Thursday, November 13, 2008


The weight of history is different in Berlin. The longer I'm here, the more I realize how truly American I am - distinguished perhaps by some inbred psychological muscle that instinctively flexes against the burdens of the past. Like another American blogger who struggled to understand why Germans standing with him at a bus stop were being shot at by Turkish kids with pellet guns and not making the slightest sign of protest (when one of the pellets narrowly missed his girlfriend, the American, free of the burden of local racial politics, confronted the offenders in no uncertain terms - astonished to discover he wasn't German, the rapscallions obligingly started targeting presumptive natives only).

In recent months, two landmarks with loaded pasts have been in the spotlight: Tempelhof Airport, architectural masterpiece and icon of the Berlin airlift, and the Palast der Republik, former seat of the East German parliament and icon of DDR culture. Following the kind of intense battles that seem to dog any attempts at altering historical turf here (see plans to build a museum on the site of the Gestapo Headquarters, 1992-?), both have now been consigned to the past. The Palast, once an unprepossessing cuboid of bronze-tinted windows slapped incongruously in the middle of one of Europe's grandest collection of neo-classical buildings, is being slowly demolished. The preservationists fought in vain to preserve this physical embodiment of the East German socialist ideal. For months now, all that has remained are a few massive asbestos-infested concrete stairwells, which soar out of the twisted debris like mute sentinels of a brutal, forgotten age. The area will become a park, and later the 18th century palace that formerly stood there is set to be partially reconstructed (see plans to rebuild the Berlin City Palace, 2001-?).

Not having experienced the DDR Palast in operation, these concrete bulwarks - with their black voids of former doorways and windows, like so many monster's eyes - reminded me of a harrowing picture painted by Peter Howson in the late 80s. The painting showed a vast horde of bullet-headed humans, mouths open in frozen howls of protest, eyes stunned by the cruel hand destiny (history?) had dealt them, swarming over a similarly vast landscape of urban devastation. Above them soared dark towers such as these, topped by piercing searchlights that were scanning the heaving mob, with clear intent to exert power. It was an allegorical depiction of the East End, which at that time was literally and metaphorically being picked apart and bulldozed into oblivion by the ultra-capitalism of Thatcher and her ilk. The searchlights shrewdly predicted the future of a city that was soon to become the most surveilled in the world.

My memory was initially triggered by the sheer visceral impact of those brute edifices rather than any sense of a shared history. Yet, on reflection, I see more and more in common between Howson's virtual wasteland of the East End and the real wasteland now spreading through the center of East Berlin. Even though the world has moved on since Howson made his painting, and each place has a distinctly loaded and fiercely guarded history of its own.

The difference now is, I feel more hopeful than I did in the late 80s. Perhaps it's because the excesses of Thatcherism, which were to an indecently large extent reincarnated in the Bush administration, have now been so thoroughly exposed as the outrageous shams that they are.

And perhaps its because it's a chance for something vital to fill the vacuum, at least for a while. Last month, a new home for contemporary art, the Kunsthalle, was erected beside the former site of the Palast. It apes the cuboid shape of the demolished building, but replaces the dated bronze exterior with geometric areas of white and light blue - an abstract sky. The historical bulding that the sparkling new Kunsthalle evokes will indeed soon be invisible, and there will be nothing left but sky. I am one of those who, free of history, will be seeing this as more of a beginning than an end.