Alexanderplatz

The vast Alexanderplatz has changed a little since I first visited it more than twenty years ago, but the change is superficial. Then, I’d started walking towards the TV tower (see the last photo below) from the Museuminsel, and reached a windblown square surrounded by grey concrete. My imagination was rife with Doblin’s book named after this square, and in comparison to that, the place looked colourless. I descended to the U-bahn station and left.

The gray concrete structures are now dressed in neon, and surrounded by young people doing exactly what they always do in Germany. On reunification, the property around Alexanderplatz remained in the hands of the East German company Treuhand. Kaufhof bought up GDR’s retail company Centrum-Warenhaus, and part of the deal was its property in Alexanderplatz. This is the building you see in the photo above. Redesigned by Paul Kleihues, it dominates the north-western corner of the plaza. We walked past the spray from the communist-era fountain to get to it, feeling too cold to take a photo. Diagonally opposite is a multistoried Saturn shop. I had forgotten my gorilla pod, and had marked this down as the place to buy one.

We walked past the clock showing time around the world to look at the buildings across the road. There was the Alexa, a large modern departmental store (featured photo). A little further down was the ministry of education (photo below), with its restored Walter Womacka mural from the time this area was still part of East Berlin. Next to this tower is the shallow dome of the Berlin conference center. Both were made by Hermann Henselmann. We turned back into the windy square. The storm was on us. A light rain had begun to fall. It was time to move on.

Alexanderplatz was built in the 19th century. By 1882 the S-bahn station had come into existence. You can see this as the horizontal tubular structure in the photo below. The U-bahn was built in 1913. The square has been reconceived thrice. Once in 1928, an architectural competition was held to build a new square for a metropolis. The de-facto winner was the influential architect Peter Behrens. Only two of his buildings were finished before the global crisis of the 1930s brought the development to a halt. Photos taken immediately after the was show that the two, Berolinahaus and Alexanderhaus (the buildings on the left edge of the featured photo), were heavily damaged during the war. They were reconstructed later.

Photos from that period also show that the S-bahn station was badly damaged. It seems that during the Battle of Berlin, a Soviet T-34 tank drove into the underground tunnel since it did not recognize the entrance to the train line in time. This may have given rise to rumours of Soviet tanks trying to outflank German defenders by driving through tunnels. The war damage was not repaired for a while. Then, in 1964, the DDR made everything over again, in the shape that you see it in now. In 1993 there was yet another architectural competition, and the winning design would replace everything here by ten high rises. These have not got off the ground yet.

For architectural sarcasm you could do worse than read this or this. A little search led me to an interesting article on the maze of unfinished construction below Alex.

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Kottbusser Tor

The sun was setting when we walked up to Kotti. It has been known as one of Berlin’s most dangerous areas for decades. A recent police list ranked it seventh, behind Alexanderplatz and Warschauer Bruecke. We were there to look at the 10 years old Cosmonaut mural by Victor Ash. But we got distracted.

As soon as we emerged we saw a minaret of the Mevlana mosque, and its shallow Turkish dome, silhouetted against the golden sky (photo above). The Family said, “This looks interesting”. Behind us was a traffic island which seemed to have turned into a fruit and vegetable market. We walked into it and eyed the produce. It looked fresh.

We walked past it into Reichenberger Strasse, and immediately saw an alley with shops looking out into it. A few steps in, an underpass brought us to Dresdner Strasse. Right at the corner here was an interesting mural outside Kremanski Cafe (featured photo). We peered into the big window and saw people peering into their laptops (photo above). Just a regular cafe then. Disappointed, we moved on to the next window: Cafe am Kotti, which also looked ordinary.

The area has been considered less than safe for decades; first it was the Turks in the ’70s, then the squatters in the ’80s and the fights between skinheads and Turkish gangs, in the ’90s the druggies evicted from Berlin Zoo, East Europeans in the oughts. This decade was summed up nicely in a sentence by a resident quoted in a magazine: “The idea of Kotti as a cool neighbourhood attracts young people, and young people attract drug dealers.” The idea of Kotti as less safe than Alexanderplatz or parts of Friedrichshain may be coloured a little by the shades of skin you see around you.

We walked through the little streets of Kotti for a short while, looking for street art. There was not too much visible in the places we walked through. The mural which you can see in the photo above was the biggest we saw. The area was shabby and run-down, but full of interesting-looking restaurants. It did not seem to have an edge of danger. Crime statistics show that Berlin is safer than Brussels or Amsterdam, and Europe in general is safer than the US. When The Family said, “Should we have dinner here?” our conversation was about the time of the day and where else we needed to go rather than safety.

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.

Two unknowns

While exploring the RAW Gelaende, I passed these two commemorative tablets. I did not recognize either name, but the dates of their deaths and the word “murdered” instead of “died” told me that they were not friends of the Nazis. One does not have to search hard to find more about them. Both are well-known.

Franz Stenzer was elected to the German parliament in 1932, was arrested by the Gestapo in 1933, and sent to Dachau where he was shot. He had served in the German navy during the First World War, after which he joined the railway workshop in Munich and became a member of the German communist party in 1919. The RAW (railway workshops) in Warschauer Strasse was named after him.

Ernst Thalmann was even more famous. He served in the German army’s artillery division during the First World War, received multiple decorations, and became a member of the Social Democratic party in 1917. He was elected to the Hamburg Parliament, became a member of the German communist party in 1919, and strongly influenced the policy of the party. In 1925 and 1932 he stood for election as the President of Germany and lost both times to von Hindenberg. He was arrested in 1933, spent 11 years in solitary confinement, was transferred to Buchenwald, where he was shot.

After reading all this, I was not surprised that they were commemorated in a workshop in the erstwhile East Germany. What surprised me was that even now someone takes the trouble to lay flowers at the tablets, and cleans them from time to time. But as I read more about the political changes in Germany, propelled largely by its eastern parts, this surprises me less and less. After the euphoria of reunification in 1989 I had wondered what would happen if the economic disparity between the two halves of Germany did not disappear quickly. It is now clear that the result is no different from what is happening across the western world: a turn towards populist fascism, and a nostalgia for times which were never good, but seem better the further they recede in memory.

The squeaky clean cars parked next to the graffiti in the grounds of the old workshop somehow seem to make the same point about two Germanys which have still not managed to completely come together.

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.

Fahrenheit 451

In Ray Bradbury’s book “Fahrenheit 451”, books are illegal and the job of firemen is to burn them. Bradbury wrote this during a time when civil liberties were being eroded in the US. Much after I read the book I came across the history of the events which very directly influenced it. One memorial to those is in the open square on Unter Den Linden called Bebelplatz.

In plaques embedded into the flagstones, and in an artwork below the square, are memorials to the burning of books in this place on 10 May, 1933 by the Nazi Student’s Union. The square is bounded on two sides by university buildings, and by the state Opera on the third. It opens out to the Unter den Linden to the north, and across the street is the Humboldt university (the photo below was taken facing it). The building on the west (featured photo) was the university library.

We visited it again on a bright and cold day as the clock struck thirteen. Crowds of tourists cycled about, the middle of Berlin is cyclist’s area. Years ago we’d seen the moving installation by Micha Ullman which can be viewed through a glass panel set into the ground (the cluster of people in the photo above are standing around it). It shows empty shelves, symbolizing the books that were pulled out of the library by students, under the direction of the librarian and professors, to be burnt.

Erich Kaestner was one of the authors whose books were burnt. He stood in Bebelplatz, unrecognized, and later described the heavy rain as the fires kept going out and the firemen had to keep lighting the fire again and again. Bebelplatz is a place one can visit over and over again, because it reminds you that liberties we now take for granted can be eroded by elected leaders who create mobs behind whom they can hide their designs. One of the plaques embedded into the flagstones reminds us to watch out for early signs of such erosion by quoting from an 1820 work by Heinrich Heine: “That was but a prelude: when they burn books they will ultimately burn people too.”