Jonathan Glancey repeated a few familiar myths about the Berlin Wall when he wrote about it recently. He wrote that ‘what remains of it are a few graffiti-spattered stretches of concrete for tourists to snap one another by’. Certainly much of the actual Wall itself is gone. The East Side Gallery is indeed spattered with graffiti but then how better to treat the last long stretch of a structure designed to keep people apart? (There is surely a whole dissertation to be done about graffiti on the Wall and how it has influenced the art form across Europe.) I’m not trying to do Glancey down. His piece makes a wider point about walls in cities but the fact is there is more to the Wall today than a ‘ few graffiti-spattered stretches of concrete’.
If you travel to the east of Kreuzberg you can see houses that were cut off by the the structure hastily built in 1961 but belying the entrenchment of the Cold War from ten years earlier. There has been no attempt to stitch up the loose ends of the urban fabric. Not far from this site, where the Wall made a small incursion along the Flutgraben, in the heart of the dreamy Schlesischer Park is the watchtower of the Schlesischer Busch command post which looks out on nothing today but strolling families, the occasional jogger and just to the west some of the most well appointed railway carriage / camper van squats in the world.
It is a standard shock for the visitor to realise that the wall didn’t travel perpendicularly through the map of Berlin north to south separating east and west as ordinal absolutes. The watchtower at Schlesischer Park is quaint testament to this. It’s almost cosy in its dimensions – its only 10m high. Across from the park to the east is a former barracks for guards. On the roof there still exists the gantry planks upon which the guards used to patrol. Inside the building, Raumlabor a German architecture and art group still inhabit what they took as a squat back in the day. Around them a playground of bars and clubs has been plugged into the old military complex. It is owned by one entrepreneur who threatens the tranquility of a number of great studios, testament to the changing economy of Berlin. Nearby is also a builders merchants yard who is cannily useing the wall to his own ends:
Yup. The former Anti-Fascist Protection Wall is now retaining aggregate. You don’t need to know how many individuals were killed from 1961 to 1989 to know that this is somehow life affirming.
Nor do I find the kitsch of Checkpoint Charlie cheapening. It’s only if you think that 1989 was simply a case of knocking down a bit of concrete that you should be offended by what goes on there now. If you need reminding that the Wall was a symbol of something else more important then you should watch this amazing documentary on the BBC . Sorry for those that are late or live outside the UK but this was one of the best bits of documentary work done by the BBC in recent years.
Indeed the moments where the Wall is remembered in somber fashion are strangely unsettling. The chapel of reconciliation is particularly strange point. The construction of the Berlin Wall put the adjacent, 1894 redbrick neo-Gothic building right in the middle of the no man’s land making it inaccessible. In 1985 the GDR demolished it. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the property was returned and a new church was consecrated. It is a generous and humane piece of architecture:
But then, as much as you can applaud these ideals: why build a memorial to the Wall? What makes a more powerful statement about what the Nazi holocaust: the remnants of Auschwitz or the laudable but abstract Eisenmann-designed series of monoliths? That’s not to denigrate what Eisenmann did but to understand that within the remains of the built fabric of a structure of repression one can understand the logic and the illogic of a regime. This to me is the fitting memorial to the Berlin Wall:
These pictures were taken by Dan Dubowitz. He’s got a shed load more of brilliant stuff. There is another great exhibition going on right now which follows the Wall all the way around West Berlin… A great lead image which makes the exhibition look like its well worth a trip up to Glasgow to the Lighthouse… If that’s not been demolished too.