July 10, 2007

Berlin 1 (Germany)

We found Berlin to possibly be Europe's most livable city. Rents are cheap, there's a great music scene (especially if your into minimal techno!), good food is affordable, and there are all kinds of museums. With a population of 4.3 million in the metropolitan area spread over 12 districts, its also very diverse. Our stay was in Mitte, a historical district (formerly the nucleus of East Berlin) lined with shops and cafes. We stayed at Lux 11, a 4 star design hotel for only 88 euros / night. This was the first city we felt at home in, attracted by the lively personality and energy.

Driving wasn't as bad as we thought, as the streets were wide and the hotel had a covered parking garage... however we were rear-ended by a cabbie within 15 minutes of arriving downtown. Luckily more a scare than anything else, the Peugeot was barely scratched (same for the Mercedes). The cabbie spoke English so we were able to resolve it without unnecessarily police involvement.

The first building stop was Rem Koolhaas' Checkpoint Charlie. The roof form was engaging... an angled mass (wing) with punctured oculi that peeked over the street below. The facade was rather plain and beaten-up, further disguised by a handful of faceless retail shops at the street level. Hoards of tourists flocked the streets, many in line to pay 5 euros to have their passports stamped at the Checkpoint Charlie guard post, a former crossing point between East and West Germany.

A few blocks away was Erweiterung GSW-Hauptverwaltung, by Sauerbruch Hutton Architekten. Colorful louvers behind a clear glass facade enlivened the massive tower form. A curved wing on top of the roof softened the feel, it also kept the scale from feeling overbearing.

Daniel Libeskind's landmark project, the Jewish Museum, was a series of zinc-plated shafts set in the landscape, each ripped and torn with narrow slots and punched openings. The direction of these lines connect different sites on a Berlin map that are important to Jewish History. Materially, the building is very cold with its use of zinc and concrete, and the seemingly random and chaotic slots exude a feeling of violence and doom. Visually the building complex seemed disorienting... there was no entrance at the anywhere around the building and it was impossible to capture a view of the exterior in its totality, which folded around endlessly. This was further compounded by the cut lines and slots that capture your eye and lead it along them, never reaching a conclusion. The building was as much a work of sculpture as it was architecture, its form and feel clearly expressed and identified it as a memorial to the horrible atrocities of the Holocaust.

Back by Checkpoint Charlie we visited the Topography of Terror, the demolished site of Gestapo, SS, and Reich Security main offices where the genocide of European Jews and systematic murder of other sections of the population were planned. Chunks of the Berlin Wall remained above a partially covered trench that housed a permanent exhibit of descriptive boards attached to remains of excavated prison cell walls from the demolished building. Peter Zumthor won the 93' design competition for a documentation center at this site which was scrapped after 12 years of planning and 18 million euros spent on construction (
full story here). Unfortunate. A second competition was launched in 2005, won by Ursula Wilms, however, little progress seems to have been made.

We caught up with our friend Jeff Samuel who moved to Berlin from Seattle about a year ago to pursue music full-time, which is going really well. He's booked out of town almost every weekend and his records continue to sell well. He and his roommates invited us over for dinner... it was great to mix-up the travel dynamic and take a break from the restaurant setting for a change. They have a spacious, high-ceilinged apartment in the Friedrichshein-Kreuzberg neighborhood of Berlin.

On a rainy afternoon we visited Peter Eiseman's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a vast interruption in the landscape comprised of a grid made with 2,711 concrete stelae, each slightly inclined in different directions. The project takes up an entire city block, with the blocks receding at the perimeter that get increasingly taller as you approach the center. Interestingly, no symbolic forms are used, it is purely the same rectangular block forms. It can be walked through on all sides, with no set path. This concept had a strong impact on us, especially as the vibrant city was edited away, along with daylight and sounds, as we sunk into the middle of block, around endless turns and axes. Beautiful, gloomy and peaceful.

If you are planning a visit to Berlin, be sure to stop at Konnopke's Imbis for some currywurst... don't ask us what it is, but it was delicious!

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