From top-secret NSA field station to street art mekka
[TL;DR] In the middle of Grunewald forest is a former US Army intelligence facility that has been turned into a big adventure playground for artists. If you have any love for the beauty of decay and for art, this is your place and you should definitely make the trek out there. Facts at the bottom.
One thing that sets Berlin apart (other than it’s history, people and general wickedness) is the amount of trees we have. About a million trees line streets and parks. And then there is Grunewald a 3000 ha large forest on the western edge of Berlin but well inside the city limits.
If you exit the S-Bahn at Grunewald station you stand at a crossroads leading into the forest (Saturday at noon there’s a meeting for mountainbikers if you’re interested). From there it is a 10 minute ride or half hour walk to Teufelsberg (devil’s mountain, named after the small lake nearby; Teufelssee). After a while, a hill appears between the now leafless trees. Like everything that’s higher than a curb we named a mountain even though it is just 150m above sea level at the top – making it the second highest elevation in Berlin.
History of Teufelsberg
Even though both ‚peaks‘ – Teufelsberg and Drachenberg – are artificial, there was always a smaller hill. On this hill, the Nazis started to build a raan elite military univsersity right after the 1936 Olympics that were held in nearby Olympiastadion. A hospital as as a replacement for the Charitè was planned as well. Like so many other parts of the planned „World Capital Germania“ those projects thankfully never saw their completion and after WWII the Allied were left with a half-finished complex filled with Nazi-symbolism. So they blew it up and covered it with debris.
Berlin like other cities was heavily bombed and overall about 60% of the houses were destroyed or badly damaged. The materials that couldn’t be recycled were dumped in large landfills that over time became artificial hills. When the first of those were filled to capacity, they openened the Teufelsberg site. In total about 26 Million cubic metres of rubble were dumped here.
In the meantime, the US Army discovered the location and in 1957 the ASA (Army Security Agency – precursor to the NSA) set up the Field Station Teufelsberg from which they started controlling air traffic and listening to radio signals from the east. Over the years they built a veritable high-tech spy city in the middle of the woods. In hindsight it seems strange, that this was completely normal for us as kids. When we let our kites fly there, we never stopped to think how weird it is, that so many people were having fun there, when just a few steps further 300 military men were spying on the Warsaw Pact. But so much, that sounds absolutely ridiculous now, was just a regular part of life. And even though they added soild and planted trees, you still see rebar or broken bricks poking up from the ground after heavy rains.
What the NSA actually constructed on site looked like a sci-fi headquarter of a Bond villain. There were five white fullerdomes in different sizes for the antennae and a very unwelcoming superstructure. The whole thing was a fortress and it looked the part. On the other hand, people were walking their dogs along the fence and in winter we would take our sleds there to race down the former ski track (there was a lift and everything at one point and even a world-cup level event in 1987 for Berlin’s 750 year anniversary).
After the fall of the Berlin Wallm US and British forces left the site early in the 90s, although the radar dishes were in civil use until 1999 at which point city officials sold the whole thing to an architecture firm from Cologne. Von Gruhl & Partner paid 5.2 million Deutsche Mark (about 4 mio. € in today’s money) and they had big plans. Hotels, appartments a clinic for plastic surgery and a wellness centre were in the making. The thing is, while the city supported the project, the district didn’t, and conversationists went bonkers considering the idea of a Hotel in the middle of a Nature reserve. Long story short, after years of back-and-forth, the Cologne architects went bankrupt, the district rezoned the whole area, so nothing new and permanent can be built up there and for a couple of years the place was left to itself. And like always in Berlin, artists and party-people took over. Unorganized at first, but since 2015 the area has a new leaseholder who steers a development that created one of the most exciting places for Urban Art in Berlin, if not worldwide.
Teufelsberg today – a streetart paradise
Whatever I may write about this place, words won’t do it justice. It is just too marvelous to properly describe, so I will refrain from waxing lyrically and try to be objective and rational in my praise. Teufelsberg station is a giant adventure playground, a wet dream for every artist on the lookout for a truly unique canvas for his/her work. Yes, there are quite some industrial compounds that have a lot of art in them like Eisfabrik or the old brewery in Schöneweide or even RAW, but none can compete with Teufelsberg. 1st of all it is in the middle of the forest, like a space-ship that landed out of town. Most artists choose spots in the city centre to make sure as many people as possible see their pieces. Here people have to spend considerable effort just to get there. Even if you come by car, you still have to climb the hill, so you have to actually work to get there. And secondly the structure itself is so extraordinary. The buildings themselves are typical utilitarian box-design cubes, but on top of them are still the original antenna domes. The one all the way on top of the tower is commpletely intact. Make yure you have a flashlight or your phone ready for the ascent. Once inside, you will be most impressed by the sound. If you’ve never experienced the sound inside a perfect sphere, you will freak – at least I did. Standing in the centre of the dome, every whisper you make comes back to you amplified, a hand-clap echoes for seconds.
Amidst the decaying structure every surface is painted. There is so much art, that it’s hard to properly take in all of it. From tiny stencil to giant murals. From completely unknown newbies to stars of the international street art scene, they are all here; El Bocho, Elfkunst, Obey, Tobo, Plotbot Ken (with a whole series of post-apocalyptic characters) and many more we haven’t even identified yet. So I hope we might be
Teufelsseechaussee 10, 14193 Berlin (Google Maps)
Opening hours: 10-1700, last entrance 1600
Entrance: 8 €; 15 € including a historical tour (Friday at 1300, Sat/Sun at 1400)
If you get thirsty easily, remember to bring you own drink, at least in winter since they don’t offer anything, althoug that might be different in the summer.