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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.

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The following is an excerpt from Berlin- matter of memory

Tempelhof has a short but dynamic history. The airport has symbolized several distinctly different things to Berlin, changing radically every twenty years or so. It was constructed in the 1930’s as one of the world’s first commercial airports and as a symbol of the National Socialist Party. For Hitler, it was an integral part of Germania, his new World Capital. It formed part of the Southern end of the North-South axis of Speer’s urban plan. Tempelhof was also one of the few projects of Germania which was actually realised, and it gives a sense of the scale in which Germania was planned: covering some 200 000 square meters, the main airport building is still one of the world’s largest buildings.

After the war, the airport ended up in the Western Zone, which eventually became West Berlin. The relationship between the Soviets and the West soon became frosty and paranoid. In an attempt to gain control over the isolated West Berlin, the Soviet Union closed all overland lines of supply to the city. All supplies had to be flown in to Tempelhof airport and for almost a year, during the Berlin Blockade, roughly 200 000 flights landed primarily in Tempelhof. Eventually, the Soviets reopened the overland supply corridors, but Tempelhof became a symbol of the connection to the free world and of a triumph over Soviet oppression.

After the Cold War, Tempelhof remained active as one of the city’s three airports. West Berlin had developed the larger Tegel airport in the 1960’s and East Berlin used the former military airport Schönefeld. Both of these had longer runways and were located in less residential areas, and as a result, Tempelhof was only used for short-haul domestic flights. The only international flight was a weekly run to Brussels, used primarily by commuting Members of the European Parliament, lending Tempelhof the reputation of an airport for the rich. In a referendum in 2009, the vote to close the historic airport was approved by a small margin.

When Tempelhof shut down, there were still no plans as to what to do with the site. Under most circumstances, 200 hectares of prime real estate in the middle of a large European city usually means big money. Berlin, however, is different. Land is quite cheap as it is, and the city already has a surplus of land and housing. The historic nature of the airport, primarily focusing on its role during the Berlin Blockade, renders it a central historic relic that cannot be tampered with without massive protests. So far, at least two architectural competitions have been held, trying to find a feasible solution for the combination of a massive relic, profitable development and a park that will make everybody happy.

The most recent competition focused on the interesting task of merging Tempelhof with the city while conserving its historical aspects. It is most likely that the airport will gradually be absorbed by the urban fabric, but by preserving certain features, such as the taxi-ring and the two runways, the hope is that the relic will merge with the city in a way which will not only encourage the area’s development, but also carry Tempelhof over in the future urban fibre as remaining readable traces. The same approach has been taken with the remains of the Berlin Wall, but with less successful results – although the rapid disappearance of traces of the Wall is admittedly almost certainly due to the fact that the structure is burdened with heavy negative associations.
The process of historical relics being absorbed and yet having their shape preserved is by no means unique to Berlin. This type of evolution and preservation of form is common to most old cities. Take for instance central London, a good example since London is a city with a long continuous history. Almost any straight road in London is Roman in origin, while most other roads demarcate the former borders between farmers’ fields from the 8th Century.

Thus, you can read a 1300 year-old farm landscape in the pattern of today’s urban fabric. Normally, the process is the result of an ad hoc development over centuries, where the replacement of components is gradual and organic. As a city without historical continuity, Berlin is currently using this process to artificially manufacture one. The plan is for Tempelhof to weave itself into the urban fabric, to seamlessly merge and make an imprint on the layout of the future Berlin. It is a kind of hyper-real image of Berlin’s history. History in the former airfield will speed up, and the process of assimilation into the urban fabric that previously took centuries will now take years or decades at most.

It is a case of selective history, a case of controlled decay; it is also uncomfortably close to Speer’s theories on ruin value. Tempelhof as a structure has a diverse history. And that is perhaps what will allow it to become a neutral relic; in a way Tempelhof is a relic of the entire 20th century, good and bad.

The other day, the scaffolding came down from one of the most awaited construction projects in Berlin this year, at least by me; the L-40 at the end of Linienstraße, on the corner of Rosa Luxemburg Platz and Torstraße. For once, I can easily fit architecture, urbanism and art into the same post.

The building is designed by BundschuhBaumhauer in collaboration with artist Cosima von Bonin and is located in Mitte on the border of Prenzlauer Berg, in other words, right where the New Berlin is rising. The block the L-40 has landed in was constructed in the first decades of the 1900’s and centered on the Volksbühne, the People’s Theatre, from 1914. The block around it was a homogenous composition of residential buildings, some were destroyed during the Second World War leaving the area full of holes that have since gradually been filled in.

The reconstruction of the neighborhood left an empty, awkward, triangular site at the northern end of the Volksbühne area. Despite its central location, the site remained empty for many years, its shape made development difficult. The origins of the building that now stands there was a smaller art project for the site created by Roger Bundschuh and artist Cosima von Bonin, in the form of sausage stand a few years ago. In dialogue with the client, the project evolved to become a residential building.

The thing that attracted me right from the start was the uncompromising nature of the project. The concept was a black concrete monolith, and now, as the scaffolding comes down, there is a black concrete monolith. In Berlin, concepts are so habitually washed down and value-engineered that when the building finally stands there it looks like pre-fabricated standard issue, and is usually very hard to distinguish from similar projects that have gone through the same process. Not so here, this building is anything but run of the mill, its exterior is rather hostile with its sharp corners in combination with large solid walls of concrete. This may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but the perseverance in pushing such a project through is astounding.

As a work of architecture I appreciate the clean lines, the material qualities of the concrete, and the idea of turning the standard Berlin tenement house inside out. One of the primary concepts of the project was to attempt to open up the courtyard rather than use it as a second grade source of light that is one of the main problems of the Berlin tenement blocks. All of these are qualities that are not very common in architecture in this city. A rigid planning code and cost cutting measures create numerous obstacles. The flats themselves are interesting, and quirky. For a speculative project, they are frankly courageous in their layout. The building is as mentioned a speculative project, and this means that the flats are designed for hypothetical buyers, in this case hypothetical art-collectors. Yet they are highly personalized and anything but standard. The flats are laid out with an Elizabethan long gallery as a centerpiece. This is a rather introverted space with mainly skylights, intended for the display of artworks and is a form of a private gallery. This is an interesting take on the flat layout, and I really enjoy the fact that somebody has got the guts to do something other than the market optimized solutions routinely employed by everybody these days.

The borderline between art and architecture is fuzzy at best, and sometimes produces very amusing or tragic hybrids and results. This blog has previously covered the collaboration between Chipperfield and Gormley in Kivik, Sweden. This structure was conceived and built as a sculpture, and led an existence as one, until one day, some unhappy neighbor filed a complaint to the local council, claiming that it was in fact a building and not a sculpture. The local council resolved the question in a very bureaucratic way, declaring:

“A building is a durable construction of a roof and walls that on the ground, and is large enough to allow people to enter” (my translation, the Swedish version can be found here)

This meant that the structure had been illegally constructed since it did not have planning permission, furthermore would the sculpture then have to be adapted to the rather rigorous Swedish Construction code, equipped with 1.10 m rails on the platforms, disabled facilities and so forth. In short, as art it was a great project, while as architecture it became useless.

The indistinct border between art and architecture is an issue that has haunted primarily the architectural profession at least since Michelangelo’s day. This text will not attempt to settle that question but will only mention a few questions that pop up.

The building has been called a hybrid between art and architecture, or a sculpture to live in. The origins of the L-40 building were, as I mentioned previously, an art project on the site. If this building is a sculpture, then whose sculpture is it, and of what? Is the building a sculpture full of wealthy art collectors’ condos for the enjoyment of the city, or does the building in fact become a monument to the egos of its builders, or its wealthy art-collector inhabitants? The second possibility is decidedly less attractive. It is hard to see it as a work of public art as there is no public access to the building. I usually do not have any reservations about architects referring to public buildings as art projects. Here on the other hand, we are looking at a private structure that has an enormous impact on the context, and the questions of whose artwork it is, and its role in relation to the public become relevant.

I prefer to look at it, not as a sculpture with elements of architecture, but rather as an art project that became architecture at one point. As far as I have understood the design process, the artist on the project Cosima von Bonin was more involved in the early stages of the project, before it turned into architecture. In my opinion, the sculptural part may have been an integral part of the process, but the end result is so much more attractive if we look at it as architecture rather than art. The questions raised by it as an art project would have an impact on its role and functionality as architecture, and in an urban context.

The relationship between art and architecture is never easy or simple. Architecture needs to be “nice” in the sense that it is created to make the situation better for somebody, to shelter, to protect, to sell or some other reason. Architecture needs a purpose. As a consequence, architecture needs to be “functional” in the sense that it is always measured in relation to its purpose. Art suffers from no such petty preconditions; it can be whatever it wants to be, it can ask questions or provoke in ways architecture is not allowed to. Art is often more interesting if it is not nice or functional, while the same work as architecture would lose all legitimization, and sometimes vice versa.

Whichever way you choose to look at it, the L-40 project is an interesting exploration of the enormously complex borderline between art and architecture, on a scale and level rarely experienced in Berlin these days.

Very soon after September 11, 2001,  the dual roles of the Ground Zero site became clear. The site was to act as a memorial for the victims and was at the same time a piece of prime real estate. These two were very hard to combine. For years nothing seemed to happen. Competitions were held, and various rather horrific combinations of memorial and profitable office space were selected and questioned over and over again.

Now, it appears that construction is finally on the way, and things are starting to come up out of the ground after 8 years. I’m not sure what it will be, whether it is Snøhetta’s, Foster’s, Rogers’, Calatrava’s or Libeskind’s building that will be there, possibly it has all been hijacked by SOM and generic office towers will fill in the gap. Whatever it is, it feels rather good that something is happening and that the scar will be healed eventually.

In one very definite sense was the hole the most effective memorial there could be. It is not about whether that would allow the enemy to win or not, but it puts the entire catastrophe into the present in a way a memorial could never do. As soon as a memorial is constructed, the event memorialized is effectively put into history. A scar drags the events of 9.11 into the present while a memorial, any memorial, no matter how it’s designed, will effectively put the events into the history books.

One could therefore argue that the scar in the urban fabric is the ultimate memorial, It keeps the events in the present forever, much more effectively than any memorial. It is this that every day reminds Americans in general and New Yorkers in particular about the “War on Terror”. The physical void corresponds to the psychological void in people’s minds in a very minimalistic but effective way. I find it interesting that the last parcel of land was handed over to the developers just when the US politics shifted focus from having the War on Terror as the top priority. The void could then hypothetically have been used as an instrument of politics, as a way of stretching, or bridging the past into the present.

The void itself is not empty, and the symbolism of the void can be quite powerful. A void is a something not a nothing, there is no Tabula Rasa. No matter how much symbolism you try to load into the office towers that will be built, they will just be buildings, and they will put this quite awkward period of America and the world into the history books rather than eternally revolving on the prime-time news. Construction on Ground Zero is making peace with the rest of the world, it is putting an end to the state of emergency that has served as an excuse for humans doing rather horrific things to each other for far too long.

It is interesting to look at why we construct monuments, sometimes we construct them not to remember, but to forget. We build memorials to allow ourselves to move on and detach ourselves from the past by loading a physical structure with the guilt, sorrow and other emotions. The memorial gives us a distance to the event its created to commemorate. It also provides us with a physical structure where we can remember, but the structure or space takes on many of the immediate emotions and memories. The structure remembers, history remembers, so we don’t have to. Our minds are liberated by it, free to go on with our lives and to live in the present instead of the past. In that way, the monument is a great structure, a very human structure that sets us free to live our own lives, in our own day and age.

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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?