To visit modern-day Berlin is to be immediately confronted by the visual evidence of a persistent question: ‘how do you acknowledge and learn from the past while at the same time planning and building for the future?’
The result is a city of design and redesign, with a highly eclectic mix of architecture and urban spaces. It’s one of the most interesting places I’ve visited.
We arrived in Berlin at the height of a summer heatwave which saw temperatures soaring above 37 degrees. As Berlin is not a city renowned for its air-conditioned interior spaces, much of our visit was spent finding cool shady spots from which to explore the city’s chequered history. That said, Berlin is a much more modern, open and quiet city than I had imagined. At least in the early summer, It doesn’t share the same street-level intensity of other European capitals like Paris, London or Rome. The atmosphere during the daytime was almost languid, with the most prevalent signs of human activity coming from the ubiquitous electric scooters and bicycles ever zipping past along the capital’s clean-swept sidewalks and cycle paths.
We found traveling through the city quite effortless and many of the key attractions were within walking distance of our apartment; a well-sized suite just inside the former east side of the city, a short walk from the notorious, and now exceptionally touristy, Checkpoint Charlie.
A story of architecture and design
Notwithstanding some of the more recently gentrified neighborhoods, we visited such as Kreuzberg (which features scatterings of artist colonies, allotments, cafes, and pop-up beer gardens) most of the visual interest for me was to be found not so much at street level but rather looking upwards at the city’s eclectic and often contradictory architecture. Bauhaus influenced 1950’s modernism is the dominant style that permeates the landscape, particularly on the former western side. To the east, large swathes of social housing from the Soviet era are punctuated by clusters of neo-classical churches and museums. The skyline remains relatively free of skyscrapers, so the iconic TV tower - a 250-meter tall antenna and observation deck built in the 1960’s - is visible from almost everywhere in the city. The structure, which sits in the eastern part of the city forms a focal point with sweeping views of all of the capital.
Those looking to explore historic buildings and monuments, however, will be in for a surprise. Before the second world war had even started, the Nazis had already enthusiastically leveled a good chunk of Central Berlin to pave the way for Hitler’s expansive but scarcely actualized urban plan. The Allies would, of course, later finish the job of raising the capital to the ground, and by 1945 there was little of the city left beyond the layout of its streets and the crumbling shells of burned outbuildings. There are are few examples of the 19th-century buildings that used to line its streets, and even fewer of the fascist-era constructions remain - the most notorious being the Bundesministerium der Finanzen, formerly the headquarters of the Air Ministry but now the Finance Ministry, which sits adjacent to the chilling ’Topography of Terror’ museum located on the grounds of the former Gestapo headquarters which was destroyed in 1945.
The Topology of Terror museum, was one of the first sites we visited, and tells the harrowing story of the Nazi’s rise to power in Germany, and their subsequent persecution and murder of millions of Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies, those with disabilities and other marginalized communities throughout Europe.
Constructing a narrative
It was interesting to learn that even much of the neoclassical architecture, such as those surrounding Gendarmenmarkt were extensively - or in some cases completely - rebuilt during the 1980s with the originals having been destroyed during the war. As one of our tour guides put it: ‘so much of the history was destroyed they started reconstructing a narrative’. So, with only a few exceptions, such as The Brandenburg Gate, the Victory Column and the Norman Foster led redesign of the Reichstag, Berlin is very much a city of post-war buildings.
In the aftermath of the war, huge developments were hastily constructed on both sides to house the population, but large areas of the city long remained undeveloped, and there are still tracts of unused ground that once formed the lethal no-man’s land between East and West Berlin. The optimism that was felt after the fall of the wall in 1989 soon gave way to decades of austerity. Unlike many other German cities like Frankfurt or Stuttgart, Berlin doesn’t have its own strong central economy outside of government, so rebuilding has been a slow process.
Despite all this, Berlin is a truly remarkable place for architecture and design. Now, signs of construction are everywhere as evidenced by the vast system of drainage pipes snaking its way through the city center to remove groundwater from its numerous building sites. Many of both the post-war and contemporary designs are truly stunning.
I was also pleased to see that unlike so many other big cities, which have become a hodgepodge of post-modern skyscrapers and Autocad-driven glass and steel homogeny, Berlin has so far maintained a sense of its Bauhaus inspired modernism. But there is also clearly a running debate about whether to reincarnate long since vanished buildings to their original 19th-century designs or to start afresh. This is evidenced by many of the faux pre-war buildings with suspiciously pristine facades we encountered, which - though executed with an admirable level of detail - felt a bit forced to me. Like the Universal Studios version of an old building.
A history in film
For decades, the Potshamer Platz, a huge open plaza in the heart of the city, laid as a barren urban wasteland, intersected by the Berlin wall. After reunification, it became Europe’s largest development project, and amongst other buildings, is now home to the large Sony complex.
It was here again that the question of ‘how to reach back and celebrate some of the cultural high points, to create a more optimistic narrative while carefully navigating the darker chapters’, was one I felt acutely present when visiting the wonderful Film Museum housed there.
The museum celebrates some of Germany’s important contributions to the cinema and features exhibits dedicated to classics like the expressionistic The Cabinet of Doctor Caligary and Wim Wender’s highly influential humanist masterpiece Wings of Desire. I think these are chapters we would all wish to remember, ones that deserve to be preserved and if necessary restored - just like Fritz Lang’s dystopian masterpiece Metropolis, which over the years has been painstakingly restored from fragments of recovered negatives and is now duly highlighted in the museum.
And yet, coming into the section of the museum that deals with the fascist era of film, we encounter a cold steel room where most of the artifacts and sample videos are hidden away in drawers, to be acknowledged but cautiously un-celebrated. Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia gets an exhibit but no actual footage (that I saw), and Triumph of the Will is, unsurprisingly, absent. I’m not judging this omission - I’m not sure how I would have handled it differently - however, any film enthusiast would be obliged to reluctantly acknowledge Riefenstahl’s place in the pantheon of film history, however distasteful it might be. Rightly or wrongly the answer at least for now is to put this part of the history in drawers.
Which brings us to two of the most potent symbols of Berlin’s darker history, locations which also apparently draw some of the largest numbers of visitors in the city. It must be uneasy for many Berliners to know that some of the city’s most painful memories are also some of it’s largest tourist attractions.
Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe
I found visiting The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe to be an extraordinarily somber and moving experience, in spite of it being something of a playground for groups of teenagers on school trips. Security guards patrol the memorial to remind people it’s not a place for practicing your parkour moves. Still, I have heard others argue its strength as a memorial is precisely down the physicality of its design. It draws you in, almost unaware, and then is unforgiving and relentless in its rigid cadence.
It’s presence and design were not without controversy. Some felt it didn’t go far enough, others wondered why Germans should build a monument to their shame. I don’t feel qualified to appraise it as a fitting or appropriate memorial to the crimes committed or the memory of its victims. The Holocaust transcended any form of rationality; who can ever say what we would the appropriate remembrance? I can only say that it moved me personally very deeply.
By design, it is highly open to interpretation. Some see it as a collection of anonymous tombs, as a sort of mass grave, markers of the millions of Jewish people killed. For myself, it seems like boxes; more boxes in which to stow the past, the unspeakable, the unforgivable. Dark containers in which are stored away those shameful artifacts and painful memories that cannot be discarded, that must kept.
The East Side Gallery
Something to remember about the Berlin Wall is that in spite of it being said to ‘divide East and West Berlin’ - this is not entirely accurate. The original wall actually fully surrounded and encompassed West Berlin forming a sort of ‘prison in reverse’ where the prisoners were the ones on the outside trying to get in. The western part of the city was locked inside Soviet-controlled East Germany, and access was only possible via air travel or through tightly controlled roads and checkpoints. To escape across the walls, however, for East Germans was to reach the free West, and at least 140 people died attempting it.
We visited the East Side Gallery, a stretch of several hundred meters of the wall that is still intact. Shortly after the reunification in 1990, several international artists were commissioned to paint a series of murals on sections the east-facing side, which - unlike the graffiti-covered west side - had remained whitewashed stone during the cold war. Since their creation, many of the murals have been damaged during building projects and vandalism. The importance of preserving the gallery has been a matter of public debate. When we visited the site, a long stretch of the wall was under building hoardings. I felt the presence of tools and bags of cement piled up against sections of some of the more famous murals, for me, betrayed any emphatic commitment to preserving the artworks.
Again I found this very interesting - this collision between the desire to protect a section of history with the need to progress and move on from it. Graffiti artists know their work is transient. It’s the nature of graffiti. This certainly would have been the case with the west side of the wall, but the pieces on the East were a deliberate collective statement from a critical juncture in history. Regardless of the quality of the works (which is variable to be fair) many are now part of our shared cultural history.
More views of the city on our last day
On our last day in Berlin, we took the elevator high up to the revolving restaurant at the top of Berlin’s iconic TV tower from where you can look out to an uninterrupted panorama of the city. It was a fantastic way to relax and get out in the heat, and talk about the places we had visited, especially in the context of where they sat in relation to the former ‘East’ and ‘West’.
We also took time to wander through some of the city’s numerous quiet leafy suburbs and pleasant parks and outdoor spaces, where free-spirited Berliners still enjoy naturist sunbathing or relaxing by the banks of the winding Spree river and other numerous canals and lakes. There are few doorways or walls free of graffiti or murals in Berlin, and the ephemeral evidence of Berlin’s famous underground clubs and arts culture can be found on every street corner.
A final trip in a riverboat provided yet another angle on the city’s varied architecture - both old and new. From here again this ongoing dialogue seemed apparent in the structures around us: What to rebuild, what to keep, what to invent anew?
I am curious to see how the city’s story will unfold. For ourselves I feel we only scratched the surface, barely touching on the capital’s rich counter-cultural art and music scenes. There are also plenty of more museums and landmarks to explore for us to explore.
I hadn’t set out to specifically photograph or document Berlin’s architecture or monuments, but one doesn’t have to be in the city long to see the visual story is in the structures that surround you, both in the inclusions and the omissions. You only need to look around you to see a city ruminating about what from its past should be resurrected, what should be preserved, what many might prefer to forget - and now more than ever, what the future should look like.