On the morning of August 13th 1961 Berliners woke up to find their city divided by a wall that stretched for 29 miles. During it's existence 5000 people tried to escape from the East and it's estimated 239 died in doing so. Nov 9th this year will mark 20 years since the fall of the infamous Berlin wall. In early Sept I had an opportunity to visit Germany's capital. A new Berlin part of a new and reunified Germany.
My memories of the period in 1989 when the wall came down are mostly those images that flashed across a television screen as part of enthralling news reporting from ITN. At 16 years of age a kid growing up in Ireland, the full meaning of the fall of communism across Europe did not register, yet I was fully aware of the historical significance of what was happening before my eyes. As so often is for a young adult the significance of events can very much be read by the reactions of the grown ups around you. Some being those sitting with me watching, the others being those on the TV screen. Images of men and women smashing the wall with sledgehammers, hugging each other while tears rolled down their faces. Throngs of people pushing across a border in disbelief and fear of a clampdown that might once again thwart their efforts to escape from an oppressive regime.
My fascination with Berlin stems from these childhood memories.
Today parts of the wall still stand dotted across the city as relics to the past and for all those who come to see a part of history. Many of these pieces still bear the images that people chose to paint across a drab grey concrete wall that drove a barrier across their hearts and the heart of their city.
The remnants real value lie in that are they are testament to just what this city and it's people have overcome. I couldn't help thinking that this is exactly what makes Berlin so vibrant. Here is a city that has been given a chance at a new lease of life and Berliners it seems are determined that they are going to make the most of it. It has always been a city where artists, scholars, academics have flocked so it's cultural significance is not something new. The only difference now perhaps being that the city has a sense of really coming into it's own after being completely devastated by the 2nd World War and then later divided by communism. Across the city much is facade for what is coming and it is true that the cranes across the city are almost as numerous as the famous landmarks that the city lays claim to. It is somewhat bizarre as you stroll the city when you realize that a lot of it is fake. A one dimensional graphic representation of the future propped up by webs of scaffolding.
Yet for all the facade the architecture of Berlin was what grabbed my attention most about the city. It is truly a beautiful European capital. The first thing I noticed was it's 'openesss' as regards the city's architectural planning. Nowhere in the city did I feel like I was being enveloped by giant skyscrapers that blotted out the sky and dwarfed me on the street. I felt like I could breath and immediately I felt at ease. I liked this city a lot. From it periods of Romanticism, to the New Objectivity of the 20's, the totalitarian of it's Nazi style, the Utilitarianism that marks the old division between east and west to the explosion of contemporary building, it is a jewel in the history of architecture. It's contemporary architecture design projects are some of the most forward thinking I've seen anywhere.
Urban planning has left streets wide and most buildings low for what I suspect is a consideration for the healthy psyche of the people who work and live here. Tree lined streets are prevalent as well as bike lanes . Important elements that add to the quality of an urban life. Road rage between drivers and cyclists I saw none.
In my short time and my curiosity of the Berlin art scene I only managed 2 gallery visits. One to The Berlin Gallery and the other to the New National Gallery. Unfortunaltely for me both of these galleries had large sections closed in preparation for upcoming exhibitons in time for the approaching 20 year anniversary. Yet operating on half mast both of these institutions managed to leave their mark. Both galleries The Berlinsche Galerie and the Neue Nationalgalerie as they are know to locals are both meccas for contemporary, modernist art lovers, the former concentrating on home grown art the latter more international in it's scope. The National Gallery building designed by architect Mies Van Der Rohe is beautiful in it's starkness and linear form with an overhanging roof of steel who's strength of form isn't fully appreciated until you approach and stand beneath it. I simply loved it.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the BilderTraume exhibit of mostly surrealist works currently at the National Gallery was easily one of the best exhibits I've seen anywhere. From a private collection it included work from Dali, Miro, Pollack, Picasso, Ernst, Magritte, Rivera, Tanguy to name a few. If you're in Berlin I'd recommend making a point of seeing it.
From what I've read about Berlin since I've left there is of course division within it's citizens about the 'progress' and the building blitz that has occurred in recent years. Gentrification that goes along with it is utterly transforming neighborhoods and there are stories of the poorer less central neighborhoods being ignored as far as investment in their upkeep. The movement of people is occurring now in the reverse direction from west to east because they can't afford the price of progress. In the strongest economy in Europe everything still comes with a price. It remains to be seen just how well Berlin and perhaps Germany as a whole can cope with it's past as it hurtles into the future.