Berlin Journal: Design-Savvy New Building Opens in Former East Berlin

Exterior view of new Axel Springer building in Berlin (photo Nils Koenning/ Axel Springer)

By Ron Bernthal

The reunification of Germany in 1989 was a late bow to the “undeviating” Axel Springer, who always believed in it. In 1991, six years after Springer’s death, the German politician Peter Glotz admitted in the Bundestag (German parliament) debate about moving the German government from Bonn to Berlin that, “When Axel Springer built his publishing company’s high-rise right next to the Wall, many Germans including me, thought he was a dreamer. I’m willing to admit that Springer’s hope was stronger than what I held for my realism.” In the ‘1960s, when the German publishing company of the late Axel Springer decided to build its headquarters in then–West Berlin, it was making a strong political statement. The modern office tower, which opened in 1966, stood directly facing the Berlin Wall, “shining like a beacon into the East,” as Springer said at the time.

The former Berlin Wall along Bernauerstrasse (photo Ron Bernthal)

About a decade ago, and 21 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall,  the Axel Springer company was able to buy a huge, 100,000 square-foot plot along the former Berlin Wall “death strip.” In  2012 the company arranged an international competition to design the new corporate building, with Rem Koolhaas’ architectural firm, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), eventually winning the competition.

Construction of the new Axel Springer building began in 2016,  and in October 2020, after a short Covid-19 related delay, the stunning 10-story building opened, becoming part of the existing Axel Springer complex, located in one of the city’s most significant neighborhoods. 

Axel Springer building, street view (photo Nils Koenning/ Axel Springer)

The new building in Berlin acts both as a symbol and a tool in the transition from print to digital. Bisected by a diagonal 10-story atrium that opens up to the already existing Springer buildings, the essence of the design is a series of terraced floors that together form a ‘valley’ that creates an informal stage in the middle, a symbolic place to broadcast ideas to other parts of the company.

OMA, in designing the new building, relates much of its thought process about the architecture of the project, to the news and publishing indusry (Koolhaas himself worked as a journalist before becoming an architect) and has issued a statement that states “the genius of print is that it is a cheap, physical, hyper-accessible embodiment of a complex collective effort, for which so far the digital has been unable to find an equivalent. Architectural offices are similar to newspapers in that they produce complex assemblies and selections from radically different sources of information. As architects, we have experienced the advantages: speed, precision, smoothness. But we have also suffered one crucial consequence: the relationship between the worker and his computer, which isolates him in a bubble of introverted performance, inaccessible to collective overview. In the classical newsroom, dominated by smoking, typing journalists, each inhabitant was aware of the labor and progress of his colleagues and of the collective aim: a single issue, with the deadline as a simultaneous release. In the digital office, staring intently at a screen dampens all other forms of attention and therefore undermines the collective intelligence necessary for true innovation. We therefore proposed a building that lavishly broadcasted the work of individuals for shared analysis.”

The staggered, interconnected terraces of the new Axel Springer building (photo Laurian Ghinitoiu, courtesy OMA)

Inside, the Axel Springer building is planned around a “valley” of 10 cascading floors, which gives rise to the 147-foot high atrium echoed in the faceted exterior.

Each of these staggered floors is lined with a terrace, which each open out to the soaring atrium to allow employees to interact and share ideas with each other across the space.

The exterior of the building, with its linear tinted glass facade, encases 147-foot atrium and , Halfway through the building’s interior, the “valley” is mirrored to generate a three dimensional atrium canopy. The common space formed by staggered, interconnected terraces offers an alternative to the formal office space in the solid part of the building, allowing for an expansion of the vocabulary of workspaces, a building that can absorb all the question marks of the digital future.

and  buFortunately, the public can experience the building on three levels —  the ground floor lobby, the meeting bridge, and the roof-top bar. The meeting bridge is a viewing platform where visitors can witness the daily functioning of the company.  The ground floor is open to the city and contains studios, event and exhibition spaces, canteens and restaurants.

Close view of exterior facade (Nils Koenning/Axel Springer)

The building is situated opposite the existing Axel Springer headquarters on Zimmerstrasse, which once overlooked the Berlin Wall separating East and West Berlin, a street which previously separated East and West Berlin, close to the Checkpoint Charley border crossing. Today, the entire Axel Springer complex sits in the middle of the reunited Berlin.