Berlin Shapes Revisited
I have been living in Berlin for nearly three years. Would I call the German capital my home? Yes, I guess I would. Usually, three years aren’t seen as long enough to truly feel settled in a new home. But, in a city where constant movement seems to be the only permanent feature, standing still for 36 months is quite an achievement.
In Berlin, it often feels like people are coming and going on a daily basis. At gatherings and parties you can always meet new people, have the possibility of a new fling, and find new inspiration. And, of course, there is always someone—a friend of a friend, a sister of a colleague, the son of your mother's best friend, or the cousin of the janitor from your old school—who is asking you for advice on how to find a cheap new apartment.
Although gentrification has started to rear its ugly head over Berlin's housing market, the city is still regarded as a relatively affordable place, offering a wide range of attractive features from culture to history, employment opportunities to an exciting gastronomy scene. To me, this is Berlin's most valuable asset and why it differs from other European metropolises such as Amsterdam and London.
Contrary to the feeling of constant movement in the city, true Berliners are actually not that keen to hop from one district to another. In Berlin, there is not just one city center: every “Kiez” (district) has its own center with a unique character and atmosphere. So, why would anyone living in Moabit travel 30 minutes on the train to Kreuzberg when the perfect café or a cool lunch place is just around the corner? While this makes things extremely convenient, the downside is that, in general, people stay put, and rarely venture outside their comfort zones to discover different areas. In my opinion, this is a shame, especially considering the vast array of architectural styles across the city.
When I was asked to do a District Tour for this issue of COMPANION, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to take a new look at the German capital. So, that’s exactly what I did: I revisited the city I've been living in for the past three years by bike. I tried to look at the city, and its architectural sites in particular, with fresh eyes—and ended up finding even more interesting shapes and patterns than I was expecting...
James Simon Galerie
Is any other landmark as synonymous with Berlin as the Fernsehturm? Probably not. But despite its iconic status, looking at Germany's tallest building—at 368 meters tall it's also Europe’s fourth tallest TV tower—located at the center of Alexanderplatz is neither fun nor original. 100,000 people cross “Alex” every single day. It’s busy, impersonal, loud, and dirty.
I decided to take a look at the landmark from a distance on Museum Island, from the newly completed main building: the James Simon Galerie. The centerpiece for the complex’s modern buildings, it is also the site of the museum’s main entrance. While renovations to the Museum Island aren’t due to be finalized until 2023, parts of the museum are currently open for business. While you’re here, don’t forget to take a stroll around the area, enjoy the combination of old and new architecture, and admire how well it merges together. Visiting here on my bicycle, I noticed how closely the narrow pillars dotted around the island mirror the shape of the needle-like “Fernsehturm”.
The Brandenburg Gate and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
As I was travelling by bike, it took me approximately five minutes to cycle down Unter den Linden to my next destination. Coming from this direction, the impressive Brandenburg Gate was waiting for me at the end of the road. Caution is recommended here: there is usually a lot of traffic on this main street as tourist busses, cars, horses, and bikes all compete with each other for space. There’s no mercy on the streets of Berlin.
The Brandenburg Gate is a truly awesome monument. Completed in 1793 and located at the center of the city, it’s witnessed its fair share of historical moments! During the division of the German capital, for example, the gate was situated right on the border between West and East Berlin. It was a symbol of the divided city, country, and all the families and friendships that were separated during the Cold War. Since the Berlin Wall fell in 1990, it’s now become a symbol of a united Germany.
While gargantuan in size, The Brandenburg Gate also has a soft side. Its classic architecture and delicate lines are best enjoyed early in the morning when not many people are around, and the sun shines warmly through its various passages.
Walking south from the Brandenburg Gate, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is reached within minutes. Erected between 2003 and 2004, not everyone was initially happy with this monument. A few people complained that it looked like a big “pile of stones,” and that it was too abstract to represent the horrific crimes the Nazis committed.
I couldn’t disagree more strongly. To me, the memorial is at once groundbreaking and deeply disturbing. Composed of 2,711 concrete blocks spread across a 19,000 m² plot of land in the center of Berlin, the monument invites visitors to walk on the uneven ground in between its disparate blocks. From the center of the monument, all the surrounding noise from the busy city outside is muted, fostering feelings of unease and disconnection. It is an experience with symbolic power. To me, that is exactly what this memorial should be.
Government Quarter and House of the Cultures of the World
While in this area, one might as well visit the government quarter. The Marie-Elisabeth-Lüders-Haus, located next to the Spree, is particularly worth a look. Erected in 2003, it combines modern design with an interesting blend of materials and shapes. It’s so unique that once you’ve been there, you’ll always recognize it in any photograph—even if only looking at an isolated section.
Since 2010, an additional annex building has been in construction. While it should have been completed in 2012, the finalization has been postponed several times due to unforeseen problems and construction errors. Berlin is not just a city of endless transformation, it is also a city where endless construction dominates the talk of town. Sometimes they also leave you undecided as to whether it’s funny or tragic that projects such as the new Berlin Brandenburg Airport swallow up unbelievable amounts of time and money. But that’s another story.
Pregnant Oyster may not seem like a flattering name for a building, but it is actually quite fitting for The House of the Cultures of the World. Given its name by Berliners due to its unique aesthetic, the building sports a roof with a crooked surface and a half-round finish that, pregnant or not, really does resemble an oyster. Built in the late ’50s as a symbol of friendship between West Germany and America, in 1980, several parts of the roof collapsed, triggering a period of renovation. Ever since, it has been used as an exhibition venue for international contemporary art and cultural events, with a programme focusing on multiculturalism and transatlantic friendship.
From far away, this building appears to be rather playful and even futuristic. On my most recent visit, I realized how much the so-called oyster resembles typical ’50s architecture. To me, it is classic and elegant with a demure undertone.
More colorful patterns and Coca Cola
After hitting most of the city’s main tourist spots, I wanted to cycle towards Spandau, an area of Berlin that is not so popular with visitors.
But before that, I took a detour, heading towards Kreuzberg via Stresemannstraße. After a while, I took three turns to end up at Rudi-Dutschke-Straße, a street at the heart of Berlin's old newspaper district. Named after a German left-wing activist, the street is at the center of a media feud between two famous German daily newspapers, taz and Bild. While not very charming, the street is lined with high-rise buildings and gives off a distinct big city vibe. One of them, the Rocket Tower, stands out. Built in the late ’90s, it boasts a so-called flying roof, which is a homage to ’50s architecture. But what catches the eye first is its exterior façade and its countless windows, each adorned with blinds adhering to a strict color palette. When standing in front of it, the tower looks like a giant grid of delicate pink, rusty brown, tangerine, and strawberry red.
Speaking of red: The Coca Cola sign on top of the concrete tower block at Spittelmarkt often reminds me of cities like New York and London. I don’t know why; it’s just one neon sign. I recently learned that it was installed shortly after political shifts in the late ’80s. Since then it has been symbolic of West Germany finally claiming space in East Berlin. For me, it is indicative of capitalism. I would miss it if it wasn’t there though.
On my way to my final destination I passed through Wedding. Some people say that no one ever goes to Wedding unless they live there, which I do.
I like Wedding. It’s not as overcrowded as other parts of Berlin, and it offered up unpretentious sights during my bike ride: a car park on the Müllerstraße sported a variety of shades of green and blue, while a variety of nonchalant, utilitarian cafes contrasted the hipster establishments I’m used to seeing in more popular districts.
After almost one hour on my bike, I arrived at Siemensstadt, a housing complex located on the border between Charlottenburg and Spandau. Included in the list of UNESCO World Cultural Heritage sites since 2008, it is a functional building with a clean, simple aesthetic, and an important reminder of Berlin’s modernist past.
Designed in 1930 by renowned Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius along with his colleagues Otto Bartning, Fred Forbat, Hugo Häring, Paul R. Henning, and Hans Scharoun, the Siemensstadt was built to offer affordable housing to the employees of the nearby Siemens factory and office. To me, I thought it would be the perfect end to my day chasing patterns, forms, and lines. I was, however, rather underwhelmed when I saw the building for the first time. Parts of the Siemensstadt resemble any other typical Berlin prefabricated high-rise, or as we call it Plattenbau, which typically don’t look very appealing. It made me wonder if what I thought was going to be the most interesting destination of the day was in fact the least.
Aside from the Siemensstadt, all of the locations on my bike tour were places that I’d visited before. It was challenging, but enjoyable for me to try to see them in a different light. Maybe, when I visit Siemensstadt again, I might look at it differently. Who knows: maybe I’ll be able to tell that story in another tour.