Off the wall

The Vietnamese constitute a large minority group in Berlin, presumably the largest after the Turkish. This year marks twenty years since the reunification of Germany, but it also marks twenty years since the another reunification, the almost forgotten and very strange reunification between the North and South Vietnamese in Berlin.

The Vietnam War between the US-backed South Vietnamese and the Soviet-backed North Vietnamese has left a curious relic in Berlin. The German Democratic Republic was by proxy a supporter of the North Vietnamese and accepted guest workers as well as students since the 1950’s. These were admitted on five year contracts, after which they were supposed to return to Vietnam. The Federal Republic of Germany on their part were by proxy supporters of the South Vietnamese, and in the wake of the fall of Saigon in the middle of the 1970’s accepted approximately 30 000 Vietnamese asylum seekers. Many of these were Chinese-Vietnamese so-called boatpeople, who would have had a very rough time in the reunited Vietnam as the Vietnamese are very suspicious of their Chinese neighbour.

The reunification of Germany meant a reunification of their respective Vietnamese communities, halfway across the world from their home country. The South Vietnamese had in the meantime integrated rather well in the Federal Republic, while their North Vietnamese counterparts had been isolated from the East German society and had hardly any knowledge of the language. It was a reluctant reunification with a lot of suspicion on both sides. The only thing that united them was an unwillingness to return to Vietnam.

After reunification, the North Vietnamese faced a tough situation. Their jobs within the East German industry were gone, and they had little means of supporting themselves. Some turned to crime, and Vietnamese gangs started to generate incomes by any means available. The primary racket was, and still is, selling smuggled cigarettes. They are still visible on street corners in many parts of Berlin despite harassment from the Police.

Reunited Germany had little sympathy for the Vietnamese, and offered them plane tickets back to Vietnam, and substantial grants for the Vietnamese government to accept their Diaspora’s return. In the end however, few went back and many became self-employed as means of support were mandatory in order to receive residency permits. This has created a great abundance of flower shops and small grocery shops run by the Vietnamese.

It has also helped to create the Dong Xuan Center in Lichtenberg – a run-down industrial area in East Berlin. The name is taken from a famous marketplace in Hanoi, but Berlin’s Dong Xuan Center is an Asian marketplace in a German setting. It consists of four huge structures, each with a central corridor lined with small shops selling any- and everything remotely Asian. It is like a small Hong Kong in the unlikely setting of a derelict industrial estate. Although it is primarily Vietnamese, the place is a conglomeration of traders and importers from across Asia. It looks exactly as you would imagine a weird and wonderful combination of German order and South East Asian vibrant mercantilism, if you can. The image above does absolutely no justice to the place as it was taken shortly before closing time.

It is not a place without controversy, and arson has been known to be used on occasion as a way to stifle competition in the fierce economical climate. A number of gang related incidents have furthermore caused the Berlin Police Department to set up a taskforce targeting organised Vietnamese crime syndicates.

The Dong Xuan Center is as close to  Little Saigon as it gets in Berlin. It is, in a sense, the centre of the Vietnamese community in Berlin; notice boards with classified ads and personals fill the walls inside the market. Although the Vietnamese community is one of the largest minority groups in Berlin, they are mostly invisible apart from the cigarette vendors and the city’s many Vietnamese restaurants. It is here, in an abandoned industrial estate that you find the centre of a forgotten minority group. And the centre of a forgotten parallel reunification. The Dong Xuan Center is a parallel little universe, far removed from the German community of which it is technically a part, a forgotten history that has created this very dynamic relic on an otherwise almost abandoned edge of Berlin.


Today, it is 21 years since the Berlin Wall came down. Here is another book excerpt from the book Berlin- matter of memory on the Wall and the voids that replaced it. A draft for this text was previously published on this blog about a year ago.

It is impossible to write about Berlin without including the former Berlin Wall. The Wall that separated the East from the West for twenty-eight years, from 1961-1989, officially ceased to exist over twenty years ago, but it still plays a central role in the city. When the Wall came down, the general opinion was that it should be excised from Berlin, from history and from the minds of the city’s inhabitants. The question of preservation was secondary to the desire for reunification, and voices asking the city to preserve stretches were raised only very late in the euphoric beginning of the 1990’s.

As it has turned out, the physical wall has become a ghost. A conscious policy to rebuild Berlin from Potsdamer Platz to Bernauer Strasse and the wish to conceal the city’s unsightly scars have led to the removal most of the actual Wall. As the Wall was superimposed on an already existing city – which has since been reconstructed – it can be difficult to trace the wall on a map today, while in the actual landscape, especially some distance away from the most central parts, many signs of the iron curtain’s physical manifestation can still be seen.

Many have written about the Wall, what it meant to Berlin as a monument and what it has continued to symbolise for Berliners. Since most of these are written by competent historians (see for example Brian Ladd’s “The Ghosts of Berlin”), I will keep to aspects concerning myself as an architect. The first of these is the significance of the physical void left behind by the Berlin Wall.

The voids of the former “death strip” have done more for the integration of the reunited city than any of the grand projects such as Potsdamer Platz or Spreebogen or the like. Today, the voids are what characterise Berlin and constitute the one of the city’s prime assets. One could even say that the voids define Berlin culturally. Architect Rem Koolhaas was fascinated by the void when the Wall was still standing, and wrote the now-famous words ‘where nothing exists, everything is possible’.

It has now been twenty years since the Berlin Wall fell, the iron curtain was lifted and Berlin became one city again. During the first few years after the Wall came down, investments in the reunited city were made on a scale that rarely has been rivalled in Europe. At some point however, Berlin ran out of money and the city has been struggling economically since. The construction has continued, albeit on a smaller scale. Many of the new projects are constructed on land where the Wall used to run.

To some, the void left after the Wall is a scar which can’t be concealed rapidly enough; as long as the scar is visible, the division of Germany and the inequalities resulting from the unification remain contemporary. These memories can’t be written into the history books as past until the void has been filled. As long as the wound is open, the past will continue to leak into the present. Monuments make history, while scars keep the past current.

Architect Daniel Libeskind saw the physical voids as mental voids in the collective mind, the marks of a society broken and a representation of the relationship between Germany and its Jews that was destroyed in the Holocaust. He maintained that the psychological voids would remain even if the physical voids were filled with new buildings.

The Wall was the millstone around Berlin’s neck, but through its demolition, this symbol of oppression became the stage for freedom. The cultural capital Berlin would be unthinkable without the voids; this is where nightclubs, art-installations, concerts and flea markets thrive(d) to make Berlin what it is today. These spaces can be used for anything or for nothing. Experimental culture can burgeon and evolve. For all intents and purposes, these ‘unprogrammed’ spaces are the cornerstones of cultural innovation in this city.

The voids give Berlin a unique spatial character and create unique opportunities in regard to public space. The voids are free spaces, to be used or inhabited in different ways as long as it is of a temporary nature. In and of themselves, the activities taking place in these spaces are monuments to freedom. The voids are a by-product of the Wall, perhaps the only positive one. If we decide that the voids of Berlin are spatial monuments, they are no longer functionless empty spaces. On the contrary: the voids become spaces worthy of preservation.

Another aspect of the Wall is the layer of activity and function it now creates on top of the reunited city. An almost invisible line crisscrossing through the city, the former path can be – and is – explored by tourists and Berliners alike, providing a view of the city from a new perspective. Travel along the Wall’s former path is best undertaken by bicycle and entails moving in an atypical pattern through the city, passing through neighbourhoods which would otherwise remain unseen.

Is the Wall today an relic or a monument? The voids are definitely relics, while the preserved stretches are monuments; they are authored in the sense that they are interpreted rather than objective. The museums and preservation zones are monuments, encoded with messages and interpretations. There are three separate permanent Wall exhibitions filling different functions in the city to date. The “Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer” on Bernauer Strasse is concerned with the preservational aspect, meticulously tending a section of the former death strip and commemorating of its victims. Perhaps the most famous preservation zone is the “East Side Gallery”, a section of the Wall which was converted to a gallery shortly after the fall. Artists were invited to decorate a length of Wall in East Berlin which had previously (for obvious reasons) been free of graffiti. Although the section of Wall is more a gallery of street art than a memorial, the East Side Gallery tends to be the destination of choice for tourists, as the colourful murals correspond to their vision of how it ought to be. The privately-run Mauermuseum – Haus am Checkpoint Charlie (Checkpoint Charlie Museum) focuses on spectacular escapes and escape attempts during the years of the Wall. It also offers an opportunity for visitors to be photographed with border guards and have their passports stamped.

The rest of the Wall is a relic, albeit one whose effects on the demographics and the social composition of different areas is much more in your face than the disappearing physical traces. The integration of the reunited city is slow, much slower than anybody expected, and even twenty years after the fall, the demographic division remains.

Areas with high non-German populations are generally the areas that were just on the Western side of the Wall, dead ends during the divided years but today quite central areas – for example Wedding, Kreuzberg or Neukölln. Areas on the Eastern side are typically old and run-down, with a few exceptions. These areas were rapidly gentrified when the Wall fell and still host a large, floating, international population of artists, architects and other people without proper jobs.

To preserve the void as a common territory and acknowledge the unique spatial conditions with which Berlin’s turbulent history has provided the city would be a positive motion and create opportunities which will eventually help Berlin out of its slump, or slumber. Berlin will never be as picturesque as other German cities, but what it does have is a unique urban landscape of spatial opportunities unrivalled by any other European city.


One of these days, it will be twenty years since the Berlin Wall fell. Since then, Germany has been reunited and Berlin has risen like a comet, or phoenix, and crash-landed again. During the first few years after the wall came down, there was an investment in the reunited city that rarely has been rivaled in Europe. The Reichtag, the entire Government district, Potsdamer Platz, the new Hauptbahnhof and so on, the list is long. At some point however, Berlin ran out of money and the city has been struggling economically since. The construction has continued, and if you thought Potsdamer Platz was a low quality project without any connection to the existing city, it’s nothing compared to what is going up these days along Bernuaer Straße or in Friedrichshain along the Spree.

Most of the projects mentioned above are or were built on the land where the wall used to run, and why not? Suddenly there was an abundance of land in the centre of a city of three million, a rarity anywhere in the world, and in Europe in particular. To some, the void left after the wall is a scar, an open wound, and to them the voids can’t be filled rapidly enough. The voids then appear as an open wound, of an uncomfortable past, and as long as the scar is there, the division of Germany, and the inequalities resulting from the unification are present. These memories can’t be put into the history books as a past until the void is filled. As long as the wound is open, the past leaks into the present. Monuments make history, while scars keeps the past in the present, since the results, and not the monuments of history are what we are presented with, the events must still be contemporary rather than historical.

The voids can however also be argued to be a symbol of freedom, as a symbol of democracy and of opportunity. The wall was the millstone around the neck of Berlin, and what is left after it was torn down is practically the opposite. The cultural capital Berlin has become would be unthinkable without the voids, this is where nightclubs, art-installations, concerts, flea markets and so on thrived to make Berlin what it is today. These spaces that can be used for anything, or for nothing. These are spaces where experimental culture can thrive and evolve. It is in these spaces that lack programming that you can try to use in different ways, these spaces are the cornerstones of cultural innovation in this city. The symbol of oppression became the stage for freedom.

So, in these days of celebrating the Mauerfall, can’t we just agree that the few spaces left are monuments? If we regard these spaces monuments of freedom and cultural assets rather than scars and potential eventual economic assets, we should all be all right.

Basically a monument is a space or an object designed primarily to commemorate a certain occasion or person. The function of the monument is solely to preserve this memory, it has no other programming. This is the beauty of the monument, and over time the function of the monument changes, but it gets a justification, or legitimisation through its nature as a monument. When there is a monument, planners and architects do not need to find a function to fill out the space, to assign it a function, or to program it in any other way.

If we decide the voids of Berlin are spatial monuments, they are no longer empty spaces without function. On the contrary, the void becomes a space to preserve. These spaces are not empty canvases to be filled out in order to complete the city, they already have a function, albeit an informal one. They are just spaces that are free, to use or to inhabit in different ways as long as it is of a temporary nature. The activities taking place in these spaces are themselves monuments to freedom, rituals enhancing the role of the monuments.

The rituals of these spaces already exist, they are already functioning as the monuments of freedom in everything but name, so why not just see the voids as the monuments they are, and allow them to continue to evolve and enhance the cultural life of Berlin?

Hauptbahnhof under construction

The railway station, as a building type, has had its ups and downs over the last two centuries. From its humble beginnings in Liverpool, it evolved into the grandiose cathedrals of St Pancras, London, Grand Central Terminal, NYC or the Victoria Terminus in Bombay.

Then, at some point in the middle of the last century, they fell from grace. From being the cathedrals of modern rapid transport, the railway stations became the local epi-centre of urban vice when airports became the glamorous, nodes of travel. King’s Cross, London, and Københavns Hovedbanegård would two examples.

Lately though, as airports become ever less glamorous and environmentally abominable in the public eye, railway stations have, during the last decades, yet again become monumental cathedrals of transportation. The train station has come out of hiding and claims space in the city where it becomes the most important of transportation nodes.

Berlin has got a brand spanking new train station (Berlin Hauptbahnhof), it was opened as late as in 2006, and is currently the largest crossing station in Europe. It is located in Moabit, an area that was more or less wall adjacent during the cold war. Large parts of the area were empty when the wall came down and a lot of government buildings sprang up south of the station during the early nineties when money poured into the city.

The station itself was the last of these grand projects to be completed, long after the steam had gone out of the over-optimistic post-wall Berlin. The final cost of the construction landed somewhere around €700,000,000.

The thing that interests me with train stations is usually not the actual building, but what kind of urban environment that surrounds it, the local context, from King’s Cross’ (formerly) seedy context to Venice’s glorious embankment, the area around train stations is never really dull.

Today, the Hauptbahnhof sits in, more or less lone majesty, surrounded by parking lots, wasteland and the river. With the railway stations’ refound status, I’ve been curious regarding what will grow up around the Hauptbahnhof, until last week when the plans for the area immediately south of the station were presented in a number of local newspapers.

Basically the plan is to construct a whole batch of hotels, totaling approximately 1,200 beds, mostly orientated to a budget market, a congress centre for 3,500 people and 300 or so car parking spaces.

Well, I can understand that tourism is one of the expanding industries in Berlin, and the fact that there is a lack of centrally located congress centres as far as I can understand. But that’s basically as far as I can sympathize with this plan. To create a tourist enclave in the middle of Berlin, isolated by government offices that are empty in the evenings, train tracks and the river is just idiotic.

First of all, this area could be so much more, it needs to become integrated with Berlin, not isolated from it. The Hauptbahnhof is not an airport in the middle of nowhere, it is an extremely central part of the city. To create a tourist island here is to separate it from the rest of the city.

Secondly, any urban area needs to develop over time, instant programs of a larger scale focusing on one function usually become very dreary. Any major European city has a number of more or less failed (on an urban level) large scale single function developments, especially those developed in a haste.

Thirdly, is it even going to be attractive to tourists? The reason you go to Berlin as a tourist is for the vibrant mix of everything, it is functionally quite an integrated city. Cheap bars next expensive hotels, squats next to banks, there’s always a surprise down every street. We all know that’s not going to last, but that’s no reason to speed up the generification (is that a proper word actually?) of Berlin willfully.

I do appreciate that the incentive for this is economical and my arguments against it aren’t very economical. I do also appreciate the fact that Berlin is still a scarred city with many blanks in the urban fabric, and some people are itching to mend them. But I can’t help but feel that the city sells itself short, over and over again.

There are lots of examples, read Architecture in Berlin’s posts on Mediaspree, or Alexanderplatz. The blanks in the urban fabric, that some are so eager to fill in, are part of what gives Berlin unique charm. The undefined spaces, that with temporary modification can become anything, allow things to prosper, ideas, art, clubs and so forth that would never even be able to survive for a week elsewhere.

However, this will most likely give Berlin something else that’s unique; a dull area just outside a major railway station.

This is a short story of a small ramshackle house on a traffic island on Bethaniendamm, Kreuzberg

The story begins in 1983 and takes place on a small plot of land in what technically was no man’s land, on the actual border strip. A small unused piece of land on western side of the wall was at that time a derelict wasteland, unusable territory that due to its legal status as no man’s land was left to decay.

Then one day in 1983, a local neighbor decided to turn this into a vegetable garden. This was unpopular with the GDR officials who were suspicious of any activity in proximity to the wall. The gardener however lived in West Berlin and this made it a sensitive issue. In the end it was left unresolved, even when he eventually built a small house on the site with scrap pieces found in the streets and moved in.

When the wall came down in 1989 the garden ended up on the border between the boroughs of Mitte and Kreuzberg. The Mitte authorities tried to evict the squatter, but as this was still a border issue, albeit a less sensitive one, the matter remained unresolved. In 2004, it was finally settled that the tiny plot of land should belong to the Kreuzberg borough, a traditionally open minded borough that was willing to allow the garden to remain on the site.

I can’t help but love the story of these interstitial settlements, how they pop up and survive for so long, balancing on the borderline. This one starts off on land which is technically unusable and turns it into something useful. What once was the very definition of the outskirts of West Berlin is now in the middle of the re-united city.

Geçekondu-Turkish word for illegal settlement on the outskirts of the city

If you look up the term “Cyberpunk” in Wikipedia, you’ll find an image of Sony Center in Potsdamer Platz. Cyberpunk is as a genre of literature and films, and is usually set in a near future dystopia, with “high-tech and low life”, artificial intelligence and corporations running amok, where nothing is as it seems to our eyes. All in all an extremely in-human world. Bladerunner is a prime example of the genre.

The Wikipedia image caption states that Sony Center has aesthetic qualities resembling of the genre, but on the other hand, one could extend the analogy to cyberpunk even further.

Potsdamer Platz used to be the absolute city centre in Berlin in the twenties, it was the largest traffic junction on the continent, a huge number of vehicles and trams passed by every day and this also led to the erection of Europe’s first traffic light. Since a bunch of Third Reich official buildings were located in the vicinity, the area was reduced to rubble in the allied bombing raids. During the cold war, the area was part of No man’s land, and remained barren. When the wall came down, officials in Berlin were suddenly faced with the fact that their once city center was still rubble.

As the reunited Berlin was a city with aspirations, everything was done to make sure the area was returned to its vibrant pre-war self as quickly as possible. In order to achieve this, the large area was reduced to three sites, each to be sold off to just one corporation. Naturally, the prospect of cheap inner city land made many a corporation start drooling, and in the end the two largest slices were snatched up by Sony and Daimler-Benz and they set forth to develop the area at neck-breaking speed. The objective was to create the resemblance of urbanity, shops, cafes, theaters and so on on ground level. An urban area containing pedestrian streets, lined with trees, fountains and the usual urban paraphernalia. The only difference is that it is almost entirely privately owned and managed. A meticulously controlled private city. Quite cyberpunk, isn’t it?