I was in Berlin on the night the German football team thrashed Brazil in the World Cup. I can confirm it is a party city and it knows how to celebrate. Berlin has all the benefits of a German city, high quality space for pedestrians and cyclists, great public transport and green spaces but it has a unique personality. It is a proud, challenging, confident and deeply moving city unafraid to face up to its violent and tragic past.
The Berlin wall that divided east and west Berlin came down in 1989 and the civic interventions to rebuild important historic buildings and to stitch the city back together since then are outstanding. Old and new are interwoven and take turns to dominate. As my husband observed at the Hauptbahnhof ‘I never thought I could be thrilled by a railway station.’ Once you get over the idea that you might be on the set of the Fritz Lang film Metropolis, you can only be in awe of the skill of the architect and engineer. The same can be said of so many buildings and spaces in Berlin.
There are artistic installations everywhere that are provocative and emotive. Predictably I found the Holocaust Memorial very unsettling but the simple exhibition at Checkpoint Charlie was also poignant – in periods of my life it was almost daily news that young people, my age, would be shot dead for trying to cross the ‘death strip’ from east to west. We took our freedom for granted; they never could.
Not all the spaces severed by the wall have been ‘reinstated’ and there are areas where ‘meanwhile spaces’ are occupied by the community. The Yaam Beach Club by the Michaelbrüke (a bridge across the river near the Ostbahnhof) is a bar with a sandy beach and deckchairs but looks to be under threat of closure. We apologised to the residents of a tepee settlement nearby for invading their privacy; they told us it was a public path, the land had been sold and their future was uncertain. By the river Morchenpark has been created by volunteers and other land is used for growing food. An article in a City Guide, Berlin&I, explained that a popular techno club, Bar 25, had established on the death strip but had been forced to close in 2010. Against all the odds they found financial backing and the rights to develop the area, which will be in their own unconventional way of course.
The centre of Berlin is a giant construction site as new infrastructure is added, squares are re-established, historic buildings are restored and new buildings are created. Go see it now if you can; eventually it will be difficult to see the route of the wall as the architects, urban designers and landscape architects make such a splendid success of healing the scars of a truly grim era of history.