Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
Last Saturday, four months into 2017, it was finally time to unpack my Christmas present. As far as presents go, it was a big one. In fact, it was huge: 80 meters high, 63 metres in diameter inside the cylinder and with a maximum storage capacity of 160,000 m³. It came wrapped in balmy spring air and mellow light of one of the warmest evenings of the year so far. Each of its 24 steel standards (nearly 80-metre long columns supporting the circular frame) seemed to shoot right into the husky-blue sky over Schöneberg.
The only problem? To fully enjoy the present that was exactly where we had to go. Not the sky, mind you, but close enough. We came to climb to the top of the Schöneberger Gasometer: a giant 1910 gasholder growing out of the south-western tip of the famous Rote Insel, a large patch of land and a traditional Schöneberg Kiez (neighbourhood) caught on three sides between train tracks like an urban island.
Disused since mid-1990s the giant gasholder with a steel lattice frame is one of the two last such structures in Berlin (the other remaining one, the Fichtestraße Gasometer is a different type of a gasholder with the gas tank encased in a brick cylinder). Back in the days when gas came not from Russia or the North Sea but from gasworks built in the middle of large neighbourhoods, such gasometers – the name is also sometimes still used in English – were a common sight.
The process of coal gasification – heating coal in the absence of air to the temperature of well over 1,200°C – took place in special buildings known as retorts from which gas was transported through a system of pipes (or “piped”) to large storage vessels just like the one still standing in Schöneberg. The 1920s Berlin, or “Greater Berlin” as it was known since the administrative reform of 1920, had its gas provided by as many as 33 smaller gasworks operating 119 (!) such large gasholders within the city.
Obviously, the bigger the city, the more “town gas” (its commonly used name) it needed and the more such vessels would have been erected at the local gasworks. Today´s Schöneberger Gasometer was the largest of the four gasholders which stood next to the famous railway grounds along Cheruskerstraße and Ebersstraße. In 1870, the city of Schöneberg, which until the 1920 reform Berlin was not the capital´s district but its neighbour, commissioned International-Continental-Gas-Association, an English company which introduced gas illumination to Berlin and it had its seat in Hellweg, or Gitschiner Straße in today´s Kreuzberg (where Prinzenbad is now) – to build the said gasworks.
The site was expanded several times to meet the ever growing demand for gas in the area. The gasworks´ convenient location among the train tracks allowed steady delivery of coal at a tremendous pace. The bigger and modernised facilities – designed, by the way, by Alfred Messel, the architect of most Wertheim department stores in Berlin, including the legendary Leipziger Platz Wertheim Warenhaus – could exhale more and more gas and blow it through the pipes to even more end-users. By the end of the 19th century it was clear that their production capacity far exceeded their storage volume and a new gasholder was needed.
The job of designing it went to Richard Cramer, an experienced engineer specialising in steel bridges and complex steel-and-glass roof structures (like those at Berlin´s Altes and Neues Museums, at today´s Museum for Communication and at the Museum für Naturkunde, to mention just a few). He created what is known as a telescoping gasholder with a column guided frame. It also turned out to be the third largest Gasbehalter in Europe.
“Telescoping gasholder” means that the actual tank into which gas was pumped for storage could be gradually expanded depending on the amount of gas to be stored: it had six Tassen (saucers or bowls) that could be pushed up or down the outer frame´s steel columns thanks to a system of wheels attached to the edges of the “crown”. The “crown” was basically the heavy steel lid on top, keeping the gas in place by putting pressure onto it from above. Once the tank was full – whether to all six levels or only four or three –the same lid, when allowed to sink again, would push the gas downwards and into the gas mains leading to the “end users” (households, street lamps or factories). The system was as simple as it was ingenious and usually the whole process of the gasholder being filled to its full capacity and then emptied as people used the gas it provided, could be observed within just 24 hours, especially in winter months when the demand was particularly high.
The company entrusted with the construction of the facility was another experienced player: BAMAG, short for Berlin-Anhaltischer Machinenbau AG, had its own foundry and factory in Dessau as well as an important factory site in Berlin. Their expertise and achievements were partly the reason why the shock and disbelief at the accident that followed were even bigger.
When on August 19, 1909 at noon – the works on the gasholder began a year later and were progressing nicely with no particular difficulties – an 85-metre steel crane, one of the four such moving cranes installed on tracks around the cylinder, collapsed right onto the Ringbahn line below crushing into and slicing through the passing S-Bahn train (obviously a topic for a whole new post). The protests that followed the accident, which was far from the catastrophe it could have been had it not been for several coincidences and one fast thinking human, prevented the gasholder from being “inaugurated” until 1913.
In all truth, I, for once, am glad nobody told my about the collapsing crane as our little group trudged along the 200-metre long narrow grate-bridges on top of the steel latticework that this Gasometer is. We were all quietly grappling the low railings on both sides of the bridge and tried to follow the advice of our cheerful and forever entertaining guide, Sascha Maikowski: “Just don´t look down.” But then again, why would anyone? With a 360°-panorama of Berlin before us and the city blinking at us warmly from all directions at once, getting brighter and brighter in the twilight and then in the dark, we were too busy pointing at familiar things and giving out little shouts of delight to be bothered by the wind that grew stronger along with the subsiding light.
Even the chirpy young woman whose first group announcement – as we looked at the staircase with the 456 (other sources say 420) steps leading to the airy top – was “Ich habe Höhenangst!” (I´m afraid of heights) managed it with flying colours. Standing in the wind in the dark on top of an 80-metre tall metal frame might sound like a challenge but, trust me, you will have no time to worry. The city around you will be sending friendly winks and its thousand hands will never stop waving (“Look at me! Now here! And here again! And here!”). Your guide will make sure you are both well informed and entertained and you will be surrounded by a group of people just as dazed and confused by the extraordinariness of the experience as you are. And grateful for having somebody to share their fear and delight with by exchanging a couple of jokes.
The only thing we missed on that guided-tour high above Berlin on that magical night was the passing of the ISS, the International Space Station, scheduled to appear over Berlin that night at 8.42PM. We waited on the dark giant steel frame in the midst of an illuminated city, with nothing by a large lit star – the sign of EUREF, the site´s owners – to light up a tiny piece of the gasholder where we were standing. But it was late and it was time to go.
How could anyone blame the ISS for procrastinating, though? It probably slowed down and just enjoyed the extraordinary feeling of fear and delight it had looking at nocturnal Berlin from above.
To book the tour of Schöneberger Gasometer visit the Facebook page at Gasometer-Tour: tours are, of course, also available in English.