Berlin is a place I’ve wanted to visit for some time now, but one which, despite its history, remains quite unfamiliar to me. It is of course, a city synonymous with 20th century conflict, both through its partioning in the Cold War and as the place from which the Nazis directed years of murder and terror throughout Europe, and yet, despite this, it’s always stood somehow on the periphery of all that I know. Of course, that might just have been because I’d never been there, and yet, even after visiting, the true character of Berlin remains something of an enigma.
My knowledge of the city was pretty much limited to the Cold War divide, to the fall of the wall in 1989, and the tyrannical rule of the Nazis. I had also recently read something about the city in Andreas Huyssen’s book, ‘Present Pasts – Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory’ in which, in a few chapters he discusses the renewal of Berlin in the wake of the collapse of communism. His view of the regeneration of the city is one that is rather pessimistic. He writes that ‘many of the major construction projects seem to have been designed against the city rather than for it. Some of them look like corporate spaceships reminiscent of the conclusion of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The trouble is, they’re here to stay.’
It’s striking that after being destroyed by Allied bombs and an ideological schism which took the world to the brink of a third world war, one regrets (at least Huyssen does) the permanence of its new structures. But I understand how he feels. Berlin is an ugly city.
In his beautifully evocative work Austerlitz, W.G. Sebald writes:
“At the most we gaze at it in wonder, a kind of wonder which in itself is a form of dawning horror, for somehow we know by instinct the outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence in ruins.”
Look at the great stone buildings in any city and one can see exactly what is meant in this passage. And yet, in present day Berlin, there are few new buildings which one could imagine as a ruin. They are constructs of glass and steel, they would melt rather than fall, or shatter into millions of pieces. They cast no shadow – the sun passes through them as it does through high clouds in summer. They might one day burn away, but not through cataclysm or catastrophe, but simply through the fact that no-one will bother to look anymore. One’s eyes already find their way through to the other side.
Huyssen continues the passage above; ‘The void in the centre of Berlin will have been filled [he was writing in 1997]. But the memories of that haunting space from the months and years after the Wall came down will linger.’
In Berlin, history seems to creep up on you. Such is the level of trauma suffered by the city, it seems at first to forget itself, to be unaware of its own name. The visitor just arrived might walk its streets but they seem somehow unconnected, like individual roads recalled from other destinations. One walks but doesn’t have the feeling of going anywhere (something in part due to the lack on any particular centre). And yet, the more one questions the city with feet and roving eyes, the more the city begins to recall. At first it might remember just the names of its streets, those which are unconnected, as if a map of the city had been torn to pieces and its names read in fragments picked off the floor. It does not speak its memories aloud, but keeps quiet. There is I believe, a palpable sense of its history being a history of fear.
The Stasi, the infamous secret police of the GDR, have long since gone, but somehow one suspects that memory – which also in part seems to have been dismantled – has nonetheless its wiretaps, interrogation rooms and networks still intact. This decommissioned memory had long listened in on those who walked the streets, who sat in cafés, pored over maps and slept in hotel bedrooms, but now it is us that ask the questions, who attempt to listen. We can look upon its files, listen to the recordings made through its intricate devices. But everything seems disconnected. Memories seem fractured, just like the city itself. There is a caesura which exists between the past and the present, as if the wall, demolished in the city has somehow been rebuilt between them, as if the wide expanse of no-man’s land separates today from all that has gone before. And all these buildings built upon it do nothing to bridge this gap.
According to Huyssen, ‘the one architect who understood the nature of this empty space in the centre of Berlin was Daniel Liebskind, who, in 1992, made the following proposal.
“Rilke once said that everything is already there. We only must see it and protect it. We must develop a feel for places, streets, and houses which need our support. Take the open area at the Potsdamer Platz. I suggest a wilderness, one kilometer long, within which everything can stay as it is. The street simply ends in the bushes. Wonderful. After all, this area is the result of today’s divine natural law: nobody wanted it, nobody planned it, and yet it is firmly implanted in all our minds. And there in our minds, this image of the Potsdamer Platz void will remain for decades. Something like that cannot be easily erased, even if the whole area will be developed.”‘
As I said, I had little conception of what to expect of Berlin, but Potsdamer Platz has now been developed and in a sense Liebskind’s statement is true. The void cannot easily be erased and even though the area has been built upon, the buildings still convey a sense of emptiness. Perhaps memory should remain quiet despite our questions, perhaps through saying nothing it conveys much more than it ever could through words. Perhaps the city’s new buildings have been designed this way on purpose?
One building which cannot be said to be like any of those I’ve described (in general terms) above (at least in its exterior appearance), is the Jewish Museum (Judisches Museum) designed by Daniel Liebskind.
If ever there was a compliment to the spaces and voids which still exist in the physical aspect of the city, it is the history of the country’s Jewish population and Liebskind’s building – if not all its contents – allude starkly to that tragedy. It is a dark and foreboding structure which has no visible entrance (it is accessed through the adjacent Berlin Museum), and once inside, this sense of foreboding is conveyed through its corridors or, as they’re known – axis. What intrigued me most however as we made our way through the building, into the Holocaust Tower (itself a brilliantly evocative installation), back out and up to one of the building’s ‘voids'(home to an installation by Menashe Kadishman’s ‘Shalechet’) was how this building was not just housing an exhibition/display, but was itself an integral part of the story.
In fact, as far as I was concerned, this building needed no contents; it is perhpas worthwhile stating that before the contents of the exhibitions were installed, 300,000 people came to visit the building anyway.
Huyssen states that the ‘…building has become a script. His building itself writes the discontinuous narrative that is Berlin, inscribes it physically into the very movement of the museum visitor and yet opens a space for remembrance to be articulated and read between the lines.” I would not disagree with any of this, however, I would say, that the exhibition itself hampers this overall effect. There is just too much information, too much too see, it is at odds with the building in terms of the style in which it is presented. The question is I think, ‘is this building a museum or a memorial?’ At the moment it doesn’t seem to know.
Something which knows exactly what it is, is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Of course there is controversy (one of many surrounding the project) as to why this memorial is only dedicated to one of the many groups persecuted by the Nazis, however, I do not wish to go into this matter here. What is worth looking at is the memorial above ground and its counterpart museum space below. When I first saw the memorial I must admit to feeling – despite its size – a little under-whelmed. I can’t say why, but it seemed a little messy somehow, a tad haphazard. Of course it is neither of these things but that is the impression it gave. However, when entering the memorial, this feeling changes, and in a sense that is part of its success. It pulls you in, it’s not something which can simply be observed and then left, it has to be experienced and understood.
There is no definite beginning to the memorial. On the outside the stones are like the slabs of an individual tomb, but as one walks past others towards an opposing side, one quickly becomes dwarfed by the huge blocks in the centre. This for me resonates with something in which I’m particularly interested; the opposing poles of the individual and mass. The stones themselves – those towards the centre – are like the tombs one finds in a necropolis. But they are not named, the individual has quickly become effaced. And even though there are hundreds of these massive blocks, one is never lost amongst them, one can always see the other side. There is no mystery to the monument, it does not have the mystery of a maze or a labyrinth. We will find our way out. We can see the other side whereas none of the victims in their nightmare could. We walked into it as easily as Europe walked into atrocity, but reason – the other side – should always see that we never become lost again.
The museum below takes the shapes of the stones above and uses them throughout its displays, which, unlike the displays in the Jewish Museum, are perfectly weighted. In fact the whole experience is neither too long or too short. It’s simple and utterly compelling. In particular, the displays of families, including snapshots of happier times are devastating.
And the room in which the names of individuals are displayed and a short biography read out is measured and particularly poignant. When one finally leaves the museum and emerges back within the memorial, the stones take on further meanings; each becomes a family group, reduced to nothing but a void realized in stone. Other people visiting the memorial appear ahead, or to the side, fleetingly to then disappear again in a moment; all part of the monument’s design.
There were however other memorials dotted throughout the city, and perhaps the most poignant were those in Große Hamburger Straße. In the pavement, outside the former dwellings of Jews killed in the Holocaust, gold cobbles bearing the names of the victims and the location of their deaths have been installed. These simple, small yet visible monuments connect the person observing with the intimate lives of those who perished and in many ways reminded me of the plaques one finds on some of the schools in Paris. It is both as compelling and as heartbreaking to see the places from where people were taken, as it is to see the dreadful places they were taken to, and these cobbles are heartrending for that precise reason.
Also there was the work by artist Christian Boltanski, also on Große Hamburger Straße, ‘The Missing House’. This piece shows the names of residents on the walls of the houses either side which are of course still standing, and like the cobbles it’s poignant in how it links those who perished with dwellings which have also disappeared; another example of the city’s voids.
Flying over Berlin, on my way back home, looking at the the tens of thousands of streetlights and the lights of buildings glittering below, I couldn’t help but think of the fires which raged throughout the city in the second world war. Every light was like the memory of the flames; fires now confined within glass spheres and tubes. And in between the lights are the dark patches, the voids which have burned themselves out. Berlin is indeed a city of voids and no amount of building will hide them; but then, perhaps that is the point.