Gas street lamps make a comeback in Europe
When the Berlin authorities started initiating the switch from gas lights to electrical ones, Andre Braun, a city worker, set up his own gas lamp servicing and fitting company. The gamble paid off.While many cities have long since updated their atmospheric gas street lamps with more modern technologies, Berlin has notably sought to preserve its gas-lit streets.
Many of the German capital's western districts are studded with gas lanterns, though less than 1,700 are found in the eastern half of the city, due to a refusal by post-war communist officials to renew war-wrecked lamps. Berlin has 44,000 lamps in total.
Berliners are fond of their gas lanterns, claiming their gold-and-yellow pools of light create an atmosphere of nighttime calmness and a pleasing, nostalgic ambience that is much admired by tourists.
But the Berlin authorities are less impressed. Five years ago they announced plans to do away with the gas lights on financial grounds, saying eventually all districts would be illuminated electrically.
A new beginning
Such talk surprises Andre Braun, 41, a city gas engineer and lighting expert. "Berlin's gas lighting is the best in the world," he said. "It's puzzling when people talk about gas street lighting being environmentally unfriendly."
Braun worked for the city's GASAG company for 13 years. When Berlin announced it was relinquishing responsibility for the upkeep and maintenance of the city's gas lights after more than 150 years in 2001, he set up his own servicing and fitting company.
Now, it is Braun's company that looks after 35,000 of the city's remaining gas lamps.
Curiously, it was a British owned company – the Imperial Continental Gas Association – that first began exporting gas lights to Germany in the 19th century.
"They introduced the first lamp on Berlin's Friedrichstrasse in 1826," said Braun. "The Germans were delighted and soon gas works were built throughout Europe. Today there are about 75,000 gas lights in German cities.”
Most of these lights are found in Berlin, Braun said, but Duesseldorf still has 17,000 while Frankfurt has 7,500.
Braun is surprised that Berlin has never made more of its gas lamp history. "The lanterns are a tourist attraction,” he said, “the biggest and most modern in the world, so why do away with them?"
He predicts hefty political disputes if the Berlin authorities stick to their plans to convert the lamps to electricity over the next 20 years.
Berliners have dubbed many of the capital’s gas lamps “Schinkel Laterne,” even though it is widely known that the famous 19th century city architect never played a role in their design.
Mining the past
Paradoxically, at a moment when the Berlin authorities want to eliminate gas lighting, several other cities in eastern Europe – notably Prague and Warsaw – are clamouring to equip the older parts of their cities with ... yes, gas-fuelled lamps.
Some 160 gas lamps have been installed, with the help of Braun's company, in Prague's historic districts over recent years, with some of them on the city's famous Charles Bridge spanning the Vitava river and others planned along the Royal Way to Prague Castle.
The first lamps appeared on Michalska Street, according to the city's 2004-founded Czech Guild of Lampmen. Since then, others have emerged on the Zelezna and Rytirska streets and in front of the Estates Theatre.
The city even has a lamplighter appear in a 19th century-style costume to ceremoniously light the six-sided lamps – a spectacle that pleases photo-snapping tourists at Christmas-time.
By the end of 2008, the Czech capital was projected to have 500 gas lamps, with the number ultimately expected to rise to 2,200.
The lamps are equipped with the latest technology by Braun's company, which is headquartered in a vast former city gas works complex in Berlin's Mariendorf district, complete with water tower and gasometer.
A similar craze for gas lighting is taking place in the Polish capital where Braun’s company painstakingly restores special “Warsaw-style” lamps in accordance with their original designs.
"The Poles love the gas lamps and want to see more of them," beamed Braun. Currently, Warsaw has around 640 gas lanterns, with perhaps 1,000 in the whole of Poland.
A bright future?
The 41-year-old Berlin executive is upbeat about growth prospects for the gas lighting industry, with Russia among other countries offering possible strong future markets.
Braun’s gas lamps function at extreme temperatures – up to minus 40 degrees Celsius. Braun said his company plans to step up its display of gas products and patents at upcoming European trade fairs.
Further afield, Braun points to Africa as a potential market. "There, cities are now producing bio-gas plants,” he said. “You even find African-built refrigerators functioning on gas.”