I want to imagine Berlin. It yearns to be x-rayed. We must examine its broken bones.
I want to imagine Berlin. It yearns to be x-rayed. We must examine its broken bones.
The German term Plattenbau is made of two different words: Platte and Bau. A platte is a panel, plate, or slab. A bau is a construction or building. As a composite, the words refers to a particular kind of rectangular slab construction; a monotone building, whose concrete blocks are pre-constructed in factories and then glued together—a symbol of a distant coldness. Uniformity is their distinguishing feature, and makes them the symbol of the German Democratic Republic. The idea of the “one” is crucial, since the political regime stressed a society wherein people would become like these buildings: a singularity.
Note also that the word Platte is a derivative of the German adjective platt which translates to flat or dull. Among other things, it is this flatness, this reduction to a two-dimensional identity, both in terms of people but also landscape, that makes Berlin the capital of modernity. Modernity is the age of appearance (appearance and appearance only), as such also the age of the cinema and the photographic image. And, Plattenbauten perfectly manifest the rejection of the distinction between truth versus appearance; they embody a reductive move, a move to the surface, since what Plattenbauten do not lack is surface. They are an erected rectangle.
Platten are mainly found in the eastern parts of the city, and as such, they clash with what remains of Prussia’s grandiose architecture. The city’s stylistic dissonance is a manifestation of its East-West conflict. Because of this, Plattenbauten’s aesthetic and emotional influence on Berlin is significant in understanding a foreigner’s modern reading of the city. Platten act both as a material as well as a conceptual building block for a new type of externalized image.
The tourist or the foreigner, as he walks in the city, in trying to make sense of an unfamiliar space, will either romanticize or abhor the architecture. This has led to the discovery of a “sexy ugliness,” or a “trashy urbanity,” as an inherent quality of Berlin. This quality has been attached to the city’s surfaces, thereby glamorizing its soul. Thus there has been a global fetishization of Berlin. Its ideal embodiment: Marveling at Plattenbauten.
Ending up in Kottbusser Tor comes naturally to both visitor and Berliner. It practically forms the center of the club and bar scene; it is located directly between Kreuzberg and Neukölln. Walking up and down the dirt-stained steps of its U8 subway line: the nauseating smell of dried urine. As one emerges from the underground tunnel to see the suppressing vibrancy of grayness of Kottbusser Tor (known as Kotti): the confrontation with a version of yellow-white Platten. They surround this circular public square. The Platten in this square separate the square from the surrounding streets. As such they shape Kotti into a fort. They act as a barricade. In this case, transforming Kotti into a space that seems to lie outside the law. Platten are walls as much as they are homes.
Kotti’s Platten are not gray. In fact many of the structures around the city are not gray. But they always feel gray. They are haunted with the political past they represent and the future they contain. The ghost of the unresolved haunts them eternally. They symbolize the city’s grayness. It is this grayness that has been labeled as seductive. And it is. Berlin’s gray is its pulling force. But the recognition of an “ugliness” is a treatment of the city in terms of “beauty” or idealized qualities. It is to render the city recognizable, to treat it like a painting that shows one exactly what one wants to see.In the process of this, walking has become a nostalgic experience.
Whether one is a historical or techno tourist, the city becomes a monument to itself. The historical tourist’s journey is marked by the site of memorials and the knowledge of a past that was just alive. Every step is branded by this awareness and turns into a perverse nostalgia. The techno tourist’s journey is marked by clubs visited, and dark, immersive moments in the spirit of this underground city experienced. Every step is branded by this awareness and turns it into a perverse nostalgia. It is a decorated nostalgia that paints the city in terms of a universality that whitens the city’s grayness. Berlin has become a spectacle. The public celebration of its wounds and pains have led to its biggest pain yet.
And it is exactly this which Berlin wants to defy. Or what Berliners feel has been a mistreatment of their home. They are homesick. The city yearns endlessly. For a form of freedom. And now it also yearns to be freed from an imposed state of isolation. Berlin’s ultimate loneliness, and any type of loneliness, is that no other entity seems to understand, nor to recognize what really makes it so astounding. Hardly anybody seems to recognize it for what it is.
Plattenbauten seem oppressively homogenous. But the truth is, they are soft, comforting because they are an admission of inadequacy—of downfall. Cement blocks don’t celebrate greatness or empire, nor do they assert power. They are reminiscent of the socialist ideal. Now they are an ultimate love letter to the city. They mourn but they honor. Plattenbauten are a better representation of Berlin’s wounds than the multiple memorials along the wall that once separated the city. The city division is not, as commonly assumed, determined by a geographic line. Being drawn to sites that have these cement structures, is the foreigner’s subconscious awareness of this. For there is a scar where the wall once was. But scar tissue is numb, so there can be no pain.
Ultimately, Plattenbauten are gravestones. And Berlin is a big graveyard. A graveyard of ideologies, of poets and thinkers, of a lost future, of a lost past. This is why the worldly celebration of the city is so gruesome.
Plattenbauten echo Berlin’s rawness; the smoking of cigarettes does too. Berlin is an exposed, bare city. What has been described as chic nastiness is the failure to see that, if anything, Berlin does not hide behind its facades. Berlin has an honesty to it. And so do Berliners, which is why they are often considered rude. Truth offends people; it offends the city itself. Which is why there has been a smoothing of its roughness—the widespread failure to understand that harshness is actually the softest force.
If you are not already a smoker of cigarettes, staying in Berlin will likely turn you into one. The heavy feeling, the lightheadedness of smoking a cigarette simulates Berlin’s core. It is the experience of being both in the air, and deeply rooted to the ground. The storm with which Berlin hits those who enter it: a profound dizziness, a burden. And the addiction, the longing for nicotine somehow resembles Berlin’s internal longing.
The smoke of cigarettes fades into Berlin’s fog. Fog because there is suspense, gloom, because it looms. If Berlin is the gray city, then it is also the city of fog. Fog seeps from below: into the city’s streets, parks, its houses. It is most apparent in the empty spaces. In fact, fog forms precisely because of these vacancies. Berlin is empty. Even the spaces that are materially full leak. A little like a lit cigarette, they burn slowly, their ashes are blown away. It is spit that holds hand-rolled cigarettes together. It is spit that holds Berlin together too. Fog sometimes comes from the ashes under the gravestones. It is the state of ash in transformation. Fog rises from the underground.
Smoking is also the ultimate example of the relationship of spirit to image. This is significant in relation to the heyday of the cigarette in the twentieth century, another marker of Berlin’s relation to the age of modernity. Most people in Berlin, if not all, start to smoke cigarettes because of the image they become by doing so. Berlin’s youth is obsessed with rolling cigarettes. Sitting at the local Späti, drinking a Sterni (the local beer, it is cheap and tangy). The seductive quality of a filter placed between the lips, holding a paper between the fingers, the smell of loose tobacco. Those rolling cigarettes are actors in a performance. The city is their audience. Smoking is a moment of externalized self observation. It is to assume an image of roughness, of dangerous dullness. To me, it is to render oneself in the image of Berlin. What a naive, but delightful task.
The delicate touch needed in rolling a cigarette is similar to that of the construction of a city’s core.To place a city’s image next to another, to see the gaps in between . . . somewhat like the construction of a mosaic. It requires patience and tenderness. The youth, in rolling cigarettes over and over and over perform exactly this task. They reconstruct Berlin. Each cigarette a manifestation of one of its images.
Truly wandering in the city, letting the city hit you, involves a self awareness that does not hold the self back. A rawness akin to that of Berlin. To wander around nakedly. To truly experience a city means to jump from image to image, this is the closest one can come in feeling it. The jump from one image to the next, a transitory moment of truth. Most people find themselves eternally stuck in one image, betraying the city.
When Walter Benjamin writes about texts and the act of translation, he argues that a text’s translation does not have the primary function of transmitting. The essence is not message, not statement. The problem of translation, then, is that it intends to “transmit.”1 By doing so, what it communicates is inherently inessential. Unless the translator seeks for his work to assume its own life, to become essentially poetic. This logic can easily be applied to the city and its image. If the city is a poem, its image is a translation. How successful an image is, then in translating, is not dependent on how well it imitates the city or how well it sums up the inherent quality of a city, but how successful the image is in allowing the city to come to life. The image of a city in relation to the life of the city, attaining its latest and most complete unfolding. Berlin, in fact, no place is a message or statement. Or at least it is not a unified entity. It is not a “oneness” that was imposed on it during the times of the wall. But it has been forced to be once more.
Again and again Berlin has been destroyed; has reconstructed itself. More than any capital, it is constantly being modeled, rearranged, built. If it is a graveyard it is also a construction site. And it does not hide, can not hide its constructions. Berlin is a transitory city. Always provisional, always in motion. The assemblage of its construction sites is similar to the city’s soul. They reek of its bleak starkness. On one hand, the presence of construction sites, therefore, represents the city’s constant state of metamorphosis: “Berlin is a city condemned forever to becoming and never being,” art critic Kurt Scheffler said in 1910.2 On the other hand, their presence speaks to its perpetual fall. It is the failed capital. And this is the thrift indicator of modernity.
Rebuilding is a substantial word for this city. If its Platten are monuments to the dead, its construction sites are reminders of the living. Sometimes these sites are attempts of resurrecting the dead. After years of heavy debate, the rebuilding of the fifteenth century Prussian palace, the Berliner Schloss, is one of its many construction sites. This particular (re)construction is the failure to establish an image and feeling of a united Berlin, a Berlin that represents the grandeur of the German state. The construction site is an example of the malfunctioning mechanism of the image. To heal a city, there is no not need to impose an image. To order a new image upon it through a new construction, is to reopen the wound instead of sealing it. The failure of the city’s construction of an airport is the other demonstration of a deterioration. It has been built, torn down, rebuilt since 2006.
Berlin lays its construction sites bare. It does not hide its metamorphoses. Berlin is shaped by the many structures that, instead of being underground, are unearthed—in the open. The presence of above-ground water pipelines is one example.These structures interfere with the idea of the over ground; they invert it, and essentially bring the underground above. It is this that makes Berlin an underground city. It lives above, below, and in between. It is an inverted city. Instead of a recognition of this, Berlin has been interpreted as an underground city for its techno scene, its dark divinity. For something perceived as hidden within the city, yet to be discovered, owned.
Techno is Berlin’s heartbeat. Its music reflects the sounds of construction. The hammering, the slamming, the tearing down. Construction sites show us that Berlin is forceful, but also very frail. It is one of many dualisms that the city bears in its chambers. The alternation of above and below, the conflation of the two and their parallelity is what makes Berlin interesting, worthwhile, cool.
The underground offers, and has historically offered escape. During the time of the Wall, it was the location for tunnels, allowing people to escape from east to west. Its rotten bunkers now serve as free spaces of celebration. This is to point out that Berlin’s underground is not underground. And that the common framing of the city as such is, therefore, misleading. It is a shame to miss Berlin’s underground. To not get lost in the city. To forget that the city has hidden sides and stories and mysteries and ghosts that are there to be observed.
The underground is a form of construction site itself. The underground, in the public imagination, is constantly reframed, repurposed. I want to recognize Berlin’s new image as this. A construction, a block. A stepping stone from which people can leap into the city. Like the structures in the city itself. People like to construct the idea of the after the fall. The fall refers to the destruction of the Wall that separated the city. The Fall has been, even before the construction of the wall. The state of leaping as a state of boundless construction. Constant construction as its fall, its vulnerability.
To love the city means to let oneself fall within it. And to allow the city to speak, to read above and below. To allow oneself to imagine it. Berlin is always falling. It’s a new type of fall each time, hence its myriad broken bones. Always wounded, ever healing. In my dreams I often visit Berlin. I am in a tunnel, walking down the stairs. There is no bottom. Like the city itself, the act of imaging it is always becoming.