So we rolled up, Waseem, my new travelling companion freshly arrived from moist Preston, and your good author, at the place to meet the tour guideTheo, an Australian, part-guide, part-artist, our "Voice" for the day. And his tour was terrific and it is related to you, dear reader, for your enjoyment, below.
We began at Kastaneinalle, a trendy and bohemian quarter of the Mitte central region. He showed us a 17th century stable block in among the 4 story maze of streets, used by none other than King Friedrich. "Old Fritz", as he was known, was a liberal regent, a talented flute player, friend of Voltaire and an excellent ruler and town planner by all accounts. Which causes shock when the building is covered in graffiti and sandwiched in a rather unruly way behind a grubby wall. Berlin, as apparently is its wont, has let this building "go" but as its metier has passed it on to artists to make a go of it. Further evidence of creative recycling is seen at the Tachalus centre, a Jewish department store that was left vacant and squatters seized control of its whopping 5 stories and 200 rooms, making way for a sculpture studio, painters workshop, cinema, drama studio, bar and night club. Leading us on, we pass briefly through one of the notorious courtyards, displaying enigmatic and humorous graffiti, my favourite a bearded lady where the beard is made of real dandelions!
Berlin, it seems, is creative and adaptive not just to change but also catastrophe. The huge rubble heap left by world war II created an unprecedented gap in the urban landscape, 80% of structures being levelled. Even before this, the Nazi machine itself was manhandling the city, Hitler had uprooted the city grass, torched the Reichstag and constructed some rather offensive architecture, the Aviation Ministry an exuberantly cruel-looking block of impervious stone.
As Hitler disposed of himself, below the spot where we later sat in a car park and felt, in my case, rather sick, the allies were 50 km away and advancing in on foot, and the city they discovered was remarkably devastated. The men being dead in their millions, the Trummer Frau (or Rubble Women) set to work, and in 10 days trams and buses were able to pass across the whole diameter of the city. Later, the excess rubble was heaped to form a great hill beside the city, apparently now bought by the film director David Lynch, another odd connection in a bold and interesting town.
And the tour passed on, with great poignancies, such as the empty book shelves to remind one of the burning of 20000 books beside the Unter der Lindel, Berlins major avenue. Alongside, the quote: "Where they burn books they will also burn people.". A story of wonder, a family of east germans escaping the enclosure by building their own hot air balloon and making it away, Sound of Music style, was related to us at Checkpoint Charlie, at the point where the Berlin wall once stood. This was one exception in a great dark age of creativity, and as we strolled into the west, to eat at "Snackpoint Charlie', I noticed a shock to my back and feeling it, liquid was flowing there. I had been shot by the man on the checkpoint! But not with a rifle but with a water pistol. This was perhaps the cultural low point of the tour, but also a welcome dose of irony to the heavy subject matter!
The Jewish war dead memorial was brilliant, a strangely relaxing and enjoyable park of grey concrete blocks in a vast gridwork, the interlayed spaces making paths along which a single human can walk. As you penetrate the centre of it, people jump out from behind corners, children whimper that they have become lost, and several of the 2000 blocks tower above you at wonky angles, the urban compass spun in circles as you have entered a bizarre piece of contemporary sculpture (on a piece of real estate large enough to house an entire ministry). The blocks are grey, a nothing-grey that is an almost palpably wasted colour that permits only a superimposition of meaning over the top of it, it itself having no grain, depth or surface with which to grapple or sense-make. A sinister colour, but most of all the scale calls to mind the immensity of its title, the "Memorial to the Jewish War Dead", and its many heavy stone blocks suggest the throngs of war dead, their 3D shape a precise mirror of the actuality of individual grave ditches.
And so a chapter in Berlin's history is made sense through the medium of the city and its structure. Further examples of this amalgamation are seen in the many rather grim, half derelict buldings that are now graffitied and contain squatters. According to Theo, Berlin is a poor city economically.
One chapter of the City Life is seen in Potsdamer Platz, where in the 1920s Berlin was swinging with cabaret and people such as Marlene Dietrich and Fritz Lang appeared at film premiers. Then Berlin was known as the "Cocaine Capital" of europe, but now Potsdamer Platz is a pristine monument to modern architecture and clean skyscraping ingenuity, Daniel Baremboim at one point leading a battalion of construction cranes in a dance, via walky talky, to the music of the Berlin philharmonic, known as the Ballet of the Cranes. Indeed, at one point Berlin lay claim to a third of the worlds construction cranes! Similar stories of reinvention can be found elsewhere, the excellent British designed dome of the Reichstag poised above the new "transparent" legislature in the government building below, replacing the dome razed at the end of the war. Its glass design enables you to actually look down at the politicians below, its beautiful apex is open tot he elements where exhausted at the end of 5 hours on the tour we lay looking up at the sky, trying to tempt a butterfly to land on my hand for Waseem to photograph.
And at no point did you feel buzzed or bustled by busy city life. Instead, you had the feeling of taking a stroll in a great urban park and architectural garden, indeed below the Brandenburg gate trees run for several kilometres in parkland, the fabulously golden goddess victory on a giant column raising civilisation above nature, but only just. Berlin means 'swamp", and within just 30 minutes of the centre, lakes and woodland abound among the many digited prongs of the suburban spread. And like these green lungs, the visitor must certainly take a deep breath, or at least a well chosen and reasonably lengthy walking tour, to try and comprehend the true extent to which this city might be appreciated.