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This apparently ordinary station on the Berlin U-Bahn is remarkable for two reasons, one visible and one not visible at all.

The first is fairly apparent. The typeface of the station name and the brown tiles give a clue, though the full splendour of the orange ceiling doesn’t really come across in the picture. This is the 1970s in unabashed glory.

The second reason is not apparent at all. It is that as well as being an underground station, this is also a nuclear shelter. In the concourse above and in the tunnels, massive doors are ready to swing into place. Just by the ticket machines, a small discreet door in the wall leads to interlocking steel doors, a decontamination area, and then a warren of rooms and passages providing everything necessary to keep three and a half thousand people safe for two weeks, before emerging into the post-nuclear dawn. Trains were to be parked at the platforms to provide extra space, with bunk beds four high on the platform itself.

It is extraordinary, impressive – and a complete folly. It formed part of a civil defence network for Berlin which in total provided 20,000 places for two million inhabitants. It was a gesture, not a defence system.

From our omniscient viewpoint 35 years on, it is easy to ask why on earth anybody thought this was a good or necessary idea. It’s fairly clear that it was a gesture, but a gesture to whom, signifying what?

Of course it didn’t look like that at the time. It never does.

This is a particularly stark example, partly because of the speed with which the perceived threat of the cold war dissipated. But it is very far from being unique. Options may be appraised, costs and benefits assessed, future proofing added and gold plating removed, but still solutions emerge from the paradigm within which they were created. Perhaps it was once obvious that the building of a new station should be seen as an opportunity to build a shelter as well.

None of us will make exactly that mistake, of course. But we are no more immune to follies of policy and delivery than our predecessors were. The difference is only that ours are not yet visible to us: it will be apparent in a few decades – perhaps sooner – where we are going wrong. That’s not much good of course: if we are going to fail, much better to fail early, in time to do something else instead.

If the only problem with the Pankstrasse shelter were that we can now marvel in its pointlessness, there would be little point in worrying about it. There is a strong case for saying, though, that this is a folly which could have been avoided; that the problem was not the absence of information but its interpretation. Knowing (or thinking) that provides no guarantee that we can do better, but it does suggest that innovation by simple extrapolation may not be the best way of designing policies for the long term.

They still test the doors which seal the tunnels once a year. And the ceiling is still orange.

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Andrew Krzmarzick

So it seems like it’s time to innovate again…how can you re-purpose those same areas that now appear to be worthless? Seems like an opportunity for someone creative…

Andrew Ian Derksen

I’m going to go with Mr. Krzmarzick on this one – such infrastructure was costly at the time, and represents a significant investment. It is not going to sit empty forever, and because of that, the government still tests the doors. Its primary function, a quick defensive position for civilians in the event of massive disaster, is still tenable. The original reasons for designing such a structure may no longer stand, but as Japan’s recent tragic example demonstrates, such a facility could still serve the German people in some capacity.

Carol Davison

Some gestures are appropriate, like the parent who tucks their children into bed at night. During the cold war school children practiced duck and cover drills in case of nuclear attack. Our nieghbor’s even had a bomb shleter. (My family didn’t because my dad said that he wouldn’t want to live if there were no people, animals or birds.) I don’t think their desk’s provided much protection, but they may had felt proected like the people of Berlin regarding these train stations. Remember people taping their windows closed with duct tape around 9-11 time? It didn’t seem to provide much protection from I can’t remember what even at that time.

Andy I think its always time to innovate. Some things like a already erected building you just let stay put. As for those in the design process, we could incorporate telework sized office spaces (desk sharing, smaller footprints, etc), soalar or water saving features, etc. While I may not have fabulous ideas for a specific situation right now, someone else out there has just the right idea to implement.

Randy Steer

It was more than a gesture, less than a perfect solution. I’ve read that most of the Metro stations in Moscow are (or were) also bomb shelters, so putting doors on a station seems to have been a common idea. Reminder to previous commenters — it was not *built* as a shelter — it’s a subway station — and it’s not sitting empty waiting for a new use. I think Londoners used their Underground stations as bomb shelters in WWII too.

The idea of *any* shelter from a nuclear war is pretty much a gesture, but investing in doors to put on an EXISTING structure in not an *empty* gesture — it’s a relatively economical way to offer (in a time of great fear and anxiety) some shelter to the portion of the population who might be out and about at any given time. (Many of those NOT out and about would presumably seek shelter in their own apartment or office-building basements.) So this is more about pragmatism than hubris.

Stefan — I’m attaching an enhanced version of the photo that might show it more as you saw it.