Nicholas R. Y11
Berlin is noticeably a city in a struggle with its own past. This is unsurprising, given its tumultuous recent history – from the Kaisers, through a brief period of fragile democracy, to Hitler and the Third Reich, and ultimately a split into East and West. However, what is interesting – and surprising, perhaps – is the effect that this has on the modern city.
A Berliner going about his or her daily business will likely pass one of the many memorials commemorating the horrors of the Nazi régime, walk past DDR- era apartment blocks, and step over the line of bricks set into the roads which marks the line of the Berlin wall. In short, History permeates every corner of Berlin; it is a city of echoes of the past. The ‘Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’ (or ‘Holocaust Memorial’) is a good example of this. Situated near the Tiergarten, historic hunting ground of the Brandenburg Electors, and surrounded by modern high-rise buildings, this mass of 2,711 concrete stelae has an oppressive and inhuman feel. The deep shade and grey monotony is representative of many of Berlin’s monuments – they exalt despair on the part of the viewer. Much of the commemoration, such as the ‘Holocaust Memorial’ is a form of conceptual artwork based on architecture, experience and collective emotion. It is presentation of History with an agenda and often without much information – it attempts to tell a sort of emotional history, rather than an intellectual one, and it exudes a contemplative solemnity.
The Jewish Museum is a perfect extension of this idea. Architecturally, it creates almost the greatest contrast possible, comprising an old Baroque court building and a concrete-and-metal deconstructivist ‘Blitz’. This is also, despite the information and artefacts, fundamentally an emotional history. The whole exhibition is disorientating and disconcerting, with no straight lines and unusual interplays of light and dark, silence and sound. It is an architectural and artistic masterpiece, punctuated by cavernous ‘voids’, the most extreme of which, the ‘Holocaust tower’ is a concrete space, unheated, and lit only by a small slit in the wall. It seems like a physical embodiment of despair and darkness. In another of the ‘voids’ , visitors walk over a heap of screaming faces, cast in iron, so the whole space resounds with the echoing sound of metal on metal. Perhaps the most interesting and complex place in the museum, however, is the ‘garden of exile’. One of the few areas of the museum situated outside, it consist of a square grid of concrete columns (the only regular shape in the whole place), on an uneven floor, with oleaster growing on top of the column, and birds singing in the greenery. Although at first sight, it appears similar to the ‘Holocaust Memorial’, it is in fact very different. It is one of the few places amongst the Berlin memorials where hope is one of the emotions conveyed. Perhaps because of the light and the life, it has a forward-looking and human feel. And that illustrates what ultimately these monuments want to achieve. They are not about an intellectual history, but an emotional connection, and a present looking backwards but also forwards – a Janus of a city.
The architectural contrast of the Jewish Museum is echoed in Berlin as a city. All cities are places of contrast, but Berlin has a uniformity interrupted by stark juxtaposition. The Berlin Cathedral and the Brandenburg Gate (and, by extension, the Reichstag itself) are remnants of a vanished imperial past. They have a certain elegance, with their Baroque classicism, but a rampant monumentalism, sometimes verging on the ridiculous. The Cathedral typifies this, its almost elegant dome stretched beyond classical proportions to satisfy the ego of an Emperor. This monumentalism is everywhere in Berlin, not even avoided now, with the modern love of technological monumentalism and brightly lit buildings reaching up into the sky. Plus ça change, plus c’est le même chose.
Everywhere in Berlin ethical strings are attached. The Baroque façades are prefaced with reminders of the consequences of imperialist rule, and before making a judgement of modern government buildings, it feels necessary to clarify whether they were previously Nazi bases. The historic architecture in Berlin seems to represent the corruption of an aesthetic ideal by twisted ethics. The Kaisers took the elegance of Baroque architecture and stretched it to monumental proportions for the sake of their own vanity. The Nazis took the classical ideal of a beautiful body and sharp mind, combined it with their occult origins in the Thule society and created a twisted racial theory, and in doing so twisting the classical style, making it more severe and more inhuman.
But the emotional complexity that this brings, adds to the honesty of the whole city. It is a place that does not hide its history, its complexity, even if much of the rest of the world does. After all, humans, and human History, are never simple.