Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
In the late 1870s, Berlin authorities commissioned Hermann Blankenstein – an excellent if, according to some, slightly conservative City Councillor for Building and Construction – with the refurbishment and modification of the oldest Berlin church, the Nikolaikirche. His plan to crown the building with two towers, adding a new one to the single late-medieval steeple, met with loud protests from, among others, another leading Berlin architect, Johannes Otzen. The clash between the two and their respective supporting teams kept Berlin in thrall for weeks. Blankenstein owned his victory to sticking to what he did best: carry on until the job is done.
This feature of Blankenstein’s character was key to understanding his mammoth contribution to the shaping of the late nineteenth-century Berlin: the 120 municipal schools alone would be already enough to impress. But this is just a fraction of Blankenstein’s work: his were all of the municipal market halls built between 1883 and 1888 (including the main, Zentralmarkthalle at Bahnhof Alexanderplatz), several hospitals (Urban Krankenhaus, the mental institutions of Dalldorf and Herzberge plus the extension of the Krankenhaus Moabit), fire stations, workhouses and orphanages to name just a few. Only someone with immense perseverance and patience on top of true excellence in his field of practice could shoulder such responsibility with so much skill.
He also knew how to stay on the ground as an artist – something that all architects are. It is perhaps easier to design a fancy piece of architecture and unleash one’s creativity with no real regard for the needs of the future users when the money is there. However, it takes real genius to come up with architecture that fulfils its purpose, pleases the eye (without delighting it – delight would be fancy and costly) and, last but not least, remains affordable.
Blankenstein did just that. Limited by the size and the shape of the plots he was ordered to build municipal schools on – mostly courtyard plots with narrow street front and hardly any direct sun-light that the street-front houses otherwise enjoy – he was determined to make the best out of what he had.
For instance, he employed a yellow brick instead of the traditional Berlin red-brown one. That simple trick, something you can still see when visiting the old Urban Krankenhaus in Kreuzberg or the school courtyards in Görlitzer Straße or Graefestraße, created an environment that appeared brighter, fresher and more friendly that if he had stuck to the traditional dark stone. On top of that, mass-produced yellow brick with its smoother, more compact surface weathered much slower than its red, hand-made counterpart. You could say, typical Blankenstein: beauty and utility in one.
As befits a great fan of Schinkel’s and of medieval church architecture, the brick and the unplastered brick façade were Blankenstein’s trademark as well as his favourite material. He welcomed and greatly profited from the latest developments in the field: the brick-press invented by C. Schlickeysen and Hoffmann’s brick furnace – both of which greatly accelerated the process of brick manufacturing. Soon Blankenstein’s yellow-and-red house fronts with their understated ceramic and terracotta embellishments began to break the otherwise heavy, grey monotony of the Steinerne Berlin (Stone Berlin).
Often accused of being stick-in-the-mud and repetitive (hard not to be if one kept designing exclusively for the city authorities for 24 years in a row), he did accept change and improvement: once he discovered the benefits of using steel in construction, it appeared next to glass as one of the main features in all of Blankenstein’s market halls. However, he was also quick to notice its shortcomings, too, and to decide against it as the right material for the outside girders for his constructions (the way they were used in Paris). Blankenstein saw that they would not fare well in the damp North-German climate. When finally erected, his market halls turned out to be timeless works of art: clean, elegant and bright, they were little wonders of public architecture. Those few remaining until today, like the Arminiushalle in Moabit or the Markthalle IX in Kreuzberg, still reveal Blankenstein’s exceptional skills.
When he died, the man who designed both the the Polizeipräsidium in Alexanderstraße, (size-wise second only to the Royal Palace) and the massive city abattoir in Berlin-Lichtenberg (Zentral Vieh- und Schlachthof zu Berlin, now turned smart and pricey modern residential complex), was hardly honoured by the press or his colleagues. Apart from a close friend and colleague, August Lindemann, with whom Blankenstein worked on many of his projects, few seemed to care to remember. His death ended a long era in Berlin’s architecture whose two key words were “Schinkel” and “brick” – a new and fabulously unpredictable world of architecture seemed to have opened instead.
But unlike many of the works from the era that followed, Hermann Blankenstein’s buildings are still standing, are still in use. With their mass-produced, yellow-and-red brick façades they still add a bit of a warm glow to the busy streets of Berlin. And that is what the city still owes to Blankenstein today: this small drop of radiant beauty poured into the stone.
Hermann Blankenstein, born in 1829 in Grafenbrück bei Finowfurt in Brandenburg, died on March 6 1910 in Berlin and was buried together with his wife and two of his six children in Berlin-Kreuzberg at the Jerusalems- und Neue Kirche Friedhof I (Abt. 2/2), entrance Zossener Straße.