A friend recently told me about an apartment in Berlin where you can get a geography lesson while using the toilet. The bathroom has a window covered in a frosted sticker with a small square cut out at the eye level of a person perched just so. Through the square one such person can see a side-view mirror attached to the building, and reflected in the mirror are blinking red lights and a bright, kooky structure that looks like a silver golf ball on a skewer. Above the peephole a handwritten inscription reads, in German: “Berlin, Capital of the G.D.R.”
The structure is the Berliner Fernsehturm, and though it appears tiny and surreal when viewed from this Prenzlauer Berg toilet, it looms large and surreal from most other spots in central Berlin. Built by the German Democratic Republic government in the 1960s as an unmissable monument to Communism’s soaring future, it is still the tallest structure in Germany and the only European TV tower located in a metropolitan center. This, combined with its “Jetsons”-esque aesthetic, makes it look freakishly superimposed onto the otherwise sprawling and nonvertical city. It dwarfs the better-known landmarks: the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, Museum Island and what remains of the Berlin Wall. Like a giant cockroach, the Fernsehturm always manages — despite its strange enormity — to materialize suddenly and without your noticing.
The idea for an East Berlin TV tower was born of necessity — a Cold War broadcasting battle raged in the airwaves above the divided city in the 1950s. But during planning, which coalesced around the closing of the West German border in 1961, the project transformed. Officials began to envision the TV tower as the crown jewel of a central socialist square. That it would be prominently visible from West Berlin was a bonus, demonstrating to all that the true center of the city was in the East. That it could not have been built without Western materials and engineers, that it became one of the few places where East Germans could get a glimpse of West Berlin, that crown jewels were antithetical to the young republic’s guiding philosophy — these were minor details, less important than ostentatiously asserting the new state’s identity.
I loved the Fernsehturm from the moment I first moved to Berlin several years ago, after college. I quickly internalized the did-you-know facts about it that a tour guide recited on my first visit to the city: Until renovations in the 1990s, it measured 365 meters tall (about 1,200 feet), so that schoolchildren could remember its height; it got its nickname, the Pope’s Revenge, because of the way sunlight scatters into a cross on the sphere’s dimpled surface — something East German officials did not like. Though I never would have admitted to my affection for a popular tourist attraction, I treasured the surprise of seeing this bulbous anomaly emerge in vistas that, without it, would look like fantasies of Old Europe.
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