i have recently returned from a short break in berlin, and want to write about a few of the things i saw there, and the impact they had on me. i guess that this is going to spread into a few posts about specific points, so i’ll use this one to give my general sense of the city.
berlin has always been a city which has interested me. as an undergrad history student with a particular interest in the birth of modern europe, the unification of nineteenth germany was always one of my key interest. berlin has been a city with the weight of modern history place well and truly upon its shoulders, from the rise of fascism, the collapse of hitler’s germany through the escalation of the cold war, up to the unification of germany and the current role of the german government in the future of europe. this is a city which is important.
lets start with the people. the cosmopolitan attitude of the people i encountered was pretty reminiscent of places like barcelona and manchester. bar culture meant that sitting with a beer until whenever you wanted to was pretty easy to achieve, and in the morning/afternoon afterwards nobody would bat that much of an eyelid as you tucked into your first bockwurst of the day. berlin seemed like the kind of place you could set yourself up pretty easily if you wanted to, which was pretty much confirmed by the fact i was staying with a friend who had done just that.
so, onto the city itself. i think big and heavy is the way to describe it best. yes, going in january meant that the oppressive nature of much of the architecture was accentuated by a foreboding winter sky and chilling temperature, but the thing that strikes you as you walk done streets in the east of the city is that this is a city which has no consistency to it at all. berlin is a place which has been torn apart and put back together so many times, by so many different people, that a true sense of architectural identity is pretty much nul.
yet in places where a swathe of one style dominates, you really do get a sense of what different ‘owners’ have tried to do with the place. around the brandenburg gate and the reichstag the influence of western victors is clear in some pretty bland, pretty corporate looking bits of shiney-ness. the real interest is when you hit the former soviet areas.
karl-marx allee is probably the part of berlin which will stick with me most in terms of scale and scope. here is a road which was designed to remind the people of east berlin that they were very very very small, and that the soviet union of which they were a part was really really really big. this grand statement of soviet strength, saw a whole street dominated by huge modernist architecture, with the boulevard being mostly constructed over the 1950s at which point it was still named after stalin.
the soviet process of destroying the cult of stalin led to marx’s name being added to this stretch of road in 1961. the huge buildings, housing everyone from workers up to luxury apartments, have mostly been refreshed to reflect their former grandeur – though the haus der stastistik, former home of the stasi, is notable by its emptiness. probably the highlight of the street is a 1960s addition though, the kino international cinema.
yet once you stop looking up and being generally overawed by the size of the city, and the weight of events and history upon it, berlin is really accommodating. the rumours of having to know which unmarked doors to go through to find the best bits are definitely true, and this trip benefited from knowing someone who know where these doors were. great little coffee shop lurk behind curtains, bars playing nondescript (but exactly what was needed) house music are just off staircases that would be better suited to a multi-storey car park.
in terms of culture the place really came up trumps. my own stupid decision to not see enough stuff over the weekend meant that a lot of the galleries i wanted to see were closed on the monday, but visits to both the neues museum, recently reopened after being very thoughtfully restored by david chipperfield, and the hamburger bahnhof were both excellent.
i don’t think enjoyed is the right word to describe the emotion i felt after this trip. under conventional circumstances it would be, but it seems to be a bit remiss to describe a trip in which you’ve spent a good chunk of time crying about the horrors of very recent european history as enjoyable. if you don’t know the place already i would highly recommend berlin.