An unfinished story

On our first night in Berlin, The Family and I decided to go down to Alexanderplatz. We didn’t have much planned for the night, so we bought tickets to go up to the top of the Television tower. This left us with about an hour to kill. We decided to spend it walking in the area between Alexanderplatz and the Spree.

It really was a dark and stormy night. We hadn’t paid attention to the news, but there was a storm warning. An intermittent light drizzle would force us inside cafes every now and then, as we strolled around. There was some construction in front of the Rotes Rathaus, so we veered towards the brick facade of the Marienkirche, which is about 900 years old. This was closed. We walked around it, and then went over to the Rotes Rathaus, the city hall. While I was trying to take the photo that you see above, the wind really picked up, and I had to brace myself against a lampost to take photos.

We walked around it and saw the double tower of the Nikolaikirche. It looked interesting enough that we crossed the road to take a closer look. There’s some confusion about whether it is older than Marienkirche, but the area around it is made of restored medieval buildings. Most shops were closed, and we did not have the time to duck in to a pub for a beer. We had to get back to the television tower. So we walked back, meaning to come back to this area one day during our visit to Berlin. We never managed to do it. Yet another reason to go back.

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The most beautiful square in Berlin

When you read tourist guides to Berlin they tell you that Gendamenmarkt is the most beautiful square in Berlin. The reason, as we gathered, is that it is flanked by two churches with beautiful domes. What you see in the featured photo is the one called the French church. This apparently belonged to the Calvinist French called the Huguenots, some of whom found refuge in Prussia from persecution under Louis XIV of France. The statue in the foreground is that of the German polymath Friedrich von Schiller. The church was built in 1701, the square built in 1773, and the statue erected in 1871. The companion German church, which was undergoing restoration on the day I was there, was built at the same time as the French church. The main difference between the two was the language the service was held in. The Huguenots used French, whereas the Calvinists and Lutherans across the square had their service in German.

The statue of Schiller stands in front of the concert house. When the former National Theatre was destroyed in a fire in 1817, it was replaced by this building. It’s not very often that you find the statue of a lioness in front of a building, but this had gender balance: with a lion and a lioness guarding the steps. I was able to trace discussions of gender equality in the Prussian parliament to 1902, but maybe these guardian statues tell us that there was discussion of this issue outside the Landtag before that.

We walked around the square. It was destroyed in the war and rebuilt by the 1970s. I followed The Family in window shopping, until we came to a chocolate shop on Charlottenstrasse, just behind the square. I think I was the first through the door! It is a great relief to have a box of good chocolates with you on a day when you intend to walk across a city. As soon as we stepped out of the shop we saw that the clear skies of the morning had given way to threatening clouds. I stood in an archway on the street and took the photo of the other side of the French church which you can see in the photo above.

There was a lot of activity on the roof. I’d never seen anyone trying to replace roof tiles on such a steep slope. We watched the activity for a while, without figuring out whether two people walking across ladders was some kind of safety measure. I’d checked the weather in the morning and it had promised a sunny day. As soon as we left the arcade from where we’d watched the work, it began to rain. It was just two blocks till Unter den Linden, but we were pretty damp by the time we turned the corner and walked into a cafe! So much for weather predictions.

The Reichstag building on a gray day

In the final summer of the last millennium, I was in Berlin and decided to go visit the Reichstag building. One did not need an appointment or security clearance for this at that time. I walked around Norman Foster’s dome and peered down into the debating chamber of the Bundestag. This time around, I’d left it till too late to make the appointment, so The Family and I did not get to go up to the dome. On the cold and rainy afternoon of our last day in Berlin we walked up to this famous building.

As we walked around it we reminded ourselves of the history of this building. The original parliament building dated from the 1890s, and was abandoned after a fire in 1933. The fire was blamed on a Dutch communist, Van der Lubbe, who was found in the neighbourhood. We recalled bits and pieces of the controversy around it. Although the Nazi court sentenced Van der Lubbe to death by beheading (while finding four co-defendants not guilty), there were claims even then that the fire had actually been set by the Nazis. It has been claimed many times that a single person working alone would not have had time to set such a large fire. Goering’s name was associated with the fire multiple times but this was never proved. Historians remain divided over the incident.

What is well-documented is that Hitler used this incident as an excuse to get the then-president, Paul von Hindenberg, to pass a decree which allowed opponents of the Nazi party to be imprisoned (by suspending the right called Habeas Corpus), and to censor and suppress publications which criticized the Nazis (and also allowing the government to examine personal mails). The fire happened 6 days before the German parliamentary election of 1933. So before the election already Hitler arrested many members of the Communist Party, Social Democrats and the right-wing Catholic Center Party. Nazi organizations including the SS and Brownshirts were sworn in as auxiliary police to monitor the elections. We did not remember at that time that the Nazi party still got less than a majority of votes.

A little memorial outside the Reichstag building is devoted to the 92 parliamentarians who were arrested and murdered by the Nazi party. The rain was like a fog which had condensed into drops just large enough to fall. This dreary weather seemed like the right time to remember when large scale political murders enabled the Nazis to seize absolute power and shut down German democracy. The memorial consists of uneven iron plates, about knee-high, on which the names of the murdered parliamentarians are etched along with their party, the prison or concentration camp where each was interred, and the date of their death.

We knew that the parliament never reconvened in this building, but still forget it when we see photos of Soviet soldiers posing in front of it. The restoration work in the 1990s was seen in Germany as the final end to the war. In a sense then, the war which started in 1914 ended in 1989. At least two empires were destroyed during this period, two more arose during it and vanished again in this 75 years long war. Several countries were devastated. Some thought briefly that the end of the war was the end of history.

We walked out on the muddy path that leads to the modern building which houses the offices of the parliament. Signs pointing in that direction said Paul Loebe House. This has the offices of the Bundestag. The inevitable question has a simple answer. The German parliament was called the Reichstag in the 1890s. It is now called the Bundestag. The parliament still debates in the old Reichstag building, but all the offices are in the modern buildings here and across the Spree which seem deliberately low-key.

Free city, Berlin

Our first night in Berlin was cold, wet and blustery. As we walked past St. Mary’s Church towards the Spree, gusts of wind would shake us as we tried to take photos. We’d been warned of a storm, and we later heard that the railways had closed down their service. It was windy enough, but we’ve seen worse because our lives are now marked by extremes of weather. The city hall had closed for the night, but it was nicely lit up. The Family got the featured photo, which shows it looking as red as its name, Red City Hall or Rotes Rathaus, promises. We never saw it looking so red later. We walked around it, and were impressed by the fact that it covered a whole block. But then, Berlin is a free city: its city council is its government. So the mayor’s office, here in the City Hall, is also the seat of Berlin’s government. We later found that the building dates from 1869, and was rebuilt to its original plan in 1956.

The next day we walked past a building where a notice said that the legislature of Berlin sits (photo above). This puzzled us enough that we looked at the government of Berlin as soon as possible after this. The first surprise was that Berlin remained under four power occupation from 1946 right until October 1990! Unified Germany has its seat of government in unified Berlin, although the city itself has its own legislature and executive. The city’s legislature sits in this building: Prussia’s house of representatives from 1899 to 1934 (when the house was dissolved). I didn’t even know about this building although it is extremely close to Potsdamer Platz. When we passed this building we had no idea that it had been used to house the Council of Ministers of East Germany before being given over to Stasi. We also learned too late about the murals and art collection inside. If you do go in, let me know whether you enjoyed it, and whether you recommend that we visit it the next time we are in Berlin.

A well-rounded church

Just behind Bebelplatz and looking on to it is a small church which I’d never entered before. The foundation stone of St. Hedwig’s Cathedral was laid in 1737 on land donated by Frederick the great. It has the distinction of being the first Catholic church built in Prussia after the reformation. We hesitated a bit: did we want to walk on, or go in here? The cold nudged us to make up our mind: in was better than out.

Every round and domed building in Europe reminds me of the Pantheon. The pediment certainly speaks of a neo-classical design. When I stepped back, a guess based on the unaided eye indicated that the imaginary sphere made by continuing the dome downwards would touch the floor. This is the proportion of the Pantheon. The story is that Frederick the great made a sketch of the church, and von Knobelsdorf designed it following this, immediately after he’d designed the Opera next to it.

I took a closer look at the relief work in the pediment on my way in (photo above). If that is not baroque then I will eat the grapes the cherubs are playing with. I don’t know the legend of the Silesian saint Hedwig well enough to tell whether the relief involves her life. Inside the church one can read a little bit about the history of the structure. I was not surprised to learn that the church had been destroyed by bombing in 1943. The story of its restoration in 1963, when it stood in the former East Germany, by a collaboration between architects and artists from East and West Germany was a complete surprise. As much as when I’d first heard that the bishop of Berlin, whose seat this was, denounced the murders and vandalism of Kristallnacht. Predictably, he was hauled off to Dachau.

We sat inside for a while and listened to part of an organ concert. The church has great acoustics. The organ, built by Klais of Bonn, was installed in 1978. This was a replacement of the organ which was destroyed in the bombing. Apparently there are almost 5000 organ pipes, made of wood, copper and tin. The sonorous notes followed us as we went back out into the cold.

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?

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.

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.