Berlin has always been the most mysterious of international cities. Paris is romantic, New York is busy, Rio is sun-drenched. And Berlin has always had a touch of the forbidden about it, be it the decadent Weimar Berlin of Sally Bowles and Cabaret, or the divided Cold War Berlin of Hitchcock and Torn Curtain. (Yes, I know I can’t go two sentences without bringing in a film reference.) Of course, now that there’s no more Berlin Wall, a good deal of the mystery has gone. Instead of standing on a high platform to get a glimpse over the Wall to the Brandenburg Gate on the other side, visitors can now stroll right through the gate… and, a few steps further, straight into a Starbucks for a Venti Caramel Frappuccino.
Even though the wall has come down, the legacy of the “divided city” continues. There are still duplicates between the eastern and western halves: two Egyptian Art museums, two old cathedrals, two city halls, and so on. Architecturally, the city is still divided as well, but not in the way you’d expect. The western side was free to build itself up in the post-war years, and dozens of huge modernist concrete office buildings sprang up through the 1960s, replacing the buildings destroyed during the war. The eastern side, with it’s command economy remained pretty “boring” with lots of ugly squat buildings big empty “no man’s land” spaces between it and the West.
But, now that the wall is gone, those easily-destroyed ugly squat buildings and ample open spaces have provided Berlin with something it’s been missing for quite a while: prime real estate. The old dull Eastern side is now buzzing with building, a forest of construction cranes, and suddenly the center of all that is cool and swanky. Just beyond the Starbucks, there’s a Galleries Lafayette, dozens of designer-label stores and a Bugatti dealership. Ironically, now it’s the western half that seems old and dated and trapped in 1960’s concrete office-block hell.
The eastern half also has all the cool museums. There’s the Altes Museum with it’s celebrated bust of Neffertiti, the Alte Nationalgalerie with an admirable collection of German expressionists like Caspar David Friedrich, and of course, the crown jewel of Museum Island, the Pergammon, which features no less than three monumental ancient reconstructed structures within it’s massive walls: The Pergamon Altar, the Ishtar Gate and the Mshatta Facade. And if that’s not enough for you, you can truck over to Alexanderplatz (which, apart from it’s fame from the eponymous Fassbinder film, was universally knows as the ugliest public square in all of Europe, though it too is being completely ripped up and re-built), and see the Fernsehturm, an observation tower that looks like a large golf ball impaled on a giant knitting needle.
On the western side, the redevelopment plan is going forward with mixed results. The Reichstag has been lovingly restored, though it seems like more of a tourist attraction than an actual government building. Most folks come just to see the view from the roof and walk up and down the spiralling ramps inside Sir Norman Foster’s mirror and glass dome (amusingly, the building’s most distinctive feature now, but not originally part of Foster’s design). The Reichstag is flanked by the “functional” government buildings, which unfortunately look like the 21st century version of big 1960’s concrete office blocks (combined with a dash of the Kennedy Center). Beyond those buildings, they’ve built a huge serpentine complex of apartments specifically for the public servants, so they can live where they work and avoid a lengthy commute. Unfortunately, nobody seems to want to live this close to work, so they’re being re-purposed.
Across the river from the unused political apartments, there’s the sparkling new Berlin Hauptbahnhof (central train station). Berlin has never had a “central” train station, in the same way that Paris and London don’t either. Instead, there were regional stations on opposite sides of the city, serving opposite directions (like Waterloo and Paddington in London, or the Gare du Nord and Gare de Lyon in Paris). Somebody had the brilliant idea of closing all the old stations and centralizing everything in one “centrally” located station. Never mind the logistical nightmare that creates. Never mind the fact that it’s not easy to get to the new station. And never mind the fact that it doesn’t link up at all with Berlin’s vast underground metro system. I’m sure it looked brilliant on paper. It almost seems like east and west have traded sides. The east is now caught up in the gung-ho capitalist building craze, and the west is stuck experimenting with poorly thought out central planning schemes.
Despite all the references to Berlin’s recent Communist past — at Checkpoint Charlie, you can still take your picture in front of signs warning you you’re about to leave the American Sector and enter the Soviet Sector, and then be accosted by street vendors selling anything and everything emblazoned with the East German flag and the Soviet hammer-and-sickle (most of it, I’m sure, made in last week in Taiwan) — there are few references to Berlin’s Nazi past. Even the tourist guide you get at the Reichstag features a historical timeline of the building that conspicuously omits everything between 1930 and 1950.
Near the oddly rococo Berliner Dom, there’s a plain-but-pretty cobblestone square known as the Bebelplatz. Towards the center, through a scratchy glass panel embedded in the pavement, you can peer down into an all-white room filled with empty bookshelves. This is the memorial to the fact that Bebelplatz was the site of the Nazi’s infamous book burning in 1933. (You may remember this from the decidedly un-historical Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.) But, you literally have to squint to know that this modern-day location was that historical location.
Over near the Brandenburg Gate, there’s a new Holocaust memorial designed by architect Peter Eisenman. It’s a football field-sized plot, filled with 2711 black stone rectangular slabs (which viewed from above look like coffins). They’re all roughly the same height, but as you travel toward the center, the ground level deepens, and the “coffin” walls rise up around you, feeling like a cement hedge-maze or something out of a Terry Gilliam dream-sequence. It’s a powerful piece of art, and a moving, somber memorial. But, even this is not without controversy. The Jewish community complains that it’s not on a site with any Jewish or Holocaust connection. And during its construction, it was revealed that the anti-graffiti paint used to protect the slabs was manufactured by the same company that once manufactured Zyklon B for the Nazi gas chambers.
In a way, I felt that Berliners were constantly trying to escape their city’s past precicely because it’s inescapable. Even without a single plaque or memorial, either to the victims of the Nazis or the Communists, there’s a weird undercurrent — something in the air — that makes you feel just a little uneasy in Berlin. Even at the Potsdamerplatz, where the Sony Corporation has built an ultra-modern office and entertainment complex under a fabric-and-steel canopy that’s supposed to evoke the shape of Mount Fuji, even here, adjacent to the IMAX theater, there are inescapable remnants of the city’s past: pieces of the graffiti-covered Berlin Wall, and two other interior walls from the ornate gilded breakfast room of the Kaisersaal, now sitting outside, preserved under glass. This is how Berlin reveals itself to you; a brick here, a wall there; like a jigsaw puzzle with most of the pieces missing. Mysterious and fascinating.
More info: Berlin