Tuesday 17 January 2017

Berlin: A love story

Dear Berlin,

Where do I start? Well let me start by telling you something that happened to me today on the Ubahn. My experience of public transport is almost universally accompanied by the dulcet tones of whichever podcast I have playing at the time. However, today, because of misplaced headphones I was without my usual sound track. So instead, when I walked on the train at around ten in the evening after work, I was almost immediately struck by harmonic twanging coming from the other end of the carriage. As I walked over to the source of the noise, I saw an old man sitting on the right hand side of the carriage in an empty four seat segment of the train, ferociously plucking at what looked a banjo but after some careful googling turned out to be a Greek Bouzouki. 

With the guitar on his lap and the attention of the carriage on his fingers, he serenaded his fellow travellers. The tune was a mixture of upbeat tones and a melody laced with the nuance of nostalgia for another time. He also looked as if he was from another time. He wore a creased leather jacket, styled from the looks of it in the 1980s and worn through years of wear and tear; too big now for the shrunken shoulders that no longer filled its upper arm area. On top of his head he had a black leather cap that covered what little hair he had left. His shoes were those of a man serious about both comfort and keeping out the incredible cold of Berlin's winter. 

It was just a few moments really - the moments Berlin offers its travellers between stops on the UBahn to look around and inspect the city through a lens of the people who have chosen to make this place their home. My first reaction was to get out my phone, capture this somehow through video or a photograph. But on second glance, I wondered what exactly I should take a picture of - these moments are impossible to capture in a 2D freeze frame of reality. Given the choice though, it strangely wouldn't have been the man playing, but instead, the woman and her teenage companion (daughter I presumed) sitting opposite me. 

It seemed that I had entered that situation "in media res" in the midst of things. The man must have started playing some stations earlier, as the two women sitting opposite were already engrossed in the performance. As he plucked and trilled the notes of this beautiful melancholic folk tune, the older woman couldn't help but smile, her face betraying her efforts to keep her expression stoic and dignified - it seemed as if her body wouldn't allow her face to stay quiet so instead it lit up the whole carriage. Her eyes fixated on the player and her features softly caressing his hands. 

The tune ended abruptly with a force conveying the command the old man had over his instrument. Clearly practiced in the art of performance, he lifted his head to accept the modest but distinct applause that had erupted in the carriage, and landing his gaze on the adoring face of the woman opposite me, he proclaimed in Greek the name of the song. "It's Greek you see, for sunrise" he added in a German that betrayed the number of years that he'd spent here. The woman nodded. We all nodded. 

And then it was over. Hermannplatz had come on the U8 and the usual exodus occurred taking with it both the old man and the women who had sat opposite me. I was left alone - a smile planted firmly between my ears. My body it seems also refused to comply with my wish to not seem strange for smiling into the empty carriage in front of me.

I celebrated my fourth Berlin Birthday this month. Four years in this city that I have come to love so deeply. I cherish your richness Berlin. I cherish your plurality. I cherish the possibilities you offer to the people lucky enough to call you home. I cherish your history and the deep dark soul it has given you. As a tour guide I am paid to sell you to the world. But saying that, I feel a sense of camaraderie with you. You put me up, inspire me, offer me opportunities I never dreamed of and the happiness I have always aspired towards; and in return, I am your voice. I speak your past, your present and what part of your future I can guess at. A rather pitiful bargain on your end - but I live in your debt Berlin. Haven for all that is possible. 

Your loyal subject, 


Wednesday 21 September 2016

Hansaviertel: Das Glück vom Wohnen und Bleiben

The nature of Berlin's history has meant that it has more than once been at the forefront of architectural innovation. During the 1920s - after Berlin had absorbed seven towns as well as 59 rural communities that had previously surrounded the old city - the city's population exploded. From 1870 until 1920 the population doubled every 25 years leaving roughly 3.8 million people in Berlin by the 1920s. Now incredible as that sounds (considering the contemporary population of Germany's capital is around 3.7 million) the city was fast running out of places to house these people. Enter modernist architecture and the new role of government as contractor of living quarters. 

Bruno Taut - Hufeisenseidlung Britz, Berlin (1925-1930). 

Berlin during the Weimar years became world famous for the creative ways that it dealt with the population explosion of recent decades. Government funded projects steamed ahead in creating affordable, modern and well equipped houses that brought people out of the slums that millions in the industrialised world had gotten used to living in. The Hufeisensiedlung (Horseshoe Estate) designed by Bruno Taut and built between 1925 and 1933 in south Neukölln is a clear indication of this movement towards modernist values in Berlin's architecture. 

However, it really took the Second World War and the reduction to rubble of many parts of the city as well as in the rest of Europe that drove modernism up on the agenda of international governments. In Berlin, huge amounts of housing stock had been destroyed, which lead to a desperate need for new, large scale, affordable housing to be built and built fast. In West Berlin, the ideas coming out of modernist architecture yet again reared their head and offered solutions. 

Oscar Niemeyer, Rio de Janeiro. Building 19 Hansaviertel.
Which brings me to the Hansaviertel. Located in the centre of Berlin on the north western edge of the Tiergarten between the Siegessäule and Moabit, the Hansaviertel is a group of 38 separate buildings built between 1957 and 1961. The viertel (quarter) is made up of 33 residential blocks, two churches, one small shopping centre, a theatre and a library. The buildings were designed with contributions of 48 architects as part of the Interbau Project. Their aim: to create a thriving living space in the city centre of ruined Berlin. 

Amongst the 48 were two of the world's giants of modernism during the 1940s and 1950s - Oscar Niemeyer and Alvar Aalto. Niemeyer had shot to fame from his native Brazil for being asked to create the government a brand new capital city, Brasília, from scratch in a previously arid part of the country. Niemeyer designed the buildings for the city, and left the city-planning up to his long time friend and colleague Lucio Costa, who conceived it around modernist utilitarianism. 

Oscar Niemyer, Building 19 Hansaviertel. "the building is lifted onto stilts providing open walkways below that navigates residents towards electric lifts that take people up to their apartments"
Niemeyer's Brasília designs also give a window into his socialist political values that no doubt impacted his work. For instance, the city was constructed to have no noble areas, meaning that common labourers would live alongside ministers and the wealthy. Apartments were to be owned by the government and rented to employees. Many of the apartment blocks were designed to float above the ground to allow space beneath for free movement, the presence of nature and to remind people that they were being lifted out of poverty. We can see these ideologies reflected in Niemeyer's offering to the Hansaviertel, which was conceived at the same time as Brasília: the building is lifted onto stilts providing open walkways below that navigates residents towards electric lifts that take people up to their apartments; behind the building there is a skywalk, which provides spectacular views across the rest of the Hansaviertel and down towards the Siegessäule.

J.H. van der Broek + J.B. Bakema, Rotterdam. Building 9, Hansaviertel. 

The designs of these mainly residential buildings - though through contemporary eyes looking rather brutalist and a bit too functional - were meant to produce large, spacious apartments with plenty of windows and balconies for residents to access the outside world, as well as be surrounded by nature. The idea was to conjoin art, nature and living facilities to create small pockets of functional, sanitary living amongst a broader context of nature. The buildings themselves are simplistic and functional to a tea with out the pomp and circumstance of late 1800s stucco, which echoed a bygone era of empire and inequality.

Egon Eiermann, Karlsruhe, Germany. Building 18 Hansaviertel.

Frank Jaenecke + Sten Samuelson, Malmö. Building 20 Hansaviertel.
One of the most poignant experiences one has on a trip to the Hansaviertel is the deafening sound of birdsong. I visited at a time of high summer and was treated to a wealth of birds, bees, rabbits and squirrels (the red ones that we Brits aren't used to seeing). They were confident and seemed to own this part of the world away from the roar of the city that unknown to them engulfs them on all sides. Nature permeates every corner of the Hansaviertel, which is most notable when you look at a picture taken from above where you can see that the buildings rather then the trees look like the exception.

Franz Schuster, Wein. Building 17 Hansaviertel. "Nature permeates every corner of the Hansaviertel"

There is also a large quantity of art dotted around the residential housing, sculptures and ornamental mosaics plastered onto walls. Female bodies - contorted, distorted and reduced to simple curvature as if to imply that we are all part of the nature that surrounds us - are placed strategically into entrance ways or along paths leading up to crossroads. They are placed there purposefully to add a modern artistic contrast to the historical Siegessäule that watchfully gazes over the houses, or the Gründerzeit buildings and statues dotted around the outskirts of the Tiergarten. The people living in these spaces are not only surrounded by nature but also confronted with modern art. All this is meant to synthesise together to create as in the title: Das Glück vom Wohnen und Bleiben - the happiness of living and staying.

Liegende, 1956 Bronze. Henry Moore. In front of the Akademie der Künste.
When we look back today with knowledge of the somewhat clumsier attempts of the 1960s, 70s & 80s to try and create affordable housing for an increasing population, these efforts seem noble, seem good and seem as though they come from a time when grand ideas about the way that people should live tended to come from top down rather than bottom up. The idea that a way of life could be sculpted by the architecture and positioning of buildings, narrated by the presence of art works and boosted by the surrounding of nature seems slightly naive today. If we take Brasilia as an example, the city was over taken many times by many different kinds of leadership who often didn't stay true to the ideals of Niemeyer and the socialistic vision for a classless city. 

The Hansaviertel too feels slightly abandoned, lived in only by those who moved there in the 1950s, the 60s and 70s. This workers utopia has long since gone out of fashion. People today demand convenience, restaurants, bars, clubs, a supermarket on every corner and a community that somehow reflects the way people have chosen to live. In Berlin today, Altbau (old style, Gründerzeit buildings) are much more sort after than the latter-day creations of post war modernism that came out a need for housing and desperation for a better future. 

A small shopping centre lies quiet at the centre of the Hansaviertel.

U Bahn Hansaplatz (U9). Quiet spaces, pregnant with memory and longing.
Perhaps though, we can take some lessons from the idealism of the Hansaviertel. For instance, a need for closeness to nature that no doubt improves people's mental state. Open spaces and the proximity of art that help people to see the bigger picture and allow more freedom of thought. But I think the days of using architecture as method of social engineering for good or for ill are long since passed, as much for ideologies' sake as for the return of mass private ownership of architectural projects after the turn towards neoliberalism in western countries during the 1980s. Simply put, no one project can build a city from scratch or a quarter from rubble; there is no firm and no will to handle such projects today.

The sense I get though, when I meander through the modernist buildings of the Hansaviertel is a sense of big dreams, of hope for a more equal world where everyone had the opportunity to live amongst art and nature in large flats with big open windows allowing the world to rush in every morning and every evening. Perhaps those dreams are in fact worth remembering. The Hansaviertel perhaps teaches us that architecture must reflect the people who live in the buildings, because without the will to reflect the ideals that built the buildings the society is unable to live up to the potential of the walls that surround it.  

Thursday 14 April 2016

Jewish Cemetery: Große Hamburger Straße

In the heart of Berlin's chic, trendy Mitte district, whose perimeters are defined by streets like Weinmeister Straße and Torstraße, there is a silent space. A space carved out of the houses that fill the area around it - pushing up against it as if to question its resilience to the steady beat of history's distructive knell. This space is not huge - perhaps the size of 3 tennis courts - but it seems bigger because it is empty. This is no park or playground, this is an empty space. Weeds thickly coat the lush green ground and a few trees are scattered around, no doubt witnesses to what came before; but little remains of what used to be here: the oldest Jewish cemetery in Berlin. 

The cemetery was first consecrated in 1672, a year after 50 Jewish families (mostly coming from Vienna) were invited back to Berlin after, in short, centuries of banishment due to vehement medieval antisemitism. These "Schutzjuden" as they were known were invited back by Fredrick Wilhelm, the 'Great' Elector of Brandenburg, and given his 'special protection'. They were given an area in Berlin surrounding the cemetery, at that time called the Scheunenviertel (or Barn Quarter), because of its old function as an agricultural plot with many livestock houses. Back in the 1600s this area was rather outside of the city centre, which instead was concentrated around today's "Museum Island".

Vegetable seller sells fruit outsides his shop to a customer passing by. Scheunenviertel, 1933.
Old Jewish Cemetery before it was destroyed, c. late 1800s.
The Scheunenviertel quickly became a flourishing Jewish living quarter, to which thousands of Jews would come, be born, live their lives and thrive in the city of Berlin. The cemetery located in the midst of this throng held the key to the history of the community. Famous names littered the 2,767 graves; graves that previously stood as testament to the rich and diverse community. Among these graves were the names of Moses Mendelssohn (1729 - 1786) the great philosopher, Marcus Herz (1747 - 1803) the physician and philosopher and Jakob Herz Beer (1769 - 1825) father of Operetta composer Giacomo Meyerbeer and husband of the formidable and widely respected Prussian Jewish socialite Amalie (Malka) Beer. 

Moses Mendelssohn, by Anton Graf, 1771.
Of all these names though, Moses Mendelssohn's probably stands out the most, not only because of his famous composer grandson, but also because he redefined what it was to be Jewish living in a modern enlightened European nation state. By adopting German as his written language and writing extensively on current philosophical and social issues of the day Mendelssohn ingratiated himself with the Prussian élite. Men like Gotthold Lessing, who dedicated his play, Nathan the Wise as a testament to his friendship with Mendelssohn. By retaining his Jewish religiosity whilst simultaneously carving out a secular intellectual position for himself in Prussian society, Mendelssohn laid the framework for secularising assimilating Jews across the whole of Enlightenment Europe. His importance cannot be understated.

A century after Mendellsohn's death, fascination in this now inactive, but eminent graveyard was widespread. In 1887 a journalist, Julius Rosenburg wrote a piece about the graveyard and its keeper, Herr Landshuth. He wrote that:
"Here in the middle of Berlin, amongst the noise, chaos and chatter of every day city life lies a silent graveyard tended by an old man by the name of Landshuth. This man [Landshuth] lives his life in the past as if it were long separated from him. He lives with his dead, and his dead live with him. He accurately knows the story of each of the innumerable dead, of whom nothing is left but a sunken mound and a name. He knows the manifold family, the genealogy, their houses, and their lives. They remain through him."
The cemetery closed its doors in 1827 - not because there were no more Jews in Berlin - but because it had run out of space. The larger cemeteries on Schönhauser Allee and Weisensee later became refuge for Jewish remembrance. 

Sadly, though that graveyard, so carefully preserved by Herr Landshuth for over 70 years in the 1800s, now ceases to exist. In 1943 the SS came and desecrated the near 3,000 graves and later used the stones as part of an air raid shelter for Berliners who were left in the city. At the same time, many of Berlin's Jews had been either forced to emigrate or deported east to death camps or concentration camps where most would perish. The last deportation of Berlin's Jews happened on the 27th February 1943 during the 'Fabrikaktion' or Factory Action, orchestrated by the Nazis to clean out the last Jewish people working in Berlin factories. In total over 15,000 Berlin Jews were rounded up and held in concentration centres around Berlin during this action, including the Jewish Old People's home next to the Old Cemetery. 

Today in front of the once full cemetery there is a sculpture commemorating the victims of national socialism. It is a poignant reminder of where hate can lead us. A group of emaciated, shrunken figures, stand together starting out at the viewer; 11 figures, all of different heights. They look gaunt and starved, a pitiful sight. The tragedy projected by those vacant faces for me, is that that is how they will be remembered: pale, dead and shrunken victims, lain low by callous hatred. But each one of those figures represents what was there before, thousands of graves of vibrant figures who lived full, enriched lives and thus enriched the lives of those around them. Figures that made it into the history books for reasons other than persecution and that remain in public memory not because of how they died, but because of how they lived.

Sunken eyes and gaunt faces stare out at visitors in front of the old Jewish Memorial.
There is only one grave left, inside the graveyard, the grave of Moses Mendelssohn. It has been recreated since the destruction of 1942 to act as a fitting reminder of the rich community of Jewish people who lived in Berlin for hundreds of years before hatred, ignorance and brutality destroyed them.

Monday 7 March 2016


On the 22nd February 1942 an Austrian author called Stefan Zweig committed suicide alongside his beloved wife in the small hilly town of Petropolis, Brazil. Stefan Zweig had fled persecution and death in his home country because of his Jewish ancestory, and sought refuge in this rather unlikely Brazilian town nestled in the Voralpen style mountains, an hour outside of Rio de Janeiro. Well, unlikely until we take a closer look at the history and genetic make up of Petropolis. 

Palácio Quintandinha, Petropolis. A casino and later luxury hotel inspired by the style brought over by Petropolis' earliest inhabitants. 

Walking through the hilly streets of this delightful ex-colonial town, you would be hard pressed not to pass a tall, fair and sometimes even red headed member of the human race. Hard pressed because up to 1/3 of the current population of Petropolis can trace their ancestry back to the original settlers of this town, who were perhaps surprisingly, German. In fact, as late as 1942, when Stefan Zweig was a resident, the German language was widely spoken and taught as a first language to pupils alongside Portuguese. Stefan would have had little trouble using his native tongue in this most seemingly foreign of lands.

The history of the German settlers in Petropolis is very much bound up with some of the core foundational ideas that make up the Brazilian notion of nationhood. For one, the Germans turned up at a crucial time in Brazil's history when the future of the country very much hung in the balance.

In 1824 (the year the first German settlers arrive on Brazil's shores), there was a great need in Brazil for more workers and European (white) settlers to settle the vast lands that the Portuguese had been handed as far back as the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. Partly, this strategy was employed to out-number and thus dominate the already brutally treated indigenous populations of Brazil, as there was little or no political will at the time amongst Portuguese colonialists to reach out diplomatically to them or harness their knowledge of the land and human labour potential; so instead, the established ruling class had to look to their ancestral countries for more people to settle and work the land. More whites were also needed to subdue the ever growing slave population being transported from Africa to work in the many gold and mineral mines springing up all over inland Brazil.

An obvious and previously popular choice for these purposes were the Portuguese. Brazil had a long history of portuguese colonialism and was governed by the Portuguese royal family from 1494 onwards. However, 2 years prior, in 1822, Brazil had - under the auspices of Dom Pedro II and his politically wily wife Empress Leopoldina - declared independence from Portugal. Portugal, therefore, was no longer in favour of subsiding the cost of travel or encouraging its citizens to move to Brazil, thus greatly diminishing the influx of new arrivals.

New europeans were needed and fast. Empress Leopoldina, herself a Hapsburg Princess born to the most powerful Germanic family in Europe, expressed encouragement for Germans and Austrians to make the arduous journey over to Brazil. New arrivals were offered farm land and subsidies to start farms and businesses, on the condition that they stayed loyal to the Emperor and served in the Brazilian army. This tradition carried on into the 20th century when many German Brazilians were made to fight against Hitler's Germany after Brazil joined the war on the side of the allies in 1942. Many were therefore, caught up in the tornado of 20th Century European history, fighting against the countrymen/women of their ancestors.

Petropolis' early settlers having a picnic amongst the great rocks and rainforests of the surrounding mountains in the 1860s. Most of the people in this picture would have been first generation Petropolitana having moved over in the 1840s.

A German Oompah Band made up of some of the early residents of Petropolis. Picture also includes Africans on the right also living in Petropolis, who were likely to be freed slaves living and working in the young town. Taken in the 1860s.
Petropolis, a town that grew around the summer palace of the Emperor, needed workers to help build and develop the town in the 1830s. Keen to maximise on the new waves of German immigration, the town's architect, Koeler (himself of German descent) recruited a whole ship of new German immigrants in 1837, who had originally planned to sail all the way to Australia. The Germans kept coming after that and by 1845 there were 2,000 Germans living in Petropolis. Their names now make up the list written on the town's central Obelisk. By 1972, 260,000 Germans in total would have come to start a new life in Brazil.

A current German resident of Petropolis, the Bavarian Dominik Traxl, gazing at an Obelisk in the centre of town that has the names of 2,000 German settlers who lived there in 1845. 
The evidence of these Teuto-Brazileiros, as they are known, is all around modern day Petropolis. Beer is treated here with the same religiosity as in southern Germany, with 25 breweries creating lagers, pale ales and stouts. One of the most consumed beers in Brazil, Itaipava, is made in Petropolis - though perhaps it wouldn't be winning too many awards in Europe! Many of the information pamphlets at these breweries proudly state that they follow the German Purity Law or Reinheitsgebot set down in 1520 in Bavaria to ensure consumers of the purity of their industrial process.

Casa do Colono, Petropolis. A museum inside the house of an original German settler in Petropolis dating back to the 1840s. The house hangs the German colours over the door. 
There is also the annual Bauernfest (peasant festival) that attracts thousands of visitors to Petropolis. Here beer is served by the litre around tables streamed with the German flag colours of black, gold and red. Sauerkraut, apfelstrudel and traditional German peasant dances are also present, flanked by Petropolis' residents dressed up in traditional Dirndls and Lederhosen.

Inside the Casa do Colono (a museum in one of the original settler houses) is a representation of the early Germans, beer in hand and Hausfrau nearby. 
However, there is one central aspect to German culture that seems to be completely missing from Petropolis today - the German language. In this sense, Brazilian Germans, as with Stefan Zweig, were unable to escape the ramifications of the despotic mass murdering Nazi regime that ripped Europe apart. In 1942, after Brazil joined the war effort on the side of the allies, there was a concerted war on culture against the resident German Brazilian population. German was no longer allowed to be taught in schools and many of the festivals and outward expressions of German culture were cancelled or made illegal. In towns like Petropolis, detached from more densely populated German regions in the south of Brazil (like Blumenau and Santa Catarina), a steady process of forgetting, or rather erasing, German culture had begun. It seems the crimes of their countrymen sent palpable shockwaves with destructive consequences all over the globe and even up the hill to Petropolis.

74 years ago, on the 22nd February 1942, Stefan Zweig took his own life along with his wife, Lotte Altmann, the day after finishing his final novel: "Die Welt von Gestern" (The World of Yesterday). The novel defined the experience of his generation during the first half of the 20th Century. He wrote that he was no longer able to see the light of tomorrow during the dark times he lived through.

Today we gain glimpses of the world of yesterday in the architecture, names, festivals and breweries in Petropolis; but perhaps it is fitting that this patchwork of fragments, just like the rest of Brazil only makes up a small segment of what Petropolis is today. Petropolis, just like the rest of Brazil is a place where all humanity - Asian, European, north American, African...etc. - has turned up at some point to make up the most racially and culturally diverse population on the planet. Long may it remain that way.

Tuesday 1 December 2015

Musings on Memorials

Over my 8 months or so of tour guiding in Berlin, I've become increasingly aware of why it is that people are so fascinated with Berlin: Berlin has seen it all. It is perhaps a perfect illustration of the heights of Western Civilisation (at least post enlightenment) juxtaposed to the very depths of horror that human beings can create. For this reason, many historians have pointed out that Berlin is a city built on perhaps the most contradictory history of any city in the world. 

By far the most intriguing aspect of the history though, for the 11 million or so visitors that come every year, is undoubtedly the period between 1933 and 1945. The rise of the Nazis to power, their attempt to create the Third Reich of Germany that was meant to last 1,000 years, and the subsequent annihilation of the pre-war German nation, and the attempted annihilation of an entire people, I am of course talking of European Jews during the holocaust. 

Why then are people so fascinated with Nazism? Is it because it represents the worst of humanity? Is it because we are still rather dazed and confused in its wake, trying to understand how it was all possible? Or is it because it represents a warning in history - something we need to remember so that it can never happen again? The easiest way for me to understand the reason why people are so fascinated by this period, and also why we choose to remember it in such minute detail, is to look at the memorials scattered around Berlin that tell this grim story.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is a huge memorial that takes up a whole city block in the centre of Berlin's government and commercial district. It is just a few hundred yards from the Reichstag in one direction, and Potsdamer Platz in the other - unmissable in length and breadth. It was built in 2005 to remember the estimated 6 million European Jews that were murdered by the Nazis. In total, though estimates vary massively, it is thought that the Nazis murdered around 11 million people due to their race, physical or mental state of health, sexuality, ethnicity (Sinti & Roma made up a large majority of these people), political beliefs or simply because they were deemed (mostly summarily) to be a danger to the advancing German armies on the Ostfront. As the title of the memorial indicates though, we are being asked there to think specifically about the Jews who were persecuted the most ferociously by the Nazis from 1933 onwards.  

The memorial is comprised of 2,711 concrete blocks or stelai, each at a unique height, arranged in straight lines on an uneven surface. The blocks start off quite often sunken into the pavement in the outer sections and steadily climb to dizzying heights until a climactic level that towers over the humans scurrying below. The horizontal and vertical straight lines force visitors to move forward at all times, and their spacing also prevents walking in groups, thus isolating people soon after entering the memorial. The overwhelming feeling one has when entering is how on earth to get out. 

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
The meaning of this memorial is unclear - it is undefined and abstract. This was a purposeful decision taken by the architect Peter Eisenmann, so that each one of  the visitors would find their own meaning within it, reflected on the dark, dull, flat concrete shafts. The only thing that he did tell us is that he wanted to create a "seeminly ordered human system that has descended into chaos and lunacy". The architect is attempting to tell us to not try to use reason and logic to explain the insane and illogical - instead, we must use our emotions to guide our response to this most heinous of crimes. We are being asked to walk in the shoes of those who, because of a hate-filled ideology, were forced to walk paths that led them to gas chambers. 

Long lines created by the horizontal and vertical order of the concrete blocks.
I've visited this site many times and brought countless groups here, yet I am still getting different answers to the question of what it represents: 
  • For some it is a graveyard - the cement blocks being the blank and anonymous tomb stones.
  • For others each cement block represents a unique individual caught up in the crimes of war.
  • Some say that the cold concrete reminds them of the cold, calculated and systematic killing done by the Nazis.
  • Others point out that the uneven floor signifies the chaos of the lives of Jews attempting to live under Nazi dictatorship.
  • Many have also said that the gradual growth of the blocks represents the movement towards totalitarianism and oppression.
All of these are right. All of them are valid. There are many many other interpretations I have heard over the months; personally, my first reaction was that it was a maze but rather disturbing as there was nowhere to hide. What seems to be universal though, is that it makes people think, it makes people engage and in a small way, it makes them walk in the shoes of the Jews who were murdered so grotesquely because of an ideology of hate. The memorial, standing concretely in the centre of this city seems to be screaming at the top of its lungs: come, walk, see, this is what hate brings, we can't let it happen again. Its immobility indicative of the permanence of its message: a desperate plea from a tragic past. 

Neue Wache - Memorial for victims of War and Tyranny

In a neoclassical styled guard house on the Unter den Linden, right in the centre of Berlin, there is a memorial dedicated to Den Opfern von Krieg und Gewaltherrschaft (victims of war and tyranny). In the middle of an empty, expansive, square room there is a smallish figure of a hunched woman cradling her dead son. His head lolls back into her body, without the strength of life to keep it upright; his left foot is mangled at an awkward angle towards his mothers legs; he is naked, weak, feeble, helpless, the body of a broken young man. She sits head bowed towards him with one hand up to her face as if covering a deep sob, her other hand attempts to hold that of her limp son's fingers, the two hands caught by the viewer touching their last touch.

The sculpture by Kathé Kollwitz perfectly sums up the devastation of war, sitting all alone in this large room underneath an open circular hole in the roof. She is alone, unprotected and inconsolable in her intense grief. Kathé Kollwitz sculpted this masterpiece in 1932, 18 years after the death of her youngest son Peter at the Western Front during the 1st World War. He had died 10 days after reaching the front. She was never able to get over the intense grief of losing him, and having failed to protect him from the brutalities of war. It has been described as a woman's response to a man's war and has become a symbol of the futility and pitiless of war. In a recent publication the director of the British Museum described the sculpture as representing our duty towards each other:
"Our duty to nurture and defend each other is analogous to a mother's protective love for her child and in each case failure means death." 
Neil MacGregor, Director of British Museum
Denkmal den Opfern von Krieg und Gewaltherrschaft
In the early 1990s after the unification of Germany, it was time to come to a unified decision on how the second world war would be viewed. This is the product of that discussion. There is no honour in this sculpture, there is no glory, we see instead the broken body of a soldier cradled by his distraught mother. It was one of the most moving memorials I have ever seen and one that I immediately connected with. No other memorial has ever proclaimed the futility and tragedy of war for me in such a way. The mother becomes a symbol of the state, her son its citizen. The contemporary chancellor, Helmut Kohl said as much at the time by commenting that:  
"The principles that underline this creative work of this great artist are indissolubly linked with our concept of the state...which is founded on the same principles."
Helmut Kohl, 1993
Coming from a very different historical background in Britain, it is difficult for me to imagine a national monument embracing such an unheroic symbolism related to war. We are not comfortable seeing weak and feeble soldiers portrayed as lambs to the slaughter, and instead prefer to postulate on the heroism and glory of their noble sacrifice. I guess it's because we can, or at least because we want to. There is no memorial, for instance, to the many millions murdered under colonialism. We don't even teach British colonialism in schools. We chose to be ignorant on this stain on our national pride. We chose not to remember the darkness, because we can. Britain and its colonial armies helped Russia defeat the most evil government in history, and thus our evil governments of times gone by can pale into insignificance and our soldiers can be hailed as glory ridden sons of the nation. 

But here in Germany, that is simply not possible. When you've had a history as dark as the 20th Century in Germany, there is no glory to project. Instead, there is only reflection, deep deep reflection and a crying, screaming wish that it should never happen again. So I implore you all, the next time you come to Berlin and look at its many memorials, to ask yourselves: why do we remember these terrible events? Here the answer is clear, it is to ensure that ignorance and hatred will never again lead to the slaughter of millions. We would all do well to remember our own history in such a way.

Monday 9 November 2015

Worker's Paradise Lost: Alexanderplatz

I am writing this week's blog post, fittingly, inside a café called Commune, branded with the yellow soviet star across its door. Seeing that my last post acted as a tribute to modern, post unification architecture, I thought it fitting, this time, to discuss one area that I feel has been rather neglected since "Die Wende" 26 years ago (1989): Alexanderplatz.

The old Haus der Statistik (Department of Statistics) of the State Security (Stasi) sits, completely empty, next to the bustling commercial hub of Alexanderplatz. This fact is made more surprising when we consider that the building is the size of a city block. It looks as though it has been abandoned for decades. All 8 floors bear the hallmarks of a building ravaged by age, general wear and tear and of course, vandalism. All the glass from the windows more than two floors up has been meticulously removed with a precision that suggests this was more an act of municipal care-taking than vandalism. The walls of the building have flecked paint that has fallen off in clumps to create a facade not unlike the liver diseased skin of the old. Graffiti paints images of societal frustration over the forgotten entrance ways, and wooden boards, used to cover possible entry points, have been turned into billboards for concerts and clubs.

Haus der Statistik, Otto Braun Straße
On this wintry November day, birds fly up the swirling air currents to the top of the building and peer in through the empty windows into spaces long vacated by their human tenants. I need not wonder what they see, I have Youtube for that. Others, more intrepid than me, have been as curious about this building as I, and gone as far as to join our winged friends in the empty hallways and desolate offices of the old Haus der Statistik. Their videos and pictures reveal that nothing is left inside those drafty rooms; no mountains of paper containing information on every purchase made, or school records for every East German child, every car bought, book read, test passed, job quit, baby born, house sold, play seen, movie produced, article written and marriage registered. The objective of the Stasi was simple: to know everything. This would have been the building where "everything" was calculated and quantified.

The building stands metres from Alexanderplatz showing the centrality of state security to the East German government. On one side of the building stretches the mighty Karl Marx Straße named thus in 1953 after the often accredited prophet of Communism; Otto Braun Straße on the other side. The heart of old East Berlin was clearly a canvass for heroes of the now lost German Democratic Republic/East Germany (henceforth GDR). The GDR existed as a separate country next to the Federal Republic of Germany (FDR) for 40 years. Its capital was East Berlin. Today traces of the regime lie in abandoned architecture, Trabi car city tours, crusty old GDR politicians that have made their way into today's Bundestag and of course the remnants of the Berlin Wall

Fernsehturm, TV Tower finished in 1969.
However, one not so abandoned piece of GDR architecture that stands at the centre of Alexanderplatz has become perhaps the most recognisable landmark of Berlin: the TV Tower. The pillar reaching skywards is as phallic in its appearance as its original function. It stands at 368 metres, towering over the rest of Berlin and Europe. It is the tallest structure in Germany and the second tallest in the European Union (the first being in Latvia - Riga Tower). Finished in 1969, the TV Tower was the crowning winner of the architecturally ominous time of "competitive building" in Berlin. This policy directive by both sides led to architectural monstrosities of 1960s proportion to prove whose was bigger, taller, longer, could piss the furthest (oh no, buildings can't piss - my bad). However, Walter Ulbricht's GDR brought this to an end, thankfully, in 1969 with the TV Tower. Finally, Walter could be assured that his was indeed taller than the West's - arguably the most important policy objective of any cold war politician. 

That political rivalry that had turned into architectural competition came to clamouring halt though in 1989. On the 9th November the wall fell after perhaps the most famous blunder in press conference history made by the now recently deceased Gunter Schabowski. Within a year Germany was reunified and the GDR was gone.

TV Tower from the roof of the Haus der Statistik of the GDR, 1969, by Eva Brüggman
Stephan Heym, the East German writer, remarked in 1990 that "the GDR will be nothing but a footnote in history", a damning sentiment expressed by an ardent critic (though a committed socialist) of the regime he had lived in since 1949. 26 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, looking at buildings like the forgotten Haus der Statistik, it seems as though he had a point. On the other hand, doesn't everything at one point fade into a footnote? 

It makes me wonder about the reasons for remembering at all. Is it living memory that keeps history alive? Or perhaps it's architecture and culture that keeps the past fresh in our minds? Maybe it's trauma that makes us want to remember? Or the need for contemporary regimes to paint a monster in the past to justify the suffering of their own people in the present? What is it about certain times, cultures, institutions and structural changes that intrigues us about history? How and why do we remember at all?

Maybe we hope that remembering past traumas will help us to mitigate them in the future. Or maybe we remember past greatnesses (British colonialists built railways in India didn't you know) in order to feel the slightest bit relevant to the present. It seems to me that there is always a reason for remembering some things and forgetting other things. Complicated narratives of people having diverse experiences of the same period can seem too difficult to integrate into historical study that often craves simplicity. Remembering the GDR is no different. 

Haus der Statistik in the background taken from Alexanderplatz, 1971, Hubert Link.
Films like "The Lives of Others" have constrained our popular understanding of the GDR to the ugliest part of its rather mundane footwear. However, other films, like "Goodbye Lenin" and "Sonnenallee" paint the other extreme of a naive culture that perhaps did have a better concept of solidarity, community and social good than we have today. The truth, or millions of simultaneous truths that exist side by side in history, is often somewhere in the midst of the extremes: the GDR had a perverse surveillance system; the GDR had very little consumer choice; the SED party of the GDR was convinced that anyone wanting to be different from the socialist stereotype was a threat to society that needed to be expunged. The GDR forced at least 400,000 people to flee its borders, often in perilous ways, after they put up a wall in 1961 to keep their citizens inside; the GDR was a totalitarian regime without real democratic choice.

But on the other hand, the GDR had universal healthcare, education and social security. The GDR had housing for all its citizens. The GDR provided free childcare so that women could aspire alongside their male counterparts, rather than being biologically hindered in their professional lives. The GDR had a sense of social obligation that brought people companionship that today is often lacking. The GDR had a central sentiment that no one, no matter what socio-economic background they came from, was better than anyone else. The GDR had very little crime (no one had all that much to steal anyway). All these things existed next to each other, meaning that when we look back now - 26 years to the day after the Berlin Wall fell - we see a jumbled mess of good and bad aspects of a mostly content but imprisoned citizenry. 

It makes me wonder how people in the future will view our society. Our global society. A society that has an incredibly intrusive mass surveillance system; a society with camps for those that don't fit in (just go to Calais to see what I mean); a society incapable of making much needed global decisions because of outdated concepts of nationalistic need; and finally, a society with a global rich (in which I include myself) that tirelessly exploits those unable to defend themselves against its ravages. How will they look back on our society? How will we be judged? Will abandoned buildings in the centre of old financial districts paint poignant pictures of a broken past? Perhaps. 

One thing that GDR history has taught me for certain though, is that freedom, perceived or real, is fundamental to a human being's sense of self. Once you have placed the shackles on people for long enough, they will fight back. In the GDR they fought back peacefully and on the 9th November 1989, without bloodshed, the citizens of East Germany were finally able to call themselves free.

Alexanderplatz protest, 4th November 1989. 500,000 East Germans gathered on Alexanderplatz to protest for freedom of press, political freedom and freedom of movement. Foto. Peter Zimmerman, 1989
For me, Alexanderplatz is the embodiment of these contradictory historical interpretations, which come together to produce a confused though more enlightened vision of a country's past. The abandoned block buildings stand next to modern arcades, restaurants, cinemas and the nerve centre of transport in Berlin, the Alexanderplatz S & U Bahn Station. Decay standing next to progress; just as the sometimes difficult past stands ever next to hope for a better future.

Saturday 24 October 2015

Potsdamer Platz

In the centre of a bustling intersection at the end of Leipziger Straße, in the heart of Berlin's commercial district, stands a traffic light. This traffic light is dark green and 20 ft in height, it is five sided and clocked. Lights flash in regular intervals from red to green to red to green not unlike the continuous ticking of the five clocks in unison. In the centre of the street stands a traffic light. In any other city this would be a rather mundane observation worthy of mention in only the most obscure and specialised of blogs, but this is not any city and likewise this is no normal traffic light. 

In 1924 the exact same model was the first electronic traffic light in Europe, installed here at what was the busiest intersection in the four million strong metropolis of 1920s Berlin. The traffic light was a symbol of a city surging forward into modernity, restless and eager to consume the gadgets of the future. 
Potsdamer Platz in the 1920s at the centre of the busy metropolis life of Berlin

The traffic light stands today as testament to its prized position in days gone by.
Potsdamer Platz of the 1920s was a testament to Berlin's growth, exuberance, modernity and unbridled capitalism that lay at the beating heart of the industrial powerhouse. Since 1900 the city had doubled its population and was now the third largest city in the world after New York and London. Cabarets, loose sexuality, drinking houses, shops, theatres, hotels, peepshows, department stores and dance halls lined the five streets that intersected below the metronomic traffic light presiding over it all. Berlin was big and brash and nothing was bigger and brasher than Potsdamer Platz. 

Writing in 1919, during the failed Spartacist uprising by communists attempting to seize control of Germany, a diarist Count Harry Kessler noted that the failed revolution hardly made a ripple of disturbance on the day to day humdrum of the city: 

It is as if an elephant is stabbed with a penknife. It shakes itself and strides on as if nothing had happened.
Count Henry Kessler 

By the 1930s however, Potsdamer Platz was changing in a way that mirrored the rest of the Nazi ruled Germany; fun was postponed, the unfettered delights of the cabaret halted and hotels became in some cases palaces of torture and in others residences of the National Socialists and their allies. 

Skipping forward, to quote Terminator, Berlin's "Judgement Day" came during World War II, in which 90% of the city's buildings were destroyed and only rubble left to form the broken clues of what had come before. By 1945 Potsdamer Platz stood as the desolate dividing line between East (soviet influenced, communist controlled GDR Berlin) and West (US influenced, democratic capitalist FDR Berlin). After this Potsdamer Platz became famous for being a wasteland at the centre of the divided European city. Western look out platforms offered the opportunity to gaze out over this desolation without a traffic light in sight. 

Post war Potsdamer Platz with the ruin of Haus Vaterland (a pleasure house of the 1920s) in the background.
Now, 25 years on from the fall of the wall, presiding metronomically over a very different cliental, stands a traffic light. The same model as stood here nearly a century ago. Today though, it has no function, the traffic is instead controlled by multiple other electronic manifestations of modernity to fulfil the stop/go purpose. Rather this dark green, five sided traffic light turning red to green to red to green stands as a point of reference for the hoards of tourists below to gawp at and imagine what had been before. It is a museum exhibit, a monument, an artefact of a time gone by - relatively unnoticed by the hundreds of people who pass under it daily. 

Back are the hotels, back are the dance halls (albeit rarely frequented by Berliners, but rather the corporate visitors who refuse to stray further than a few hundred metres from their hotels), back are the cafes (though more Starbucks than Cafe Josty), back are the restaurants (though sadly lacking the sumptuous temptations of the flapper generation) and back are the visitors. But Potsdamer Platz today doesn't feel like a place built for Berliners, rather for those who wish to come and recognise a piece of their own hyper modern cities. Tall buildings tower over cinemas and glitzy walkways vacated by those new to or visiting the capital of reunited Germany.

Potsdamer Platz 2012 with the lonely traffic light in the distance. 
2015 Potsdamer Platz begs the question, who is this complex for? What is it supposed to represent if indeed it can be successfully argued that it doesn't represent Berlin as it is today? Is it perhaps instead for a Berlin that is yet to exist? A commercially thriving and financially confident city at the head of a powerful and rich country. Is it a testament, not to the past, but to what this city will one day become? Personally I hope not. Walking through Potsdamer Platz today, you could be walking through anywhere else in the world, Shanghai, Hong Kong, London, New york or Dubai. The streams of Berliners expected to embrace this city centre, created in less than a decade, to live and thus breathe life into the area, have not come. Flats built to accommodate long term leases lie vacant in their sky high towers. Commercial spaces that were pegged for local businesses and small retailers have instead been taken over by multinationals creating yet another branch of their global franchisees.  In a city that offers a million different spaces that uniquely supply a space to drink coffee, read, write, chat, and eat the odd muffin, why travel to an urban moonscape to have a Starbucks frappuccino? 

This blog so often pays homage to the past, and that strongly reflects my own biases. I am a student, and devotee of historical study and thus find it fascinating to write about. However, when discussing Berlin, the obvious character in the play of the past is what on earth this all means for the future. Change is all around us here in Berlin - the city is not the same as it was five years ago let alone 25 years ago when the wall came down. But that does not always mean for the worse. I will not go into my own views on where this city is going (perhaps stay tuned for that), but I will say that I don't think it is shaping up to be the vision constructed by Renzo Piano and Helmut Jahn for their respective Daimler Quarter and Sony Centre. Rather Potsdamer Platz today begs us to ask what we want for the future of this city: an organically changing organism defined by current economic, social and political conditions as well as the people who choose to come and live here? Or rather a commercially dictated clone of numerous other nondescript metropoli scattered across the globe?  

So I will leave you there this time on that rather questioning of notes - for I have no answers. For me, Potsdamer Platz in 2015 throws up more questions than it answers: how are cities made? Can you build a city centre in less than a decade? Who are cities made for: the people who live, love, breath and work there or rather the companies that feed off their consumeristic tendencies? And finally, how will this growing metropolis once again define its position in world history in the coming years? Will Berlin yet again be steamrolling ahead in terms of social, economic and political movements, or will it finally sit on the scrap heap of history underneath that same redundant traffic light? 

Till next time....