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Palaces for the workers

Karl-Marx-Allee – stretching east from Alexanderplatz – was made to impress. Simply crossing the street is a 90-metre (295-feet) walk, and one look at the tiled fronts of the massive, Soviet-style buildings gives you the distinct impression of being in Moscow.

Foto: Martin Kaluza

The street was even called ‘Stalinallee’ until 1961. Ridiculed in West Germany for its wedding-cake style, Europe’s ‘only post-war boulevard’ was viewed by the GDR as a symbol of its enthusiasm to build a new society. It was along here (the old Frankfurter Allee) where the Red Army had fought its way to the centre of Berlin. After the war, the rubble of the destroyed buildings was used to erect what were to be labelled ‘the workers’ palaces’ –Soviet-inspired architecture pointing right at the heart of the German capital.

Although very similar at first glance, the buildings of the Allee were designed by five different architects who were forced into the same formal language, laden with colums, pilasters, window gables and tiled façades. The best known of them, Herman Henselmann, had drawn up plans for a rather sober and modernist design – a style the Party considered faceless, American and ‘internationalist’. Reluctantly, Henselmann changed his plans within six days. (Just a few years before his death in 1995 he grunted that not only didn’t he like Stalinallee, but that it made him want to throw up.)

However, a change in the party line put an end to this costly era even before the second cupola at Frankfurter Tor was finished. The Party’s Central Committee opted for the cheaper box-like design based on prefabricated concrete elements. From now on, the shape of multi-storey department buildings was no longer determined by aesthetic considerations, but by the construction cranes’ radius – hence the breach in style as you walk further west from Strausberger Platz.

Many of today’s Karl-Marx-Allee inhabitants belong to the first generation who moved in (and who had actually worked on the construction in after-work extra shifts). A good part of the now-retired feel that they are worse off after reunification – to them the Allee is a point of identification and pride. To others who had lived in GDR the boulevard is a symbol of the state they hated and by which they were oppressed. Many still believe that it was not ordinary workers but corrupt party members and officials who got their hands on the privileged flats. Both groups are not backwards coming forwards with their views, and if you take a guided tour you’re likely to bump into an elderly person eager to explain his way of looking a the street’s history, especially the 1953 uprising which had been started by Stalinallee workers protesting against rising work quotas.

However, time is ridding the boulevard of its ideological implications. A new generation of inhabitants, as well as shop and bar owners, is beginning to take over, oscillating between genuine admiration for the all-listed architectural ensemble and a knowing retropenchant for Soviet kitsch. Ironically, when the Berlin Chamber of Architecture moved in 1993, it picked a Karl-Marx-Allee wedding-cake block as its new home – abandoning its former base in a 1950s building in western Berlin’s Hansaviertel.

The Förderverein Karl-Karx-Allee (friends of Karl-Marx-Allee) runs Café Sibylle (Karl-Marx-Allee 72; 2935 2203; U5 Weberwiese; 10am-8pm daily; ‘Theodoras Literatursalon’ is held every 1st and 3rd Monday of the month at 8pm), which, apart from Kaffee und Kuchen, has a permanent exhibition about the street and organises English tours on request. It has also installed 39 information posts (in German and English) all along the boulevard. To take the complete, self-guided tour, start at Strausberger Platz.

The Karl-Marx-Buchhandlung (Karl-Marx-Allee 78; 293 3370; open 10am-7pm Mon-Wed, Fri; 10am-7.30pm Thur; 9am-4pm Sat) just a few doors down the street has a very good selection of books on the workers’ palaces. The owner Erich Kundel also invented the game ‘Stalinallee’, a sort of 1950s socialist Monopoly. Of course you don’t buy property – the winner gets to rent one of the sought-after flats.

Martin Kaluza

Time Out Berlin, Penguin Books, fifth edition, 2002

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