The New Berlin Main Station – the story and experience

I'm having a beer at one of the cafés of the Berliner Hauptbahnhof: it has been opened seven days ago, and yet the amount of flâneurs in the station seems to surpasses the amount of serious travellers. This is the station which was to raise one station over the many where train travellers to Berlin might be travelling. In the new unified Germany one does not need to choose between Zoo and Ostbahnhof. Here's my reflections on the story of the new station and the experience of it.http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bild:Opening_Berlin_Central_Station.jpg
“The new transparent Main Station stands for a modern, open-minded and cosmopolitan country”, Angela Merkel.

Praised as the landmark of the new Germany, the Berlin Main Station finally was opened with massive fireworks on 26 May 2006, almost fifteen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the German Unification. The event appeared similar to a New Year's celebration, or the opening of the football World Cup, which was looming just two weeks ahead. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel argued the opening marked the start of a new Millennium. Perhaps this will mark the aims of the 'Grand Coalition', which has had a set of successful months of rule – to stay in power for another thousand years? The Main Station is indeed located next to the German Chancellor's Bureau. Given the bad transport links to and from the Station, many thought that the station was really mainly there to serve the parliament and the Chancellor. Curiously, the German Parliament is advertised in the arrival hall. The Reichstag becomes one in a series of the many private companies, fast-food stores, restaurants and shops, who flag their existence in the hall.

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The new station that is located near to the one-time Berlin Wall, there's no need to choose between the eastern or western stations: therefore the one time Lehrter Bahnhof was a strategic choice for the new main station. Furthermore, it works as a veritable node with connections to East and West – and now through a tunnel North and South. The strength of the unified Germany is symbolised for instance in the pillars penetrating through the whole hall and holding up the S-bahn tracks on the top level. [A picture still pending.]

“The Berliner have it so good”, says a lady sitting in front of me in the cafe, “it's such a beautiful place.” And everyone whom I talked with in one of the station's cafe agreed. Nevertherless, the Berliner are critical. They were fond of the diversity that their varying neighbourhoods, districts and – railway-station network offers.

When the Berliner were asked in a referendum in 2002 whether the station should be called main railway station. Of the 7100 local citizens who participated in the local referendum, 70 percent voted for keeping the old name Lehrter Bahnhof, of the small station that had given way to the main station on the same spot. On the day of the opening, 26 May 2006, the old name that had stood underneath of the Berliner Hauptbahnhof sign was removed.

Critique towards the new station comes from many different sides. Local people fearing to have worse connection to their trains, the cost of the new building and the network of rail tunnels which links it to the other nodes in the new rail network in Berlin. The media figures for the costs of the building were 700 million euros, while the whole railway restructuring was 10 milliard euros.

Around the time of the opening of the new symbol of Germany and the Deutsche Bahn, the DB is being privatised, arguably to be able to face the European competition. The public symbol is becoming a private one.

Stopping and sitting down in the Deutsche Bahn's Hauptbahnhof is possible in the DB lounges, reading emails, whether in the lounges or the cafés is possible with the wireless internet that covers roughly the whole building. In order to use the hotspots, however, one has to be the customer of the T-mobile, and also ready, willing and able to pay a fair sum for the wireless internet access.

The building is one of restricted freedoms as well as the land of unrestricted possibilities: to shop, to eat and drink, to use the internet, to smoke – the latter is allowed in the whole of the building, and there are no fees to pay, at least not on the spot. (Although on the world non-smoking day the DB declared that they will make some stations smoke-free, they didn't mention their flag-ship station, the Berlin main station.)

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Berlin's main railway station is branded as the most modern and largest crossing station in Europe. In the north-south direction a tunnel of 3.4 kilometers links the station with Potsdamer Platz and beyond. Daily over thousand S-bahns, regional and long distance trains run through it. The station is also a shopping centre, the architectural dimensions of which far extend the number of shops, there are 15.000 square meters of shopping space with 80 shops, cafés and restaurants on three levels.

The public space is enormous, but it is only for those in movement. Those running between trains and the local train S-bahn. Those running between the shops. Those wondering around also must be kept in movement. There are no seats beyond the cafés – many of which only or mainly do take-out. There is not even a place to put down the take out coffee anywhere, since even the rails are rounded. The visitor is kept in motion, apart from in the toilet queues. Are stations not only for passing by but also for waiting? Or, does the process of passing by not include a moment of waiting?

Railway stations are always spaces for the flâneur. For many, they marks the arrival in the yet unknown. This week in particular, and still probably for a long while, the place is taken over by the flâneurs. They walk around and wonder. The beauty of the building, its cleanliness, its dimensions. The natural light that penetrates down to the tomb of the bottommost railway tracks. And as I said, the flâneur, like the travellers, is kept in motion. He or she can fix their critical gaze, but only for the moment.

“This is a space of progress, not stagnation”, the station seems to cry. And this is the symbol for the new Germany, in a country that finds itself in economic troubles and continually repeats its hardship through the reigning discourse of Kulturpessimismus.

Walter Benjamin, a Berliner, and a flâneur and theorist of flânerie and shopping centres regarded Arcades or Passagen as the prime places of both flânerie and exhibitions of progress alike. What is particularly interesting about the arcade is the way in which it encloses space as an exhibition. The Berlin Main Station offers a view to both sides which resembles a picture frame. In one direction, there's the already mentioned Chancellor's bureau, the offices of the German MPs behind which one can see the cupola and towers of the Reichstag. On the other side, there's the typical Berliner view: an yet unbuild area. As the old saying goes: “Berlin is not, Berlin will become.”

The dream-space of the New Germany as symbolised by the Main Station has clear limits. Once inside, one is in a protected environment – an aquarium of consumption and movement. When one steps beyond the glass-box out one faces an absolutely different space. In one direction there is the still rough way towards the parliament area. In the opposite side there is a prospective building site. The transport links are not yet that good, besides the S-bahn, to avoid the dislocation of going outside the symbolic dream-space, one should take the regional train to the next stop south: Potsdamer Platz. That is where the new unified Germany has been built for a long time and where one can experience the semi-private public space with cafes and this time with free seating (and even a free WLAN) at the Sony Centre, a half-covered square between skyscrapers.

And so the journey goes on, both for those running between the S-bahn, regional trains and long distance trains in Berlin and for the 'new Germany' networked in the 'heart' of Europe.

Postscript:As you have probably found out, I could not post my text on the day (1 June 2006) from the station, so I edited, researched and posted it only today – from a lovely music cafe with a free WLAN access… (Junction Cafe, Gneisenaustr. 18)

Links:

Berlin Hauptbahnhof. Wikipedia, Germany.

http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berlin_Hauptbahnhof_%E2%80%93_Lehrter_Bahnhof

Bundesministerium für Verkehr, Bau und Stadtentwicklung

Deutsche Bahn, http://www.db.de

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