Philipp Oswalt (Translation Tas Skorupa) | 2000
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'Berlin_City without Form' | Automatic Urbanism

Since it had no tradition and only a weak identity, Berlin absorbed the powers of the twentieth century like no other city: first the monarchy, the World Wars, and the revolts, then Fascism, Stalinism, and the Cold War, and finally the resolution of the confrontation between East and West. The unintentional side effects of political, economic, and militaristic actions have marked the city. But it wasn't ideal plans or organic growth that formed Berlin, because in the repetitive process of inventing, destroying, and rebuilding, the original intentions of all large-scale planning were soon lost. What formed Berlin instead was an automatic urbanism. Like in a photograph that has been multiply exposed, new figures emerged from the superimposition of different motifs. Up to the present, the opposing powers have created unplanned structures and activities, urban phenomena which are beyond the categories of urban planning and architecture. Precisely this is the characteristic feature of Berlin.
Berlin is a city of extremes, a city without middle ground. Its unsteady development has alternated between racing tempo and paralyzing standstill. As a late-coming metropolis, Berlin pulled off in the shortest time what took other cities decades or centuries, only to subsequently freeze. Episodes of euphoria were followed by depression: from the rejoicing at the start of World War I to defeat, from the intoxication of the twenties to the world economic crisis, from the Nazis' seizure of power to the capitulation, from the joy over the fall of the Berlin Wall to the disillusionment of the nineties.
In its rootlessness Berlin sways between sober pragmatism and radical ideology. Be it industrialism or historicism, modernity or totalitarianism, nationalism or cosmopolitanism, cold war or modernization, mass culture or rebellion: in the capital of ideologies these spread more uninhibitedly than elsewhere. Due to the simultaneous existence of opposing forces, the city developed into a vector field in which every regime shifted the coordinates, directions, and centers anew, as the history of monuments and magistrates in Berlin reveals. [ 1 ] Precisely because Berlin was always subject to new regulations, the city became a manifesto of paradoxes, transformations, and instabilities.
This extreme ideologization is countered by a radical pragmatism. Due to the lack of cultural continuity, especially in the abrupt phases of change in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the city has demonstrated very little creative power and forming opposition. This stance proved to be both a weakness and a strength: a weakness because the new things being created were not put into a context, and a strength because the city developed a great vitality and openness for the forthcoming. After 1900 Berlin was considered an 'America in miniature' and a 'Chicago on the Spree.' [ 2 ] 'Berlin was able to and had to Americanize, because it was not hindered by deep-rooted traditions from developing economic materialism and because it had been a pioneer city in the East, similar to the cities of the New World,' [ 3 ] as Karl Scheffler wrote in his long essay 'Berlin - Destiny of a City' of 1910.
Scheffler is referring to Berlin's peripheral position when he speaks of the pioneer city. For years it lay on the edge of the German cultural zone, in a desolate, thinly populated region on the border to the East which had been settled quite late. [ 4 ] Even today the city is an island-like agglomeration in the middle of the hardly populated region of Mark Brandenburg. It thus more resembles a city like Calgary or Las Vegas in the prairie or desert than it does a center in an urbanized city-region like Paris, London, or Frankfurt am Main. In its location on the edge of Central and Eastern Europe, Berlin is far from the European economic corridor extending from London to Milan.
Berlin is a city of immigrants, a city that did not develop on its own, but due to the flow of people from far-off regions. At the end of the seventeenth century, it was fortified by the active recruitment politics of the Great Elector Frederick William, who welcomed not only the Huguenots from France, but also Danes, Dutch, Scots, Bohemians, and Jews. In the nineteenth century, the expansion of Berlin's population to a million was especially due to the arrival of Silesians, Poles, and Russians, among which were many Jews. The English writer Stephen Spender called Berlin 'a city in which tradition was a joke.' And in reference to the 1920s he wrote: 'In this city without any style or tradition it was clear that everybody had to start each day at zero. The strength of the Berliners was that they could start a totally new life—because there was nothing big before anyway.' [ 5 ]
Due to political events, the rootlessness of the population has continued until today. The Nazis murdered and expelled hundreds of thousands of Berliners, including a large part of the cultural elite. At the end of World War II, a wave of refugees arrived in the city from the East. The fluctuation from East to West continued until the construction of the Berlin Wall. During the division, two-thirds of all West Berliners left the city, while practically just as many new citizens immigrated from West Germany. Since the changes of 1989 more than 100,000 people leave 'New Berlin' annually, while others are attracted by the new old capital.
As earlier, they often consider themselves pioneers. 'Berlin tasted of future, and for that you were willing to put up with the dirt and cold,' wrote Carl Zuckmayer about the situation in Berlin before 1933. [ 6 ] Today, in spite of its historical ballast, it once again attracts people since there still aren't any established structures. This is why the legendary party organizer Cooky came to Berlin in 1992, because 'everything was so open, it wasn't all so neat and clean.' [ 7 ] And for fashion designer Jürgen Frisch, Berlin was the 'only place which came into consideration, because Berlin is a desert in terms of fashion.' [ 8 ]
Thanks to its eccentric position, Berlin is ready for the eccentric. Its lack of form provides 'leeway for unlimited possibilities.' [ 9 ] Berlin is an experiment without hypothesis. Multiple identities enable it to absorb the 'other.' This openness, however, is accompanied by ugliness. The city is direct, without any agreeableness whatsoever. It calls forth constant denial. It lacks self-confidence and a calm treatment of itself. It appears like the body of a masochist who is constantly submitting himself to new battering, destruction, humiliation, and violence.
The middle ground of cultivated articulated is practically unknown in Berlin. What is expressed here is either extremely controlled or of vulgar directness. On this mental terrain, the forms and behavioral manners of coldness appear: the sobriety of New Objectivity, the static Neoclassicism of the Nazis, the coarse hardness of punk, the machinelike rigidity of techno. At the latest it was World War I which made coldness into the subject of Berlin: a feeling of homelessness in light of loss and emptiness. [ 10 ] Most buildings of the nineties are also characterized by the already mentioned lack of cultivated articulation; they are either extremely controlled or extremely coarse.
Berlin is ugly, but intense. Its qualities were never intended. There is not a single idea, a single concept, or a single geometry which characterizes this city as a whole. Berlin is the prototype of a city in which opposites coexist. For filmmaker Wim Wenders, Berlin is a city which 'keeps you awake since, instead of entering a closed system like in other cities, you are constantly shaken.' [ 11 ]
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Notes :
[ 1 ] See Alexander Moers, 'Ein Denkmalasyl in Berlin,' thesis, Department of Architecture, Technical University Berlin, unpublished typescript, Berlin 2000.
[ 2 ] The statements of art dealer Herwarth Halden, politician Walter Rathenau, and writer Kurt Tucholsky are exemplary.
[ 3 ] Karl Scheffler, Berlin - ein Stadtschicksal, Berlin 1910, reprint 1989, pp. 118 f.
[ 4 ] Erwin Anton Gutkind, Urban Development: International History of City Development, vol. 1: Central Europe, London 1964, pp. 418 ff.
[ 5 ] Stephen Spender, European Witness, London 1946, quoted after Ian Buruma, Lettre International (winter 1998), p. 37.
[ 6 ] Carl Zuckmayer, Als wär's ein Stück von mir. Horen der Freundschaft, Vienna 1996, pp. 313 f.
[ 7 ] Cookie, in Children of Berlin: Voices (catalogue of the exhibition at P.S.1 in New York), Berlin 1999, p. 16.
[ 8 ] Berlin 1999 (see note 7), p. 20.
[ 9 ] Scheffler 1910 (see note 3), p. 19.
[ 10 ] Helmut Lethen described the phenomenon of coldness borrowing from the anthropologist Helmuth Plessner. See Helmut Lethen, Verhaltenslehren der Kälte: Lebensversuche zwischen den Kriegen, Frankfurt am Main 1994, pp. 75 ff.
[ 11 ] Wim Wenders, The Act of Seeing. Essays, Reden und Gespräche, Frankfurt am Main 1992, p. 147.

Philipp Oswalt

published in : 'Berlin_Stadt ohne Form, Strategien einer anderen Architektur' | Mčnchen/ New York | 2000