Germany being the sort of country it is, it divides its railway stations up into 7 different numbered categories, in order to keep customers transparently informed of what sort of amenities different stations on the network will contain. The highest category is category 1, which covers some 20 train stations in Germany. Usually the main stations of major cities, these category 1s will be large stations that are open and staffed 24 hours, and usually contain a shopping center. Berlin has four category 1 stations. These are: Berlin Hauptbanhof, Berlin Ostanhof, Berlin Südkreuz, and Berlin-Gesundbrunnen.
Gesundbrunnen station sits in the eponymous district in the north of Berlin, a working-class area that was right on the edge of the West during the Cold War period; from the station, it’s about a ten minute walk into Prenzlaur Berg. The station itself was rebuilt extensively following reunification, and its present status is entirely a result of the post-reunification transport plan for the city, which involved the building of the Hauptbanhof where the old Lehrter Bahnhof used to be. Under this plan, Gesundbrunnen became Berlin’s main station for northbound long-distance train services. As such, it is very well-connected to the rest of the city’s transport network, intersecting many S-Bahn lines, including the Ring, as well as the U8.
But Gesundbrunnen is not exactly a building. The platforms – huge and, except for the S-Bahn side, mostly empty – stretch out one after the other below the Swinemünder Brücke without any railway shed. The station even lacks any sort of facade: one simply takes a staircase down from a public square, with the shopping center (which category 1 status is presumably contingent on) adjacent. Visiting Gesundbrunnen, one does not get a sense of being at a place where a journey could ever start or finish. No one seems to be using it to go anywhere grand, or special. Both architecturally and in practise, it can only be imagined as a place where people are transitioning, from the mundane into something equally everyday.
For the most part, the 20th century did for cohesive railway station architecture. In the UK the most famous example of this was probably the demolition of the Euston Arch, but we see it all over the big stations in London and the majority of big provincial railway stations: one departs from one’s transport connection and walks through some shops to some platforms. This is our experience of railway buildings. When I first saw photographs of great 19th-century railway station buildings, I was shocked. These places looked like cathedrals. One really got a sense of a railway station being something, and indeed they were: the great stations were mostly built as the proud termini of independent railway companies, and as such they had a coherent identity that, once maintaining a railway station becomes a merely administrative task for some bureaucracy, ends up seeming unnecessary to the people in charge.
It is still of course possible to see old-style railway stations like this, but for the most part, they are historical accidents. Budapest has two, and the Keleti and Nyugati stations are both really masterpieces, but one gets the impression – as with so many of Budapest’s stunning buildings – that they really only still stand because nobody ever had enough money to knock them down. And London is rightly proud of St Pancras, although of course they did want to knock that down for a long time, and it also happens to stand next to King’s Cross, the sort of building that, from the outside, looks absolutely nothing what it does from within, and therefore serves only to obfuscate. Berlin’s Hauptbanhof, meanwhile, is definitely an attempt to produce a coherent building, a place where things might start and stop, and while not exactly beautiful, it is at least to be applauded.
Without any coherent shape or structure, Gesundbrunnen cannot quite seem to stand as something that enables a journey. Rather, it is an obstacle that must be navigated for one to make a journey. This is experienced no better than if one tries to walk around it. If one tries to do a lot of walking around a big city, one quickly realises that, although walking is certainly allowed, the road layout tends not to encourage it, in a certain sense. This is because walking around a city tends to be perfectly straightforward and enjoyable in between transport hubs, but once you start to approach one, your progress becomes bottlenecked, you start having to navigate a lot of underpasses and traffic islands and things like this, and you frequently become trapped in knots of people who are trying to go in the other direction to you. Approaching Gesundbrunnen is like this. It has the feel of something that has been spilled on the city around it, but which hasn’t been mopped up yet.
The great train stations of the 19th century stood as icons of a capitalism that was associated with increasingly great human achievements, with progress. Later on, capitalism sold itself as the economic system that most effectively enabled the happiness of individuals. Post-Cold War, capitalism became post-ideological, presented as something that was simply inevitable, as if programmed into the very fabric of the universe. Nowadays, capitalism has lost its enabling-character. In particular since the financial crisis, capitalism presents itself as an obstacle for the individual: a hindrance that people are (arbitrarily, based on background and other talents) either better or less well-equipped to navigate. You have no other option but to make your journey via it, but it is something so crappy that to remain totally within it, would be at least as boring as death. As the Euston Arch, or Berlin’s Anhalter Banhof, or Budapest Keleti, stood as symbols of the capitalism of the 19th century, so does Berlin-Gesundbrunnen, as a symbol of the obstacle-capitalism of the early 21st.