Friday, 10 July 2015

Berlin #1: a city of layers

So there's this billboard at street level on Oranienstraße in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin. Its posters have slowly built up on each other, layer upon layer upon layer, until the layers are about a foot thick.

Apologies - my photo doesn't do it justice. But the effect is similar to laminated wood, or tree rings, or deep strata of archaeological silt.

That's Berlin to T, a history-saturated city, where each latest layer has to compete with and try to overlap - and sometimes conceal or completely erase - the earlier ones. As cities go, Berlin isn't your typical story with a neat beginning, middle and (sometimes) an end. It's more a series of beginnings piled up on each other.

There's an old Irish proverb that you can judge a country by its proverbs. Or maybe I just made that up. Yet a real German proverb by an art critic from a century ago tries to capture this essential "layering" of Berlin:
"Berlin ist eine Stadt, verdammt dazu, ewig zu werden, niemals zu sein."
- Karl Scheffler, Berlin: Ein Stadtschicksal (1910)
"Berlin is a city condemned forever to becoming and never to being."
In the past century alone it had:
  • The military defeat in 1918, which was overlaid by the Weimar years
  • Then Nazi jackboots stomped all over that layer
  • Then another war, more layers, the Battle of Berlin
  • And then a capital in ruins, a city of the uprooted and dispossessed
  • And then a metropolis divided, with the rise and eventual fall of the Wall
  • And then...
Berlin is a city of layers and fragments and aching absences, yet a city in a constant flux. Constantly reinventing itself, rebuilding, reimagining, remembering and forgetting. A ghost city, a virtual city, a living city, becoming, becoming, always becoming...