Berlin has many places that inspire me. One of the most beautiful squares in the city is probably the Gendarmenmarkt. The buildings on the square are really impressive and I keep discovering details that I haven’t seen before.
Creation of the Gendarmenmarkt
At the end of the 17th century, Friedrichstadt was created on the drawing board. This is also where the Gendarmenmarkt is located, which slowly began to take shape in 1688.
Many French immigrants (Huguenots) settled in the newly created area. The then King Friedrich I assigned the Lutheran and French Reformed congregations a building site for their churches on the square. The French Friedrichstadt Church was built in the north and the German Church in the south. A small French comedy theatre was built between the two churches around 1773, which was replaced by a new National Theatre with 2000 seats around 1800.
The square was originally laid out as a market square and was initially called Linden-Markt. Several name changes followed and from 1799 the square was called Gendarmenmarkt. The name is a reminder of the stables of a regiment of the Gens d’armes that stood on the square. The name changed a few more times in the course of German history, but since 1991 the square has had its old name back.
Today, there are numerous restaurants, shops and hotels around the square. The buildings around the square were constructed from 1976 onwards, and attempts were made to design the new steel skeleton buildings with adapted façades so as not to destroy the historical image as much as possible.
I’m particularly interested in the concert hall, the French Cathedral and the German Cathedral, which are located directly on the Gendarmenmarkt.
Concert Hall on the Gendarmenmarkt
Where the magnificent building of the concert hall stands today, the French Comedy House was built in 1776.
The theatre’s start was not particularly successful; it initially stood empty from 1778 – 1786. Then the theatre director Döbbelin was given the privilege of performing there with his troupe. But his luck did not last long, he got into financial difficulties and lost his post.
In 1787, under a newly appointed directorate, the theatre was renamed the Royal National Theatre. Over time, the venue succeeded in becoming one of the most important theatres around 1800.
Friedrich Wilhelm III decided to commission a new building for the theatre and entrusted the architect Langhans with this task. The new building with 2000 seats opened in 1802 and unfortunately burned down completely in July 1817.
Karl Friedrich Schinkel was commissioned to plan a new bourgeois theatre for 1200 spectators. In addition, a restaurant with kitchen, a ballroom and concert hall and all the rooms necessary for the theatre were to be integrated into the building. By renting out the additional halls, it was planned to reduce the running costs.
In May 1821, the season opened on the new stage with a play by Goethe. There followed performances of spoken theatre, concerts and opera. Premieres, such as Der Freischütz by Carl Maria von Weber, also delighted the audience.
With the end of the monarchy, the Königliches Schauspielhaus also received a new name in 1919. It was now called the Prussian State Theatre. Leopold Jessner was the first theatre director and under his leadership political productions moved into the theatre. The audience wavered between enthusiasm and rejection. He resigned from his post in January 1930.
During the National Socialist era, the theatre’s programme mainly included performances of the classics that were “true to the works”.
In November 1943, the south wing burned out after being hit by a bomb. In the last days of the Battle of Berlin, the part of the building that had remained intact fell victim to the flames.
In 1976, the SED leadership decided to reconstruct the Gendarmenmarkt. The playhouse was to be transformed into a concert hall. For almost three years, about 90 companies built and created something completely new, but which excellently took up the character of the original. The inauguration took place in 1984 and since 1992 the former playhouse has been called Konzerthaus Berlin.
I went to a “tenants’ concert” in the Great Hall for the first time a few years ago. Our housing association at the time invited tenants to attend a free concert every year. We couldn’t pass this up and luckily got two of the coveted free tickets.
The Great Hall seats 1500 people in the stalls and the two tiers. On our first visit, we sat in the second tier, and in the following years we “worked our way up” to the stalls via the first tier in the middle. Each time I was amazed again by the design of the concert hall, which I could admire while listening. The acoustics were really great and I enjoyed the visit very much.
If you stand on the Gendarmenmarkt and look at the concert hall, there are two imposing buildings to the left and right, which I took a closer look at during my visit to the square.
Today, the French Cathedral stands in the north of the square. This is adjacent to the French Church, which was built here for religious refugees (Huguenots) in 1701/05. What I didn’t realise until now was that it is actually two buildings that are connected to each other. The French Cathedral is the domed tower that was built next to it around 1780. The term cathedral in this case is also not ecclesiastical, but comes from the French dôme, which means dome.
In order for the cathedral to be built, the cemetery of the local community had to be relocated. In return, the community received a right to use the dome tower free of charge for all times. As a result, flats, school rooms, the Erman Hall and a museum were housed here.
During the Second World War, the dome of the tower and the adjacent church burnt down. Fortunately, the holdings of the Huguenot Museum and the lower floors were saved.
From 1978 onwards, the church and the dome were built as part of the redevelopment of the Gendarmenmarkt. A staircase was also built in the dome, which makes it possible to visit a viewing balustrade. I would have loved to climb to the top, but renovation work has been taking place since 2017 and the dome is closed. Unfortunately, the Huguenot Museum is also closed. But a tour around the building complex is still worthwhile and you can discover the beautiful façade.
German Cathedral on the Gendarmenmarkt
The German Cathedral stands opposite the French Cathedral. Like the French Cathedral, the German Cathedral is a domed tower built next to an existing church. It was never used as a church. Both buildings served to beautify the Gendarmenmarkt.
The dome of the German Cathedral has a diameter of 13 metres, on top of which is a gilded statue representing an allegory of virtue.
The German Cathedral also fell victim to the bombing raids in the Second World War and burnt down. From 1983 to 1996, the German Cathedral was rebuilt.
Today it is used as an exhibition venue for the German Bundestag.
Visit to the exhibition: Ways – Errors – Detours
Visiting the exhibition in the German Cathedral is free of charge and I spontaneously decided to discover it. Normally, many groups visit the exhibition every day. But since the exhibition had just reopened after a slightly longer closure, I was alone in the building that morning. Not all floors were open yet either, so my visit concentrated on levels 1 to 3 of the Parliamentary History Exhibition.
The entire exhibition is very well prepared. In addition to display boards and multimedia offerings, exhibits are also shown that deal with the historical development of the parliamentary system of the Federal Republic of Germany.
You should definitely bring time with you if you want to deal with the subject intensively – and some political interest is of course also an advantage. I admit that my head was already spinning after attending the thematic sections “Early German Parliamentarism and the Revolution of 1848/49” and “Parliamentary Democracy in Germany”. It was a lot of input that I had to process. So I just fast-forwarded through the other two sections on “Parliamentarism in Imperial Germany and the Weimar Republic” and “The Nazi State and Sham Parliamentarism in the GDR”, preferring to schedule another visit for these topics.
Parlamentshistorische Ausstellung des Deutschen Bundestages
Tuesday – Sunday: 10 am – 6 pm
From May to September the exhibition is open until 7 pm. Mondays are only open on public holidays!