For a city built on a swamp – in a region known for its sandy and unforgiving topography – it is quite incredible that Berlin can boast of having the tallest structure in Germany, located in the heart of its historic Mitte district.
Completed in 1969, by the East German government, the Television Tower (or Fernsehturm as it is known in German), originally stood 365m high – making it the third highest standing structure in the world on completion. After the Ostankino in Moscow and the Empire State building in New York. The height of the structure, a direct reference to the number of days in the year; making it easy for school children in the German Democractic Republic to remember. Following German reunification in 1990 – it grew a further 3 metres with the addition of a larger antenna, in 1997.
Its iconic shape has understandably led to it acquiring a number of descriptive monikers – the rocket ship, the Tele-asparagus (a reference to the vegetable grown in the region), the disco-ball in the sky – and for Star Wars fans…the Death Star.
Despite its age – and provenance in a country that no longer exists – the TV Tower still stands significantly higher than any of the other buildings in Berlin – now a whole 368 metres to the top.
No other building in the German capital sits so definitively on the skyline of the city; so clearly towering, as it does, over everything around it.
Instantly recognisable not only due to its height, the TV Tower’s design is clearly reminiscent of the Stuttgart Fernsehturm, the first telecommunications tower in the world to be constructed using reinforced concrete – completed 13 years before its Eastern counterpart. Although the Berlin structure consists of a similar central reinforced concrete shaft (248 metres in height) the tiled stainless steel dome here is said to have been inspired by the Soviet Sputnik satellite launched into space in 1957.
From inside this ball it is possible to gaze over 40km to the horizon from a panoramic platform – located at a height of about 203 metres (666 feet). One floor above this viewing area is the Telecafe restaurant – at 207 metres (679 feet) – officially the highest eatery in the city. Not only are diners greeted with the same view as the visitors to the observation deck below, but also experience the rotation of the restaurant, which completes a full circle over the space of 30 metres.
Access to both the restaurant and viewing platform is possible using one of two lifts, that depart from the entrance at the foot of the tower, and shuttle visitors to the viewing deck in a speedy 40 second travel time. For the more adventurous, there is also stair access – consisting of a gruelling 986 steps.
When the TV Tower was completed in 1969, the East German government would have to deal with one unintended consequence of the tower's ball - the reflective glass would catch the rays of the sun and split to form a cross, or crucifix. Something that locals would comically refer to as the 'Pope's Revenge' due to the country's anti-religious stance.
While the structure is commonly referred to as the TV Tower (or Fernsehturm), its official designation was the Fernseh- und UKW-Turm Berlin (Television and VHF Tower Berlin) – built to broadcast colour television in East Germany and improve on the poor coverage of broadcasting signals throughout the country.
Beyond its practical purpose, it also served as a symbol of the technological advancements of the East – during the tense Cold War period of the 1960s. Centrally located in the city; and an expression of the ideological aspirations of the Soviet system. When construction was started, the ruling party leadership in East Germany – led by Socialist Unity Party leader Walter Ulbricht – had decided to locate the tower right in the heart of the East German capital, near the historic birthplace of Berlin, and next to the Alexanderplatz train station.
While under construction, the Soviet Union could proudly boast its successes in the most significant propaganda campaign of the time – the so-called Space Race. With Soviet cosmonauts leading the way not only with the first man (Yuri Gagarin) and woman (Valentina Tereshkova) in space, the first space walk, but also the first animals to successfully orbit the earth (Belka and Strelka), and the first probe on the moon.
When the Television Tower was completed and unveiled to the world on October 3rd 1969, the United States had however just managed to eclipse these earlier Soviet achievements with one giant step – the first man on the moon.
To see the TV Tower solely as what it represents now is to miss the opportunity to understand the importance of its problematic place in the Cold War conflict between East and West. It is now one of the ten most popular tourist attractions in Germany, with more than 1 million visitors per year. But following its completion, it gave millions of East Germans the opportunity to experience something that they had been denied since 1961 – to gaze over the Berlin Wall and clearly into the capitalist West of the divided city.
However, as a constant symbol of the collective achievements of the East – the Soviet Union and East Germany – the TV Tower stood in the centre of East Berlin and visible from all angles. A god eye in the sky – the perfect encapsulation of 19th century British theorist Jeremy Bentham’s idea of the Panopticon. For as East Germany would grow to have the largest secret police force in human history, the Stasi – larger proportionally even than the KGB for the entire Soviet Union – the tower would serve to represent the central dominance of the party and state over everyday life and East German society.
Omnipresent – and through the clouded glass of the Sputnik shaped dome perhaps also hiding something omniscient and omnipotent.
For where you can see the tower – the tower can also see you.