Where every wall tells a story

Since moving to Berlin two years ago, I’ve spent uncountable hours on architectural walks–whenever possible with people who can tell me the stories behind a building, structure or gap.

That’s because the architecture and its stories are so moving, so fascinating and absorbing. This accumulation of impressions had to find an outlet, and now it has.

The Atlantic has just published my big online essay on what I see as a distinct new Berlin style in public architecture and political culture. Its

dominant narrative is tragic, but with redemption in the present. The reunification of the city (and country and continent) in 1990, and the move of the German capital from Bonn to Berlin during the following decade, provided the opportunity and the physical space to express this narrative architecturally. Many public buildings built or rebuilt during this time visually acknowledge the disasters of the past but surround them with the achievements of the present. The combination constitutes an exhortation for the future. The Reichstag is perhaps the best example of how this distinct style came into being.

Indeed, the Reichstag, and in particular the decision when rebuilding it to keep the graffiti of the Russian soldiers who had taken the building in 1945, was the germ of my thesis. That’s why the piece begins and ends with it.

You could regard this piece as part of a series. You might call it a commemoration or remembrance theme, or something along those lines.

It began with my longform article on Stolpersteine (“stumbling stones”), the private art project in which people in Germany and other European countries “sponsor” a victim of the Nazis who had once lived at a particular address in order to have a brass plate installed in its public sidewalk.

In pointing you to that piece here on this blog, I already posted a photo of the Reichstag graffiti as yet another example of this remembrance aesthetic. At the time I had not even decided to follow up with a separate piece. But here it is.

My series continued with this blog post on The Economist’s Charlemagne blog (soon to be discontinued, btw) about the astonishing story of the Swiss Embassy in Berlin. It happens to sit right between the Bundestag and the Chancellery, and for a reason.

And so it goes, every day I spend in Berlin: Every wall, rock, hole or hill¹ has stories to tell if you as much as scratch it or kick it. And the stories are often both harrowing and uplifting, and demanding to be told.

There may well be more to come in this series.

¹If you’re wondering how a flat place like Berlin could have hills, well, that is the story. They are not natural. They are the rubble of the destroyed 1945 city, swept up once in the West and once in the East, then built upon by the conquerors to house spying towers (Snowden should visit) and now a venue for all sorts of funky goings-on…. 


11 thoughts on “Where every wall tells a story

  1. I need to visit Berlin!
    BTW have you ever read The Devil’s Disciples by Anthony Read? It is an in depth history of the Third Reich told around Goering, Himmler, Goebbels, etc. and gives fascinating insights in every respect. But there is also a lot of discussion of Speer’s building projects and also Berlin and environs.

  2. It is not so much the German people who need these memorials to remind them of the human propensity for abject and remorseless cruelty and murder but all leaders having the custody of freedom, justice and democracy. Peoples who enjoy those privileges, and they are privileges as long as the rule of law is in question, need also to be reminded of the constant vigilance required to ensure that their leaders observe them.

    Whilst the stones no doubt serve as just memorials, they do not serve as living reminders of the ever-present dangers for which we have to keep watch. The reverse appears to be the case. The guilt itself is locked away in the ground as if it also is dead. Your article notes the actions of right-wingers to the stones. Can you imagine the effect it would have if extremists ever found themselves in a position to rip them up and the boost it would give to their obscene cause?

    All of us want a peaceful and united Europe that acknowledges the past and guards against the dangers of repetition, but the “European Project”, materialised in the corporate momentum of the EU, is daily showing itself inadequate to the purpose. The ruling elite has scant humility and little regard for its own rules or the will of the people, the German leadership resiles on its promises and exploits its dominance to influence other leaders to do the same for its own domestic political ends and those who should know better vilify, at a puerile level, whole nations of people without regard to their diversity, varying opinions and allegiances. Hence the soundbite of one leader who instructed the UK to “Wake up and smell the coffee.” A comment perilously close to racism.

    It is a matter for concern that such attitudes may lie deep within the persona of the EU and are a signal that it is in need of radical and ever-vigilant reform. A priority is the return of sovereignty to its constituent states. The strait jacket is clearly causing dangerous tensions and division.

    The stones cannot, of course, be removed, but they represent a static complacency, and like the EU, even a remedy, which they are not.

  3. Interesting. Peradventure I shall take my own architectural walk through Pressbaum over the weekend — although, granted, it pretty much “looks as though nothing much happened there between 1938, when Hitler annexed his native country, and 1945,” as one commentator put it.

    Still, the Red Army waltzed — or, shall we say, dumkaed — through here, too, en route to occupying Vienna. Perhaps there’s still some Russian graffiti preserved on a wall somewhere. Adjacent to the one for deceased locals, we even have a seperate little cemetery for Russian soldiers who, in lieu of advancing onward to the capital, bought their farms in the neighborhood. (From what I hear, the Russians, on account of their ruffianly invasion style, weren’t quite as popular with the natives as were the Americans, generally speaking.)

    Of course, I’ll notify you as soon as my big online essay on what I no doubt will see as a distinct new Pressbaum style in public architecture and political culture, is posted on The Atlantic … or rather, taking proportion into account, on The Wienerwaldsee.

    • Village? Excuse me? For the record, just last year we were officially upgraded from a Marktgemeinde to a Stadtgemeinde. Now I can barely tell the difference between living here versus in NYC.

  4. Congratulations on getting your article published – and under your name no less – in the venerable “Atlantic”.

    In this “Atlantic” article you say, ”…..No other capital deals with its past quite as Berlin does……”

    No doubt this is because no other country has a past quite like that of Germany, which, unlike well-nigh all other countries, no longer had, after the War, a heroic Creation Myth or a heroic narrative to comfortably fall back on.

    Germany was, then, free to re-invent itself. And, is it not now doing so under the cover of the European Project?

    ”…….The past and its scars must never be hidden. They must instead be acknowledged, preserved, and displayed…….”

    Anyone reading this without knowing it’s about Germany, might reasonably think it’s about a traumatised man, who, with the help of a psychiatrist, has exorcised his inner demons by recognising them and bringing them into the open.

    Was not Germany as a nation traumatised also? Through being confronted with the evidence of what it had done in the War, so that there was no where to hide, did not Germany largely exorcise the demons from its collective psyche? So that nothing now is hidden from German schoolchildren about their country’s past?

    If so, this is wholly admirable, and is an example all countries should follow in the matter of their own pasts, for is there any country that doesn’t – in the interest of preserving its heroic national narrative – try to shovel all the nasty bits of its history under the carpet?

    As for German schoolchildren being now spared nothing about their country’s past, may I assume this includes the 1904 massacre of *Namibia’s Herero people*?!!

    • “Anyone reading this without knowing it’s about Germany, might reasonably think it’s about a traumatised man, who, with the help of a psychiatrist, has exorcised his inner demons by recognising them and bringing them into the open.”

      Very perceptive. I’ve pondered that too, Christopher. And I think there ARE lessons for individuals in this.

      In that vein, I think the heroic Leitmotif is not healthy or sustainable for an individual or country in the long term (to maintain it one must suppress the contradictory narratives). The “German” narrative seems more honest and, by always having redemption in the present as a possibility, seems to get people to be better.

  5. I worked at the St. George Hotel in Brooklyn Heights in the late 1980s. Once it had been a grand place with a world-famous indoor pool, where Truman Capote used to hang out, but I never saw any of that splendor. I had a musty room on the second floor where I could be easily reached by the hundreds of refugees who were temporarily housed there until they found an apartment. The refugee go-to girl. It was grungy and (for me) fun. I read that there was a terrible fire in the St. George some years later, and now (spiffied up, I suppose) it’s a dorm for NYU students.

    If I were in Berlin (and had gone on countless architectural walks, and had already carved out a niche for myself as the guy who has something to say about architecture) I would choose a single building that tells the big historical story in small human chapters, and write a kind of biography of a building.

  6. I’ve been pondering that same idea, and its variant: to pick a single family or person which tells the big historical story. The perfect example of the latter genre is Wild Swans. I long to write a Wild Swans for Germany. But it’s harder than it seems (Wild Swans was her own family after all, so it was in part memoir and autobiography). And if the subject is a building, it’s even harder to keep the suspense up for 200 pages. You can tell I’ve thought about it a lot. (I even have the building it WOULD be: my own. But I could only do that after I move out.)

  7. From a colleague in Berlin (touching in itself). “We in Berlin celebrate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall this weekend. There is a touching spirit around everywhere here, I am pretty sure you would like it too.”

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