Marzahn is considered a lost cause as far as tourism is concerned: ugly and barren. The district is known for prefabricated buildings, unemployment and a lack of prospects. This made DW reporter Rosalie Engels curious.
Formerly Europe's largest prefabricated housing estate, Marzahn is today not exactly one of the "must-see locations" in the German capital. No question, that district of Berlin has a bad reputation. Perhaps unfairly? Are there any hidden treasures here that could lure a Berlin tourist away from the beaten path?
At least it is home to the International Garden Exhibition (IGA) with its cable car and the observation sculpture Wolkenhain. And then there is a park called Gardens of the World: From Japanese to Oriental gardens, you can wander through distant worlds here — and wonder at how green this apparently grey district is. In addition, there is the pretty castle Biesdorf.
But all this does not interest me today. I want to experience to true prefabricated grey slab-building feel of Marzahn.
Art in prefabricated slabs
The first stop on my trip is an art project. It's one that's been around since 1984. "Galerie M" is the studio and exhibition space of the Neue Kunstinitiative (New arts initiative) Marzahn-Hellersdorf.
It is located directly on the Marzahn promenade, which leads like a corridor through the prefabricated housing estates. It was designed as a shopping and leisure area for the inhabitants. Today it is no longer fitting for the times. Many of the former shops are unoccupied. The rooms are however in great demand among artists who use them as studios — or as an exhibition space.
My visit was on one of those hot summer days so I was very happy when I entered the cool gallery. As soon as I was inside, an employee of the gallery came up to me with a broad smile on his face and offered me a glass of water. I accepted gratefully and was delighted by this friendly gesture, which would be hard to imagine happening at an exhibition in Berlin's central district, Mitte.
While strolling through the project room I chat with one of the artists. Some of her paintings are part of the exhibition. The concept of the art initiative is to create art by Marzahners for Marzahners, she explains to me.
"It is really great that there is a place here where people from our district can produce and exhibit art together. A project like this shows that Marzahn's bad reputation is unjustified. Our district is much more than just a bunch of anonymous prefabricated buildings," says the Marzahn native.
This is nothing like a classic gallery. But that's exactly what's exciting. Art here is also a communal project. It's the right place to get a feel for this part of town that's so unfamiliar to me and that lies beyond the tourist circuits.
Marzahn has already managed to surprise me. There are also works of art to discover on the promenade itself, you just have to look closely: Wall mosaics and typical ceramic reliefs dating from the time of the reign of the former Communist East German regime, which have titles like "Work for the happiness of the people."
Above the roofs of the city
After my visit to the gallery I am even more intrigued about my next destination: The "Degewo-Skywalk," a viewing platform on the roof of a prefabricated building on the Marzahn promenade. Several times a week you can go up together with a guide for free. With the elevator we ascend first to the 23rd floor of the block of flats, from there we go through a door to a ladder attached to the facade of the building. It leads to the platform at a height of 70 meters (229 feet). I am not alone: We are 15 participants altogether.
Once we have arrived at the top, the conversation among my fellow visitors briefly falls silent, because the view over the high-rise housing estates is so impressive that we all marvel together for a while. Despite the relatively large distance to the center of Berlin, we can easily see the TV tower and Berlin Cathedral from up here, and the Brandenburg back-country on the other side.
During our one-hour stay on the roof, our guide Markus Krause tells us a lot about the founding of the district in the 1970s. "The whole thing was a mammoth project right from the start. Starting in 1977, 60,000 apartments for 160,000 inhabitants were built here within 10 years. After German reunification, many of the prefabricated buildings were demolished, but today they are occasionally being rebuilt because there is more demand than supply."
Marzahn is authentic
Unlike today, during the East German era Marzahn was regarded as a model socialist project. By the standards of the time, the apartments were spacious and luxurious, and people moved in droves to Marzahn from the then run-down Prenzlauer Berg district.
"What was attractive for potential residents was that the entire infrastructure of the district had already been in place since the opening of the first building complex," says Markus Krause. "Kindergartens, schools, indoor swimming pools and shopping facilities, as well as large parks and avenues, everything was there from the start."
From the roof we can see that today many of these public buildings are empty. They have fallen out of time. I find it hard to find anything attractive in this gigantic housing estate. But here I can learn something about life in the former East Germany. There is probably no better place for that in the whole city of Berlin. Marzahn is unembellished, unmarketed and therefore authentic.
A village as if from another time
For many, the move to Marzahn meant a move "to the country" despite the grey prefabricated slab buildings. In the 1970s, the new residential complexes were intentionally built around the historic villages of Biesdorf, Kaulsdorf, Mahlsdorf and Alt-Marzahn, preserving the district's rural charm despite the prefabricated buildings.
After having seen the village of Alt-Marzahn from the platform of the Skywalk, situated in the middle of the prefabricated buildings, I decide to go for a walk through the historic village after my high-rise adventure. On the streets of Alt-Marzahn I really feel transported back in time. Only the roofs of the multi-story residential complexes, which can be seen from almost every point, shatter the illusion.
Another side of Berlin
It is difficult for me to decide how I feel about Marzahn after my day trip. On the one hand I was positively surprised by things like the project space Galerie M, the Skywalk and by the fact that Marzahn is really more than just a dreary grey slab buildings.
On the other hand, I find it difficult to unreservedly recommend a trip to the district to my friends. The great distance to the city center of Berlin as well as the fact that I did not see a single inviting café or restaurant during my entire stay are clear shortcomings, especially for Berlin visitors who only spend a few days in the city.
But if you want to experience a slightly different side of Berlin — away from much visited districts like Mitte and Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg — and if you really want to get to get a sense of what everyday life in the former East Germany was like, I would wholeheartedly recommend a trip to Marzahn.