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…. 


Richard Meier’s modern Acropolis


Did Richard Meier, the architect of the Getty Center in Los Angeles, explicitly intend to build a modern acropolis?

I’m almost sure that he did. This is the effect his superb architecture has. The museum’s contents–ie the art inside–is fine. But what makes the Getty Center a destination is that it is, well, what the acropolis of Athens would have been for Socrates: a space for civilized humanity. It has great Feng Shui.

Instead of sitting on a hill, the Getty Center, like the acropolis, seems to rise out of, or to be, the hilltop. It blends into its topography and simultaneously defines it. It signals itself to the people below as the obvious place to go up to. To the people already inside, it is a natural, light-filled place to dwell. It keeps you in, makes you reflective and social, encourages you to meander and talk.

It is simple and yet subtle, the equivalent of a Brancusi sculpture or of the kind of writing I like.

The easiest way to know that it is good architecture (= the way to know good writing) is that it does not make you tired. You can walk through the Louvre, for example, and feel all dutiful about being cultured, but within minutes you want to yawn, sit, sleep, escape, open a window. The Getty Center, and all good art in any medium, makes no such demand on you. It says “check your sense of duty at the door and come in: the culture will happen all by itself; you will feel refreshed after.”

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Postcard from (yet another) Mount Olymp

This is where I am at the moment.

In Rome, you ask? The home of Scipio, one of the two heroes in my coming book? The place that Hannibal almost took, almost destroyed, but not quite, and which, as a direct result, took over the world–our modern world–instead?

No, actually. I’m in a sleepy little state capital called Olympia. That’s Olympia, as in the abode of the Greco-Roman gods, the place my four-year-old could tell you all about.

Some of the people that I’ve been talking to in these buildings are very aware indeed of the heritage that their architects intended to remind them of, each and every time they walk in and out of their offices. Sam Reed, Washington’s erudite secretary of state (and apparently a direct descendant of Charles Sumner) could go toe to toe with me on Polybius.

Others here look at me blankly when I opine that it must have been quite a controversy to decide between … Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. (But even then they inform me proudly, as three people have now done, that Olympia’s Capitol has the fourth largest masonry dome in the world.)

In any case, I quite savor these improbable links–visual, symbolic, cultural–to our common Western heritage, and to the world of my imagination, peopled as it is with the likes of Fabius, Scipio, Hannibal, Polybius and all the others who are in my book and in our world.

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