Wednesday, September 05, 2007

DIARY 43 - Berlin Observations

After his return to Germany earlier this year, it was so good to meet my friend Eugen again. Being greeted by his beaming presence in the airport lobby was a lovely welcome. I've missed the delight of his company, for both the fun and the depth that our conversations will often go to. Eugen lives in Kreutzberg, an area of Berlin with quite a track record as a place of shelter for political radicals,social outcasts and immigrants. It has a cosmopolitan and bohemian air,with a vast range of ethnic caf├ęs, restaurants and shops that straddle the globe in the cultures they encompass. Quite a lot them are established in cellars, from second hand clothes stores through to art galleries. Eugen's flat is in this area, and I can see why he's fond of it. Apart from being a cheap area to live, it does have a warm approachable atmosphere to it. It was a popular place for squats in the sixties and seventies. Now Turkish immigrants are making their home here and contributing to an already rich mix of culinary styles available.

My first impression of Berlin was of the width of the streets, broad with two or three lanes going either way, trees lining both the right, left and middle. Large curved lamposts lean out over the road like tall distinguished gentlemen, they seem to say ' Here Sir, let me provide you with more light.' The urban environment of Berlin seems less pressured, openminded, civilised and respectful. The pavements are wide too, in most cases they include a separate path for bicycles. You can cycle everywhere with great ease and safety, the network of cycle paths is extensive. I hadn't cycled for a few years, so a sore bum and tired throbbing thighs were an inevitable outcome of my first full day of touring central Berlin. Over the four days we often found ourselves cycling alongside the former position of the Berlin Wall. Dividing up a city in this way seems ludicrous these days, but then in the Post War years, a strange paranoia did hang over Europe.

Berlin is full of building sites, as an astounding range of modern buildings still spring up to fill the gaps a war and a wall have left. The new Reichstag and Presidential buildings are splendid examples of modernism, the use of surrounding space, the playfulness with form and perspective, all make these buildings outstanding. I've reluctantly concluded that only continental Europeans seem to know how to pull off this style. Even though they often use English architects, one cannot forget they have a substantial architectural and design inheritance as the birthplace of German Gothic and the Bauhaus.

Should we attempt anything so bold and large scale in England,we invariable do it half heartedly, under fund it, and generally handle it in mean spirited, cack handed manner. According to Peter Ackroyd in his book on the English imagination, we have a cultural bias against big visions ( architectural or otherwise ), to me its both a character distinction and a limitation to our imagination. For me, there was a great sense of uplift and inspiration, of some faith being restored, to see architectural vision carried out with such bravura and care. I love Berlin for that if nothing else.

Berlin has had a chequered history - one minute a hotbed for modernism, creativity and liberality, the next the reluctant home to a regressive and repressive regime. In either case it has left a mark on the city, some more sombre than others. How can a city, or a country, come to terms with a shameful period in its history? It's not a question with an easy answer, but Berlin seems at least willing to try and find one.

The Holocaust Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe is an astonishingly bold public statement of remorse, constructed right in the heart of Berlin's prime real estate. As a gay man I need to carp about the exclusion of other groups murdered by the Nazi from this memorial, but that does not detract from its evident emotional power. Walking through it was a major highlight of my all too brief visit to Berlin.

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