The interior of the four-story building that supports the domes of the former Cold War listening station on the Devil’s Mountain in Berlin is accessible only through two (new) exterior stairwells. Each has a long corridor (without any doors!), and open spaces separated by walls.
Most of the walls are decorated with the most wonderful graffiti in bright colors.
The entire building has become a piece of art.
Views through the ‘windows’ show more building-sized graffitis.
So in a miraculous way, one of the most secretive and locked up places from Cold War Berlin has become an organic landscape of open art.
If only we all could deal with our own borders like this.
One of the most fascinating buildings in the old listening station on the Devil’s Mountain is the Villa. That’s my name, I don’t know what it is called, or as what it was used for. We are free to imagine.
Dark corridors eventually lead to brighter rooms, where the colors of the outside graffiti is blinding.
Then, the main room, in faded colors, with shards from a faded time. Who can sit on a chair like this?
And was that lamp used to take away the light?
It seems like all the happiness has been removed from this place.
And yet what has been left behind appears to be waiting for something, for someone.
Is this how the place looks like where we will eventually go?
In Alfred Döblin’s novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, the place of that name is being used to dramatically convey transformation: Franz Bieberkopf is traumatized by the changes it has undergone while he spent years in prison, and stands for the transformations he himself will undergo.
Döblin’s novel takes place in the 1920s, and Berlin has undergo dramatic changes since. After the destructions of the Second World War and the division of the city, it was no longer the single city center. The architects of the Eastern part weren’t insensitive, they kept the space open and repurposable.
Nearby churches were renovated and allowed other change to happen, later.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, many of the administrative buildings were taken down. The facade of the Palace of the Republic used to annoy the people of power with distorted reflections of the nearby cathedral. Not anymore.
Radically modern buildings show that transformation is still possible. This leaves hope for Franz’s children.
A neighbor and I exchanged books over the holidays (a forgotten art?). I gave her Christoph Ransmayr’s Arznei gegen die Sterblichkeit, and she returned the favor with Katja Oskamp’s Marzahn mon amour.
Marzahn is a legendary suburb of Berlin I had never been to. The name triggered childhood memories of Frau Malzahn, the wonderful dragon in Ottfried Preußler’s even more wonderful Jim Knopf books.
But this has nothing to do with Marzahn mon amour, nor do the pictures above, which show Alt-Marzahn, miraculously preserved among the Plattenbauten, the prefab buildings that provided a cheap solution to the growing housing problem of the former German Democratic Republic.
Here is one of them, proudly announcing cosmetic studio at the entrance as if the entire building is that studio.
And this is what the book is about: People living in these prefab houses, and being taken care of temporarily by the narrator, who works as a pedicurist in a cosmetic studio just like the one above (this one?).
We learn to like them, the people and the buildings, maybe because they all have decided to cope with their large and small miseries by taking care of themselves, even if only symbolically.
Most remarkable, however, is the insight of the narrator: That by stepping apparently down (in her case from struggling author to a pedicurist) one can in fact find happiness, and then by the way, write a charming little book.
Locals rarely go on sightseeing tours for tourists, which contributes to their different perception of things. For instance, living behind a wall is nothing strange when you grow up with it. When I (re)visited Berlin in 2015 for a conference, the conference excursion was a boat trip on the Spree.
While I knew that Berlin has that river, it had never become part of my perception of Berlin as a city. The Spree does nothing for Berlin like the Seine does for Paris, the Thames for London, or the Danube for Budapest or Vienna, the Rhine for Cologne (to name a few). It is small, largely canalized, and so much covered with bridges that one can easily overlook it.
These bridges connect the northern with the southern part of the city. Some of them are old, other modern. In contrast, the Spree connects the eastern with the western part, and it did so even when there was a wall. Rivers are hard to stop, like time. Crossing from west to east on this little river was a special moment for me.
Above is the cathedral, to its left the (re-)construction of the Berlin City Palace, replacing the East German Palast der Republic, that it turn had replaced the original Baroque City Palace in 1950.
Buildings serve many purposes, but they also mark and preserve time — for a while. The architects should never forget that time will flow on, inevitably.
After the reunification of Germany and in particular Berlin, a new central railway station became necessary in Berlin, as the respective eastern and western main railway stations would not suffice the demands of traffic and prestige.
It has been built on the site of the former Lehrter Bahnhof, using a design by architect Meinhard von Gerkan.
The tracks run on two different levels, meeting at a right angle. The top level has a spectacular glass roof:
The inside is less confusing as one might expect. The open architecture allows quick orientation. Also, different functional components are clearly differentiated in the architecture, giving each area its own distinctive feel.
The elevators are both integrated and easily recognizable. This is function and form in perfect harmony.
I imagine that the nameless city in which Kazuo Ishiguro’s masterpiece The Unconsoled takes place would be full of buildings like the Hauptbahnhof. One can almost hear Mullery’s Verticality while moving through its vast, treeless spaces.