Thursday, June 30, 2005

Urban Pornography

I've just spent a very enjoyable hour or so in the Potsdamer Platz. It's hard to believe that twenty years ago, it was an urban wasteland adjoining the Berlin Wall, because today it is a highly vibrant and active area, with some fantastic modern buildings. Then again, when I consider how much it has changed in the three years since I first set foot in Berlin, it really does hit home the pace of change in the city. OK, so I'm a big fan of glass-and-steel-type architecture, but I challenge people to think that the new developments around the square are anything other than brilliant. There's also a lot going on; it's the location for a large number of Berlin cinemas, and with a shopping center, bars and cafes all around it's usually pretty busy. Excellent for someone who likes the hustle and bustle of a city! Even better, I had the good fortune to be passing through the square at the same time a blues band was playing - from my limited musical expertise, it seemed to be of good quality, and they must have played there for about an hour.

The Potsdamer Platz is also an excellent base for a whistlestop walking tour of central Berlin. It gives a clear glimpse of the Brandenburg Gate; walk just a few meters up from the square and the glass cupola of the Bundestag (designed by an Englishman, I'm proud to say) becomes visible. I was walking up that street for a different purpose, however - one of the new landmarks in the area is the Holocaust Memorial. Considering how close it is to the most memorable symbols of Berlin really hits home the difficulty with which Germany has had to come to terms with its past - perhaps even more poignant is the fact that the memorial is barely metres from the site of Hitler's bunker. The memorial itself is very strange - large plinths/blocks in the ground, with a deliberately uneven walkway. The idea is that you can walk through the grid-like structure as you please, but it is a very disorienting experience.

It has been a very controversial monument - and watching groups of teenagers using it to play hide-and-seek, you can understanding why. But the disorienting feeling is quite strong, especially if you find yourself in some of the quieter area, and the effects is added to by the fact that the plinths/blocks are arranged at an angle to the perpendicular. In any case, I quite like the fact that people are free to walk through it as they see fit, and even the games of hide-and-seek, or running, boisterous children add something to the memorial. And that is the point of it, I think - that there is space set aside for our remembrance. Space which can take us outside of our comfort zone, but is still very much a product of the present.

German historical exhibitions are always interesting, as much for the light they shed on post-war attitudes as for the information that can be gained about the past. The exhibition at the Zitadelle was no exception. Run by the Topographie des Terrors foundation (the same group who have the open-air museum in the former Gestapo headquarters), it was an exhibition outlining the experiences of Berlin in 1945. Here the "German dilemma" really reared its head - when talking about support for Hitler, for example, the display emphasised that in 1933 fewer than average voted for the Nazis; yet had to admit that processions and so on in Berlin were supported actively by the citizens. On the whole, however, it avoided the temptation to divide the people of the past into "good" or "bad", and although there were confessional aspects such as large parts of the exhibition given to chronicling Nazi war crimes (for example, the shooting of Jews and Gypsies in Yugoslavia as retribution for resistance), it was fascinating to read about the muddled way in which Berliners dealt with the war, and how quickly the rebuilding effort progressed (even if the knowledge of the shadow of its later partition emphasised how the chance to start over again was never taken).

After my visit to Spandau, I went to the Olympiastadion. I had a good look round, but will give a full write-up tomorrow, because I managed to arrive at the sales desk 15 minutes after the guided tour had departed, with a two-hour wait for the next one. In my defence, I had no idea when the tours departed, but as one of my friends put it - ignorance and inefficiency is a lethal combination. The stadium is quite simply monumental and has one of the nicest designs I've ever seen - it's hard to believe that it has lasted from 1936. That's about all I've been up to today - tomorrow I hope to blitz about a little more, and get a chance to catch the largest department store in the world (so it claims), and then shoot out east to see the Soviet memorial. That's if the weather doesn't catch up with me, and the danger of thunderstorms actually becomes a reality.