Berlin [pt. 1]

August 24, 2010

I just spent a couple of days in Berlin. The weather there was nice and warm and sunny with only a few clouds in the sky but, alas, I was there for an art historical conference so most of the time I stayed in a darkened room staring at photos of 14th century paintings projected onto a wall. I also spent a considerable amount of time in the museum so I really didn’t get to see too much of the city. On the one hand this is a pity because, I have to confess, it was my first time in Berlin. On the other hand, I did find the time for a long walk all around town and I can’t help the impression that it isn’t such a pretty sight, anyway. At least not for my taste.

The city abounds with that particular brand of 19th century architecture that aims to appear imperial and monumental but in the end only manages to look crude and grey and dumpy. Much of that old building structure has, however, been destroyed by the bombs of the Second World War and not all of it has been rebuilt. Add to that the corridor cut right through the city by the now overthrown Berlin Wall and you get a metropolis interspersed with vast plots of actual inner-city wasteland.

This, you might say, still has a certain charm, but the real problem is that out of all this wasteland there has grown, in recent years, an awkward mess of building sites and modern architecture. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against modern or contemporary architecture per se. A few of those new buildings in Berlin are actually pretty cool – but the emphasis lies on “a few”. Unfortunately, with the larger part of them the architects’ sole concept seems to have been to make the structures look, well, modern by dressing them up with as much glass and metal as possible – and that’s about all the thought they seem to have put into the planning.

Oddly enough, the only buildings with a discernible concept regarding aesthetics as well as function and urbanism seem to be the endless rows of tenement houses along the Karl Marx-Allee, erected by the communist government of the German Democratic Republic in the 1950s. Come to think of it, it’s not that odd at all: In the end, trying to plan and control every aspect of their citizens’ lives, including the houses they live in, is what totalitarian regimes do, isn’t it?Considering their political background the merits of those tenement houses and their founders are, after all, of a somewhat dubious nature… The same applies, of course, to one of Berlin’s most famous landmarks, the Fernsehturm (“television tower”) whose top scrapes the sky at 368 meters above the ground. Upon its completion in 1969 it was the second highest building in all of Europe and clearly intended to symbolize the socialist regime’s modernity, efficiency and power.

Still, the Fernsehturm is a remarkable piece of architecture that has aged rather well. It certainly has outlived the political system that generated it, but you could argue that architecture does have a tendency to do that – think, for example, the Roman Empire and the Colosseum…

Compared to the adjacent Marienkirche (“St. Mary’s Church”) Berlin’s Fernsehturm is, however, still a new building. For all we know that church was first built around 1260/1270, and presents itself today in pretty much the same state as in the 15th century when it was reconstructed after a fire. With its pointed gables and the warm glow of its red brick structure the Marienkirche adds a perhaps unexpected picturesque touch to the city’s architectural landscape.

I was also pleasantly surprised to find that the church even hosts some fragments of late medieval wall paintings, among them a poorly preserved Danse Macabre, or Dance of Death, dating to ca. 1490. Today this long painted row of the living lead in the dance by skeletons and corpses is reduced to a series of shadowy shapes, so that the painting itself has an eerie, ghostlike appearance which fits the subject well.

Speaking of the dead: Of all the more recent additions to Berlin’s monumental landscape it was Peter Eisenmann’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, completed in 2005, that impressed me the most. It consists of 2711 concrete slabs, vaguely reminiscent of tombstones, placed in parallel rows over an area of almost five acres. Standing by its side you can actually overlook the monument, but as you enter among the slabs the ground level gradually sinks, and soon enough it’s the slabs that are overlooking you, leaving you with the feeling of being trapped in a maze.

Some of the other visitors, especially teenagers, used the place to play hide and seek as if it was a hall of mirrors at a fun fair. Incidentally, the monument has been confronted with much criticism for its perceived “fun factor” and for being a site that people actually enjoy visiting. I don’t know, maybe I was just in a gloomy mood from all the depressing 19th century architecture of Unter den Linden and elsewhere, but to me the Memorial definitely wasn’t an enjoyable experience. To me it wasn’t a place to play hide and seek, but a place to get lost in, an uncanny underground world that speaks of imprisonment and death; an oversized graveyard where the sky is only a tiny patch of blue framed by dark shadows, far away and out of reach; a place that creates a sentiment of nausea and dread, in other words: A place that does its job as being a reminder of the Holocaust.

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