Oberbaum Bridge: Division and Union

Every day, thousands of berliners and visitors walk along the Oberbaumbrücke that spans the River Spree – moving between the two districts of Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg, by foot, bike, u-bahn or car. Many are unaware of the history that surrounds it, its architectural evolution or how it came to be the way we see it today. Oberbaumbrücke is the longest bridge of Berlin and, according to many people, also the most beautiful.

Berlin is a city of lakes, canals and rivers, and is proud host to even more bridges than Venice. Some of them are very old, others newly constructed. Oberbaumbrücke is certainly one of the most important of the capital. More than that, it became a symbol of Berlin’s unity.

Some film-directors have chosen it as a background of its scenes. Nobody could forget how Lola ran across it on the independent film “Run, Lola Run“, or Matt Damon’s taxi crossing it during a car chase scene in the movie “The Bourne Supremacy”.

© James Fancourt 2014

Architecturally it suggests romanticism, with the towers seeming as if they were taken from a Medieval legend. From a distance, the predominant color is the imbrex red of its bricks. Its style, neogothic. The yellow touch is given by those post-box-colored carriages that run across its higher floor. On each side sit one of two twin towers, inspired by the Brick Gothic Mitteltorturm from the city of Prenzlau. While we walk along its 160 meters, we can see the vaulted arches over our heads and granite blocks, decorated today with lots of graffiti.

Oberbaumbrücke bears the seeds of its border neighbours. We often see some artists who offer a theater performance, playing the saxophone, guitar or drums, among the pedestrians. Many people take out their cameras to try to capture the landmark’s beauty, a landmark which combines two kinds of blue – from the river and from the bright sky – and atypical architectonic figures. As with almost every main bridge in Germany, engraved padlocks are attached along the railings by couples who wish for their love to last as long as the locks they leave behind.

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Nowadays, the bridge has become a beautiful place, a spot attracting tourists and a point of Berlin that is certainly worth a visit. Tragically, the historical reality falls far short of its beauty in legend. It has a past containing horror, especially during the days of the Berlin Wall.

© James Fancourt 2014

Oberbaumbrücke was built in the 18th century. It started life as just a wooden structure, yet throughout the years has gone through many changes resulting in what we see today. Trees used to run alongside it, lending to its name, as “baum” means “tree” in German. In 1961, with the construction of the Wall dividing East and West, it was a border crossing point exclusively for pedestrians. A lot of people lost their lives trying to reach West Berlin, many of them gunned down for trying to escape the Soviet Union. Back then, the Gröbenufer riverbank was unprotected and several children fell down and drowned. The situation was critical, since people were afraid to help them for fear of being shot – accused of trying to violate the border. Eventually an agreement was established for allowing lifeguards to act in emergency cases.

© James Fancourt 2014

When the wall came down Oberbaumbrücke regained its prominence and, from 1995, one of the main Metro lines of the city crosses it. Today, once per year, the bridge is closed to allow the citizens from those districts to have a huge food/water fight as a symbol of their old enmity. Just for fun.

Besides its history, Oberbaumbrücke embodies art. Since 1998, it is the home of a neon-light installation which imitates the rock-paper-scissors childrens’ game. During the night, it can be seen how the three symbols change at random. It was made by the artist Thorsten Goldberg, who lays the politic conflict resolution out. “It’s a game in which it cannot be victors or defeated, since chance is the only rule of the game”. An interesting heritage of the Cold War, confrontation between neighbours and the past division of Berlin. This creation is as symbolic as the statue “Molecule Man” over the Spree that can be seen from the bridge, representing the three districts – Friedrichshain, Kreuzberg and Treptow.

In 2014, Oberbaumbrücke is an important sign, an architectonic gem, a crossing point for the non-stop nightlife of Berlin. It is admired by tourists and it makes the daily life of the resident more special, perhaps because of its construction, its splendid views over the river Spree or its colourful sunsets.

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