Berlin Alexanderplatz (10mm VI)

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In Alfred Döblin’s novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, the place of that name is being used to dramatically convey transformation: Franz Bieberkopf  is traumatized by the changes it has  undergone while he spent years in prison, and stands for the transformations he himself will undergo.

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Döblin’s novel takes place in the 1920s, and Berlin has undergo dramatic changes since. After the destructions of the Second World War and the division of the city, it was no longer the single city center. The architects of the Eastern part weren’t insensitive, they kept the space open and repurposable.

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Nearby churches were renovated and allowed other change to happen, later.

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After the fall of the Berlin Wall, many of the administrative buildings were taken down. The facade of the Palace of the Republic used to annoy the people of power with distorted reflections of the nearby cathedral. Not anymore.

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Radically modern buildings show that transformation is still possible. This leaves hope for Franz’s children.

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The Intimacy of Space (10 mm V)

Berlin and Bloomington have few things in common, besides their first letter B.

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Of more general interest is probably that both cities feature a building by Chinese architect I.M. Pei. I wrote about the Art Museum in Bloomington in an earlier post. Here you see the German Historical Museum in Berlin, or rather its extension.

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I would call this building an invitation to explore the esthetic possibilities of dysfunctional space. The helicoidal stairwell, it’s most prominent feature, connects only the second to the third floor and extends further without purpose to a non-existent fourth floor. It’s placed inconveniently at the (sharp) entrance corner of the building. Climbing these steps has as its main purpose to be climbing these steps. They are gorgeous.  

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The more functional connection between the ground floor and the first floor is a long ramp leading to the helix. Like everything else, it is pushed to the side, so that as much of the empty space of the building remains intact.

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What we see while walking this building are the structural elements that connect. Above is a view down into the basement level, reachable through the escalator or an angled stairwell (at the bottom).

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What I found striking and inexplicable is the harmony and balance between the playful round elements like the helix or the circular opening above, and the cornered, straight-edged, almost brutal structural components.

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It’s tempting to call these the male and female aspects of the building. No matter, it lives from the dialogue between the two. 

Marzahn mon amour

A neighbor and I exchanged books over the holidays (a forgotten art?). I gave her Christoph Ransmayr’s Arznei gegen die Sterblichkeit, and she returned the favor with Katja Oskamp’s Marzahn mon amour.

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Marzahn is a legendary suburb of Berlin I had never been to. The name triggered childhood memories of Frau Malzahn, the wonderful dragon in Ottfried Preußler’s even more wonderful Jim Knopf books.

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But this has nothing to do with Marzahn mon amour, nor do the pictures above, which show Alt-Marzahn, miraculously preserved among the Plattenbauten, the prefab buildings that provided a cheap solution to the growing housing problem of the former German Democratic Republic.

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Here is one of them, proudly announcing cosmetic studio at the entrance as if the entire building is that studio.

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And this is what the book is about: People living in these prefab houses, and being taken care of temporarily by the narrator, who works as a pedicurist in a cosmetic studio just like the one above (this one?).

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We learn to like them, the people and the buildings, maybe because they all have decided to cope with their large and small miseries by taking care of themselves, even if only symbolically.

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Most remarkable, however, is the insight of the narrator: That by stepping apparently down (in her case from struggling author to a pedicurist) one can in fact find happiness, and then by the way, write a charming little book. 

Futurium (10mm III)

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This cute little building in Berlin houses exhibits that are concerned with — you guessed it — the future. A thematic question on one of the walls brings it to the point: How do we display something that doesn’t exist yet?

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You can find robots and explanations of some cutting edge technologies, but also large scale models that just keep you musing. 

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Much of the interior design is an attempt to appear moderately futuristic.

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This object is the closest I could find to something like a personal oracle. It lights up (or darkens) when you move in front of it.

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The exhibit above seems to be designed for introspection. Which me will pick which door? 

So maybe we have a misconception here. The future doesn’t just arrive. It’s upon us to create it.

Absence (10mm II)

Hisham Matar’s autobiographic book The Return talks about his father’s absence.

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The image above show the Voided Void at the end of the Axis of Holocaust in Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin. 

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Matar quotes Aristoteles: The theory that the void exists involves the existence of place: for one would define void as place bereft of body.

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Right now, the museum is being prepared for a new standard exhibition, and hence almost completely void.

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Matar continues to reflect about Aristoteles. He adds: He says nothing of time here, and time is surely part of it all, of how we try to accommodate the absence. […]. Only time can hope to fill the void. The body of my father is gone, but his place is here and occupied by something that cannot just be called memory.

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A second accessible void in the Libeskind building is the Memory Void, containing Menashe Kadishman’s installation Shalekhet (Fallen Leaves).

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Matar concludes this reflection: What is extraordinary is that, given everything that has happened, the natural alignment of the heart remains towards the light.

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Berlin at 10 mm

These here are my first shots with Samyang’s spectacular 10mm wide angle lens for 35mm cameras.

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The first three pictures are from the government district in Berlin.

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Almost everything becomes extremely compressed in width and pulled apart in depth.

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It is a very satisfying experience to have to step closer when all other people step back to take a picture.

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And the last three pictures are from Berlin Hauptbahnhof, the main train station.

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This extreme lens forces the photographer to compose differently.

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What to keep…

My first visit to Dresden took place in the early 1990s. It was a foggy day in December, and one of my lasting memories is the enormous pile of rubble in the city center. Dresden331

The ruins of the Frauenkirche hadn’t been touched since the bombing at the end of the Second World War, but after the reunification of Germany, a decision to rebuild was made quickly. This summer I became curious how things looked like today, so I visited Dresden a second time.

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What may we forget, and how should we remember? Some of the temples and monuments that have been destroyed in the Middle East in the past few years were intended to last until the end of time by their creators. Arrogance, or trust in a protective higher power?

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We live in volatile times. A carelessly written email can haunt us for the rest of our live, while a mouse simple click can erase decades of work stored on a hard drive.

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If only we could attach an expiration date to everything we do, it would be easier to decide what to keep and what to let go.

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Old And New (Summer in Berlin III)

There are many good places to contemplate the clashes between old and new in Berlin, and one of them is the area along the Spree near the U-Bahn station Schlesisches Tor. This is where the world ended for people living in West-Berlin while the city was divided. Now one can walk across the bridges and admire the construction circus on both sides.

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Herbert George Wells might have thought that his phantasies have come true. When they are done with all this, will it looks like this?

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And will we get more playful little sculptures like the Molecule Man by Jonathan Borofsky?

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There is some obvious resistance. It feels like the perfection of a finished building is stifling the creativity.
Who wouldn’t want to defend the octagonal brick building below?

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Do we really want to lose all this?

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My taste is more for blending old and new and let them coexist.

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The Door Was Open (Summer in Berlin II)

I like architecture, or, to be precise, certain states of buildings. Ruins are fascinating, but even more so construction sites. Both are usually off limits (as are the corresponding states of human affairs, death and conception, unless you are involved one way or the other). So I am often forced to trespass a little.

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In this case, as you can see, the door was open, and I just couldn’t resist.

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Views like the one above make it instantly clear that we are not on a generic construction site. Somebody with taste has been designing this, and whoever is doing the construction work, is doing an excellent job by creating crystal clear previews of what’s to come.

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Wondrous tools are on display too, just for me. I can only guess their purpose by looking at the ornamented concrete slabs. Everything is purposeful, even the occasional leftover tile.

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What fascinates be most at places like these is the tension between the clarity of the present and the vagueness of an undefined future.

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Bridges, Rivers, and Walls

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Locals rarely go on sightseeing tours for tourists, which contributes to their different perception of things. For instance, living behind a wall is nothing strange when you grow up with it. When I (re)visited Berlin in 2015 for a conference, the conference excursion was a boat trip on the Spree.

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While I knew that Berlin has that river, it had never become part of my perception of Berlin as a city. The Spree does nothing for Berlin like the Seine does for Paris, the Thames for London, or the Danube for Budapest or Vienna, the Rhine for Cologne (to name a few). It is small, largely canalized, and so much covered with bridges that one can easily overlook it.

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These bridges connect the northern with the southern part of the city. Some of them are old, other modern. In contrast, the Spree connects the eastern with the western part, and it did so even when there was a wall. Rivers are hard to stop, like time. Crossing from west to east on this little river was a special moment for me.

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Above is the cathedral, to its left the (re-)construction of the Berlin City Palace, replacing the East German Palast der Republic, that it turn had replaced the original Baroque City Palace in 1950.

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Buildings serve many purposes, but they also mark and preserve time — for a while. The architects should never forget that time will flow on, inevitably.

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