Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
Plans for building a waterway – a canal – along the north-south axis cutting through the southern section of Berliner Akzisemauer (Berlin Customs Wall) were not new. As early as in 1825 Herr Oberbaurat Johann Schmid presented his design with regard to the marshy area known as Köpenicker Feld – with a bit of proper drainage it could easily be turned into attractive construction land. At the same time, aware of the city’s growing need for a well-designed waterway system Councillor Schmid suggested building this particular inland passage to provide better communication between the river Spree and the expanding network of other canals.
Even though he did not live to see his plans realised, several decades later another key player in Berlin’s urban planning, Joseph Peter Lenné, chose them as a blueprint for part of his own design: Projektierte Schmuck und Grenzzüge von Berlin mit Nächster Umgebung. However, unlike Schmid, who was first and foremost a craftsman and engineer, Lenné was a man of aesthetic vision. He wished to combine the necessary with the aesthetically pleasing. Where Schmid focused on the practicalities, on the nitty-gritty (is it useful? does it work? how much dare we spend?), his younger colleague wanted beauty and harmony to boot.
To achieve that harmony of engineering and design he chose to have the canal built in a manner that would also involve simultaneous and matching construction of the environment around it. Lenné wanted green spaces, he wanted parks and squares, he envisaged gently curved bridges and elegantly ornamented houses erected at the waterfront. He saw all of these wonders stretching between the Urbanhafen, an inner-city canal harbour along the Landwehrkanal (both were being built at the time), the Engelbecken (another large basin where boats and barges could moor as well as turn) and then continuing down to the Spree which it would reach at what is still known as Schillingsbrücke. On its way the new Luisenstädtische Kanal would run along today’s Erkelenzdamm and Segitzdamm (two sides of the same section of the former canal), past Wassertorbrücke (no longer there) and across Oranienplatz. In short, it was a beautiful design.
It also happened to be quite exceptional, too. Luisenstädtischer Kanal was Berlin’s only successful attempt at incorporating water as a significant part of an ongoing urban design. Sadly, pretty as it was, it was also a disaster from both economic and practical point of view.
The 90-degree turns (especially inside the Engelbecken), the arches, the bends – all this proved to be too much for its users whose only aim was to get their goods (often perishable ones) from A to B quickly and without having to paddle upstream. The fact that the view from the water at Elisabethufer (today Leuschnerdamm) or Luisenufer (since 31.07.1947 Legiendamm) was stunning did nothing to improve their opinion. And so, ironically, instead of becoming a solution to a problem, the canal turned into one itself.
Considering the early difficulties the project had to face one could almost say it was damned from the beginning. The ground drainage and expanding the inland waterway system in Berlin were not the only reason why it was built.
Another one was creating jobs. Some 5,000 men (mostly) were employed by the city at the construction site. Times were difficult, money was short and so were the tempers. Year 1848 was a tough one for Berlin from both social and political point of view: the Revolutions of 1848 were shaking the whole country like mighty thunderbolts. Berlin was for obvious reasons particularly sensitive to the tremors.
The mood in Köpenicker Feld was morose. And the in October 1848 it things got completely out of hand: the canal workers, faceing the risk of losing their jobs to machines which were supposed to speed up and facilitate the digging of the canal, started a rebellion by destroying a steam-engine-propelled pump. Ironically, it was this act of sabotage which actually cost them their jobs: the pump could not help lower the level of groundwater surface in the drains and works had to be partly stopped. No work meant no pay and as a result the redundant workers had to be fired. What followed was an armed confrontation and bloody clashes.
When eventually completed, Luisenstädtischer Kanal was a thing to behold: 2.3 km long, 22.5 m wide, 1.5 m deep (at mid-water) and held gently in place by 3-metre high brick embankments (unusual for Berlin). With banks lined with Kaiserlinden, linden trees typical of Berlin, it could be navigated by ships of up to 175 tonnes.
In 1848 at the point where the canal cut through the city wall a new bridge and gate, Wassertor, were built. More bridges that spanned its beautifully crafted banks were the steel Waldermarbrücke, Wassertorbrücke, Oranienbrücke, Melchiorbrücke and Adalbertbrücke. Köpenickerbrücke (demolished in 1920) and Schillingsbrücke (part of the co called Zwillingsbrücke, a double bridge in today’s Berlin-Mitte and one of two Berlin bridges not blown up by the Nazis in 1945) spanned the banks of the canal at its northern end. The smaller Elisabethbrücke, Königinbrücke and Luisensteg – a pedestrian crossing installed on top of a gas main hanging over the canal at its mouth at the Urbanhafen – are gone for ever as well.
The grand opening on May 15, 1852 was a grand ceremony. However, it soon became obvious how impractical the whole thing was. The bends, the bridges and the curves made it unpopular with the boaters. Too little traffic combined with too small a level difference between both ends caused stagnation in more than just one sense. Because the water in the canal was not moving, after a while you could smell it from far away. Local residents complained about the stench.
The end was there from the beginning. It came on January 16, 1926 when Berlin’s Magistrat (City Council) decided then that the canal should be closed and filled up again. Not only was the project a god-send in the days of mass unemployment but it also helped solved another problem: it was filled with the soil and stone from another big construction site in Berlin, namely the underground railway tunnels being dug for the GN-Bahn (Gesundbrunnen-Neukölln Bahn is today’s U8). Endless rows of carts transported the material from the area around Reichenbergerstraße, Moritzplatz and Neanderstraße (today Heinrich-Heine-Straße).
As is so often the case, this end proved to be another beginning. Lenne’s spirit must have been watching over the project and inspired the city elders to turn the former canal into a chain of gardens. Designed by Erwin Barth and Leo Klass it became a marvellous example of urban garden design. Very narrow (22.5 metres) but extremely long it must have been quite a challenge to both architects yet they mastered the task splendidly: after having the canal filled up only slightly above the former waterline, they retained the brickwork as walls for their ten theme-gardens: there was a rose garden, a forest plants garden, an exotic garden plus playgrounds, little green corners, water fountains and even a small flume (a gully). Engelbecken was not only kept as a pond but it also received a bit of an aesthetic update itself: 16 fountains spouted water from under its surface and when they were lit in the evening, the whole neighbourhood was immediately transformed.
The project was completed in 1932. Unfortunately, lack of funds prevented the architects from being able to create some of the elements they had planned (the southern end fell prey to the world crisis and the oncoming war).
After the war the canal was almost entirely filled up with the rubble from the neighbourhood which itself was a target for some of the worst air-raids in Germany’s capital. When East and West decided to go their separate ways, the old canal became the perfect border: the Wall was out up along Bethaniendamm between the Spree and Waldemarstraße and the filled in Engelbecken turned into the Death Strip.
It was only after 1984 and the Internationale Bauaustellung (IBA) in Berlin that Luisenstädtischer Kanal began to come back to life. Step by step it was resurrected and it is hard to believe, when looking at it today, that it was indeed gone for years.