July 2014 – Berlin is a park. With people living in the middle of it. An enormous city, spanning 892 square kilometers, Berlin’s 400,000 trees inhabit the spaces left by the destruction of WWII; parks, gardens, forest and water make up 39% of the city’s area. Berlin is so full of space, and I am unsure whether any of us have experienced a city which uses and engages with space in the way Berlin does, rife with social meaning. In our first three weeks, we visited monuments, neighborhoods, street festivals (Strassenfeste) and Biergärten, and when we reflect on our strongest impressions, the use and reuse of space to express rejection and reclamation stands out.
Two prime examples of reclaiming a space pregnant with negative connotation are the Olympiastadion and the European School of Management and Technology (ESMT). The Olympiastadion, constructed for the 1936 Olympic Games, was an architectural expression of the Nazi idea of glorious Germania. In 2006, it was renovated for the World Cup. Today, it is a strange combination: highly modern German engineering, with its hanging ceiling that moves with the wind, and a background view of the Glockenturm, chillingly reminiscent of Nazism. In another ironic twist, ESMT, a top German business school, inhabits the former Parliamentary building of the GDR. That’s Berlin, though – use what you have and redefine it.
Space in Berlin is also played with through rejection. Less institutionalized, but just as pronounced, is the way Berliners have put various monuments to subversive use. One major example is the Teufelsberg surveillance station. Once an Allied surveillance station, atop a mountain built from postwar rubble, this imposing building became a canvas for Berlin’s vibrant graffiti scene. Almost every inch of the cold war era outpost now displays a message, a mural, or a signature sprayed onto its surface.
Another example is the reclaiming of space for the city’s renowned party culture. The Bötzow Brewery was once the city’s most important, supplying beer to the Kaiser himself. In a dubious history, the (staunchly Nazi) Bötzow family took their own life within their maze of cellars upon the arrival of the Russians. In the following years, the GDR used the naturally refrigerated cellars as a warehouse. During the 90s and 2000s, the seemingly endless and literally underground space was turned into the club “Deep”, replete with installations such as trees and sailboats. Similarly, Berlin’s infamous techno nightclub, Berghain, inhabits a GDR-era power plant. It is hard to meet a Berliner that doesn’t have a hedonistic story to tell from this reclaimed space, and indeed, the 10 year old club still rents the large space from a Swedish power company.
Berlin’s built environment distinctly reflects a history of regime change. From the Kaiser’s Empire, to the Third Reich, through the socialist German Democratic Republic, each subsequent regime has reclaimed the space of the past and made it their own. How is the next generation going to express the EU era that Berlin is living through today?
By: Eva Nixon, Chakra Banerjee and Christopher Owen of the Wharton/Lauder Class of 2016
Disclaimer: Lauder Summer Immersion reflections and personal insights belong solely to the individual student authors and are not necessarily representative of the institutions or organizations that the writer is associated with.