A Park of Two Halves – Gleisdreieck Park, Berlin

First published in the Journal of the Landscape Institute, Autumn 2014: http://www.landscapethejournal.org/A-park-of-two-halves

Creating a park from land that is divided by a railway line and surrounded by building sites cannot be easy, but Atelier Loidl’s Gleisdreieck in Berlin is a great success, thanks to its limited palette of materials and sensitivity to the needs of the community.

Gleisdreieck

Image copyright: Atelier Loidl / Julien Lanoo

The name ‘Gleisdreieck’  translated literally, means ‘platform triangle’, and refers to the prominent intersection of three early twentieth century railway viaducts that still stand and now form a single station close to the centre of Berlin. The name gradually came to refer to the two vast areas of disused goods yards to the south and west of the viaducts, which have recently been reborn
as Gleisdreieck park.

The sites were largely abandoned after the war, and later further divided by the route of the ICE high-speed rail line that rises from below ground at the only point where the two sites connect, creating an uncrossable wasteland, effectively separating the residential districts on either side.
A decade ago, when I first came to Berlin, the area was a lost world of long-abandoned train tracks and graffiti-smothered buildings in the undergrowth – an urban explorer’s paradise, but not a place that was part of the life of the city.

The new park forms a key element of the Berlin Senate’s long-term green space plan for the city following the fall of the Wall, as a still ongoing process of ‘rethinking the gaps’ and knitting the divided city back together. It is also a response to  the strongly expressed needs of local residents’ groups to bring at least part of the derelict site into community use; although the district is well served in terms of green space, there is little in the immediate area. The site lies in the former West Berlin district of Kreuzberg, which has a long history as Berlin’s most alternative and politically active borough, giving rise to strong local action groups, who successfully opposed a 1970s motorway network that would have radically changed the area. They have remained closely involved in the gestation of the park proposal, which was first designated as a protected green space in the mid 1990s, and local groups had already piloted some small-scale projects on the site’s western edge, before work on the
park began.

The brief set by Grün Berlin – the Berlin state-owned company that has already created and run several other parks across the city – was therefore to create a space that would reconnect the residential districts, and would also link these older quarters with the new office and commercial district of Potsdamer Platz immediately to the north. Grün Berlin also wanted the park to serve both the local community and residents from across the city, with as many different and varied uses as possible. Atelier Loidl, the landscape architect that won the commission in open competition in 2006, responded to the brief with a ‘park of two speeds’, and has successfully created a huge variety of different settings, achieving the feel of several different parks in a single project. The total budget was 12 million euros, with a total park area of 26 hectares.

Because of the nature of the site as two distinct parts, and the ICE route that cuts through it, the project was conceived as two separate but linked parks built in separate phases: the Ostpark, (East Park) completed in 2011, and the Westpark, finished in May 2013. A smaller third phase, the ‘Flaschenhals’ (or ‘bottle neck’, named for its shape), forms a southern extension to the Ostpark, and opened in April this year. Although the Flaschenhals is divided by a busy main road, the designers have renovated a number of the original cast iron railway bridges, which allow cycle and walking routes to connect the two parts. The Flaschenhals is also the final piece in the completion of the Berlin-Leipzig cycle route, which runs south from the centre of the city.

The 10 hectare Westpark is the buzzier, ‘active’ side of the park, incorporating multiple sports pitches, play areas, and cycle and roller-blading tracks, but also a large grassed sun terrace. It feels strongly like a part of the city, surrounded by ongoing construction, criss-crossed by two busy overhead rail lines, and with the office towers of Potsdamer Platz. The 17 hectare Ostpark, by contrast, is much more relaxed, incorporating large areas of protected nature reserve along with several former railway buildings and sections of track, and has the air of a series of meadows set in shady woods. Numerous play areas and activities for younger children have been located along the eastern edge of the Ostpark where it meets the older residential districts.

Atelier Loidl has restricted itself to a limited but very effective pallet of robust construction elements that result in a modern, industrial aesthetic. Berlin is rarely a ‘pretty city’ in a Parisian sense – it is a 19th century industrial city violently impacted by the events of the 20th – and Loidl’s designs embrace and work with the ‘rough-and-ready’ feel of the locale.

Red concrete surfaces form ramps and pathways, and sometimes widen into terraces that use polished red cast asphalt. Grey asphalt and white concrete are also used (the latter for paths that cut east-west) as well as long strips of stone track ballast alongside these. The orientation of the pathways in the Ostpark echoes the north-south linear feel of the former rail tracks, and this is further emphasized by the design of the chunky Accoya wood benches, which are aligned in runs of up to 80 metres. The luminaires that follow various routes through the whole park are also a key visual element – a simple design, but with each post ‘cranked’ at a different height. Combined with the benches and paving, these form a kind of sinuous sculpture across
the park.

Another very successful design element is the large-scale striped font used throughout the project for signage and way-finding symbols, acting as a kind of brand for Gleisdreieck (it is not used in other parks run by Grün Berlin). The font is even extended into the markings for sports courts and play areas – a particularly effective moment is the pavement lettering for the Berlin-Leipzig cycle route, which chimes with the speed of the ICE trains as they hurtle down the length of the park.

The Westpark was perhaps the greater challenge to the designers; given the busy rail routes that border and cross over it, an ‘oasis of calm’ was not an option. Its ‘active’ nature is oddly compromised by the incorporation of some existing ‘Kleingärten’ on its western edge. To describe Kleingärten as German allotments does not fully convey their essence; they are as much a social club as a place to grow fruit and veg, usually having semi-permanent buildings and a patch of lawn, and often a communal bar (a café and shop for trading produce has been provided as part of the park development). It will be interesting to see how the privacy of the Kleingärten and the particular openness of the Westpark evolve alongside each other.

In the Ostpark, Atelier Loidl has used the fact that the space is essentially a raised plateau at a level of up to 4m above street level to create a world apart from the city. The original station wall down the length of the eastern boundary on Möckernstraße has been reconstructed, with a number of stepped entrances that give direct access to some of the community-driven projects: an intercultural garden (modelled on New York’s Community Gardens) is long established, and provides space for small-scale community agriculture. In Germany, and in Berlin especially, there is a strong tradition of ‘outside education’ particularly at preschool level. Berlin also sets the bar high for the design of children’s playgrounds, and the Ostpark does not disappoint, with numerous facilities including a playground formed as a forest of tree trunks, and a highly successful ‘nature experience area’ for local 6 to 12 year olds.

A significant part of the Ostpark has been designated as ‘Das Wäldchen’ – the ‘little wood’ or ‘grove’, where woodland has grown over the goods yards largely undisturbed for the last 50 years. Some of the woodland is closed off to protect species of nesting birds and other wildlife, although this is low key, and is achieved by retaining much of the dense planting and by fencing off some core areas.

For many visitors, the most memorable element of the whole development will be the Ostpark’s half-buried railway tracks and crumbling platforms, which emerge spookily from the undergrowth of the Wäldchen. The woodland boundaries are clearly defined by the clean edges of the white concrete paths that cut through them – an effect that surprisingly heightens the sense of ‘unexplored territory’ beyond. In some locations signal boxes and other railway structures are held in a state of arrested decay, evoking the postwar wasteland as well as the century of industry that preceded it.
The effect is taken further still in the Flaschenhals extension to the Ostpark, with woodland partially cleared from rail tracks and signal boxes retained, complete with their as-found graffiti. These conserved elements feel like a natural extension of the ideas used at the German Museum of Technology (Deutsches Tecknikmuseum) on the park’s northern boundary. The museum opened in 2003, retaining and reusing many of the existing railway buildings in a park-like setting, dominated by the rusted steel bulk of a water tower. One of the fully working diesel locomotives from the museum’s collection, which previously ran on a short section of track within the museum grounds, is now able to make its way slowly down the entire length of the Ostpark – a surprising and slightly surreal sight.

Despite using such striking imagery to refer back to the site’s past, Atelier Loidl stress that the focus of its whole design ‘is on the future development of the park and the new image of the site’ rather than on ‘railway history or the nature myth created by man’s absence over the last 60 years’. It sees the park’s history as a starting point rather than an act of conservation. And it is true that beyond the ‘set pieces’ of the park’s historical traces and the ‘settled’ feel of the eastern edge of the Ostpark, it seems implicit in the way the park is designed that there might be future changes, a sense of a work-in-progress, even though the project is technically complete. This impression is reinforced by the fact that this part of Berlin is itself a work in progress; both parts of the park currently seem to be surrounded by a sea of tower cranes and construction activity. A large new development of low-energy community-led housing is fast rising next to the Westpark (with Atelier Loidl responsible for the landscape). The mass of industrial buildings that clusters around the Gleisdreieck viaduct structure itself is currently being converted piecemeal into a new media hub, and in the process opening up a more porous boundary to the park. Inevitably the nature of the Westpark in particular will change
as these new districts come to life.

If one criticism can be made, it is that the weakest element of the park’s design is the linking of the Ostpark and the Westpark. At present, the transit point between the two is a single narrow route, which on the Ostpark side comprises a single fenced-in path that feels cramped, before opening out as it crosses over the ICE rail link. As the park becomes busier, this link is bound to become a bottleneck. Perhaps a future development would be a stronger east-west link that is able to span the parks in a direct line, with another bridge over the rail line.

But this seems not to be a problem for the new park’s wide range of users; the many different elements and parts that make up the project have so far proved hugely popular. In the first days of this summer it was clear that Gleisdreieck had passed the ultimate Berlin park test: it had the feel of a summer festival, but one where you can still find your own quiet corner.

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