Sleeping Beauty on the Tracks

The informal use of Berlin’s Anhalter Bahnhof since the opening of the Berlin Wall is, or was, a unique example of wild urban green space appropriation ­– an inner-city oasis for dog owners, (nature) lovers, sporty types, children and petty criminals. Since the end of WWII, fields of tansies, wild carrot and sweet clover have invaded the vast patchwork of cobblestones and crumbling railroad tracks now known as the Gleisdreieck. Dewberry and poplar shoots competed for space on a mountain of rubble in the northeast corner of the lot. Carved into the mountain’s base stood a fortress of half-rotten pressboard planks, folding chairs and other garbage found on site. Suspended in the branches of a lone elm fifty meters away, a rival fort watched out over the expanse of green concrete and bramble blossoms. Temporary projects included beach volleyball at one end, an impromptu driving range at the other, and intercultural community garden nestled between wild locust and birch trees. The rural meadows and urban forests between Potsdamer Platz and Südkreuz were a sprawling invitation to explore and get lost – a new fucking wilderness obscured by pavement and daily city life, devoid of swing sets or safety. For local residents and more than 400 plant and fern species, about a third of Berlin’s total flora, and the millions of insects, small mammals and birds that shared that biocoenosis, to call the abandoned railway depot a brownfield would be missing the point. Sleeping Beauty is more appropriate for those that loved her. But now she awakens to a new reality.

Targeted for completion in 2012, the design of landscape architects Loidl Atelier plans to tidy up 45 hectares of rough edges, replace the weedy meadows with robust lawns and tame the old train yard’s wild spirit into a central park to serve an expected 300,000 visitors (daily?). Competition criteria for the park design in 2008 included the integration of historic traces, wild vegetation and called for round table discussions with residents and current users. The park’s destiny is in part thanks to citizen groups like the west-tangent and gleisdreieck cooperative, who came to the rescue at different political turning points – in the 70s and 80s against the construction of a superhighway through Berlin’s center, and most recently in 2002 against construction plans for the worlds largest Ferris wheel. After two years of discussion, exactly what kind and how much “integration” of community, history and wild nature is still fodder for controversy in the Möckern St. neighborhood and in Kreuzberg’s City Hall. Many have attacked Lodl’s slick design as a mockery of the competition guidelines. But perhaps Sleeping Beauty was only beautiful when asleep. It is perhaps a design non-sequiter to expect sprawling flower meadows, low-budget maintenance and heavy visitation. Safety is king. Rambling rose bushes are dispensable.

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Integrating dynamic processes into design practice requires incredible insight, flexibility, and knowledge on the part of the architect or planner. Seed dispersal mechanisms, patterns of secondary succession, and dynamic flows of water, soil and microclimate appear on the palette next to pavement, sight lines and architectural fixtures. By preserving or planting new trees, shrubs and flowering annuals that naturally flourish in cities, urban landscape design may be enhanced with wild-growing, “ruderal” plants with especially long flowering periods or fast growing pioneer trees (Kühn 2003a and b). Professor Lucia Grosse-Bächle (2005 p.232-239) describes such integration a “strategy for invasion,” proposing that “plants are both the active opponents as well as the passive medium of the landscape architect. This double nature confronts the designer with an unsolvable contradiction that can be both a problem and an opportunity.” Here, the “relationship between humans and plants is understood as an interactive process,” where the “dialogue between humans and nature… allows space for dynamic processes” (ibid). William Throop and Rebecca Purdom (2005, p.11-12) have similarly referred to Eric Higgs’ integration of natural processes as wild design: “Wild design aims to create the conditions under which an ecosystem can flourish through a process that engages participants meaningfully in exercising their skills and knowledge…. one designs the human/ecosystem interaction.”

A standard “form follows function” approach usually caters to human activity over ecosystem services. This principal could be inverted by adapting functional design to accommodate natural processes. By simply introducing legible framing mechanisms and functional elements, it is possible to embrace the diversity and character of urban wilderness. By emphasizing the contrasts between urban nature and landscape design, a complimentary aesthetic is established. The thoughtful placement of pathways, entryways, fountains, lighting fixtures, and benches, sport and play objects, artworks, and outdoor furniture, provide framing mechanisms that support an overall harmony. Successive zones may serve as a long-term conservation solutions, such as seen on the Schöneberger Südgelände (Kowarik et al. 2005) and Bonames Park on the former Maurice Rose Airfield in Frankfurt. Adriaan Geuze’s incorporation of drainage systems and birch plantings at the Schiphol Airport also demonstrates “a commitment to the formation of self regulating ecosystems” (Corner, 1999 p.18) On a regional level, the reclamation and reforestation of the former industrial complexes of the Ruhr Valley have been brought together as a regional park system under the toponym “Industriekultur.” Featured highlights include the IBA Emscher Landscape Park, the Landscape Park Duisburg Nord by Latz & Partner Architects, and the Landmark Art Route by regional and international land artists and sculptors.

old maurice rose airfield in frankfurt

However, as Henne (2005, p.251) advises, there is an inevitable irony of wild design: “Although new wilderness vegetation in the peri-urban landscape will seem “wild”, in most cases it will not grow uncontrolled but will be a result of vegetation management.” Contrary to the final outcome, wild design must often address long-term monitoring and maintenance concepts that are far more complex than a simple tree-lined lawn design. Issues of safety and regional identity often result in negative perceptions of wild urban green space, not to mention vandalism, illegal dumping, wildfires, damage to built structures, and potential traffic hazards. To deal with these problems, good management is as fundamental as good design. Exactly why the wild dogwoods and raspberry brambles have been removed from Berlin’s Sleeping Beauty on the Gleisdreieck is still up for debate among designers and urban wilderness enthusiasts alike. Whether Loidl Landscape Architects will have the time, effort and know-how to integrate wild design into their “green break in the heart of the city” (Loidl 2008) is yet to be seen. Only time will tell what reality Sleeping Beauty will awake to in decades to come. It won’t likely be a highway or an amusement park. But it also won’t be a new fucking wilderness. Dog owners, (nature) lovers, sporty types, children, and petty criminals are already turning to the Templehof and Tegel airfields to see what adventures lie waiting. And the roses carry on their nature folklore.

artoland 2010


Corner, James (1999). ‘Recovering Landscape as a Critical Cultural Practice’ In: Corner (ed.), Recovering Landscape – Essays in Contemporary Landscape Architecture. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1-26.

Grosse-Bächle, Lucia (2005). ‘Strategies between Intervening and Leaving Room’ In: Kowarik & Körner (eds.), Wild Urban Woodlands – New Perspectives for Urban Forestry. Berlin, Heidelberg and New York: Springer Verlag Berlin Heidelberg, 231-246.

Henne, Sigurd Karl (2005). ‘New Wilderness as an Element of the Peri-Urban Landscape’ In: Kowarik & Körner (eds.), Wild Urban Woodlands – New Perspectives for Urban Forestry. Berlin, Heidelberg and New York: Springer Verlag Berlin Heidelberg, 247-262.

Kowarik, Ingo (2005). ‘Wild Urban Woodlands: Towards a conceptual framework’ In: Kowarik & Körner (eds.), Wild Urban Woodlands – New Perspectives for Urban Forestry. Berlin, Heidelberg and New York: Springer Verlag Berlin Heidelberg, 1-32.

Kühn, Norbert (2003a). ‘Spontanvegetation – die billige Alternative. Einsatz spontaner Vegetation in der Freiraumplanung’ (Teil 1). Der Gartenbau 19/2003, 14-15.

Kühn, Norbert (2003b). ‘Spontanvegetation – die billige Alternative. Einsatz spontaner Vegetation in der Freiraumplanung’ (Teil 2). Der Gartenbau 20/2003, 26-27.

Loidl Atelier (2008). Project Description, Park on the Gleisdreicek Online: Cited April 2010

Throop, William & Purdom, Rebecca (2005). ‘Wilderness Restoration: The Paradox of Public Participation’. In: Restoration Ecology 14 (4), 493–499. (2006) doi:10.1111/j.1526-100X.2006.00160.x, Online: cited December 10, 2007

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Sleeping Beauty on the Tracks



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