New uses for old bunkers #5: Heap-parks and zoo-arks – the fate of Berlin’s ‘indestructible’ flak towers

By fortune of one of those moments of uncanny convenience I was pondering which bunker after-lives to write about next, when I stumbled upon a timely Tweet from Longbarrow Press pointing me in the direction of a reading of Alistair Noon’s poem Hill with Bunker and Flak Tower:

Go on then, plan for the eternal
with cupola, column and arch:
we’ll number their metres from here, and etch
their shape onto a steel panel,

then tilt and fix it to the top
of this slope that the women who walked
out of the thick dark walls
mixed together from scorched rock,

coating it with soil and seeds
as their husbands advanced beyond the Urals,
and sending footpaths up in spirals
like icing around the new hillside.

The sirens have stopped.
The nightshift crew looks up,
dancing to techno till dawn. An eruption
deposits cut green bottles,

thin layers of new rubble,
across a fossil of concrete.
This hill just won’t keep quiet,
but fidgets on the viscous mantle.

Alistair captures well some of my own impressions as I wandered to the top of the remains of one of Berlin’s three former flak towers a few years ago. It’s likely that the tower under investigation in his poem was the partly demolished Humboldthain tower. The tower was built in 1941 by Italian ‘volunteers’, Soviet POWs and other forced labourers. Its proximity to the city’s main East – West railway artery meant that the elevation facing the line could not be demolished by its French conquerors when the rest was blown up by them in 1948. The tower thus now sits, half destroyed, like one of those sandcastles, made inadequately, where one side sheers away to a slope of nothingness, whilst a perfectly formed pair of towers stand proud on the other.  The day I visited this place, I too was struck by its dereliction, lovers in mid-afternoon tryst, improvised trackways, steel shuttered doorways, graffiti and rather a lot of smashed green bottles…


The ‘indestructible’ flak tower

These monumental towers served two purposes. They were elevated platforms for anti-aircraft flak batteries, and also vast above ground fortified refuges for civilian Berlin.  They were built as a reaction to the realisation that Berlin was not – as Goering had proudly announced at the start of WWII – beyond the range of the Allied bombers.  These latter-day arks (commissioned and operated by Goering’s Luftwaffe) were seven-storeys, accommodating up to 10,000 people within the protection of their up to 3.5 metre thick concrete walls.

[Igorks’ video compilation of flak towers – now and then – in Berlin, Hamburg and Vienna.]

These towers signalled by their shells and concrete, that Berlin’s populace was protected. These towers were meant to be indestructible. They certainly communicated a brute force in their scale, as an American Journalist remarked upon viewing one for the first time:

“[it] looks like a fantastic monstrosity from a lost world, or another planet. It is huge and positively frightening to look at…” (Howard Smith quoted in Moorhouse, 2011: 310)

As Berlin fell in 1945 the population in these refuges trebled. Packed to bursting “human hygiene was impossible, food was scare and suicides were frequent” (Moorhouse, 2011: 366). Whilst the towers themselves survived intact as Berlin crumbled, they met their own fates after the war.

The other Berlin heap-park

Whilst the Humboldthain tower was only partially demolished, Berlin’s two other towers were fully destroyed. The tower situated in Volkspark Friedrichshain was demolished by the Soviets, the remains of the flak tower and its satellite control tower were buried under one million cubic metres of rubble of taken there by the work-gangs clearing the debris of the destroyed city. Two new hills thus appeared to distrupt Berlin’s flat plain – Grosser Bunkerberg and Kleiner Bunkerberg respectively. These man-made hills features spiralling pathways, wrapped around the edge of these rather abrupt hills.

The zoo-ark

The third Berlin flak tower was built within the grounds of Berlin Zoo, but was completely demolished by the British shortly after the war. However the zoo / flak-tower connection lives on elsewhere, for Berlin wasn’t the only city to be defended by such behemoths. Vienna, had no fewer than six flak towers, many of which remain standing – the colossal explosive, man-power and political-power needed to erase them not having been to hand in the way that it was in Berlin. Accordingly the Viennese skyline is still punctuated by these redundant grey concrete sentinels, one of which was adapted to house a zoo and aquarium complex, the Haus des Meeres in 1957.

With its bulky and multi-levelled form this building, and its ‘draw-bridge’ style entrance canopy has every appearance of a concrete Noah’s Ark, a fitting tribute perhaps to the animals of Berlin Zoo who paid the ultimate price for their exposed, unsheltered proximity to that city’s zoo flak tower.

For a soundcloud recording of Alistair Noon reading his poem in Berlin: The poem is available in Alistair’s collection, Swamp Area (2012) published by Longbarrow Press:

Gawthrop, J. & Williams, C. (2008) The Rough Guide to Berlin, Rough Guides: London

Ladd, B. (2004) The Companion Guide to Berlin, Companion Guides: Woodbridge.

Neillands, R. (2001) The Bomber War – Arthur Harris and the Allied Bomber Offensive 1939-1945, John Murray: London

Moorhouse, R. (2010) Berlin at WarLife and death in Hitler’s capital, 1939-45, Vintage: London

About lukebennett13
Associate Professor & Course Leader, BSc Hons Real Estate, Sheffield Hallam University, UK. I TEACH: built environment law to construction, surveying, real estate and environmental management students. I RESEARCH: metal theft; urban exploration & recreational trespass; occupiers' perceptions of liability for their premises. I THINK: about the links between ideas, materialities and practices in the built environment. I WAS: an environmental lawyer working in commercial practice for 17 years before I joined academia in 2007. I EXPLAIN: the aims of my blogsite site here: LINKS: Twitter: @lukebennett13; Archive: EPITAPH: “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.” James Joyce, Dubliners

5 Responses to New uses for old bunkers #5: Heap-parks and zoo-arks – the fate of Berlin’s ‘indestructible’ flak towers

  1. Dear Luke,

    You were absolutely spot on – it was the Humboldthain bunker which inspired the poem. It’s always nice to see a poem one’s written being used in a non-poetry context, cheers. And thanks for a load of information I was only half-aware of!

    Best wishes from Berlin

  2. I explore the theme of place annihilation further in my subsequent post: ‘Razed to the ground – mapping and drawing the destruction of Tokyo, 1945’

  3. Pingback: The Seven Wonders (revisited) | Longbarrow Press

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