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15 January 2008

Luftpalast: Absence, Desire and Berlin's Wastelands

A journey through the physical voids and disruptions of Berlin, a city marked as much by absence as it is by architectural materiality, as it is confidently re-emerging on the world stage. After the resumption of its status as unified Germany’s federal capital spectacular reconstruction plans have radically altered the character of the amorphous city in order to create a stable, strongly defined sense of self, just as former political regimes had sought to leave their ideological mark on what was perceived as a shapeless, uncontrollably deviant wilderness. This new phase in the city’s history posits a strong architectural intervention as the precondition for the reshaping and normalisation of social processes in the context of global, transcendent consumerism. This horror vacui and fixity of meanings in the opacity of built forms lead to the obliteration of transparent, multilvalent spaces where the emergence of potentially subversive desires, a heightened awareness of one’s historical dimension and fundamentally composite, ’diffracted’ identity gives way to the unnerving sense of a ’flattened’, permanent present encapsulated in a generic, hypercontrolled urban realm. This endless quest for oneself through the city conjures up powerful cinematographic images as Berlin’s ever-changing scenery and dramatic transformations have inspired a wide range of directors and provided the setting for some memorable performances. In a simultaneous interaction with writing and photography four films will be discussed here, each of them raising crucial questions about the interplay of memory, desire and residual spaces: how to truly be in the city? How do the contradictory pulls of historical consciousness and general amnesia shape the built environment? What sort of manipulation and obfuscations are embedded in architectural intervention? How can desire and resistance to any fixed identity and superficial, univocal interpretations of the city develop and circulate in its empty expanses?


"This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress."

(Walter Benjamin, Illuminationen) [1]



Bernauer Strasse - 13 August 1961. At the Deutsches Historisches Museum on Unter den Linden the same footage is constantly replayed. That of Bernauer Strasse on the day when the ’anti-fascist protection rampart’ was suddenly erected by the GDR regime, the first day of total physical separation between the two halves of the politically torn city. Whatever lay at hand was used to build a primitive version of what would over the years become an extremely sophisticated fortified system: bricks, breeze-blocks, concrete beams.

On the Bernauer Strasse architecture itself became the Wall as border troops stormed into tenement blocks and forced the inhabitants to leave without delay. The most harrowing scenes show some of them jumping off to safety from the upper storeys, not having enough time to take even the slightest possession with them, whilst the windows and entrances of the lower floors were being bricked up one by one, the flats being forever entombed with all their content and memories. On its whole length the street presented the same surreal sight of violated architecture and lives, rows of bricked up Mietskasernen (’rental barracks’, the archetypal palatial Berlin tenement block with a succession of courtyards at the back). Later on all of them would in a final act of destruction be razed to ground-floor level and hollowed out, their smashed in windows and doors revealing the eerie, empty expanse of the Death Strip, a wasteland of weeds, barbed wire and a bewildering array of military infrastructures [2]. Across the city the Wall acted as a black hole at whose contact everything - humanity, architecture, civilisation - disintegrated and vanished without trace. In the abolition of meaning it represented architecture and its reverse strangely became one and the same thing [3].

The cumulated effects of wartime bombings and division have deeply affected the physical texture of the city, which has been disrupted by constant waves of destruction-reconstruction. The voids in-between, the insterstitial spaces, the archeology of Berlin’s history laid bare, testify to the unimaginable violence of the processes that shaped it. Unlike other metroplolises endowed with a greater visual coherence, relatively stable historical continuity and a clear sense of self to market, Berlin, in the absence of any homogeneous historical continuum and clear-cut definition, is in contrast a city without a form [4], an amorphous entity endowed with multiple personae [5]. This lack of stability in the city’s physical fabric has a profound effect on the way one experiences its spaces, as though the irretrievable loss of architectural materiality and the excessive openness found an echo in a more slippery, less circumscribed sense of self, a state of accute awareness, expectation and yearning for what holds the promise of endless possibilities. Lying in a wasteland where only one building might still be standing, the exposed side walls scarred with the burnt out traces of what was once other houses full of people, an architecture turned inside out and broken through, the unexpected perpectives opened up by what has been disemboweled as in a gigantic Matta-Clark anarchitecture, or sitting in the peace of a cool stairwell after entering an old tenement block whose door had been left open, just to listen to noises and faint voices coming from within - and wonder what actually happened there. For a brief moment identity wavers and diffracts itself into an infinity of alternative, imagined lives: ghosts from the past, film characters, the sheer multiplicity of one’s possible selves in the exhilaration of the open city. There is a beautiful German word for this state of longing, whose force is difficult to convey in other languages: Sehnsucht. Sehnsuchtsvoll, sehnsüchtig, full of yearning for something that is not there and may yet be revealed.


Harzer Strasse, Treptow

Car park, Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse

Former Death Strip, Moritzplatz, Kreuzberg

The ubiquity of absence in Berlin’s fabric and the impossible return to a lost unity are one of the many strands at the core of Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire [6]. One scene in the deserted wasteland of the Potsdamer Platz, once the bustling centre of Berlin’s social life and as a result of the Wall’s destructive power an overgrown, almost totally obliterated wilderness save for a few isolated buildings (a surviving part of the Hotel Esplanade with its rococo ballroom) and the disused viaduct of an experimental magnetic levitation train system. Shadowed by angel Cassiel (Otto Sander), the old poet Homer (Curt Bois) returns to the place of his youth but is unable to locate precisely where the Potsdamer Platz once stood. There are no bearings left, no vestige to cling onto to access memory and revisit the past. Everything is constantly shifting in a kaleidoscopic sense of disorientation and unstable, ever-changing meaning. What may in other cities be taken for granted (continuity, architecture, materiality, coherence, presence) here dissolves in indeterminacy, uncertainty and near non-existence. What once stood is gone and yearning for an aesthetic, narrative unity is constantly thrown into disarray and doomed to failure in the disruptions and disturbances of a city splintered into numerous histories. Being in Berlin means acknowledging the sheer power of absence and impermanence, being open to the multiple virtualities of its terrains vagues and forgotten recesses. This being a depressing prospect in a world where space is a prime commodity it goes some way towards explaining why architecture is felt to be a consolation in the face of loss and why so much of it (or more to the point, why too much of the same stuff) has been produced since the post-Wall heady days in order to finally give Berlin an acceptable face.

One case in point is the Topography of Terror, a memorial site situated a stone’s throw away from the Potsdamer Platz [7]. Standing on the excavated remains of the nerve centre of Nazi terror (the Reichssicherheitshauptamt, including the Gestapo headquarters) and displaying a (now permanent) exhibition on the crimes that were planned in its palaces or actually took place in its underground cells, the site is remarkable by its almost total absence of architecture. The intervention is indeed minimal, even a bit makeshift, and focuses on the bare facts so that visitors are free to engage with the environment and exhibits in their own personal way. The land itself is left in the state it has been in since the sixties, unstructured, unadorned and unburdened by the predetermined meaning an overwhelming architectural presence would have stamped on it. However various design competitions have been launched since the eighties to give a more coherent shape to the Topography, which might have looked a bit too unprepossessing and scruffy to some for a place of such historical significance. The ill-fated Peter Zumthor project - a documentation centre dominating the ground - illustrates what is at stake in architectural intervention - however sensitive and subtle - as it interferes with and compromises the site’s essential open-endedness.[8] Eventually the Topography of Terror remained in the same informal, unbeautified condition, confrontation with the past being all the more effective and powerful in the absence of any physical mediation between the visitor’s reflections and the vanished theatre of hate, whose philosophical, political, emotional implications are thus fully revealed.



Bernauer Strasse, 1981 - Polish director Andrzej Zulawski films his unsung masterpiece, Possession, memorable in its haunting depiction of a West Berlin stuck in the status quo of the post-Ostpolitik years. Whereas the Wedding part of the street has been gloriously redeveloped seventies-sci-fi style, the other side in Mitte is sinking into a uniform, rain-soaked mass of greyness with collapsed remains of houses serving as makeshift fortifications. The overall ambiance is that of paranoia, mental collapse and unrelenting despair.

A disconcerting mixture of intellectual grandeur and metaphysical schlock, which has elicited amongst film lovers adoration and repulsion in equal measure, Possession [9] is an altogether classic tale of adultery and communication breakdown. Anna (Isabelle Adjani) shows signs of unrest (to put it mildly) as her husband Mark (Sam Neill) returns home from some spying mission. It quickly transpires that she’s taken a lover during his absence, who turns out to be some bloody, tentacular creature hidden in a dilapidated flat in Kreuzberg. Throughout the film she is seen rushing to and fro between her two abodes in a state of constant hysteria. In the relinquishment of her responsibilities as a mother and docile wife, Anna becomes some unlocalizable vagrant in a city seemingly deserted by all human activity. In a state of continuous nomadism and divorced from social constraints she storms in and out of a modern, sterile family environment endowed with all the trappings of cosy domesticity (the flat faces the Wall with border guards literally peeping into the living room) to an uncertain twilight zone on the urban margins where she does away with the most basic rules of polite civilisation, as serial murder and bloody embraces quickly ensue.

The flat where the monster dwells is an old, heavily ornate palazzo-like Mietskaserne facing the Wall in the Sebastianstrasse, another famous stretch of the Death Strip. Because of the advanced degree of dereliction it had fallen into after the combined effects of wartime bombings and division Kreuzberg was at the time a terminally ravaged district of fallow land and abandoned tenements attracting all those who, whether out of choice or not, had no or little stake in mainstream society. Whilst the more than affordable rents attracted waves of Turkish immigrants, empty buildings were taken over by a politically very active community of squatters intent on creating alternative forms of social organisation in a city which, because of its insular status in the geopolitical configurations of the time, was more open to radical experiments of all kinds. The mythical status of Kreuzberg as a place of exile and rootlessness as well as a laboratory of social dissent and cultural subversion viscerally averse to capitalist encroachment, was further strengthened in the eighties by recurrent street fighting with the police in protest against forceful evictions. The area was at the time earmarked for wholesale redevelopment and increasingly threatened in its informal, uncommodified character by the normalising forces of institutional speculation - the gargantuan Kreuzberger Zentrum at Kottbusser Tor gives a clue as to what would have happened had they succeeded. Anna's flat, in its sheer uninhabitability and makeshift, ’recycled’ quality, is the antithesis to the controlling, rationalised family space she is constricted to in the repression and self-denial it imposes. As a remnant of the past still bearing the traces of its innumerable catastrophes it is the place where the most aberrant desire and the horrors of a silenced history can be revealed and confronted.

Hidden in a residual part of town devoid of any financial value and where 'normality' has partly broken down, the monster can be seen as the emanation of a desire that exceeds and transcends the norms of conventional bourgeois marital life ruled by decency, whilst embodying in its extreme horror the violence of historical/erotic awareness that is sparked off in the disrupted, scarred city. Anna's sexuality is ruled by excess (we learn that he made love to [her] all night) and is nomadic as the ’couple’ moves around Berlin from place to place after the Kreuzberg flat has been gutted by fire. The endless wandering and out-of-control eroticism - matched by Berlin’s numerous sites of informal sexual encounters - subvert and annihilate all ideologically determined structuring of space. This confrontation with the most abject leanings finds a correlation in the lingering presence of a harrowing past that is everywhere to be seen in the urban fabric. Lurking between the two halves of a divided country the monster's lair is the sealed chamber where the tragedies of history are made visible with madness and identity meltdown as inevitable consequences. Alone in the margins of a city she has taken possession of, Anna occupies the spaces left vacant by all normalised forms of behaviour and knowledge, and in the destruction she wreaks enjoys a state of ubiquity and permanent transgression. The ’child’ birth scene in the U-Bahn tunnel (with its squealing and yelling probably the most memorable moment in the film) encapsulates this equivalence between the aberrant, transfigured body and the porous urban immensity whose limits and restrictions have been dissolved.

Fräulein Schmetterling am Palast der Republik

The question of the presence of an alien (female) body in marginal urban spaces and its potential subversion of the social order is articulated even more clearly - albeit in much more serene form - in Fräulein Schmetterling [10], a film produced in 1965-66 by the Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft (DEFA) with a script by Christa and Gerhard Wolf, as the themes of desire, fantasy, architectural transformations and political control are here intrinsically linked. Interestingly the film was deemed suspicious enough by the Central Committee of the SED (East Germany’s Communist Party solely in power) to be banned before even being granted a release. Helene (Melania Jakubisková), the main protagonist, dreams her many possible lives in a sunny, excitingly cosmopolitan Ost Berlin and doesn’t seem to grasp the urgency of socialist edification. She is a bit eccentric, whimsical and unable to hold down any of the jobs the authorities 'allocate' her to, each assignment resulting in painful failure and humiliation. More importantly she lives in a crumbling, soon to be knocked down old Mietskaserne that had survived the bombings around the Alexanderplatz and obstinately refuses to vacate the place despite repeated attempts to dislodge her and separate her from her younger sister. Unlike the new, rationally designed blocks of modern flats lining the monumental avenues of East Berlin - the neighbouring Karl-Marx-Allee being the prototype of such totalising designs - the old quarters, an ill-defined geography of bombsites, wastelands and abandoned houses, concealed in the eyes of the regime something shady, ambiguous, conducive to all sorts of deviances and thus potentially damaging to the stability and homogeneity of the political/moral order [11].

In Fräulein Schmetterling we witness the continuous conflict between the realisation of desire in its uncontrollable circulation in the city’s unchartered zones and an increasingly monodimensional, transparent architectural space, a frozen, static monumentality from which there is no escape. A lone woman roaming the city streets, occasionally looking for men (she has a short fling with a boxer she’d spotted and followed around town), or dreaming her life away in sumptuous settings, as in the lovely scene showing her wearing different evening dresses outside Café Moskau or waltzing in the evening sun up the Marienkirche with the said boxer, is clashing with the officially promoted version of the ideologically committed woman, a creature turned into a monosemic, easily identifiable icon of the socialist project [12]. Other women in the film conform to that ideal, the most daunting of whom being the relentlessly intrusive bureaucrat from the Jugendamt who is determined to bring Helene to heel. Eventually the young woman is rehoused in one of the blocks along the Karl-Marx-Allee where she can start a new life in accordance with official values and aspirations (a good wife, mother and worker rolled into one). Encased in glass and concrete she overlooks the grand boulevard - a thoroughfare more suitable for Soviet-style military parades than erotically driven flânerie - seeing everyone and becoming visible to all in her final neutralisation [13]. Errant sexual desire and dreams of romance are nipped in the bud by means of urbanistic concepts devised to consolidate a coercive, omniscient power. But there is love at the end of the road when Helene meets a pantomime in a circus and seems once again to slip out of the State’s clutches by instilling a bit of magic into people’s dreary lives.

After extensive restoration by the Bundesfilmarchiv Fräulein Schmetterling was shown for the first time in Berlin in 2005. The intensely oniric quality of the film was all the more moving as parts of it had been too damaged during the purgatorial years in the vaults to be salvaged, hence its strangely fragmentary, lunar quality. A film intermittently erased with a discontinued soundtrack and an image constantly teetering on the brink of disappearance - when it wasn’t underexposed or complelety blurred - it itself became void and was left so without further intervention, in a state of fragile equilibrium where the disruptions and losses in the visual continuity echoed the shapeless, loose fabric of postwar Berlin, where subversive bodies and fleeting desires could still feel at home despite the regime’s best attempts at reducing identities and social relations to regimented uniformity and mere manifestations of political subservience.



Bernauer Strasse - January 2007. The eerie silence and all-pervasive psychosis of its pre-1989 incarnation have given way to a breezy, bustling street life on the edge of the übertrendy districts of Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg. An expanse of derelict land is still visible on the site of the former Death Strip despite timid, peacemeal attempts at giving a modicum of visual coherence to the area. At its Western end a whole section of the Wall has been reconstructed as part of a memorial to those who lost their lives fleeing from the East.

This concern with visual continuity and homogeneity is central to the immediate post-Wende years when Berlin was turned into the largest building site on earth and was set to become - that’s at least how it looked for a short while - the most exciting laboratory of avant-garde architecture and urban intervention imaginable. Debates raged over the shape to give to a city which had for so long been deprived of one and just like Paris or London had a clear, unmistakable identity and confident sense of self, so Berlin would soon be as visually defined and thus regain the metropolitan prestige befitting a newly ’normal’ Germany. The result of such ambitions is probably the biggest U-turn in the history of town planning and a strategy that will mark the city’s development and structure for years to come. The controversial set of theories and practices known as Critical Reconstruction and according to which Berlin was to be rebuilt was promoted and implemented with steely determination by the then Director of Urban Development Hans Stimmann, whose legacy is still hotly debated to this day [14]. To put it simply the concept of Kritische Rekonstruktion involves a total rehabilitation of spatial models inherited from a fantasmagoric golden age in urban history which broadly speaking covers anything from the baroque era to the age of the Mietskasernen, in other words the grand classical past from Frederick the Great to the First World War via Schinkel. The traditional grid-pattern and restrictions regarding height and elevation were to be the two pillars of a stringent set of guidelines that would serve as template for future reconfigurations [15].

The old centre of Friedrichstadt (with Friedrichstrasse as main thoroughfare) was dramatically remodelled with those very principles in mind: voids and absences, a creative use of which could have allowed for infinite poetic possibilities and subtle responses to the complexities of the site, were systematically obliterated in an attempt at recreating what was perceived as Berlin’s ’true’ urbanity and lost essence. However the result did not quite live up to the ambition with the relentless uniformity of smooth stone façades and the unremitting blandess of cubic volumes regimenting space in the crudest possible way. Needless to say there isn’t anything remotely baroque or classical about those buildings which aim to evoke the area’s prewar warren of passages and in many cases only conceal yet another upmarket shopping precinct. This physical saturation and optimal use of space in a stridently mercantile manner and heavy-handed architectural bombast might give an indication of what kind of future lies ahead and the sheer limitation of social practices such a city would allow - a monodimensional environment geared towards consumerism in a generic setting that reproduces predetermined, ’traditional’ ways of experiencing space. More controversially the latter’s normalisation and the entrapment of Berlin in some illusory ideal identity borders on historical whitewashing as it is obvious that the past is here being rewritten and dubiously simplified for immediate consumption. Just like the disturbing parts and dramatic ruptures in German history are cleverly airbrushed out of the whole picture, so the capital city must reflect an unproblematic harmony in a straightforward visual narrative that blatanlty ignores the whole legacy of the XXth century, whether it be Weimar Modernism, National Socialism, postwar reconstruction or the GDR [16].

Like an unstoppable juggernaut Critical Reconstruction strikes wherever it can, whether small residual spaces to fill in or more sizeable swathes of empty land such as the Humboldthafen in the vicinity of Berlin’s new Hauptbahnhof [17]. The station being a resounding success in terms of commercial potential, private developers are beginning to flock in for the next big thing. The project’s blueprint (a glorification of the square in all its forms by O. M. Ungers’s disciple Karl-Heinz Winkens, who drew on XIXth century plans for the area) once again shows the same dry neo-classical perspectives reminiscent of a lifeless De Chirico composition. We are even told it will have a little something of Venice.... Of course this kind of prefabricated urbanity is highly contrived as all it boils down to is a banal office precinct masquerading as a new heart for the city. But does Berlin need any more prestige developments and luxury residential complexes? In fact Berlin doesn’t do luxury very well, at least not as it’s understood everywhere else. Its true luxury lies in its unprepossessing spaces, its fluctuating topography where the imagination can breathe, where unexpected encounters with strangeness and interactions with the past might occur in a continuous search for its soul, its ragged, multifarious, luminous self... At night all the lights are turned on around the Potsdamer Platz and on closer inspection it turns out that most corporate headquarters are vacant, in what looks like a slightly surreal cartoon image of what big business ought to be, a unwitting parody of a global capitalist city - just like Critical Reconstruction is a crude, dangerously nostalgic quest for a lost, ideal order that was never fixed - if it ever existed in the first place.

Leipziger Platz / Potsdamer Tor

Kaisersaal, Hotel Esplanade, Potsdamer Platz

A few months ago the Federal Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht) convened over a plea from Berlin’s mayor Klaus Wovereit for emergency funding towards his financially beleaguered city. After backing up their (eventual) rebuttal that the Bund should come to the rescue, the judges added that things weren’t so bad after all as Berlin was ‘poor but sexy’. Beyond the humorous remark it is however easy to see a whole set of implicit associations when it comes to defining the city. It is ‘poor’ as in: incomplete, inchoate, informal, makeshift, do-it-yourself, open to personal intervention. And ‘sexy’ as in: accessible, relaxed, young, experimental, unconventional, inclusive, erotically charged... In any case they are the sort of feelings elicited by a film like Stadt als Beute [18], which tracks the lives of three young aspiring actors on the streets of a treacherous, seductive Berlin, while an eponymous play, whose premiere is due to take place at the Volksbühne, acts as a focal point to those disjointed trajectories. Stadt als Beute deals with the different, personal ways we negotiate urban space and the countless risks, illusions and deceptions underlying human relations in the big city, which in turn becomes a prey through its subjection to external and largely uncontrollable economic factors whose impact is most visible in the spectacular architecture of the rebuilt capital. The effect of such a sudden transformation on a relatively fluctuant urban fabric and its materialisation into a corporate, impenetrable monumentality raises broader questions about the nature of the public realm in the face of brutal redevelopment and rampant social segregation. This is of particular relevance in a place like Berlin where an endemically stagnant economy may still blunt the excesses of the unbridled speculation befalling other major European cities and resulting in gradual ’civic dispossession’. The city seems to be fostering its own human ecosystem (itself quite unique in Germany) whereby a fairly wide range of communities of diverse geographical/social origin and status can still coexist in a relatively inclusive space.

Somewhere in the film something truly magical happens, a sudden alchemy between the city’s streets and the main character, a Iggy Pop look-alike in tight-fitting vest called Ohboy (David Scheller). It is in this scene that the City as Prey is finally revealed in a violent collision with architecture. At the end of a chaotic few minutes on the Potsdamer Strasse full of random encounters - the many frictions and seductions that make up everyday urban life - Ohboy finds himself at the corporate epicentre of the new Berlin, a city reinvested by power, full of noise and reclaimed grandeur, oscillating between Fifth Avenue glamour and Ceausescu-esque glitz [19]. In the middle of the Sony Centre, an oversized, tightly secured panopticon designed for mass entertainment, the final manifestation of an abstract, omnipresent albeit unlocalizable order, a CCTV-monitored simulacrum of public space floating in an elusive centre and yet strangely disconnected from the rest of the city whose heart it purports to be [20]. Such fraudulent pretensions finally dawn on Ohboy, who loses it and kicks up a rumpus in the fountain, splashing around in the middle of the precinct before being chased off by a (private security firm) vigilante. This is Potsdamer Platz in its contemporary guise, the one desperately sought by the old poet in Wings of Desire. Now the remnants of the Hotel Esplanade where Nick Cave performed at the end of the film are encased in glass and incorporated into a totalising environment fundamentally alien to the infinitely differentiated texture of Berlin, a capsule where the past is ripped apart and spat out as entertainment in the general obliteration of historical consciousness, the sterility of the now and instant gratification remaining the only possible experiences in the amnesia wrought by the lure of architecture. As brilliantly formulated in Spaces of Uncertainty [21], "Berlin shows how the identity of a city is not in its architecture, but next to it."


""In this sense (...) it is also outside the consumerist onslaught, bombardment and encroachment of meaning, signification, and messages. The void claims a kind of erasure from all the oppression, in which architecture plays an important part."

(Rem Koolhaas, Rem Koolhaas: Conversations with Students) [22]


Berliner Schloss reconstruction project, U-Hausvogteiplatz

Every day on Schlossplatz a tiny piece of the past is mechanically removed and discarded. The ruin of the Palast der Republik has become the city’s most poignant sight, its rusty skeleton undergoing a slow, discreet agony - instead of being blown up like a vulgar council tower block before cheering crowds [23]. The Palast, Hans Stimmann’s bête noire, is irreversibly dematerializing, its bulk full of air and unfulfilled promises, its grand staircase hanging in the air and tarnished copper-tinted glass reflecting fragments of sky. In the heart of Berlin a particularly selective enterprise of critical memory reconstruction is in full swing. The Palast’s demise, voted by the Bundestag in July 2002, was motivated by a number of reasons: it was an eyesore (Berlin’s very own carbuncle) and a health hazard (an asbestos-ridden nightmare), whilst there was a pressing need to make a strong architectural statement more in tune with the vision modern Germany had of itself, a new symbol for a newly found normality. What should take its place had been hotly debated since reunification but the proposed rebuilding of the Berliner Schloss (renamed Humboldt Forum to give it a veneer of openness) came to embody this quest for the ideal symbol and found great support from a variety of quarters who weren’t remotely perplexed by the strange concept: a replica of the Hohenzollern imperial palace with its ornate stone façade, an orgy of cupolas, pilasters and grand courtyards, whose original had survived the war before being blown up by the GDR regime to make way for military parades and other displays of mass adulation [24]. Although it may seem baffling that a modern, innovative and in so many ways progressive country should consider rebuilding a baroque pile as the symbolic centre of its capital city, it is symptomatic of the current cultural climate and the direct result of protracted disputes engulfing politicians, historians and architects alike over a contested, highly sensitive past (a tortuous process encapsulated in the concept of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or ’struggle to come to terms with the past’). With the Schloss’s return, its supporters claim that harmony, beauty and a strong sense of identity will revisit Berlin, a bit oblivious of the fact that ’beauty’ and visual continuity have long ceased to apply in a city whose very nature lies in extreme contrasts, strange juxtapositions and violent disjunctions in ever-changing, sometimes conflictual identities.

The impact the Palast had on public imagination when it opened in 1976 must have been phenomenal, something akin to the thrill and wonderment visitors had experienced when first entering London’s Royal Festival Hall, the masterpiece of 1951’s Festival of Britain: a spacious, modern, multipurpose building opened to all, a true People’s Palace offering a wide range of cultural activities and where informal socialising could take place in its public areas, foyers and cafés - at least as much as was permitted by norms dictating public behaviour. Everything, from the swirly carpets to the plastic furniture and space-age artwork exuded a cool modernity, a glamorous otherworldliness made all the more alluring by the thousands of little lights that literally caused the place to glow in the otherwise gloomy East Berlin night. Friends met there at weekends and the little children of the Democratic Republic rang home full of pride and excitement at the idea of being AT the Palast der Republik. That the complex had also housed the GDR Parliament (the Volkskammer) certainly did not endear it to a unified Germany’s ruling elite hellbent on eradicating this conspicuous blemish on Berlin’s desired historical harmony [25]. Its association with a discredited regime contaminated the whole building which - unllike others dating from the Nazi era which were easily reappropriated and dissociated from their ideological origin - deserved an exemplary treatment in the systematic erasure of whatever vestiges of the GDR still littered the capital. In the destruction of the Palast der Republik it is hard not to see first and foremost a political act through which power relations and selective readings of the past are laid bare, a reluctance to acknowledge the bewildering complexity of history in favour of an unproblematic narrative that precludes more in-depth discussions around the (admittedly difficult and intricate) issues of memory and identity, and hence an informed, progressive debate on the architectural future of Berlin [26].

However the Palast left with a bang. In the couple of years preceding its final closure the building was taken over by various cultural organisations which temporarily used its gutted shell to stage a whole range of exhibitions and performances (Einstürzende Neubauten played there amongst others). The Zwischennutzung (’intermediate use’) programme of events was immensely successful and for a while it looked as though the building, devastated, humiliated and on the brink of impending disappearance, had single-handedly become the coolest and most cutting-edge venue in town, reappropriated by its inhabitants and responsive to the breathing city that lay beyond its porous envelope, intimately integrated into the fabric of a living whole [27]. Fundamentally a void at Berlin’s core (in ideological - the GDR was for many merely a blip in the historical continuum which had to be blotted out - as well as physical terms - there was hardly anything left of the structure), poised between a minimal existence and near absence (the word ZWEIFEL - ’doubt’ - spelt in huge letters on the roof emphasizing its uncertain future and tenuous presence), its dismantled spaces proved the most flexible, resilient setting for interactive events and raised vital questions about openness, transparency, the impact of art in society and its relation to the surrounding city. In fact it is certainly in its ephemeral and inclusive quality the closest one ever got to the mythical but never realized Fun Palace designed by Cedric Price for London’s East End in the 1960s [28]. What will happen behind the opaque, massive stone walls of the Schloss pastiche (the latest plan incorporating a new museum for the city’s non-European art collections with ’entertainment’ facilities attached), in its all too imposing materiality, symbolic overdetermination and overweening claim to a fixed, all-encompassing ’identity’, will certainly turn its back on the ciy whilst pretending the opposite and condition formatted, predetermined social practices (a visit to the museum with maybe a look into the shops at the end of it in a cosy, hypercontrolled, hyperprivatised and hypersponsored environment).

In the sanitization of history and its recycling into a smooth, unproblematic narrative - regardless of the emotional significance of the place and its enduring power in personal memories - the Palast, reduced to its most humble, transparent self, could have mutated into new, open-ended architectural forms and initiated experimental interactions with a city whose heart is doomed to be entombed in a bombastic XVIIIIth century wedding cake and antiquated urbanistic concepts. In a horrifying future development Berlin would probably then stop becoming, to finally be [29]. As we speak the Palast’s ghost is slowly vanishing, maybe already transformed beyond recognition, ready for the big leap. There is however a slight twist to all this. As the required funds are currently unavailable for the Humboldt Forum (the project largely relies on private generosity as the State simply cannot afford such a folly) Berlin’s true nature has returned with a vengeance. On the site of the Palast, there will until then be... nothing. Just a vast expanse of green nothingness, a slightly better tended version of the innumerable wastelands otherwise gracing the city’s forgotten corners.


[1] Walter Benjamin, Illuminationen (Frankfurt am Main: 1961), 273 [Illuminations, English trans. Harry Zorn (London: 1970)].

[2] Brian Ladd, The Ghosts of Berlin. Confronting German History in the urban Landscape (Chicago, London: The University of Chicago Press, 1997), 7-39.

[3] On the Wall as anti-architecture: Neil Leach, ’Berlin 1961-89. The bridal Chamber’, in Neil Leach (ed.), Architecture and Revolution. Contemporary Perspectives on Central and Eastern Europe (London, New York: Routledge, 1999), 209-218.

[4] After Philipp Oswalt, Berlin. Stadt ohne Form. Strategien einer anderen Architektur (Munich: Prestel Verlag, 2000).

[5] On Berlin’s interstitial spaces and a critique of architectural intervention: Kenny Cupers & Markus Miessen, Spaces of Uncertainty (Wuppertal: Verlag Müller + Busmann KG, 2002).

[6] Der Himmel über Berlin (France/West Germany, 1987), director: Wim Wenders; script: Wim Wenders, Peter Handke; cast: Bruno Ganz, Solveig Dommartin, Otto Sander, Curt Bois, Peter Falk.

[7] Official website of the Topographie des Terrors.

Ladd, 1997, 154-167.

Stefanie Endlich, ‘”Grands Projets”: un nouveau Paysage des Lieux de Mémoire’, in Les Temps Modernes n° 625. Berlin Mémoires (Paris: 2003), 97-99.

[8] Ibid., 103-106.

[9] Possession (France/West Germany, 1981), director: Andrzej Zulawski; cast: Isabelle Adjani, Sam Neill, Margit Carstensen, Heinz Bennent. This part of the essay is a reworking of a piece included in the website I devoted to Possession and its Berlin setting on Kosmospalast.

[10] Fräulein Schmetterling (East Germany, DEFA-Studio für Spielfilme, Künstlerische Arbeitsgruppe “Heinrich Greif”, 1965-66), director: Kurt Barthel; script: Christa und Gerhard Wolf, Kurt Barthel; cast: Melania Jakubiskovà, Christa Heiser, Carola Braunbock, Milan Sladek, Lissy Tempelhof.

[11] On the presence of women in the socialist city and the possible emergence of a flâneuse figure in this new context: Astrid Ihle, ‘Wandering the Streets of Socialism: a Discussion of the Street Photography of Arno Fischer and Ursula Arnold’, in David Crowley & Susan Reid (eds.), Socialist Spaces. Sites of Everyday Life in the Eastern Bloc (Oxford, New York: Berg, 2002), 85-104.

[12] On the official representation of womanhood in the GDR: Astrid Ihle, ‘Framing socialist Reconstruction in the GDR: Women under Socialism - a Discussion of the Fragments of a Documentary Project by the Photographer Evelyn Richter’, in Paul Cooke & Jonathan Grix, (eds.), East Germany: Continuity and Change (Amsterdam, Atlanta: Rodopi, 2000).

[13] On the portrayal of women and sex in the context of modern urban transformations and their exposure to the male gaze: Katherine Shonfield, Walls have Feelings. Architecture, Film and the City (London, New York: Routledge, 2000). Of particular interest are the chapters on Polanski’s Repulsion and Godard’s Two or three Things I know about Her.

[14] Andreas Tzortzis, ‘Berlin’s Post-Wall Master Builder retires’, The New York Times, 27 September 2006.

[15] For an exhaustive presentation of Berlin’s new architectural projects, critically reconstructed or not: Philipp Meuser, Vom Plan zum Bauwerk. Bauten in der Berliner Innenstadt nach 2000 (Berlin: Braun, 2002).

[16] Ladd, 1997, 108-110, 231-235.

[17] Steffen Pletl, ‘Humboldthafen: neuer Statdtteil geplant’, Berliner Morgenpost, 21 October 2006; Ralf Schönball, ‘Zugkräftige Umgebung’, Der Tagesspiegel, 3 January 2007.

[18] Stadt als Beute (Germany, 2005), directors: Irene von Alberti, Miriam Dehne, Esther Gronenborn; cast: Richard Kropf, Inga Busch, Stipe Erceq, Julia Hummer, David Scheller, René Pollesch.

[19] Ladd, 1997, 115-125.

Cupers & Miessen, 70-71.

[20] On the privatisation of the public realm in the ubiquitous shopping mall: ibid., 12-18.

Lieven De Cauter, The Capsular Civilization. On the City in the Age of Fear (Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2004).

[21] Cupers & Miessen, 2002, 99.

[22] Rem Koolhaas, Sanford Kwinter (ed.), Rem Koolhaas: Conversations with Students (Architecture at Rice) (Princeton Architectural Press, 1996), 63.

[23] For a detailed history of the Palast der Republik: Anke Kuhrmann, Der Palast der Republik. Geschichte und Bedeutung des Ost-Berliner Parlaments- und Kulturhauses (Petersberg: Michael Imhof Verlag, 2006).

[24] On the debates surrounding the rebuilding of the Berliner Schloss: Anna-Inés Hennet, Die Berliner Schlossplatzdebatte im Spiegel der Presse (Berlin: Verlagshaus Braun, 2005).

Mathis Winkler, ‘The Struggle to shape the Heart of Berlin’, Deutsche Welle, 21 August 2006.

For details on the Humboldt Forum project and the significance of the Schlossplatz site from an institutional perspective, see Berlin’s Senate Department of Urban Development website.

[25] On the treatment of the GDR after unification: Paul Cooke, Representing East Germany since Unification. From Colonization to Nostalgia (Oxford, New York: Berg, 2005), 27-59.

Régine Robin, Berlin Chantiers. Essai sur les Passés fragiles (Paris: Stock, 2001), 168-245.

[26] On the Berliner Schloss in the context of Critical Reconstruction and the related conception of history: Ladd, 1997, 47-70.

On the vicissitudes of national identity and the construction of history in postwar Germany: Mary Fulbrook, German National Identity after the Holocaust (Cambridge, Maldon: Polity Press, 1999).

[27] On the various artistic interventions in the Palast during its Zwischennutzung phase: Amelie Deuflhard, Sophie Krempl-Klieeisen, Philipp Oswalt, Matthias Lilienthal & Harald Müller (eds.), Volkspalast. Zwischen Aktivismus und Kunst (Berlin: Theater der Zeit / Recherchen 30, 2006).

A more general essay on alternative, temporary uses of existing places: Florian Haydn & Robert Temel (eds.), Temporary Urban Spaces: Concepts for the Use of City Spaces (Basel, Boston, Berlin: Birkhäuser, 2006).

[28] On possible future mutations of the Palast and a parallel with Cedric Price’s Fun Palace: Philipp Misselwitz, Hans Ulrich Obrist & Philipp Oswalt (eds.), Fun Palace 200X. Der Berliner Schlossplatz. Abriss, Neubau oder grüne Wiese? (Berlin: Martin Schmitz Verlag, 2005).

[29] After Karl Sheffler’s famous phrase: “the tragedy of a fate that... condemns Berlin forever to become and never to be.” Karl Scheffler, Berlin - ein Stadtschicksal (reprint, Berlin: Fannei und Walz, 1989), 219.


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