Marzahn, in the far northeast of Berlin, isn’t exactly a standard Berlin hotspot. You could spend a lifetime in Berlin without ever setting foot in this former GDR suburb, and while it’s easy enough to reach by train or tram, it’s not exactly on the way to any notable destinations, and lies past other eastern attractions like the Tierpark and the Muggelsee. But as Marzahn resident Bertie Alexander writes, “There’s a secret pleasure in not being caught up in the incessant hype and stereotypical lifestyles of Berlin,” which is a sentiment that rings true for many of us who live in the city’s less-hyped outlying districts. (You can read his excellent piece in its entirety here.)
Aesthetically, Marzahn is something of a time-capsule of the former east, particularly in its housing: as examples of Berlin Plattenbauen go, Marzahn is the ne plus ultra in both quantity and quality. Plattenbauen (“panel buildings”, roughly)—the endlessly-reproducible housing towers that could be stacked indefinitely like brutalist Legos—were one of the trademarks of the former East Germany, along with many other communist countries. These towers of white or gray concrete, accented with whimsically-colored balconies, were megalithic kitsch, sky-high projections of dark whimsicality built to offset crises of overpopulation (particularly, in the case of Marzahn, stemming from immigration from Eastern Bloc countries from the 1960s onward).
The Windmühle of Alt-Marzahn.
While it’s easy to assign a purely communist aesthetic to these concrete layer-cakes, though, the reality is far more nuanced. West Germany built more than its fair share of Plattenbauen, and the phenomenon is particularly noticeable in West Berlin, where building materials were limited after WWII, even more acutely so after the construction of the Wall in 1961. With this broader perspective in mind, Plattenbauen are less a communist phenomenon than a German one: the DIN standardization system, after all, survives to this day, having outlived the Weimar years, the Third Reich, and the Cold War to become the timeless embodiment of German efficiency. The huge number of postwar prefab structures across Western Europe and the UK attest to the true driving force behind these buildings: a need for low-cost, high-concentration housing, particularly in countries that needed to rebuild quickly after heavy bombardment or street-to-street fighting during the war.
The soul of Marzahn, though, is as much green as gray. Alt-Marzahn is home to an anomalously-placed windmill, which rises on a small hill above pens of sheep, goats, peacocks, and ducks, as well as a small outdoor exhibit of antique farming equipment. Alt-Marzahn itself, just to the south, is a beautifully preserved village with churches, meeting halls, and cobblestone streets, all united in a tranquil stillness: Saturdays in Alt-Marzahn are more like Sundays, with most windows semi-permanently shuttered, and only a handful of businesses on the fringes open during the morning hours.
Gärten der Welt in Erholungspark Marzahn.
Further east is the Erholungspark Marzahn, an enormous urban park with lightly-sloping grassy meadows, criss-crossed with paths and spotted with trees. At the southern tip of the Erholungspark lies the Gärten der Welt (Gardens of the World), which originated as the “Berlin Horticultural Show” in 1987, in what was then a part of East Berlin. The GdW was expanded and improved after the fall of the Wall, and now features gardens (often with complementary and mostly-accessible building complexes) from Japan, Korea, China, England, an “Eastern” garden with Arab and Persian elements, an Italian Renaissance garden, a “Christian” garden featuring sculptural wordforms, and, last but not least, a genuine hedge maze.
One corner of the Marzahn Hedge Maze.