I went to Berlin with limited knowledge of the place.
I knew that at some point Berlin had been divided into two, East and West, and I remember the iconic videos of the Fall of the Berlin Wall being replayed on television.
I knew there was a zoo (with a Polar bear and the untimely death of an earless bunny), that there was an art scene, and that gentrification was an issue, big enough to be mentioned in the Guardian.
I knew about beer and bratwursts and Bauhaus.
I’d never heard of the Brandenburg Gate, and would not have recognised it from Adam or Eve or Steve (unlike New York and the Chrysler building, or Paris with the Eiffel Tower), so I didn’t have many preconceptions of the city. Come to think of it, I am not I’ve ever watched any film or television series, or read a story set in Berlin!
Being in Berlin then, was an interesting experience as I fed data into a blank field, added colour to a dark square in my internal map of the world, unpolluted by images collated from the media.
So here are some of my thoughts and experiences from my three days and two nights trip.
As someone with an vague and undefined interest in architecture and the history of cities (I love old maps of London), I was surprised by the lack of old buildings. Where were the medieval churches, and the gothic architecture? I wondered. I did not visit that many places, but they were not mentioned in my guidebooks, and most buildings that I saw were blocky, fitting into my idea of what ‘Communist’ buildings might look like.
And here and there, you will see examples of grandiosity, out of place, and remnants of a past (invented/ facade of a) glory. In other areas there are sharp new builds, all glass and steel like you’d find in any self-respecting metropolis.
And almost every area I went to, flocks of tower cranes could be found, and heavy pounding that could be felt through the ground was a part of the background noise
I was rather intrigued by the colourful pipes that snaked around parts of the city. I initially wondered if it marked the boundary between East and West, a visible reminder of the past, but it didn’t match the maps. So I am none the wiser.
Play / Form / Functionality
I visited the Hamburger Bahnhof, a former railway station that now houses a contemporary art museum : Museum für Gegenwart (Museum for the Present).
Their exhibitions were brilliant, probably more compact than Tate Modern, and easier to digest. There was a long corridor leading off to exhibition spaces and rooms that told the story of architecture in Berlin through the modern ages. I loved how experimental the buildings were, and the exploration of how to fit buildings into the urban landscape. For example, that they build housing complexes in a linear fashion above major arterial routes, and the crazy (they were really going to build this, but then funding fell through) funnel shaped housing complex.
I entered a tiny tiny mock house, and was intrigued by the ad-hoc structure with it’s ongoing construction.
This exhibition in the museum highlighted for me, themes of urban social planning and great sense of the play between buildings and cities and their inhabitants.
For me, this theme was continued in the Bauhaus-Archiv Museum of Design.
Bauhaus is probably one of the most well known schools of design, and walking through the museum, listening to the free audio guide in English, I was really impressed by the vision of the creators, and how they turned the vision into reality. There is a great selection of artifacts on display, and if you do go, you must try out the home made cakes in the museum cafe.
I could not got to Berlin without visiting the Wall Memorial, and on my second day I took at trip to the East Side Gallery.
Tourists posed against the backdrop of the colourful murals, it is amazing how a solid symbol of oppression became the very space for expression of thought. Although now of course, you are not supposed to graffiti on it.
I learnt more about the history of the wall from a series of impression boards near Checkpoint Charlie, the checkpoint that was used for getting into and out of East Germany, providing you had the right papers. It commemorated the deaths, and the successful escapes. In one of the shops they were selling photocopies of a diagram of The system of the Berlin Wall . As a child I’d imagined the wall to be a single wall dividing the East and the West, of course it was not so simple; it was indeed more complex, including watch towers, anti-vehicle trenches, and sand paths which would show up the footprints of escapees.
I’d planned to learn more about the history of Berlin, but I simply ran out of time. If I’d had a few more days I would have visited the history of Germany museum, the DDR museum and the Checkpoint Charlie museum, amongst other sites and sights. I will need to go back some day.
“So what did you think of Berlin?”
I was asked this question by a few people when I returned, I found it difficult to fully articulate. When asked about New York, I responded with ‘I loved it’, when asked about Iceland my answer was ‘the landscape is beautiful and desolate, and I felt I was seeing nature in it’s rawest form” in the cracks in the earth, the waterfalls, and the lava fields.
I didn’t love Berlin and I didn’t get the emotional pull from the scenery. What Berlin did for me, was provoke thought.
Berlin is still a city of its divided history, the wall only came down in 1989, it feels too recent to be properly in the past. It is also a city that is being built, and there is an interplay between the form, and the identity, and the culture of the city, of which I was aware I only skimming the surface of.
I left the city conscious that I was missing the context, the history. It is one of very few cities that has left me wanting to know more about it.