Every day, thousands of commuters see the political caricatures on the walls of Uhlandstrasse 187 through their train windows as they zoom from Savignyplatz to Bahnhof Zoo station. Its three windowless firewalls are daubed with one of Berlin’s largest and most iconic murals.
But recently a construction site popped up in the gap separating the rail tracks and the building, filling an empty lot where West Berliners once used to refuel their cars. By 2017, a seven-story hotel will fill the empty lot, eclipsing the mural for good. Yet another slice of Berlin’s history will fall victim to the building boom.
And the spot is close to many West Berliners’ hearts. About 40 years ago, the Balz family from Berlin’s southwestern Nikolassee district ran a gas station sandwiched between the S-Bahn tracks and Uhlandstrasse 187’s three massive facades.
The family’s Shell station became an unlikely institution among West Berlin actors and business leaders. With the cult five-star Kempinski Hotel just around the corner, famous people often called into the station for gas. And before the city got its 24-hour shops, the Balz station found its niche selling cold sparkling wine to party-goers through the night.
With 80 parking spots, it was nicknamed the “Uhland Garages” and 15 years ago, professor Klaus Siebenhaar even launched his book “101 Favorite Places in Berlin” at the gas station, lauding it as one of the city’s most beautiful spots. “It’s one of the last paradisiacal bits of Berlin’s remaining old gas station culture in the middle of West Berlin,” he said.
Others disagreed with his enthusiasm. Ben Wagin, a gallerist and ecologist, arguing that choosing a gas station as the place to launch a book “fits right in with Berlin’s schizophrenia and underlines Berlin’s cultural decline.”
But being a firm fixture in West Berlin’s cultural landscape wasn’t enough to save the gas station and it was razed to the ground in 2004. Left behind was a soaring concrete canvas, which was soon painted by two of Berlin’s top graffiti artists.
The mural shows caricatures of former chancellors dangling on strings, pulled by a more powerful puppet master.
With brushes and spray cans they created a three-part mural that is one of Berlin’s biggest and arguably greatest works of street art. Day by day, tourists and commuters alike take snapshots of the colorful walls as they speed past.
“Lake,” one of the artists, was born in East Berlin in 1979, declined to comment on his work. But the street art itself has a lot to say, satirizing German politics as a puppet show.
It shows caricatures of former chancellors Willy Brandt and Gerhard Schröder sitting next alongside former minister-president of Bavaria Edmund Stoiber and other leaders. They dangle on strings, pulled by a more powerful puppet master.
The mural on the left facade is a bleak depiction of the German economy. Cold, faceless men hide in the shadows of Berlin offices, holding what appear to be the political strings. An octopus in armor with a nasty grin on his face clutches a suitcase labeled Deutsche Bank.
To the right is the German population, who are shown to struggle through life. Some have a toothache, but can’t afford to go to the dentist. Reforms and laws get lost in the crowd. Marx and Engels are perched up on a cloud above.
Many of the detailed individual stories are lost on the viewers who can only glimpse the mural from the passing trains. The only better view is from the windows of the hotel opposite.
In the summer of 2004, Uhlandstrasse 187’s landlord commissioned the mural. The two artists worked for three weeks with the help of their colleagues from “Ghetto Stars,” a famous graffiti group from the nineties.
Apparently, the group’s signature was on the building before the building even commissioned the mural. Because graffiti artists frown upon painting over already existing art, they integrated their orange tag straight into the mural.
But its days are numbered. Once the hotel is completed, the mural will join a list of street art works which have disappeared from view. These include the recent loss of the Prenzlauer Berg district’s mural of a bear kicking a soccer ball, which had been a familiar sight to commuters passing through the Schönhauser Allee station for 29 years.
Andreas R. Becher, the architect overseeing the new Uhlandstrasse project, is also the new Berlin chairman of the Association of German Architects (BDA). The hotel will include “micro-apartments” for short-term renting and is the project of a large endowment fund. He says that he is considering commissioning new wall art, but nothing is for sure.
It is the latest plan in a string of unsuccessful development projects. Actually another architect designed a modern residential building in 2013 and the empty lot changed hands twice since then.
These days all that remains of the cult gas station is its concrete floor, that is currently being dug up. Construction will begin between April and May and will continue until the end of 2017.
According to the plans, a six-meter-wide path between the hotel’s outer wall and the train tracks will let pedestrians walk right alongside the famous S-Bahn arches to reach Bahnhof Zoo from Savignyplatz, a privilege once only available to the Balz family and other tenants. But things change when people start pulling the strings.