Say the first word that comes to mind. “Berlin.”
That shows my age, of course. As of November 2009 the wall has been gone for 20 years. I look at my fellow passengers on the U-Bahn subway. That clutch of birdlike teen girls tittering together. The three slouching male teens, maybe watching the girls but pretending not to. The tall, thin early-twenties man, suit and tie, briefcase in lap, hands folded on briefcase, his whole manner stilled and yet not calmed, as though he’s posing for a painter while his judgmental father looks on.
None of these Berliners remembers the wall. The wall that used to divide Berlin now divides generations: those for whom it's a story, and those who remember.
After pleasant days admiring cute-because-long-dead Hapsburgs in stately Vienna and Prague, I knew Berlin would be return to the present, if not the future. Imagine traveling across a continent and finally bursting out onto a beach, half of your sphere of perception suddenly blank. That’s what the future looks like if we get the whole continent of the past behind us: just a flat line and empty space that can mean boundless opportunity or death, whichever suits your mood.
We never get the past behind us, but no city tries to do so more intently than Berlin. The city’s chaotic shape bears witness to a recent past so wrenching that to remember fully would be to succumb, again and again, to the paralysis of shock. No mind can grasp what Berlin has endured in the past century, not just the devastation of two world wars but the transcendent sense of disgrace that surrounds the second, and then, a coda, the surgical atrocity of the wall. Even reunification brought its traumas. The sudden mixing of what had been separate, like the rush of water from a failing dam – even that struck the city with some destructive force.
Fortunately, there is always a new mass of the young, erasing history as only the they can do. Year by year, their unremembering energy pries open a space where the next Berlin can be born.
So as middle-aged tourists do, I went looking for the wall. In
Potsdamer Platz, where skyscrapers soar over high-concept
malls, I noticed a long parklike space between two rows of buildings, an obvious axis in the urban structure. Ah, I thought, that must
have been where the wall was. Surely planners meant to mark its
location with this grand axis in their new district.
So I asked a bus driver who was lounging nearby. “War der Mauer hier?” “Nein,” he said. No, It was there, see?
He pointed to a double-row of bricks that ran across the space, jagged and seemingly random like the Yellow Brick Road of Oz. It emerged from right under his bus, careened diagonally across the strong grid of the park and vanished under a building. So this was the opposite of commemoration. Nothing about Potsdamer Platz reflects the shape of the wall, or even refutes it. No line of the new city is parallel to it, or even perpendicular. The designers of this space wanted the wall forgotten, all its capacity to influence denied.
I can imagine the feelings about the wall that must have driven post-unification urban planning here, because at the same moment in late 1989 I was watching a similar conversation about a taller but lesser ruined wall: the double-deck Embarcadero Freeway that blighted the downtown waterfront in San Francisco. After the 1989 earthquake damaged the structure beyond repair, most San Franciscans were eager to see it torn down for good. But in one meeting, a group of young architects stood up and said, wait, this is going to be part of our city’s history, it should be marked somehow. They proposed saving a single arch from the structure: just two pillars, and the crossbeams of the freeway’s two levels, with rebar and broken concrete hanging out of them, an intentional modernist ruin. Nobody wanted to hear it.
So it’s impressive that we even have the Yellow Brick Road to mark where the wall was. Interrupted by many new buildings, ignored by all of the new urban structure, the wall survives as two rows of stones wandering drunkenly like a lost time traveller, sometimes in the street, sometimes on the sidewalk, sometimes lurching on a diagonal across some new square whose designers were consciously heedless of it ...
Berlin has no center, of course, nor even a central constellation. At the rough midpoint of the city is a district called Mitte, not the center but just the middle, the midst. The years of division required two of everything, and today the resultant doubling still dominates the urban form. Thus West Berlin came to focus on its main boulevard, the Kurfürstendamm, which looks like any high-end shopping street in the developed world apart from the preserved bombed-out church that gazes down its axis ...
Meanwhile, downtown East Berlin was Alexanderplatz, an orgy of gray modernism marked by Berlin’s tallest structure, the communist-built but capitalist-inspired television tower with its requisite observation deck.
The doubling continues in the pair of museum districts. The West built the Kulturforum, which from some angles manages a disturbing resemblance to a dead suburban shopping mall.
… while East Berlin inherited the city’s "Museum Island”, a jumble of monumental buildings in clashing styles that all face different directions, each ready to be an Arc de Triomphe for its own grand axis. Individually, they are perfectly handsome and much-loved buildings, but jammed together as they are, they look like a bunch of conductors who’ve lost their orchestras.
Photo: By Ksaraf at Wikipedia
So in this doubled but suddenly unified city, it fell to government to forge a new oneness, to announce, both symbolically and practically, that Germany was one nation and one people. Little remained of the old government sector but the ruined Reichstag or national parliament. Built in the 19th century, partly burned in one of the key episodes in Hitler’s rise, and finally bombed out as the Soviet army closed on Berlin, its shell was a rare surviving symbol of Germany as a nation. So after reunification they restored its exterior, like a sacred historic vase, and then filled it with the sleek 1990s work of Sir Norman Foster, capped by a flamboyant dome.
The remodeled Reichstag is Berlin in microcosm. The structure represents cultural and national continuity, but its bombed-out and reconstituted innards speak at once of both the intensity of the pain and urgent impossibility of its forgetting. There is no Norman Foster glamour-job without the shell of the Reichstag, and no shell without the still-shocked memory of the Nazi years.
But the Reichstag now feels like a gateway or foil to the much more remarkable building just to its north, a rare case of true modernism doing something that only modernism can do.
No reader should trust me, of course, on the subject of modernist architecture. I have always felt threatened and vaguely insulted by its straight lines and blank spaces that deny the organic shape of both nature and history.
As a university student I hated buildings that created dead expanses of neutral, useless space, faced with unwelcoming walls. Berlin’s Neuegalerie by Mies van de Rohe provides a nice example, but you can find the same on any campus in the western world.
But adjacent to the Reichstag, and part of it in a way, is a group of new government buildings that could only have been done in a modernist vein. They consist of the Paul-Löbe-Haus and Marie-Elisabeth-Lüders-Haus, but they read as a single composition. They sit at one of the most painful crossroads in Berlin, the point where the wall crossed the main river, the Spree, and walled it off for a short distance. Anyone who has lived in a great river city will feel at once what a sacrilege a wall along the river must have been. Today Berlin is exuberant in celebrating its river, so where the exuberance crosses the path of the wall, right next to the Reichstag, we have a very sensitive spot.
My first awareness that I was near the spot was a reflection of the German flag in a much-divided glass building face. The flag is just three horizontal stripes: black, red, and yellow. But its form in this window kept shifting and half-rotating, like a woman under the gaze of cubist painter.
The distorted flag appeared to fly on a ziggurat-shaped building made of nothing but steps. I was looking at the reflection of a flag on a corner of the Reichstag behind me. The ziggurat effect was a gridded distortion of the Reichstag itself, formed by the not-quite-flush panes of glass in this new building in front of me. To confirm how intentional this is, a real stairway echoes the illusory one.
These new government buildings are designed to feel like single structure interrupted by the river, almost as though they were a dam that had burst. Here's how they look on Google Earth, with the Reichstag just to the south of them.
The Spree flows through carrying bicycles and pedestrians on both sides, and boatloads of tourists and revelers. The building stands like a wall that has parted for them, or been blasted open. The blank sides of the building are at their blankest right next to the river’s opening. Only at sunset do they seem anything but austere.
Looking back from the river toward the Reichstag is an especially striking effect: a warm glass cylinder in the new building on the right, and the old Reichstag tower on the left, but between them a blank modernist wall, as though separating, or interrupting, or pulling apart.
If you want symbolism here, it's obvious. Between the optimistic 19th Century builders of the Reichstag and the equally optimistic Germany of today lies a century so horrific that only cold blank space can refer to it. Here is one place where only modernism will serve.
Those crosses by the river? A small cluster of memorials to East Germans shot to death while trying to cross the wall near this point.
Their specificity seems to clash with the civic and national themes being worked out in this complex building. To me the clash is more awkward than enlightening, but of course we are not entitled to enlightenment.
North of this building are two other sacred places that feel very much part of the composition. North and west stands the hypermodernist Berlin Hauptbahnhof, the main railway station, designed on such a massive scale that it feels a bit like a cathedral of German efficiency and modernity.
North and east is the "Parliament of Trees against War and Violence" by Ben Wargin, a peculiar small garden rich with memorials with an edgy, low-budget feel.
The text above is as close as words can come to a moral for all that Berlin has suffered: "We cannot make culture out of politics, but perhaps we can make politics out of culture."
In the end, Berlin stands alongside Los Angeles as one of the world's great postmodern cities: divided, centerless, protean, distracted, and reliant on very shallow roots. Both cities lack the foundational civic certainty provided by abundant pre-20th-century history, a history that everyone can revere because nobody cares about its motivating quarrels anymore. Paris, London, Vienna and Prague all rest securely on that kind of history, and although they are full of irony today, irony is safer when your city has a solid core of identity, rooted in a long history, that no modern arts can undo.
In Berlin, by contrast, the distant past is a void when it isn't a joke. (If you want a medieval village, for example, you'll have to make do with the Nikolaiviertel, a twee communist-designed medieval district built mostly in 1987.) Berlin's modern history has been so destructive that there are few grand old memories to anchor the traumatic younger ones. So even as the city grows and prospers with German efficiency, it manages always to seem bombed out, torn open. Deconstructed, the postmodernists would say, but that word sounds dainty compared to what happened in Berlin, and how it still feels today.