From mint tower to television tower – Tall and domineering buildings in Berlin’s urban planning

13 min. read

The idea of dominance in urban development and architecture arises from the endeavour of the social forces that construct buildings to conspicuously emphasise what they consider significant in built-up environments. Of all forms of architectural dominance in urban development, none is better suited to highlighting social importance and therefore value systems in an equally obvious structural way than domineering buildings, meaning the fixed architectural dominants in a specific location and of a specific size and design in specific social-spatial relationship arenas of human settlements – particularly if they are about pitching the own social value system against that of other social forces or present and past social orders […]. And no architectural dominant manages to achieve this as effectively as a vertical dominant that is visible from far away in the city’s spaces and skyline.

Particularly in the history of German urban development since the Middle Ages, the vertical dominant has always been the preferred means of denominating a town’s key social venues architecturally: the places that were central to the building classes and groups, their institutionalised power, their ideology, their culture and their cult. This has also been apparent throughout Berlin’s 750 years of history, the history of the tall and domineering buildings that were planned for Berlin as well as those that were actually built.

Berlin from ordinary town to imperial city

The familiar image of the mid-17th century twin town of Berlin and Cölln as illustrated by Memhardt’s map and the Merian view of the city shows with adequate exactness the architectural result of the city’s evolution as a mediaeval trading town and as residence of the electors shortly before it was developed into a garrison town with fortifications in 1665, as best illustrated by Schultz’s view of the city. In the mid-1430s, the town had gradually evolved from two market settlements – Berlin on the northern banks of the Spree and Cölln on the Spree’s southern island – that had become a united urban community in 1307. Brandenburg’s electors then settled here as early as before 1450. Around 1443, they built a castle north of Cölln […] . After that, Berlin gradually evolved into the main seat of the electors, and the castle became a palace.

The idea for a tall architectural dominant in the palace area that would be visible from far away was originally developed by King Frederick I. He appointed court sculptor Andreas Schlüter as the palace architect in 1699, whilst he was still Frederick III, Elector of Brandenburg. In 1701 – the year of his coronation – he asked him to increase the height of the mint tower that was to be located at the north-western corner of the palace near the bridge across the Spree moat to 300 feet (around 94 metres), ergo to make the new tower of his future residence higher than the buildings which had so far been the highest in the city – the towers of the churches Nikolaikirche and Marienkirche. Such a new dominant for the palace was probably also considered desirable due to the fact that the palace area was no longer appropriately emphasised in the city skyline after the towers of the cathedral church had been demolished in 1697 due to their ruinous state.


[However] No tall architectural dominants were actually built, rather than merely planned, in Berlin until the second half of the 19th century – and then in traditional locations and for traditional purposes. The royals clamoured for a greater architectural prestigiousness of palace and cathedral; the city’s populace needed a new town hall as a venue and expression of its increased clout after the German revolutions of 1848. From a historical perspective, it is understandable that the cathedral by the Lustgarten constructed by Frederick II no longer met the royal family’s new standards after the German Campaign of 1813. Although Schinkel drew up numerous plans for the planned remodelling of the cathedral from 1816 to 1819, the old building was merely redesigned in the classicist style in 1820/21. However, almost as soon as this redesign had been completed, the heir to the throne and later King Frederick William IV enthusiastically developed a plan to build a new, magnificent cathedral. The originally envisaged site for this was the tip of what is now the Museumsinsel; however, once it had been decided to build the museum designed by Schinkel (Altes Museum) in 1823, the new cathedral was to be built on the site of the old cathedral, close to the palace. The heir apparent himself drew up the plans for the future cathedral on the island in the Spree in the style of a Gothic edifice with twin towers. For the cathedral site near the palace, Schinkel submitted a design for a triple-naved basilica in the Early Christian style with two towers, one either side, that were only to be twice as high as the palace and with the whole building facing the Lustgarten, in 1827. None of this was realised. However, the heir to the throne did not abandon the cathedral project. In the early 1830s, he sketched a plan for a triple-naved basilica – again in the Early Christian style – facing the arsenal with two towers, again one on either side, at the rear of the church directly next to the Spree which, at the time, would have dwarfed all other buildings in Berlin with a height of 320′ (around 100 metres). Wilhelm Stier intended to build an even higher cathedral when he suggested an alternative to the heir apparent’s concept, a basilica with two towers as well as a tall, 445′ (100 metres) high crossing tower in 1840 – without success. Gottfried Stüler, on the other hand, went with the heir to the throne’s initial concept and, in 1845, designed the cathedral as a five-naved basilica with two towers at the sides but arranged at the front of the building, facing the Lustgarten, that were to be the originally intended height. This design was accepted for realisation. However, after the revolution in March 1848, the work on the foundations next to the old cathedral, which had already begun, had to be stopped. A second design by Stüler from 1854-58 envisaged the cathedral as a central building with a high cupola of 98 metres – now, however, in an Italian High Renaissance style. With his various efforts to rebuild the cathedral by the palace, Frederick William IV intended to realise the idea to erect an architectural monument to commemorate the victories of 1813 and 1815; however, his second objective was the demonstration of the institutional unity of state and church according to the motto “for throne and altar”. Not least, he also consciously intended to highlight Prussia’s Protestantism with the construction of a great cathedral in Berlin that would rival the Cologne Cathedral. However, Stüler’s building with a central cupola also remained unrealised. Instead, the cupola above Portal II of the palace once planned by Eosander was built between 1854 and 1858 on the basis of Stüler’s design, albeit now somewhat altered with regard to form and function: it was now a cupola with a height of 60 metres, or 67 metres including the lantern, and would top the new palace chapel.

By now, however, the people of Berlin had decided to build themselves a new town hall that would be an architectural dominant, unlike the former town halls in Berlin and Cölln, which had hardly been visible in the cityscape: the building that would later be called Rotes Rathaus, “the red town hall”, due to its red brick construction. Schinkel had already drawn up plans for the remodelling of the old town hall in 1817. However, it was not until after a competition in 1857/58 that Waesemann was given the commission to erect a new building. He did so in the Northern Italian Renaissance architectural style and was clearly influenced by Schinkel’s designs for public buildings. The basic shape, structure and proportion of the 74-metre-high square tower, which does not taper towards the top, is extremely similar to the tower of the church on Spittelmarkt, designed by Schinkel in 1819. With its illuminated clock, it was visible from afar in many of Berlin’s streets, not least also in the street Unter den Linden: as a point de vue above the palace – much to the chagrin of the Prussian-German aristocracy. The fact that those whose primary interest was the capital’s representation of the state frequently viewed the town hall tower with misgivings was not simply due to its height and visibility in the skyline of the city. After all, neither the considerably higher tower of the Petrikirche, built in 1852 with a tower that was 111 metres high, the highest in Berlin, nor the Nikolaikirche, which gained a second tower that was 80 metres high when it was remodelled in 1885, offered cause for criticism in this respect. The town hall tower – particularly in view of the fact that it was located relatively close to the palace area – bothered them as a symbol of citizen-driven democracy. Even Hitler, much later on, still disliked this tower in the cityscape, especially when viewed from the street Under den Linden, to such an extent that he would dearly have liked to have it torn down. The relationship between the repeatedly planned but never realised construction of a new cathedral – for which the palace cupola could only be a temporary replacement – and the town hall with its tower under construction may have driven the decision to no longer delay the erection of the new cathedral next to the palace. In 1867, King William I (1861-1888), encouraged by the victory over Austria in the Austro-Prussian War, held a competition for the construction of the cathedral with the specified objective that he intended to build this church in commemoration of this victory […]. Most of the designs submitted focused on a central building with a cupola. The cupolas in the designs submitted by Ende/Böckmann and Gropius/Schmieden were to be the highest, at 400′ (around 125 metres). A Gothic nave design by Statz also featured two towers of the same height. However, the cathedral would have achieved an absolute record height if it had been built according to the design submitted by Spielberg, who suggested a 560′ (around 175 metres) high tower above the cupola topped choir of the cathedral church – not unlike the towers on Gendarmenmarkt. It would not only have been the highest building in Berlin but also in all of Germany, and higher than Cologne Cathedral, whose towers are 160 metres high. Its completion had been resumed in 1842, and – like the Strasbourg Minster before it – this cathedral was likely to become the benchmark in terms of architectural dominants. In fact, at the time, Spielberg’s cathedral would even have been the tallest building in the world.

To what extent this spirit of height rivalry dominated the entire competition is also confirmed by the fact that the German architecture journal “Deutsche Bauzeitung” featured the designs for the new cathedral throughout by comparing their heights to the benchmark of the town hall tower and the palace including its cupola, rather than comparing them to the highest tower of the Petrikirche church. Despite the elaborate effort associated with this first major German public architecture competition, and despite the attention it attracted, no decision to build a cathedral was made afterwards […]. Not until the end of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71 and the subsequent unification of Germany did the idea of a main Protestant church – now for the entire German Empire founded in Versailles – with an impressive spire to commemorate the victory resurface. Of the ideas discussed in the early 1870s, Orth’s architectural concept from 1871 deserves a special mention. Orth proposed an extension of the street Unter den Linden beyond the Lustgarten, across the Spree and through the mediaeval city. This extension would then be renamed Kaiser-Wilhelm-Strasse, and the cathedral would be built not by the Lustgarten but along this street. This street was indeed built in the 1880s. However, the emperor himself rejected the spatial division between cathedral and palace. It was also not a consideration later on, when Schmülling/Halmhuber suggested in 1889 to build the cathedral roughly on the site of today’s Volksbühne theatre. By then, the idea to build the cathedral according to a design by Raschdorff, whom Emperor William II had promoted to cathedral builder immediately after his coronation in 1888, had firmly taken root. Raschdorff had, after the perceived sense of urgency with regard to the construction of a new cathedral in Berlin had grown due to the consecration of the finally completely finished Cologne Cathedral in 1880, already begun the work on the cathedral in 1884. In 1887/88, he then submitted a project which, in the first version, proposed a cathedral crowned with three cupolas, but in the second version a central building with a cupola and four corner towers. In both cases, he intend to connect the building with the palace via a narrow bridge across the by now realised street in the direction of Marienkirche church and through an immensely tall tower instead of the palace’s old apothecary wing. With this palace tower, which was to be 140 metres tall to the top and was also to serve as a clock and bell tower, Raschdorff intended to realise an old idea of Schlüter’s. The inclusion of the town hall tower in his plan to illustrate the height of what was clearly felt to be the competition reveals that he also intended to provide an effective antithesis to the town hall. The palace tower was never built, but the central building with a cupola and four corner towers was finally realised between 1894 and 1905 – albeit with minor alterations – once the old cathedral had been torn down in 1893. The massive cupola was built to a height of 76 metres, or 101 metres to the tip of the lantern. From then onwards, the cathedral was Berlin’s central vertical architectural dominant: due to its size, its location near the palace and in the centre of the city, and due to its design. It was so domineering that the construction of the Stadthaus in 1911 as an urgently required additional administration building with its 101 metres high cupola tower was now longer viewed as competition, unlike the town hall when it had been built fifty years earlier. The cathedral could also hold its own against the city’s numerous other church towers that had been planned and built in the districts that surrounded the old city centre after Emperor William II’s accession to the throne (1888) under the patronage of Empress Augusta Victoria, as their towers were usually only 50 to 80 metres high. With the construction of the cathedral and the Stadthaus, the vying for social centrality by means of architectural height that had been so characteristic for the entire development of the city from the Middle Ages to the early 20th century as an expression of the discordant demonstration of the power of the state and the ruling monarchy on the one hand and the self-assertion of the community on the other, between the seat of electors, royals and emperors and the city of the ordinary people, came to an end. However, the striving for architectural height dominance did not cease. In the contrary: it continued at an even greater pace, particularly since the normal height level of the inner city buildings had increased to around 25 metres from 1900 onwards. What did change was the function and structural design of these tall, domineering buildings. The competition between tower and cupola continued in a different way […].

This essay was first published in a collection of essays entitled “Studien zur Berliner Kunstgeschichte” published by Karl-Heinz Klingenbuch in 1986; VEB E.A. Seemann Verlag, Leipzig.

About the author
Bruno Flierl

Bruno Flierl is a German architect, architecture critic and publicist, he is considered an expert on architecture and urban development in the GDR. In the debate on the reconstruction of the Berlin City Palace, he has spoken out in favour of preserving the Palace of the Republic.