By Claudia Wahjudi
The German capital does not just welcome politicians and ambassadors—it is also a place of unlimited possibilities for artists from all over the world.
Viewed from the 11th floor of a block of flats in the middle of the city, Berlin presents itself from its best side—in elegant grey. The plain of stone, asphalt, plaster, concrete, granite, steel, and glass extends as far as the horizon, interspersed with the green of parks and the red brick of old factories. Rising up in the center, there are little towers, curved or straight, and a few skyscrapers, some functionally rectangular, others with the sharp angles familiar from computer games. Colors and forms tell of the discontinuities of the city’s history: from industrialization, which suddenly made the little residential city a metropolis, to the pomp of the German Empire and the social reforms of the Weimar Republic; from the megalomania of the National Socialists to the bombs and firestorms of the Second World War; from the division of the city into an Eastern European half and a Western European half to the building boom that followed the fall of the Wall. But now you can only sense where the Wall, Berlin’s most famous structure, once stood: somewhere over there between the round roof of the Sony Center and the new glass cupola of the Reichstag Building, the seat of the German parliament.
Erik Göngrich sees this panorama every day from the window of his studio on the 11th floor. Göngrich is a visual artist who specializes in architectural themes. Göngrich has scoured Berlin’s streets, taking pictures of sculptures—and anything that could be regarded as sculpture in the broadest sense: a fountain with two metal peacocks and a memorial to Marx and Engels, but also a kiosk, tents, and advertising hoardings; the Television Tower, the Brandenburg Gate, and the stelae of the recently opened Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe; containers, cardboard boxes, and cars parked on Schlossplatz against the backdrop of the Palace of the Republic, a colossus of concrete and tinted glass and the former seat of the Volkskammer (People’s Chamber), the GDR's parliament. “Reason says No to the Imperial Palace + Yes to the Palace of the Republic,” someone has written in large letters on the wooden fence in front of it. This is protest. In 2002, the German Bundestag decided to clear this site and rebuild the palace of the last German Emperor, which stood here until the Second World War. The GDR government had had its ruins blown up and in its place erected the Palace of the Republic. Now, in turn, this is to give way to a reconstruction of the Imperial Palace. The Berlin that Göngrich has photographed is one big temporary constellation.
The artist has hung up copies of his photographs on the wall of his studio like a frieze, so it looks as if the city he has depicted is merging with the real city outside his windows. Things are also wildly mixed up in front of the door to Göngrich’s block of flats. Just to the left, for example, water bubbles from the five stone blocks of a fountain that looks far too small for the massive high-rises all around. In fact something quite different originally stood in this place: a red granite Vladimir Ilyich Lenin used to thrust up more than 60 feet from the ground—until he was torn down in 1991. Goodbye, Lenin!, Wolfgang Becker’s film about an East Berlin family after the fall of the Wall showed an international audience how the memorial was dismantled.
The Berlin Fernsehturm (Television Tower)
Every time a political system collapses in Germany, its stone witnesses are disposed of in Berlin as an example to others. A practice that is not always free of contradictions. Some people would even like to have a section of the almost completely demolished Wall back: when a private museum recently built a mock-up, locals and tourists flocked to see it. There is always building, demolition, and rebuilding going on. The various currents of German society compete for visible representation in the capital, which in just 100 years has seen five German states and the end of the Second World War in Europe. Now it is like a patchwork quilt full of holes that someone is supposed to be mending. The architect Philipp Oswalt called his book about Berlin Stadt ohne Form (City without Form), a phrase that was certainly intended to have positive connotations: he believes all the city’s discontinuities and lacunae offer freedoms—including intellectual freedoms. And the artist Erik Göngrich says, “I wouldn’t have anything against the Schlossplatz staying empty for another 15 years. The people who are 20 today should also be able to create something later.”
Berlin is a city of opposites. It has glittering new government buildings, embassies, shopping malls, and sport arenas, but a few yards away, plaster is peeling from a municipal building and cars are bouncing through potholes. The Love Parade, a famous street procession held to the sound of techno beats, was conceived in Berlin, which also hosts a Carnival of the Cultures, Christopher Street Day celebrations in honor of the LGBT community, the annual Berlinale film festival, and a Biennale for contemporary art. The 2006 football World Cup final kicked off in its Olympic Stadium. The city has 19 universities and higher education institutions, three opera houses, and about 300 galleries; you will hear Turkish, English, Polish, and Russian being spoken; and some days more than 120 bands and orchestras perform there. Yet, to the amazement of guests from other major cities, Berlin seems pleasantly empty: such wide pavements, so much sky, so few traffic jams.
Some puzzles can be solved fairly quickly, such as the business with the money. Germany is a federal republic, and a rich one at that, a country that was able to afford smart new buildings when the government moved from Bonn to Berlin after German reunification. By contrast, Berlin is a poor Land (constituent state). A bank scandal has made it even poorer, so that some of its roads cannot be properly maintained. Other contradictions can only be explained at second or third glance, and, paradoxically, it is precisely the weaknesses revealed by this closer inspection that constitute all the city’s strengths.
Tourists travel there to view the architecture of preceding centuries. Film crews use old factory yards as settings; DJs play their records on building sites. Exhibitions are held in a disused railway station; the daughters of Turkish migrants do football training in front of the ruins of another railway station. The office of the Berlin Biennale is located in a former margarine factory, and the Maria am Ostbahnhof music club has found a home behind bushes and coarse brick walls in an old warehouse on the banks of the Spree. Berlin evenings begin late and demand considerable stamina. There are no last orders and no smoking ban. A beer costs less than a ticket for the underground. Going out in Berlin is a relaxed affair. On the opposite bank of the Spree, restaurant owners have unfolded deckchairs and are serving cocktails outdoors. The city is like an adventure playground for the eternally youthful, open 24 hours a day.
The culture of improvisation already existed before the Wall came down, sometimes subsidized by the state in the West, spied on by the state in the East. But it is only since 1990 that the mix of culture and drinking holes has attracted international artists in large numbers. Since then, they have been able to find an amazingly plentiful supply of cheap studios, workshops, and clubs: in disused state-owned factories, redundant administrative buildings, prefabricated blocks of flats, and Jewish properties that were expropriated by the Nazis and are now being returned to the heirs of their rightful owners. There is even an official policy of encouraging studio set-ups. Professional visual artists can apply to a program that finds them, by jury, workspaces partly at concessionary, partly at regular rents. Erik Göngrich also obtained his studio, with its panoramic view, through this process.
Despite its debts, Berlin is supporting its cultural infrastructure and, in this way, increasingly encouraging the immigration of creative people from Eastern Europe. For them, the city represents an important bridge to the Western markets. But without its decent infrastructure, many could not afford the cost of living—which is low by German standards—and would have to commute. And not least, the German federal government is also promoting culture in the capital. Berlin has therefore become triply attractive to those who produce culture and who, in doing so, are giving it, in return, a reputation as a creative center. This reputation has drawn, among others, the German headquarters of the Universal Music Group to the city: the company’s relocation to Berlin is regarded as an indicator that its late transformation from an industrial location to a center for the service industry is now taking place.
“Gentrification!” cry the critical observers who fear that all this fine cultural life is just attracting middlemen and investors looking to make cheap areas expensive. This has actually been happening to the old city center and a few roads in surrounding districts. But at the moment, there is no way of finding enough high earners or flourishing enterprises to make the whole inner city unaffordable in the near future. Berlin households earn more than $1,300 below the German average. In some years, Berlin’s gross domestic product has not risen in the slightest. And above all: about 18.3 million square feet of office space are standing empty, mostly built after the Wall fell, when it was thought that the city’s population would soon grow from its then four million people to five—or even double to eight million! However, only 3.5 million people now live in Berlin, so it’s not entirely clear what’s to be done with all those offices.
Official bodies now like to fund art out on the streets. Urban experts speak less often of gentrification than segregation, the spatial division of social classes and milieus. Since there has been so much space, and also since so many Berliners have been able to make their dream of a little house in the country come true, better earners have been moving into the nicer areas, while the poor stay where they are. However, segregation is not going to take root if the urban planners, who have traditionally been influential in Germany, have their way. There are limits on how much rents can rise in Berlin’s “redevelopment areas,” neighborhoods of older buildings that are being modernized subject to particular conditions. New apartments are supposed to bring prosperous tenants into the city center.
Finally, the state-funded Social City program has been established to improve housing conditions and the quality of life in less prosperous areas. In 17 parts of Berlin, “neighborhood managers,” as they are known, are working jointly with local residents to repair playgrounds, landscape open spaces, and hold parties. In some streets, they also find designers and artists empty shops on favorable terms. The landlords waive a large proportion of the rent in the hope that the creative types will attract solvent businesspeople into the neighborhood or even set up companies themselves—an approach that was already standard practice before the invention of “neighborhood management.” But whether these arrangements are made independently or guided by the state, the artists often only stay until the building has been renovated, leased, or sold. This was known for a long time as “interim use.” A second term has now been coined: “after use,” which means a permanent new use for a building that has become superfluous in its old function and is actually marked out for demolition. This concept implies the careful treatment of resources, recycling and sustainability, as well as opportunities for the people who have brought a building or site back to life again to stay there. “After use” first began to be discussed in the arts and academic studies, but the term has now found its way into Berlin politics as well.
For example, there is the Berlinische Galerie, a museum of art from Berlin. When the building in which it was accommodated was needed for other purposes, the gallery had to move out. For seven years after this, the artwork stayed in storage, because no affordable, appropriately impressive replacement space could be found. That is, until a solution was discovered in an ordinary residential area, in a warehouse that once stored panes of glass in the event of another Berlin Blockade, defunct since the end of the Cold War. So bring on the art! While smaller German cities have new museums built by star architects, the capital has learned the lessons of “after use”: The culture of improvisation has been absorbed by official Berlin.
And so the art of economizing dominates the appearance of the streets just a stone’s throw from the opulence of the new government quarter. And Berlin has become a little big for Berliners: all the concerts, exhibitions, bars, and stages are scattered about the city in old halls and courtyards, while guests from other large cities wonder why the streets look so empty. And the city ultimately remains two in one: like many post-socialist places, it is experiencing a harsh structural dislocation, and yet it is connected to the streams of money and information from the West. Berlin remains Western and Eastern Europe at the same time, and this makes the city unique. A look at the map shows that Warsaw is much closer than Paris. From the windows of Erik Göngrich’s studio on the 11th floor, the visitor’s gaze falls on a broad, relentlessly straight highway heading due east. Poland is just an hour’s drive away.
Claudia Wahjudi is an editor with the Berlin listings magazine Zitty and works as a freelance arts journalist.
This text is an abbreviated version of an article published under the same title in the
Goethe-Institut periodical Willkommen, Vol. 8, No. 2, 2005. Used by Permission.
Translation: Martin Pearce
© Goethe-Institut, Online-Redaktion
© 2001–2007 Carnegie Hall Corporation