: layers of history, the new built on the ruins of the old, scars of the war and subsequent postwar division, all writ large in the architectonic elements of buildings and neighborhoods.

There are some places in Berlin, however, where the maxim of history-as-layers becomes literal, with new buildings perched quite literally on top of old ones, forced into unusual shapes by the immovable remnants of history. The site of the former Sportpalast, west of Potsdamer Straße in Schöneberg, is one such place. Standing between twelve and fifteen stories high (depending on how the double-height lower floors are counted), the massive Pallasseum housing complex towers over the surrounding buildings with a massive north-south span that crosses Pallasstraße and rests atop a former WWII bunker before descending back to earth on the southern side of the bunker via several massive stairwells.

Even in a city with more than its share of odd and otherworldly buildings, it’s an uncanny construction, which speaks to the ways in which each era of twentieth-century Berlin history has had to adapt to those preceding it—sometimes by highly unconventional means.

The Sportpalast: Scale and Spectacle

The Hohenzollern-Sport-Palast, known to Berliners as simply the Sportpalast, was built in 1910 in Tiergarten (at what is now Potsdamer Straße 172 in Schöneberg), bordered by Winterfeldtstraße on the north and Pallasstraße on the south. Christened in a massive grand-opening ceremony that featured an orchestra performing Beethoven’s Ninth conducted by Richard Strauss, the 10,000-seat hall was a marvel and one of the world’s largest sport halls at the time.

In the years that followed, the building hosted a broad range of sporting events, from hockey and speed skating (on what was then the world’s largest human-made ice rink) to boxing matches (featuring Max Schmelling among others) to the annual Sechstagerennen (“Six-Day Race”) cycling event that continues to the present day. At such a scale, the superlative “world’s largest” was easily attached to the Sporthalle, as in 1919 when the hall began showing occasional films and, with its capacity of over 10,000 people, could instantly be declared the world’s largest cinema.

Postcard from 1910 showing an artistic version of the newly built Sportpalast. Image via Wikipedia/public domain.

Along with concerts and other non-sport-related entertainment, the Weimar era brought an increasing number of political rallies to the Sporthalle, featuring speakers such as Ernst Thälmann of the KPD, future Chancellor Heinrich Brüning, and, with the lifting of the ban on speeches and rallies by the Nazi party in 1928, Adolf Hitler. As the Nazis began their steady rise to power, they increasingly relied on the hall as a grandstand for rallies and events, perfecting their use of spectacle-at-scale that would become the party’s trademark. Opposition parties also continued to use the hall into the early years of the 1930s, with a last-ditch rally by the KPD taking place in February 1933, despite Hitler’s seizure of power on January 30th. 

Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-J05235 / Schwahn / CC-BY-SA 3.0. 

Soon after, however, the hall became a near-exclusive showplace for NSDAP events that ranged wildly from vitriolic rallies to bucolic Christmas pageants, as well as continued ice hockey and cycling events—all with the Nazi stamp of approval. After the outbreak of WWII, events continued apace at the Sporthalle in a similar mix of sporting competitions and political rallies. In 1943, after theGerman army’s defeat at Stalingrad, Goebbels fired up the propaganda engine that was the Sportpalast once more, delivering his infamous “Total War” speech before a massive banner declaring TOTALER KRIEG – KÜRZESTER KRIEG (“Total War – Shortest War”). 

Though Allied planes had begun bombing the German capital in 1940, these runs intensified greatly with the initiation of the Battle of Berlin in November 1943. On January 30, 1944, the Sporthalle was heavily bombed, causing the roof to collapse. For the next near-decade, continuing to and past the end of the war, it would only be usable as a crude open-air skating and hockey rink during the winter months.

Poster for the legendary 1969 Jimi Hendrix concert that took place at the Sportpalast, featuring the classic design by Günther Kieser. © Günther Kieser.

In 1953, new owners rebuilt the roof in a simpler, blockier style and reopened the Sporthalle for general use. For the next two decades, as part of West Berlin’s American sector, it would host numerous events, including concerts by some of the world’s biggest names, from The Beach Boys and The Who to The Mothers of Invention and Jimi Hendrix. By the early 1970s, the venue was no longer financially viable, and on November 13, 1973, demolition charges reduced the hall to dust.

Through the Fire: The Fernamt and Hochbunker

Northwest of the Sportpalast, a center for long-distance communications via primarily telephone as well as telegraph and radio was erected in 1929. Known as the Fernamt, the multistory Brick-Expressionist complex, designed by Otto Spalding and Kurt Kuhlow, featured a long, towering façade on Winterfeldtstraße and extended more than halfway into the block, approaching Pallasstraße to the south. 

With the outbreak of WWII, the Fernamt’s communications capabilities took on greater significance. Along with the neighboring Sportpalast, the NSDAP District Office at Potsdamer Straße 97, and several anti-aircraft rooftop guns, it was one of numerous sites in the area critical to the war effort. To protect essential communications equipment as well as Fernamt staff from air raids, Nazi leadership in 1943 ordered the construction of a massive above-ground bunker across Pallasstraße from the Sportpalast site, at the northern edge of Heinrich-von-Kleist-Park. The Hochbunker Pallasstraße, known colloquially as the “Sportpalast-Bunker”, thus became one of six major Hochbunkers built in Berlin during the war.

Concrete flank of the Hochbunker with apartments visible in the background. Image by Paul Sullivan.

Construction began in 1943 using prisoners from Russia and other occupied Soviet states as forced laborers who were housed in the nearby Augusta-Gymnasium (now Sophie-Scholl-Oberschule). By the time the war ended in 1945, the massive outer structure had been completed, while the interior remained only partially complete. Attempts by the occupying American forces to demolish the bunker were unsuccessful; increasingly heavy explosives were used, but the resulting blasts succeeded only in damaging other nearby structures, leaving the Hochbunker practically unscathed.

Rather than undertaking costly and labor-intensive hand-demolition of the structure, the decision was made to leave it standing. The Hochbunker—and, ironically, the Fernamt, which emerged intact from the war as well—thus persisted in Cold War-era West Berlin, the former standing empty and unused, increasingly covered with murals and graffiti; the latter serving as a communications center for the American occupation.

In 1986, the interior of the Hochbunker was refurbished to serve as a fallout shelter, with five levels that could hold nearly 5,000 people. Though thankfully never needed for its intended purpose, the building did occasionally host events and serve as a set for exhibitions and films, most notably as the site of the “film within a film” in Wim Wenders’ Der Himmel über Berlin (1987). The Fernamt and Hochbunker remain standing to this day, with the former approaching its first century of near-continual use.

Another perspective of the Hochbunker. Photo by John Peck.

Rise of the Sozialpalast

As the population of West Berlin expanded within its rigid Cold War borders, the need for dense, affordable housing was acute. In 1974, on the site of the recently demolished Sportpalast, ground was broken on a new housing project, ambitious in scale and utopian in intent. The project, officially called “Wohnen am Kleistpark”, would be built in the Brutalist style based on plans by Jürgen Sawade, Dieter Frowein, Dietmar Grötzebach and Günter Plessow. When finished, it would contain over 500 new apartments and use the available space to the fullest: where the Sportpalast had been centered within the block with ample space around it, the new building would maximize both the available footprint and the vertical dimension, hugging the edges of the property, rising high into the sky, and—most remarkably—sending a “flying” wing jutting over both Pallasstraße and the Hochbunker in a truly unique example of adaptive architecture.

Bespoke satellite dishes on the residential balconies. Photo by John Peck.

Completed in 1977, the building immediately became known as the “Sozialpalast”, a somewhat backhanded take on “Sportpalast” that combined it with “Sozialhilfe”, i.e. welfare—a comment on the economic status of the majority of its residents, who were mostly from poor and immigrant backgrounds. The building complex soon reached capacity, housing over 2,000 people at a density of about four residents in each apartment. Like the Neues Kreuzberger Zentrum at Kotti—another massive housing complex from the 1970s, also spanning an active street—the Sozialpalast soon began to show signs of strain. Entrances were strewn with trash and easily accessible to non-residents, doorbells were graffitied and smashed, and exterior passageways were frequently used by drug addicts. 

The building continued in this state—somewhat sapped, but nonetheless always at full capacity due to its central location in a steadily growing city—through the next few decades. By the late 1990s, the situation had worsened to the point where the district government considered demolishing the whole complex. In 1998, a new “Quartiersmanagement” initiative was enacted, working directly with residents to address social problems while also making tangible, physical improvements to the building itself.

Entrances and elevators were remodeled, a cafe was added on the ground floor, and the run-down parking lot was turned into a playground. In 2001, after a public contest, the complex was officially renamed the “Pallasseum”. More positive than “Sozialpalast”, the moniker nonetheless retained the weight of truth, particularly for anyone who passed under its massive wing while traveling down Pallasstraße. 

Wohnen am Kleistpark by Gunnar Klack, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Site Today

Like so much of Berlin’s residential architecture, the Pallasseum and its surroundings are a mix of public and private spaces that range from easily visited and viewed to locked and fenced off. In the case of the Hochbunker, likely due to both its historic status and the unmodernized state of its interior, the entrances are sealed with steel grates held in place by multiple military-strength locks to deter any would-be visitors. The residential buildings feature some ground-level public spaces such as courtyards, playgrounds and shops, but the towers themselves are private property and, more to the point, active residences for countless people.

Street view of the residental block. Photo by Paul Sullivan.

The street-facing parts of the complex nonetheless offer an imposing and fascinating panorama, and nearly all the building’s faces can be viewed from public areas—though it’s not always easy to find an optimal path to do so. Like fellow Cold War-era housing projects such as Zentrum Kreuzberg or the large-scale Plattenbauten projects of Marzahn and Gropiusstadt, the Pallasseum gives off equal parts menace and whimsy. Its massive decommissioned-spaceship bulk is offset, particularly on the east-facing side of the main building, by a wildly colorful grid of balcony furniture, umbrellas, and bespoke satellite dishes (one of several social-minded art projects at the site, along with the floating-eyes mural on the western side of the overpass). 

Historic detail on the bunker wall. Photo by John Peck.

The juxtaposition of severity and spontaneity is even more pronounced in the Hochbunker, with its sheer concrete walls covered in ivy, murals, graffiti, and their own site-specific social art, including plaques from Schöneberg’s controversial Orte des Erinnerns Holocaust memorial. Where the immovable object of the Hochbunker meets the unstoppable force of the Pallasseum, a strange interplay occurs between the two massive structures: pillars soar six storeys up to the roof-level of the bunker, precarious steel-grate walkways encircle the edge of the tower, and enormous longhouse-style beams of concrete rest on top of the bunker and extend past its southern edge to jut out over a neighboring park. The narrow space directly between the two buildings is fenced off, but it’s otherwise possible to walk right up to the seam where the buildings meet for a worm’s-eye view of one of Berlin’s most striking examples of interlocking architecture.

Where the bunker ‘meets’ the housing block. Photo by John Peck.

Walking from Potsdamer Straße westward along Pallasstraße and under the building itself gives a view of the massive western façade of the Pallasseum, with its aforementioned disembodied eyes hovering over the roadway, and a seemingly endless array of balconies that become particularly colorful in the light of the setting sun. From here, look northwest to see the broadcast tower on the roof of the still-active Fernmeldeamt building. The western half of the bunker (itself now divided, at least from a pedestrian’s perspective, by the Pallasseum building) is even stranger than its eastern half, with an almost welcoming temple-like entrance bearing a large red circle, and a variety of plaques and disused electrical boxes on its walls.

Northeast of the main building, in a courtyard between the lower perpendicular side-wings of the Pallasseum, is the location of the former Sportpalast. The epicenter of the site that once offered spectacles on a massive scale, from Weimar-era sporting events to virulent Nazi rallies to rock concerts in isolated West Berlin, is now a partially enclosed courtyard, surrounded by low buildings and featuring a small, simple playground. At the eastern entrance, a small plaque commemorates the colossal structure that once stood on the site, now a half-century gone, its roaring crowds supplanted by the less threatening sounds of domestic and local life.

Nearest stops: U-Bahnhof Kleistpark (U7) or Goebenstr. (bus) on Potsdamer Straße. 

Timeline of Major Events

1910: Sportpalast opens, hosting major sporting events including ice hockey, cycling and boxing matches

1918-33: Sportpalast hosts numerous political rallies for KDP, NSDAP and others  

1929: Fernamt completed; serves as major long-distance telecommunications center throughout WWII and the Cold War

1933: Hitler, newly appointed chancellor, gives “Aufruf an das deutsche Volk” speech at Sportpalast

1933-44: Regular NSDAP events, speeches, and rallies held at Sportpalast

1943: Goebbels’ “Totaler Krieg” speech

1944: Roof of Sportpalast destroyed in bombing raid

1943-45: Construction of above-ground “Sportpalast-Bunker” using forced labor, intended to protect communications equipment used by Fernamt

1945-46: Multiple unsuccessful attempts by US army to demolish the Hochbunker

1953-73: After roof is replaced, Sportpalast reopens as concert and event venue hosting numerous international acts

1973: Demolition of Sportpalast

1974-77: Construction of “Wohnen am Kleistpark”, known as “Sozialpalast”

1986-89: Interior renovation of Hochbunker as a shelter capable of holding 4800 people—the largest bunker in Berlin

2001: “Wohnen am Kleistpark” renamed “Pallasseum” 

Image: Uwe Behm, “Karten Sportpalast 1910 bis 2012”, via rockinberlin.de. Used under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Sources

Stern.de, “Sportpalast-Rede: Die Macht der Rhetorik

Deutsches Bundesarchiv, Films featuring the Sportpalast 

Blue Crow Media, Brutalismus-Stadtplan Berlin / Brutalist Berlin Map, 2021

Alber Gieseler Kraft- und Dampfmaschinen, “Berliner Sportpalast” 

IGNANT, “Guide to Brutalism in Berlin

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