When you think of cities with magnificent, impressive or breathtaking skylines, Berlin is not going to be one of the first cities to spring to mind. In fact, it’s probably not going to feature anywhere on your list because, despite all of the things the city does very well, skyscrapers are not really a feature of the city’s built environment. Sure, there are a few exceptions, but even the 368-metre-tall Fernsehturm (TV Tower) at Alexanderplatz is more than twice the height of the city’s next tallest structure, the Funkturm. This duo of towers may offer stunning views across the city from two very distinct perspectives, as well as providing unique dining experiences, but neither of them is really a skyscraper. Berlin’s tallest habitable buildings are the Park Inn Hotel and the Treptowers, both of which stand 125 metres tall.
So why is Berlin so lacking in tall buildings? Read on to find out more.
The past still shapes the present
In the second half of the nineteenth century, as Berlin rode the tide of industrialisation and the city’s population was growing rapidly, plans were introduced to make sure that Berlin’s new housing offered its residents a combination of both safety and comfort. In 1875 it was decided that Berlin’s streets should be exactly 22 metres wide. At the same time it was specified that no building’s eaves could be more than 22 metres above street level. This limitt, known as the “Traufhöhe,” applied across the residential districts in which most of Berlin’s new housing was constructed and gives many of the city’s “Altbau” districts within the modern S-Bahn ring their unique charm.
So why should the width of the streets and the heights of the buildings matter? Well, city authorities were concerned that fires could spread quickly from one building to another, or that the collapse of one apartment building would damage buildings on the other side of the street. Their solution was to ensure that even if a building on one side of the street tumbled, it wouldn’t be able to strike any of the buildings across the road. The height of the buildings also meant that firefighters were able to reach as far as the top windows of these apartment buildings when they extended their ladders as far as they could (19 metres).
A similar degree of thought went into regulations concerning the courtyards between buildings. Firefighters at the end of the nineteenth century needed to be able to move between blocks and buildings and required sufficient space to turn their wagons and vehicles around. The world-famous “Berliner Höfe” that also contribute so much to Berlin’s image were thus born. The dimensions for each courtyard were set at a minimum of 60 square metres, and no less than six metres in length.
Quality of life
Something we have since come to understand very well is that natural light and unobstructed views are crucial in terms of quality of life and happiness in our jobs. The fact that the streets are so wide and the buildings in most parts of the city are so short means that Berliners (and their apartments) get plenty of sun, assuming the sun is shining. These factors are also important in relation to the feeling of spaciousness and openness you have all over Berlin. There are green spaces, the pavements are wide and, when the weather allows, the cafes and restaurants expand their seating and tables outdoors. The only places you’ll feel claustrophobic in Berlin are on the trains or in some of the city’s busier shopping centres!
The only way is up
As Berlin’s population growth is causing city planners to loosen up restrictions, it’s becoming more and more common for developers to add stories to existing structures or plan more ambitious buildings. When doing so, they definitely have to bear in mind Berlin’s fairly restrictive (and expensive) fire safety regulations and the difficulties associated with the city’s sandy soil and extensive underground constructions. They also have to deal with heritage protection authorities who often block developments that would otherwise have an impact on the city’s listed buildings. The master plan for the area around Alexanderplatz is a good example of the problems that can arise and become insurmountable. Of ten skyscrapers originally planned, only two are anywhere near being developed.
Do you think Berlin suffers because it doesn’t have enough skyscrapers, or do you like the fact that you can always feel the sun on your skin and see the clouds over the city without getting a crick in your neck? Let us know what you think in the comments below.