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Founded about 1200, the Nikolaiviertel (help·info) (Nicholas' Quarter) of Alt-Berlin, together with the neighbouring settlement of Cölln, is the reconstructed historical heart of the German capital Berlin. It is located in Mitte locality (in the homonymous district), five minutes away from Alexanderplatz.
Situated on the eastern shore of the river Spree, it is bounded by the streets Rathausstraße, Spandauer Straße and Mühlendamm. The deconsecrated Nikolaikirche (Saint Nicholas Church), Berlin's oldest church, gives its name to the neighbourhood and lies at its centre.
The two settlements of Old Berlin as well as Cölln on the other side of the Spree originated along an old trade route, the Mühlendamm (Mills Dam), a ford where the river could be easily crossed. The Nicholas' Church, originally a late Romanesque basilica, was erected about 1230. The area around the church with its medieval alleys in the main had been preserved throughout the centuries, until it was destroyed by the air raids and the Battle of Berlin during World War II.
At Berlin's 750th anniversary in 1987 the house-building was restored in a peculiar mixture of reconstructed historic houses and concrete slab Plattenbau blocks, giving the area an unmistakable appearance. Today the small area is famous for its traditional German restaurants and bars.
Places of interest
Beside the Nicholas' Church, the best-known building of the quarter is the Ephraim-Palais, built in 1766 for Veitel-Heine Ephraim, the financier of King Frederick II of Prussia. The Rococo façade at the intersection of Mühlendamm and Poststraße became famous as Berlin's "finest corner", until the house was demolished in 1936 for the laying out of the enlarged Mühlendamm street. Parts of the façade were stored in the western outskirts of Berlin, West Berlin authorities delivered them to East Berlin's magistrate in 1982 to support the reconstruction. The palace was rebuilt between 1983 and 1987, about 12 meters away from its original site. Today it serves as a museum.
On the other side of the Poststraße is the Knoblauchhaus from 1760, with a neoclassical façade from the 19th century. One of the few preserved historic original buildings, it was the residence of the notable Knoblauch family with members like the architect Eduard Knoblauch or the physicist Karl-Hermann Knoblauch. It is home of a Biedermeier museum, the oldest civic museum of Berlin.
On the banks of the Spree river stands the red sandstone Kurfürstenhaus (Prince-elector's House), erected in 1897 at the site of an older building, where Elector John Sigismund of Brandenburg died on December 23, 1619. As he believed a White Lady haunted the Stadtschloss (City Palace), he had fled to the home of his [[vale
German Democratic Republic Postmodernist Housing Estate Gunter Stahn, Nikolaiviertel, East Berlin, 1987
Postmodernism was meant to be something that happened only in the west – “the cultural logic of late capitalism”, as Fredric Jameson called it, an “end of history” style to accompany the triumph of neoliberalism and privatisation. Curiously, though, many of its ideas – for example, the view that modernism ignores the desires of the masses – were anticipated under Stalin in the 1930s, and some Soviet satellite states were early adopters of postmodernism. The German Democratic Republic had one of the largest industrialised housing programmes ever seen, in which practically everything was made out of mass-produced concrete panels. This is referenced in the Nikolaiviertel, a large postmodernist housing estate in the centre of Berlin, which emulates the scale and style of old Berlin using the same corrugated concrete components as a suburban tower-block estate.
The result is bizarre, kitsch and rather enjoyable; it’s fully aware of its own absurdity. Concrete arcades fan out from the restored Nikolaikirche, with concrete gables, concrete columns and archways, all made from the familiar panels. Pass through those archways, and you could be in any estate anywhere in east-central Europe, with children’s playgrounds and trees surrounded by concrete blocks. A relief sculpture on one facade depicts the history of the German workers’ movement, and culminates with workers constructing tower blocks from exactly the same panels. It seems like a strange way to imagine the forward march of labour – and we all know what happened two years after its construction – but also suggests that the communist economy and ideology had more potential for irony and adaptation than we might give it credit for. Here is the first, and last, state-socialist housing scheme that was intended to be funny.
• Owen Hatherley’s Landscapes of Communism is published by Allen Lane. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/jun/20/palaces-for-the-people-five-communist-buildings
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