The Northern Style

When you walk into a church in northern Germany, one of the most striking things about it is likely to be the absence of large paintings or mosaics. I don’t know whether this is a result of the bombing raids in the late stages of World War II. Certainly the absence of old stained glass windows is due to this. Instead of the golden mosaics and paintings of southern Europe, here you find incredible altarpieces. We saw one in St. Petri’s church in Dortmund which is called the Golden Wonder of Westphalia (featured photo). It seems that it was delivered in 1521 to Franciscan monks from a workshop in Antwerp. This was brought to St. Petri in 1809, sent away during the war, and brought back in 1954. I saw it in its completely open state, with wonderful wooden pieces in the panels showing the life of Jesus.

More common are little figures like the ones you see above, beautifully carved, unpainted but polished (click on one to go to a slide-show). I loved that piece showing Luke, with the ox looking on as he reads his book. Apart from the reredos and these carvings there is little decoration in the church. It was completely restored in 1981, and it has been bare every time I’ve peeped in over the years.


Far Kreutzberg

The Family turns out to be a natural-born hipster. While I was busy photographing street art, or admiring architectural points subtle enough to hit you in the face, she took a photo or two which turn out to capture the essence of night-life around Berlin. This happened over and over again, but most noticeably in the far eastern part of Kreutzberg near Oberbaumbruecke. In John le Carre’s cold war trilogy where the spy-masters Smiley and Karla face off, this bridge is the setting where Karla crosses finally to the West. I had a mad moment of imagination when I thought I would search for the gold cigarette lighter given to Smiley by his wife, which Karla stole in Delhi and dropped on the bridge as he crossed it. Instead, I took a few shots of the restored 19th century Gothic bridge (featured photo), as The Family examined what turned out to be one of Berlin’s hot spots: the Watergate club (photo below).

Most people come this far east in Kreutzberg for the many clubs which have sprung up in this area in the last decade. We were too early to start looking for a few sips of beer and music to dance by, but going by past experience, if it had been the right time, then she would have been able to either talk her way in for both of us, or found a different place. By all accounts, the area comes alive around midnight. We didn’t wait so long.

We had come here on a search for one of Berlin’s iconic murals, the one called Backjump by BLU. We stood on the bridge and admired the mural. The light was fading, and it was clear that our photo-walk through Berlin was almost over for the day. The gloomy double-decker Oberbaum bridge was made in that anachronistic Gothic style which we now think of as Harry-Potter-architecture. It was built at the end of the 19th century to take the increased traffic of that time as well as the then-new U-bahn. It was blown up in the last days of the war as a futile defensive measure against the advancing Red Army, and rebuilt in 1994. There was incredibly wild street art at the foot of the bridge (panels above). They were hard to photograph in the narrow space and in bad light.

Under the railway bridge at Schlesisches Tor, Berlin

As we walked back, I was intrigued by a gathering of people under the U-bahn line near the Schlesichser Tor station (photo above). A quick look told me that the kiosk is called Burgermeister, and its main offering is absolutely clear: burgers. This is another of the legendary places around here. I was torn, but decided to give it a miss, thinking of a bigger dinner later. This was a mistake because our dinner experience that night turned out not to be good. But that is another story which ended with The Family’s hipster radar leading her into one of Berlin’s hotspots of street art.

Spot the art project!

The Family had followed the cold war at a distance. Now, she was busy reading at the wall of history which lines Friedrichstrasse as you approach the site of Checkpoint Charlie from what once was East Germany. This spot is a condensation of that chilly history. If you have lived through those years, even at a distance, your eyes will not be caught by the tourist trap of fake military memorabilia, crumbling pieces of concrete sold as part of the True Wall, or the creperie, KFC and MacDonald’s which are signs of something which was once called the end of history.

While The Family viewed history through the posters which line the road, I fancied that I saw it in the pair (father and son?) in the photo above. The older man looks like he would be old enough to have similar memories of the cold war and its end. The younger one has grown up in a world with new problems. I hope that these also come to a clean end.

As I looked around me, I saw art projects all around. Berlin is built on sand. The water of the Spree percolates into the sandy soil beneath the city and has to be pumped out constantly. The pink pipes which you see in the featured photo carry this water. You could call it an art project, but Berliners think of it as just background.

The building with the funny roof was certainly a much-talked-about architectural project of the late 80s, called by the astoundingly inventive name Checkpoint Charlie Apartments. The design team included Rem Koolhaas, Elia Zenghelis and Matthias Sauerbruch. The civil engineer associated with this project was the famous Stefan Polonyi, whose students are even now changing the shapes of structures in Germany. The building on the left was designed by Peter Eisenmann (who also designed the Memorial to the Murdered Jews) as a residential building at the same time.

The art installation really stands out in the middle of the road. It is the light box, of which you see one side in these photos. The face that looks out to the former East Berlin is of an American solider. Looking towards the former West Berlin is the face of a Russian soldier. Both photos were taken in 1994, just before the troops from these two countries finally left Berlin. This is an untitled work by Frank Thiel, commissioned in 1998 by Berlin’s Development Commission.

Lose yourself

What I remember about painting as a child was a joy in spreading colour. I felt some of that when I stood in front of the enormous wall, part of which you see in the featured photo. You can lose yourself in the colour, the textures of the wall, and the little details the painter has put on it. When you step back, the camera is a small thing which is almost lost in the larger picture.

In the days when the RAW-gelaende was in actual use as a railway workshop, this must have been a loading door for equipment. I can imagine the delight in being able to paint over such a large area in three colours. I can imagine stepping back to decide how to use the white and black to make the colours pop.

1-UP crew is an artist’s collective that seems to do a lot of business with Urban Spree. They appear together in every web reference I could reach for the crew. Here is one of the doors they painted in the backyard of Urban Spree.

For good measure, here is a second door painted by the 1-UP crew, also in the back yard of Urban Spree.

The Family and I stood in front of this wall and admired the colours. “What is it?” I asked. “I haven’t the faintest”, she replied. Is it incomplete? Is it a question you can ask about any piece of street art?

Could a travel blog post end with a more appropriate picture?

Berlin Art Market

As you cross the Spree along the Unter den Linden, in the narrow space between the river and the Zeughaus there is a little art market every weekend. We’d missed the weekend. Luckily for us the Monday was a holiday, and the Berlin Art Market was in full swing as we walked through.

We found painters and photographers in small stalls. Others had sculpture and ceramics. Although the atmosphere is like a flea market, the people manning the stalls are the artists selling their own work. Also, unlike a flea market, the prices are fixed. We walked slowly past the stalls of several photographers. I struck up a conversation with some of them. They have all spent some time traveling and working in several of Europe’s larger cities before coming to Berlin.

I bought a print of Lisbon from one of them at the end of a long conversation. He came to Berlin from London. The rents are lower in Berlin, he told me. From his collection of prints, it seems that he also found more visually interesting material in Berlin.

It seemed to us that we were perpetually short of time in Berlin. We would have liked to linger in the market for much longer than we actually did.

Artists who earn some money

The time-honoured way for artists to make a living is to paint advertisements or decorate restaurants. Berlin is full of hard-up artists. So its not surprising that many street food stalls are wonderfully decorated. The vegan street food stall which you see in the featured photo caught my Indian eye. The star anise and the mortar and pestle were lovely touches.

The same stall had this picture off in one corner. This brazier full of glowing coals, the colour of the flower, and the red of the chilis together warm up this corner of Warschauer Strasse and Revaeler Strasse.

Next to it was the burrito stall made famous by a future Joan Miro. What makes those snakes smile? I love the cheerful colours of the sign.

At the other end of the town, near Ku’Damm, we found a young Asian artist trying to make a living by spray painting old LPs. The second life of vinyl is a colourful incarnation. I was happy to see the artist with a mask, but I did get a whiff of the paint that she was spraying. If we had masks with us, we might have stayed for a longer look.

Back near the Indian vegan food stall, we saw this wonderfully decorated sitting area near an imbiss stall. It was too cold to sit, although the stall was open. The Family and I stood to admire the murals.

I suppose it has steadily grown colder since then, and the outdoor seating will not be in use. Will these wonderful murals last till the spring? Very likely the next set of street artist will have plied their art over these walls before then. Street art is an ephemeral medium.

This closed kiosk had been done up well. I liked the sight of three different drinks in martini glasses. The bar was open, but we did not open the door.

Where did The Family take the photo you see above? She does not remember, but it was most likely somewhere in the RAW-gelaende. I’d missed this wonderful piece of commissioned art. Being an artist is an uncertain life. Very few ever become commercial successes. Most will make a living on little commissions. Some will struggle even for that.

Urban Spree

Before we left for Berlin I exchanged emails with the fellow blogger over at Urban Liaisons, who alerted me to the street art of Berlin. A cursory look at the web after this told me that Urban Spree, located at the corner of Warschauer Strasse and Revaeler Strasse is one of the places to visit. We took the S-bahn to the Warschauer Strasse station and walked up to the area. I had not realized that this is just the edge of a vast and decayed industrial area now given over to low-rent bars, music, leisure activities and street art.

From Warschauer Strasse one can take a flight of stairs down to the neighbourhood. You have to walk around an open pebbled yard to come to the entrance to the gallery. This is inside a building whose walls are painted in tame street-art style (see the featured photo). Next to this a gate with its signs tells you that you are entering a space where someone is trying very hard to put order into an untamed art form.

The impression is strengthened when you see the entrance to the gallery space. The door which you see above is a border between two worlds. Outside is a riot of colours, with artists painting over each other’s works: an acknowledgement that everything that is done is impermanent. The post-industrial world of Bruce Sterling’s stories seem to have taken root outside. Inside is a little gallery which is run by Pascal Feucher. We had a little chat with him as we sipped some early-season gluhwein which we found in the little indoor bar.

He is very enthusiastic about his plans to showcase the energy you see outside. When you talk to him you realize the strong divide between the art market and the artist. The artists whom we watched on the streets of Berlin are doing the modern equivalent of starving in their cold garrets, because there is a rich world of art trade which has not yet connected to their work. Pascal is banking on the hope that the connection will be made, and that Urban Spree will be the gateway.

I’m more excited by the art than by the market. That is probably the reason that I’m not a collector. So we spent more time outside. It was too late in the year to sit in the outdoor area and drink a beer. But we could admire the art work in the biergarten.

Off in one corner an artist was at work. Was she one of the residents at Urban Spree? This is one of the interesting activities that Pascal has put together. She looked too busy for us to involve her in a chat. I wouldn’t want to be her person from Porlock.

The special thing about this space is the pebbled yard beyond the biergarten. Where Warschauser strasse starts to climb, a wall appears. This serves as a canvas for the artists in residence. Nicole Feucher told us about an informal arrangement with the owners: the Goettinger Kurth Group. They do not currently object to the use of this space by artists. As a result, Urban Spree can use this Artist’s Wall as a kind out outdoor advertisement for their monthly show. When we visited, Tavar Zawacki’s month was just over.

The Family and I were enchanted by the artwork on this wall. You can take a closer look at them by clicking on the gallery above. The Artist’s Wall is not visible from the street. You have to come into the yard to see it.

What is visible from the street are the works here. My favourite was the Toucan which you can see in the photo above. The use of discarded machinery to texture the feathers is wonderful.

The Family drew my attention away to the undersea world painted by Urku which you can see in the photo above. We admired it together for a while before moving on.

A young boy was kicking at the gravel while admiring this painting on the walls of a shed. When he left, we went and stood where he was, bang center of the painting, and took the photo which you can see above.

We moved back through the unpainted gate next to this colourfully glowing kiosk. The Family posed for a photo in front of it. When I’d done that, I moved back and took a photo of the area with the kiosk in the center. All these paintings are ephemeral. By now a completely different set of paintings would have replaced the ones that you see here.

Emergency Exit

When I first came to Germany I was puzzled by a door with a sign saying “Notausgang”. Why would a door say “Not exit”? It took me a little while to figure out that “not” is German for emergency, and the sign meant “Emergency Exit”. The photo above shows one of the most decorated emergency exits I have ever seen. The door in all its painted glory can be seen in the photo below.

We’d taken the S-bahn to the Warschauer Strasse station late in the afternoon to see the Urban Spree gallery. We spent quite a while there, and then moved on further into the complex of old and abandoned railway works now known mainly by its initials RAW (Reichsbahn Ausbesserungs Werk). We had no idea that we were now in the heart of edgy Berlin’s party area. It didn’t take us long to figure that out.

Very little street sense is needed to figure that a white rabbit sign invites you to tumble down a hole into a wonderland. Deep thumping music was already playing, and a trickle of Berliners walked past us deeper into the complex. The Family was now sold on Berlin’s edge, but we had tickets to a concert by the Staatsoper. The balance, as you can figure out, was fine.

We decided the bar with Yoda’s picture a miss to give. Instead, we chose to explore the area in front of it. This is the part called the RAW-Gelaende. It is an interesting experiment by the Goettinger Kurth Group, which bought up a large chunk of this property and has declared that it will support the street art milieu that has taken root in the previously abandoned complex.

Our self-imposed limit was to walk past the bowling alley which you can see in the photo above, and explore the area behind it before leaving. This section of the workshops is a fantastic array of bars, biergartens, music and game areas, all of them decorated by street artists. The light was fading fast, as you can gather from the photos here.

Inside a broken tower was this climbing wall. The first sight of it reminded me of the stories that middle class Germany likes to tell about the crazy people in Berlin. In most of Germany a broken tower like this would be cordoned off, declared unsafe, and soon be razed. In Berlin this patently unsafe place was in regular use by young people. When I stepped in to take the photo, I realized that the floor had collapsed, and a jury-rigged planking covered in sheets had taken its place.

Behind the tower an open space had become a biergarten. A couple of boys were playing table tennis in the broken building behind it. It was clearly still too early to be open, but the space looked like it would be a nice friendly place when it was full. We didn’t have time to come back here, unfortunately. The Family said “It would be nice to stay for a while in Berlin.”

The artwork here was wild and wonderful. We spent a while in front of this work signed Red Rum. Is that a person or a collective?

The Family asked a similar question about Born 2 Roll. Is that a signature or the title of the work you can see in the photo above?

Filthcake was clearly a signature, but again is it a collective? Aha, this told us that a work will have both a title and a signature. We had to go back to the other works to puzzle out which was which.

On the way out we passed this wonderful piece of stencil art. The light had begun to fail and I reluctantly bagged my camera. We marked this down as a place to visit on our next trip to Berlin. However, corporations are predictable. Right now the Goettinger Kurth Group is earning money on its investment in this property through fairly low (but rising) rents. Once someone in the Group has an idea on how to monetize this property better, there will be inevitable pressure in the board to change its policies. We need to come back to Berlin before the resulting cascade of changes begin.

The art of lunch

Since we were at Pariser Platz we decided to drop into the new building for the Academy of Arts. The last time we were in Berlin, we just didn’t have the time to visit the building that houses this more than 300 years old Academy. Like its counterparts in other countries, the Academy, with its famous members, plays a role in the arbitration of artistic taste.

Be extremely subtle even to the point of formlessness. — Sun Tzu in The Art of War

The building was remarkable. The Academy was evicted from this location by Albert Speer, the Nazi Chief Inspector of Buildings, in 1937. Subsequently it was badly damaged in the war, and later became a prison for those attempting to escape over the Berlin wall. Guenther Behnisch designed the glass frontage to connect the work of the Academy with the city at large. The entire front was rebuilt as a glass and steel cage from which stairs and corridors lead into the old stone building at the back. It works beautifully. The frontage does not look out of place. Moreover, when we walked into the lobby (photo above), it was filled with light even on a overcast and wet day. In the mirror in the photo you can see the stairs which lead up and into the old building.

There are not more than five cardinal tastes, yet combinations of them yield more flavours than can ever be tasted. — Sun Tzu in The Art of War

The bookstore was open. We had not checked the calendar of events, and it turned out that the sequence of holidays meant that there was nothing planned for the day. We admired the stairs and the bridge to the winter garden. After this we could have turned away and left if we had not remembered that every gallery and art space in Berlin has a nice restaurant. This was no exception, with its nice white wine and lobster ravioli. This cafe joins those in the Hamburger Bahnhof and in C/O Berlin in our memories. In Germany it is always worthwhile extending a visit to a museum or gallery to include lunch.

A bombed out church

The Family suggested that we should go for a walk along Ku’damm. It was past time for a coffee and cake, but maybe the right time for an aperitif. So we took the U-bahn. When you get out on the road the first thing that you notice is the bombed out remains of the old Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial church, next to the glowing blue box of the new church (photo below). We decided to walk in there.

It was time for a service in the new church, so we went into the memorial to the war. The church was built in 1895 by the Kaiser Wilhelm II in honour of his grandfather, Wilhelm I. It was bombed in 1943, and further damaged by occupation forces after the war. It has been restored since I saw it at the end of the last century, in the year 2000. I learnt that Charles Gray, a pilot in the bombing raid which destroyed the church, was one of the first contributors to a call for funds to repair the crumbling ruin, while retaining it bombed out shape as a reminder of the war.

I had a very clear memory of Plexiglas and metal housing around the church, made to preserve its damaged shape. This seems to have disappeared. I didn’t remember the mosaics inside. It is possible that when I came here earlier they were covered up. But, as you can see from the photos here, they are well worth a visit. Large portions of the mosaics have been restored.

We admired the mosaics, and then walked around one end of the nave which contained a little exhibit about the history of the church, the war, and the restoration. You can see many such stories throughout Germany, and they serve as appropriate reminders against wars. Anti-war sentiments run very deep in Germany, as a result.

The large mosaic of St. George on the floor was hard to photograph because of the number of visitors. I waited patiently until there was a moment when all feet had left the space, and I could take a photo. You can see the blue light of the new church reflecting off the floor. It is a small space, but we were happy with our visit as we walked off into the night to look for a place where one could have a quiet drink before dinner.