Spend even one nanosecond researching Berlin and you’ll be familiar with the hype. Berlin is cool. ‘Berlin is poor, but sexy’ that one was actually said by a former mayor. And of course, that Berlin is young, and exciting, and innovative. So what’s the city like beneath the hype? Is it really that unique? Well not to spoil anything but I have been trying to get back to this city since I left it two years ago, so let’s find out what this place is really made of.
Young. More than just age, it connotes a certain type of energy that most places in Europe simply don’t have, even if they do have a sizable young creative class. No one would really describe Paris as young for example, art students may be everywhere, but the word remains cognitively dissonant. But Berlin shouldn’t be considered young city either should it? The Nikolaiviertel, the oldest quarter of Berlin, was founded in 1230. The Nikolaikirche, which is still standing, dates from 1235. Admittedly, this is youngish for Europe, the Romans never got this far north in the east, but still Berlin was an established presence during the Medieval Ages.
A piece of what makes Berlin young then, is what came much more recently. Being the capital, Berlin was decimated in World War II and the drawing and quartering (literally) continued with the advent of the Cold War.
That’s a link to footage of Berlin immeadiately after the fall of the Third Reich. To say it is unrecognizable would be an understatement.
So obviously, reconstruction was necessary on both sides of the wall, but as usual both sides took very different approaches. Remember the Nikolaiviertel? It had the misfortune to land in East Berlin. The Communists were never ones to treat history with much respect, they tore down the not heavily damaged quarter, and then they rebuilt it to celebrate Berlin’s anniversary. But they rebuilt it with their typical materials of prefab concrete blocks but in imitation of the original architecture. The end result is a strange and pastel painted orderly quarter.
In general, the East was a big fan of tearing stuff down and building monumental and/or clearly socialist architecture in it’s place. The best examples of this would be the Humboldt Palace, the old badly damaged Prussian palace on the banks of the Spree which the GDR BLEW UP and replaced with the asbestos laden monstrosity that was the Palast der Republik, which was in turn destroyed after reunification. The best and most creepy big brotheresque communist construction remains in Berlin is the Karl Marx Allee (it was originally named Stalinallee) it’s almost 300 feet wide and two kilometers long and it is lined entirely with symmetrical eight story worker’s apartment buildings. At the far end you can see mirror towers and a fountain. If you’ve ever seen footage of a military parade in East Berlin, it was almost certainly on this street, it was the primed and prettied face they wanted to present to the world.
In reality though, away from where attention was focused, the East did very little rebuilding. Old Prussian townhouses were left to rot, and plenty of buildings still had unrepaired bullet holes in them when the wall came down, inclusion most of the buildings on Museumsinsel. The only thing the East was good at building were socialist (read: ugly) apartment buildings away from the center.
They are often decorated semi-colorfully since anything else would be too depressing.
So since 1990 there has been a lot of construction and it continues today. All the space where the Wall used to be was opened up for development, and plenty of places that were neglected for fifty years have been renovated. My last video talks about rebuilding in the space left by the wall, and for more on the renovation projects look up the Humboldt box which is replacing the old palace, or Potsdamer Platz, which went from heart of Berlin in the twenties, to shunned clinical modernism today. The effect of all this construction is that Berlin feels like a new city, in a way it is so scared and marked by it’s past that it had to start over.
Berlin and Germany will never be able to forget it’s past though, it’s always silently present waiting for you to notice it.
The famous Brandenburger Tor is around the corner from the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe. There is a wall admitting to the genocide of the Roma and Sinti peoples across the street from the Bundestag. These stumbling blocks each have the name of a Jewish person who lived in the house and who was a victim of the Holocaust. These blocks actually form the largest memorial in the world, with around 50,000 in place all over Europe.
I think that Berlin is so special because it doesn’t have a history of how it should be, so it just is. Allow me to explain, in the beginning Berlin was the capital of Prussia, important like Philadelphia or Trenton is important. Then suddenly Berlin was an Imperial City, the capital of a united Germany and it started having to look it. But then very quickly it transitioned into the capital of a weak democracy and the center of a hedonistic club life. Life wasn’t great in 1920s Berlin, but the arts flourished right up to the moment when the city became the capital of the Nazi state. And then came the bombs and the armies which physically rewrote the city before carving it into two different cities. East and West Berlin were different cities but inexorably linked by trains that ran under each other, by families that met at the wall to wave to each other, by the fact that together they were the ultimate symbol of the Cold War that divided them. Now though, it’s just Berlin. No battle of ideology or heavy handed military behind the name.
Everyone in Paris tends towards certain aesthetics, all black, boxy coat, scarf etc. but Berlin not so much, I’ve seen grandmas with purple hair, more than a few Lisbeth Salanders, and my numerous ear piercings don’t fell so outside of the norm hear. I don’t know if the freedom the city has from it’s past is what influences the fashion choices of its’ habitants or if it’s the free spirited habitants that make the city feel more innovative, but either way, this is a city that is breaking free.
And more than anything, Berlin is looking towards the future. It existed in a state of limbo for almost fifty years, and now twenty odd years after the wall came down it’ finally hitting it’s stride. This city is the cool kid in a YA novel, they have a dark past and celebrate by living it up and generally being cooler than possible. The hype is real, the energy of Berlin is like nothing I’ve experienced elsewhere, and as I was walking around this week I realized that Berlin is probably my favorite city and as soon as I leave I’ll almost certainly start scheming about how to get back.