My friends Matti und Silke are currently running a temporary art gallery called “Schneeeule” (Snow Owl) and putting up a different show almost every week through the end of the year. Finding space in Berlin for such a project is not as easy as it used to be, but Matti and Silke were able to find a small storefront in Berlin Carré, a 1960s mall across the street from Alexanderplatz that will be completely renovated after December. A lot of the stores are already sitting empty so it’s perfect for a temporary location like Schneeeule. But it also makes Berlin Carré feel like a ghost town, reminding me of George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” zombie mall film. My friend Simon has long coined the place “Depressionszentrum” (Depression Center).
But the site of Berlin Carré has a long history of being the commercial center of the city. Berlin’s Central Market Hall once stood here, after the city decided in 1883 to build a network of 14 covered markets across the growing metropolis. All of the halls had similar architecture -giant, looming spaces below a grid of iron tresses and decorative yellow and red terra-cotta brick facades that helped keep the buildings cool. The Central Market Hall had a large, ice-cooled storage basement and a private rail terminal. The building’s location right next to the Alexanderplatz train station eased the transport of goods from across the country and beyond.
The floor of Central Market Hall was 16,000 square meters long and had stalls for 1336 merchants who were packed in like sardines along a two-meter wide walkway. Still this new shopping center was quite a success. Previously, Berliners could only shop at weekly outdoor markets or buy food and goods from female peddlers who hawked their wares from house to house. The new market halls offered a centralized, permanent indoor location for all their needs. It’s kind of amazing that it took them so long to come up with this concept! At first, the markets were only open twice a week but soon they switched to daily hours from sun-up to sun-down, with a lunch break from 1-4 pm.
The Central Market Hall withstood the First World War and the recession during the Weimar years, but WWII destroyed some of the original buildings. The main hall however, was able to be repaired and continued operating as market in the newly formed GDR -despite food shortages and the almost exclusive use of food stamps for sales in the first years. By 1968 however, the hall was deemed too small and unhygienic, and was closed completely.
By this time, all of Alexanderplatz was under extreme transformation, as the GDR set into motion a grand architectual scheme to modernize the mostly destroyed historic city center. Berlin’s Central Market was part of this plan and was rebuilt in a clean, 1960’s boxy style as part of a residential complex stretching west along Karl Liebknecht Str. It was also rechristened the “Berliner Markthalle” dropping “central” from the name.
After the wall came down, the market was renovated and turned into something along the lines of what it looks like today -an angular mall with an emphasis on openness and light -large glass panes instead of solid walls for the shops and a curved glass ceiling that lets in lots of light. Now, two months before another transformation, the remaining business are a strange mix of usefulness and nostalgia. A bakery, brewery and shoe repair are still open for example, but there’s also a “Museum of Letters” housing the city’s old signage and “Ostpaket,” which sells items that were once produced in the GDR.
For all it’s weirdness, Berlin Carré is definitely a place to see before the year ends. One can only imagine what new vision for the center of the city’s commerce will come next.