Sputnik and the Pope.

Arriving in East Berlin via the U-Bahn, we alighted at Senefelderplatz and made our way to the Myers Hotel on Metzer Straße in Prenzlauer Berg.  With our cases trundling and bumping behind us on the beautiful cobbled street like lost dogs, we headed to our accommodation for the next three days.

Myers Hotel - Berlin

Myers Hotel entrance – Berlin

The entrance to the Myers Hotel is very unassuming but opens up into the most delightful ambiently lit space. The hotel and room were exceptional and the breakfasts laid out like a banquet for a king.  After a good nights sleep and a hearty breakfast we set out to explore. The weather that week was unseasonably hot, to the point where even the locals were starting to complain about it.  We decided to make our way to the most prominent landmark by foot, the Fernsehturm (TV Tower) at Alexanderplatz.

View of the Fernsehturm from the Volksbuhne Theatre

View of the Fernsehturm from the Volksbuhne Theatre

The tower literally dominates the skyline seemingly no matter where you are in Berlin and this is no accident. The tower was commissioned at the beginning of the 1950’s by the GDR administration and was above all to serve to transmit GDR television.

The first location suggested was out of the city in the Muggelberg mountains. This proved to be a badly planned proposition as it was later deemed by the Ministry Of Internal Affairs that the mast would stand directly in the approach to the planned Schonefeld Airport. After having ‘blown up’ the Berlin Palace the same administration wanted a monument /architectural symbol for the new society.  A government skyscraper was planned in the gingerbread style at the location of the ex-palace but never came to fruition.

Later, both of these abandoned plans where sort of merged together and a new idea came into being.  A TV tower in the middle of Berlin. Not on the former palace site but right next to Alexanderplatz.

An anecdote accorded to Walter Ulbricht, Party Chief of the SED (Socialist Party of Germany) and Head of State of the GDR, personally picked the spot for the tower in 1964 and was said to have commented “Well Comrades” as he stood in front of a model of Berlin “there you can see it very clearly, it belongs there.” It was almost surely the sandy subsoil of the area as opposed to the marshy terrain of the palace that swung the balance for the site and not Walters words as recorded.

The tower was designed by Hermann Henselmann and Jorg Streitparth and was modelled on the existing tower at Stuttgart and earths first satellite Sputnik. It had several other architects along the way and construction finally began on 4th August 1965.

Berlin, Fernsehturm, Bau

Metal support for the sphere, pre-assembled before lifting into place

The construction of the tower employed the ‘climbing formwork‘ method. This means that the internal steel skeleton will always rise faster than the outer concrete shaft that was erected around it.  The tower shaft tapers from 52.5ft (16m) to 29.5ft (9m) and over its height is divided into five stages with mezzanine floors which are identifiable from the outside by the position of the portholes.

The sphere is made up of a single-shell construction and once the pre-assembled steelwork was in place atop the tower, segments of the sphere were lifted into place with cranes and attached to the circular platform. The sphere was then suspended on the supporting tie-rods, thus giving the observer the impression that the sphere is apparently floating.

Completion of the sphere.

Completion of the sphere.

During the design phase arguments broke out as to what colour the sphere should be. The initial idea was to have it red as a reminder of Sputnik and the colour of Socialism. Another idea put forward by Gerhard Kosel (President of the Architectural Society) was to have it gold.  The eventual design was to have the sphere left clad in stainless steel panels, which, not by design or desire by the planners display a cross upon them when the sun hits the sphere. The locals immediately named the cross ‘Rache Des Papstes’ or ‘Popes Revenge’ to ridicule the GDR regime, who were totally anti-religion and anti-church.  For the same reasons the tower is also called ‘St. Walter’ after Walter Ulbricht.

Rache Des Papstes - Popes Revenge.

Rache Des Papstes – Popes Revenge.

This same phenomenon was also mentioned in Ronald Reagan’s ‘Tear down this wall’ speech at the Brandenburger Tor in 1987.

“Years ago, before the East Germans began rebuilding their churches, they erected a secular structure, the television tower at Alexanderplatz. Virtually ever since, the authorities have been working to correct what they view as the tower’s one major flaw, treating the sphere at the top with paints and chemicals of every kind. Yet even today when the sun strikes that sphere, that sphere that towers over all Berlin, the light makes the sign of the cross. There in Berlin, like the city itself, symbols of love, symbols of worship cannot be surpressed”.

During the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany, the final match of which was to be played at The Berlin Olympic Stadium , the sphere was decorated with magenta pentagons to resemble a football. Magenta being the corporate colour of the world cup sponsors and owner of the Fernsehturm – Deutsche Telekom.

Fernsehturm in 2006 to celebrate the FIFA World Cup.

Fernsehturm in 2006 to celebrate the FIFA World Cup.

Once the tower was finished in 1969 it stood at a height of 1,198ft (365m) but after the installation of the new antenna in the 1990s it rose to 1,207ft (368m) and is now the fourth tallest freestanding structure in Europe. The sphere sits at a lofty 656ft (200m) and contains a visitors platform and a revolving restaurant called The Telecafe. The restaurant rotates once every 30 mins (the speed was doubled following the towers renovation in the 90’s). Inside the shaft are two elevators that carry people up to the sphere in 40 seconds, or you can climb the 986 steps.

Details of the tower

Details of the tower

As we approached Alexanderplatz and the tower you suddenly get a real feel for how immense this structure is and what a feat of engineering it represents. The queue for the lifts to visit the sphere were now at least 2-3 hours long and the thought of standing in the blazing sun was not appealing. We decided we would come again and save this tour for a later date.

Tower from the square

Tower from the square

Fernsehturm - Berlin

Fernsehturm – Berlin

As we walked away into the centre of Berlin and headed for the Brandenburger Tor  I couldn’t help but keep turning around, only to be met with the sight of the tower seemingly watching our every move. Later that week we visited the fantastic Monsterkabinett in Mitte and whilst dining alfresco in the warm evening air the tower was still ever present in our view.

East side of the moon

East side of the moon

Alexanderplatz station.

Alexanderplatz station.

We left for the airport later that week from Alexanderplatz and despite sitting in the airport lounge we managed to miss our flight! Never mind, we thought. Another 3 days in Berlin will do nicely, thank you very much.


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