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Just Looking: Berlin in 2007

  • March 16th, 2007
  • Posted by 7thmin

postdamer-platz-resize.jpgThe city of Berlin this month will host a Festival of Europe, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the European Union. Lee Duffield recalls a visit to Berlin in 2007, compared to getting around in the city in days when it was rudely divided.

Entering through the rather small Schoenfeld airport, favoured by today’s low-end airlines, well-maintained since its days as entrepot to East Berlin, I am arrested in a corridor by a ghostly smell of the past.

It is a whiff only, of the pervasive “aroma of Eastern Europe” well-known to travelers of the last Century; unforgettable, hardly definable, an amalgam of low octane petrol fumes, shag tobacco, industrial pollution, some local coal smoke and cheap antiseptic.

Maybe this time it is just the cheap antiseptic; perhaps even after seventeen years traces of it still won’t go away, or somebody in the cleaning department hankering after the past still buys it in.

Beyond that the smell seems to have gone; traces of the past are forever under threat of extinction in glittering and beautiful new Berlin.

The peculiar history of the city has interfered more than somewhat with any normal development of its townscape: a monumental imperial capital of the late 19th Century; then a bombed-out wreck of a city; a very big town divided by a wall; now a national capital at the centre of affairs but located awkwardly far towards the Eastern margins of the country’s present geographical terrain.

This has been turned to advantage.

As the city has missed out on an undisrupted evolution it can present itself very much in terms of now; it lives in the present; to the outsider, extensively re-built, it is dazzling.

It must be architects’ paradise, to build the heart of a great 21st Century city literally from the ground up.

The unification of the city, deployment of national Reunification funds, and installation of the federal German capital at Berlin, have generated enough industry to astonish visitors from another time.

The spending effort is well divided between new public buildings, and restored old ones, and very large private investment coming to the party – as naming rights on the towers proclaim.

To stand at the intersection of Leipzigerstrasse and Friedrichstrasse towards peak hour is a revelation; traffic in both directions can go somewhere now, and will have some business to do at the destination, so it is heavy through traffic as in any “real” city of the world.

Before, this was a backwater, in rather poor, nothing-happening East Berlin; the soft, slow city of West Berlin an inaccessible presence just down the street.

Yet the force of the change is not the advent of commerce, business life or private mobility around the town; it is the aesthetic of the actual contrived new environment.

The opportunity to build the new centre on the wasteland of Postsdamer Platz was taken up with over-powering effect, as thousands have already declared.

There is not much place for nostalgia.

Travellers would recall the rattle-trap trip via S Bahn from Anhalter station in the West to the communist border point at Friedrichstrasse, passing through the abandoned Postdamer Platz and Unter den Linden stations; sealed off, forbidden, forbidding, bathed in an eerie dim light.

Those dead places, going by, invited thoughts about the bustling streets of the 1930s, just above, bombed out and cleared, become ploughed ground along the militarised frontier.

Not any more.

The Unter den Linden station today maintains something-like its desolate Cold War image but Postsdamer Platz is once again arrestingly big and new.

Where the Berlin Wall cut across the natural flow of a city, its removal just restored a natural flow, and so creates a puzzle for outsiders as to where it fitted it – as it never did.

The section of wall left standing off Wilhelmstrasse should be enough to satisfy the curious, though this bit of the edifice in 2007 to me appeared meaningless and out of place. Hurrah!

Looking elsewhere for a little of the immediate past I traveled to the inner-city street corner at Eberswalderstrasse where they knocked a new opening in the Berlin Wall on the night of 10th November 1989, to let through some of the thousands queuing to get across.

Like most of the city the area has plenty of bustle and amenity; there are really no vestiges of the ugly monument for the unprepared observer to see; some of the brown-stuccoed apartment blocks may still have the old look, but the recent past has receded fast.

For the present, the life of the street, cafes and bistros, clubs, concert halls and galleries in Berlin, naturally, thrives.

The Eastern side remains out of favour in the glamour stakes, but for the priceless treasures of the museum island and the central little enclave called the Mitte.

There, the Berlin Ensemble theatre still honours its once-resident great man, Bertold Brecht, a production of Mother Courage in preparation at the time of visiting, and some well recommended new restaurants have opened nearby.

All in all, let bygones be bygones, the very appearance of the place proclaims; this city is the place to be.

Picture: Postdamer Platz, Berlin