newsletter link
mondo arc

Berliner Hauptbahnhof, Berlin, Germany

Issue 33 Oct / Nov 2006 : Architectural : Transport


Marco Ludwig, author of papers on James Turrell and Villa Panza, gives a fascinating personal account of the epic project that has split opinion and created a public storm in the German capital and beyond...

Deutsche Bahn, owner of Berlin Central Station which was formerly opened on 26 May this year, praised its building as follows: “Its exceptional significance as an interface in a Europe which is becoming increasingly integrated is visibly confirmed by the effect which the building has had on the Berlin cityscape: the architecture is spacious and flooded with light. The 321 metre-long glass hall of the Stadtbahn line (city railway) running from east to west is intersected by the 160 metre-long, 40 metre-wide station building, running in a north-south direction. There are no two glass elements the same as the hall follows a curve which widens towards the central part of the station. The architecture thus emphasises the station’s character as a crossing […] For the Hamburg architects Gerkan, Marg and Partners, the determining factor in their design was the importance of the new Berlin Central Station as an interface in a Europe which is becoming increasingly integrated.”
A further quotation has been added because it provides a remarkably clear description of what the architectural idea represents. The German architecture critic Heinrich Wefing says: “He (architect Meinhard von Gerkan) and Stuttgart engineer Jörg Schlaich have spun a web of glass and air above the Stadtbahn viaduct which runs from east to west […]. Transparent, almost weightless, it has suspended the elegant movement of the ICE trains passing through this architectural creation. Almost in the middle of the station, the roof ducks […] below two cross-struts which mark the route of the north-south line passing under the zoo and are visible from a long way away. This almost cathedral-like juxtaposition of a nave and transept creates particular excitement on account of the fact that the two solidiums are not at strict right angles to one another but are slightly offset in relation to each other, as if dictated by the line of the tracks.”
This basic skeletal structure only really becomes apparent when viewed from quite a distance. To get to the station, you first have to cross an area of wasteland. Although it is situated in the heart of the capital, just a few steps away from the Reichstag building, the area around the new building is still characterised by its separateness from the hustle and bustle of the city, just as if the architecture itself is enough, as if it has taken on the titles which have been attached to it - ”monument to the unity of Europe“, ”new symbol of Berlin“ and ”the superlative central station“. And its powerful form really does make an impression; it presents an imposing sight as a huge structure with railway lines and moving pavements running through it and thus conveying movement, drawing you closer to it.
The expanse and transparency of the architecture is in keeping with the absence of urban confinement and closeness which you do not generally expect around city stations. Perhaps the best way to describe it is as a “pump house for passengers”, as a “junction under glass” (Heinrich Wefing); just imagine that approximately 25,000 people and 1100 trains pass through the biggest crossing station in Europe every day and it is predicted that figures will reach 30 million passengers per annum by 2010. The infrastructural organisation of this immense volume of traffic takes place on a total of five levels and on platforms up to 450 metres long, like the one on the lowest level -2, the subterranean platform which forms part of the north-south route which leads through a tunnel underneath the Spree and the zoo.
From down here, right inside, you can really experience what is so special about this bold architecture which up to now has only been described in terms of its external appearance: you have an uninterrupted view up to the glass roof where, if at all, your eye might finally be caught in its filigree, a subtly spun web before the view disappears into the vast expanse of sky over Berlin. The same applies in reverse for the view from the viaduct to the platforms running from north to south. Weightless and alternating to the rhythm, your eye moves on and stops at bridges and footbridges arranged one on top of the other in the air, the supposedly effortlessly elevated levels, at the delicate groups of supports which seem to share the enormous load of the structure with the greatest of ease. There are many different perspectives which give the overall impression of choreographed movements within the space, floating, supporting, rising high… This show of architectural agility also comprises a total of 54 escalators and 50 lifts. These include six panorama lifts, central vertical elements comprising structures made of steel and glass which are suspended in the air and provide a link between all the different levels.
The overall physical impression of air and light primarily owes its creation to the glass roof structures. Above all, they are a testament to the ingenuity of Meinhard von Gerkan’s design. They successfully demonstrate how light can be an original architectural element and have a definitive creative effect. At Berlin Central Station, the glass roof structures not only provide the subterranean levels with natural light but the daylight coming in mainly provides a means of orientation: up and down and back and forth in the “pump house”, its various sequences of movement, tubes in which the individual is to be washed away under the threat of drowning in the mass flow of people driven to mobility, where the traveller has an excellent overview of the space within the vast but well laid-out design of the station complex: the naturalness of above and below (re-)assures the passenger’s perception which may have become destabilised on account of being overtaxed. Each visual vertical element gives him something to hold onto and provides support if he is in danger of really being overwhelmed by a surplus of visual attractions.
There are 80 shops that flash before your eyes here – albeit cleverly integrated within the internal architecture – not including the advertising logos and spaces which also vie for the attention of the passengers as potential customers. It has seemed for a long time as if stations of today have gone off the rails as far as their own destiny simply to be a station is concerned. They have often become congested and brightly lit and it would be more accurate to describe them as shopping malls, garish and dazzling to the eye. Having taken a good 15 years to design and build, Berlin Central Station, which was opened with a grandiose symphony of light – the largest and most modern crossing station in Europe which, 130 years ago, was called the Lehrter Bahnhof as it connected the city of Prussia with north-west Germany – leaves behind any conventional ideas of so-called terminuses, limited to the influx of people and goods into the city and called after the station at the end of the line in each case like the stations in Potsdam or Hamburg, for example. The Lehrter Bahnhof, in its spot at the bend in the Spree, was erected as the new glass temple for the traveller and the consumer, it had become one of the buildings which belonged to a bygone era in the mid-19th century.
The new plans for this type of spaceship-like station architecture brought the bygone era to an abrupt halt.
The sunlight which streams through the glass roof structures into the vast station and is spread throughout the different levels within the central area of the hall intersection and right down into the lowest chasms for the trains, the lowest platform level, by means of large openings, thus provides a certain clarity which increases the qualitative feeling of space for the passenger. Each cushion of glass and steel may make him linger a while, soothe his visually stimulated perception sensors, give or restore peace, provide a visually and naturally inspiring experience in a spatial continuum flooded with light.
In view of the indoor climate, all the glazing is made of solar control glass designed so that integrated obscured photovoltaic cells guarantee a certain amount of shade on the lines. The team of architects from GMP together with the team of lighting designers, Peter Andres from Andres Lichtplanung of Hamburg and Helmut Angerer from Conceptlicht of Traunreut (in charge of the artificial lighting concept), carried out comprehensive studies beforehand in an artificial environment in order to be able to assess the quality and quantity of the daylight in the complex overall space as stated in their project specification.
This was also pioneering work as far as the concept of the artificial lighting produced inside the station was concerned and an explanation of this is given below: “This was the only way to enable the intelligent, qualitative planning of the artificial lighting. The aim was to create artificial lighting equivalent to the different amounts of daylight available in order to fit in with passengers’ natural conception of light. The results of the studies were also used as a basis when planning the switching circuit for the artificial lighting in order to be able to match switching times to the daylight situation as effectively as possible. The logical and consistent lighting concept was changed as a result of intervention by DB.”
This refers to a legal wrangle currently taking place between the structural engineer, the architect and the client relating to a change in design for the ceilings. This also affected the original lighting design which was not realised. The vaulted ceiling idea originally planned by GMP for the two lowest storeys also plays an important role within the general lighting strategy for the station developed as a result of collaboration between Conceptlicht and Andres-Lichtplanung. It makes the general planning of the artificial lighting by the lighting engineers and designers, especially for night-time, perfectly understandable. However, it should first be pointed out that apart from the lower storeys, there are other areas within the station where the design plans of each team were not realised so that all in all, the lighting design for Berlin Central Station is not a unified whole.
As far as the lighting design is concerned, the two lowest storeys have been treated as a single unit and this is the one area most worth mentioning in this respect. According to GMP’s plans, the said levels were to have vaulted ceilings spanned with arches, with the consequence that each cross-vault would have created a subterranean hall which would have fitted in with the aesthetics, the feeling of space you get above ground, in other words that airy atmosphere, in a place where you are not used to having such an atmosphere, namely underground. The Berlin architecture historian Horst Bredekamp gave praise to this “cathedral of transport” and celebrated the design with the following words: “Never before would Europe have had an underground theatre of light and movement to compare with this.” However, this “would have” is how the situation stayed. Instead, a vile ceiling of smooth grey sheet steel weighs heavily on the souls of the travellers which is more than likely how they might feel when you consider that the upper storeys are standing in splendour in one of the most expensive, if not the most expensive, properties in Berlin.
Fluorescent lamps have been sunk into the flat ceiling in such a way that the ceiling joints are filled with continuous rows of luminaires which emphasise the longitudinal dimension. In contrast to this, the initial design for the artificial lighting included the use of point sources of light. However, the use of fluorescent lamps is in no way just a formality, a matter of the external appearance of a type of luminaire, but rather a question of the quality of the light, its effect within the space, insofar as the use of fluorescent lamps indicates the selection of a type of lamp which creates more of a uniform light texture. As already mentioned, this is in contrast to point sources of light where Conceptlicht was planning to provide lighting using metal halide lamps with ceramic burners and a warm light colour, in accordance with the following documented principle: ”The choice of lamp is an essential starting point for the design. However, besides economy, there are also criteria such as colour temperature, […] brilliance and creative consequences resulting from the type of luminaire predetermined by the type of lamp to be weighed up“ (Peter Andres +Conceptlicht Gmbh). For the purpose of our observations, it has come to light from this design idea with regard to the planning for levels -1 and -2 that if point sources of light had been used, they would not have created a diffuse type of lighting within the space as produced by the rows of luminaires but a more striking, vivid and thus more lively lighting effect than the effect currently to be found on the subterranean levels. The lighting designers state elsewhere in their explanations: ”The idea behind the design […] is to create a friendly, bright, inviting atmosphere and avoid monotonous lighting effects.“ In addition, the warm colour of the light would fit in well with people’s general expectations: unlike the white daylight and the pale light produced by fluorescent lamps, it is found to be more pleasant at night.
The fact that the planners did not categorically refuse to incorporate fluorescent lamps in their lighting design but based their design on the achievement of the desired effect within the relevant space can also be seen, for example, in the way in which uniform light is used in the area where the goods lifts are situated on the platforms. The lifts have a vertical bar to which fluorescent lamps are attached. Their ability to produce homogeneous illumination is demonstrated perfectly here on the side walls of the shafts. A light well of white light different from the warm basic tone is created. This vertical light axis is given a certain level of contrast by varying its intensity depending on the vertical propulsion of the cabin. The glass columns for the panorama lifts are illuminated accordingly, only in this case by means of narrow-beam spotlights. The vertical dimension is emphasised by a dynamic light column which extends upwards.
Conceptlicht has also used a mixture of different light sources in areas on level 0. Light from metal halide discharge lamps and from fluorescent lamps work together in harmony here. While the company from Traunreut designed some of the lamps specifically for the project in Berlin, they were manufactured by Se’lux from Berlin. Other lighting manufacturers also involved in the production of the lighting for Berlin Central Station included Bega, Birke Licht, Lichtfabrik Halo Tech, Lehner Werkmetall, Sill, Siteco, Rademacher, Norka and Wila.
The principle of emphasising the verticals which is important to the spatial design is continued in the lighting of the walls of the stairwells. These are illuminated by continuous rows of luminaires and the vertical illuminated surfaces also become part of the internal architecture of Berlin Central Station at night.
Finally, there is the lighting for the platforms for the city railway on level +1 which is provided by column luminaires where the geometry of the light produced is designed so that there is no dazzle at low angles. They are indeed included as part of the lighting design but because of their own luminance, they do not dominate. Instead, their angle of radiation is used to emphasise the visual structure of the crossing railway line.
If we leave the station and go outside to take a look at the external architecture at night, then we see the striking new column luminaires which have been installed by the steps surrounding the building platform. They have been erected at landing level and they are set to solely illuminate the steps. This lighting arrangement creates a bright edge strip which creates a visual frame around the building complex.
At night, the exterior lighting design by Andreas Boehlke gives the station building a predominantly gridlike, almost skeletal appearance. The two link structures are illuminated while narrow-beam cold temperature 2000K 150W spotlights have been attached to each individual support from the façade of the actual steel structure. Boehlke used more than 3000 metres of fibre optic side lighting to emphasise the contours of the roof running from east to west.
When Berlin Central Station takes off its lighting design nightrobe to greet the new day, it displays itself once again, powerful in all its nakedness of glass and steel which creates far-reaching visual perspectivies within a still fascinating, though crippled structure, while affording views right down into the depths of its powerful anti-art being. It is to be hoped that the two towers which are gateways at the same time, and each double cross-strut will not only hold north and south together and connect east and west but, in a figurative sense, will at some time perhaps bring about an unscheduled reunion between those building partners who seem to be forever irreconcilable.

technical information

Client: Deutsche Bahn
Architect: Gerkan, Marg and Partners (GMP)
Lighting design: Conceptlicht, Andres-Lichtplanung
Exterior lighting design: Andreas Boehlke
Lighting manufacturers specified: Sill Lighting, Se’lux, Siteco, Norka, Rademacher, Bega, Birke Licht, Lichtfabrik Halo Tech, Lehner Werkmetall, Wila



Projectors from Sill Lighting help the transition from daylighting to night time as well as creating a spectacular exterior appearance to the station when darkness falls

Related Articles
  • berlin

    The Se’lux ‘stalagtite’ luminaires are IP54 rated and, due to the near continuous operation of the building, have been designed by with ease of maintenance as a significantly important feature

  • berlin

    At night, the lighting gives the station a predominantly gridlike, almost skeletal appearance

  • berlin

    Norka fluorescent lamps have been sunk into the flat ceiling emphasising the longitudinal dimension of the space

  • berlin
  • berlin

    Marco Ludwig


Follow us on…

Follow Mondo Arc Magazine on Twitter Follow Mondo Arc Magazine on Facebook Follow Mondo Arc Magazine on Linked In

mondo arc india

darc awards DWLF IALD PLDC LRO