Archipelago-townRomantic urbanism. A street report from Berlin

What follows is an excerpt of a text that is part of an app for tablet that I have recently released.The app is called Archipelago Town-Lines, Notes for a bare urbanism and it is now available on t...

What follows is an excerpt of a text that is part of an app for tablet that I have recently released.The app is called Archipelago Town-Lines, Notes for a bare urbanism and it is now available on the Apple app store. It will be available for the android and amazon systems shortly. As the following trailer indicates, the app deals with the most pressing issue of our time: the urban meltdown 

Archipelago Town-lines. A trailer from conrad-bercah on Vimeo.

‘Have you seen Angelina Jolie?’
‘No, why?’
‘Because she was in town to present her new movie.’
‘I don’t care about Hollywood stars. I’d rather go to the Teufelberg to skate.’
‘Never heard of such a thing.’
‘Naturlich. Du bist keine Berliner.’

Berlin’s urban history: a Greek tragedy turned into a (German) comedy with a happy ending? For half a century Berlin was the most effective symbol of the world’s divide and an ‘annihilated’ urbanity. As the place where East and West clashed and many ‘eggs’ were broken, most of its urban fabric is by any standard recent. Only a small part of it predates 1945, and a significant portion is less than 20 years old. This sort of newness is normally a sign of soullessness and depression—a sort of urban omelet or badly scrambled eggs—yet here, in the new millennium, Berlin appears to most to be the most stunning ‘urban body’ in the West or the East alike. Berlin has become a destination. It has become a collection of ‘urban organs’ shaping an ‘enjoyable’ ‘spineless body,’ in spite of repeated attempts to give it a ‘backbone.’ Berlin is a unique urban model of an interesting mix: German matter-of-factness and strategic infrastructural planning merged with a collective and individual Romantic genius that shows little interest in ‘globalization’ per se. This overlooked fact turns Berlin’s urbanity into a semantic test for some of the most puzzling issues of our time. Take, for instance, the possibility that urban and social environments might evolve according to an enjoyable model. Can urbanity be discussed in terms of romanticism—a quality the world at large seems to have forgotten or overlooked just when it needs it most? Romanticism? Is the term actually admissible? Can Berlin be described as a symbol of unification? As a symbol of life’s enjoyment?

For almost a century Berlin was a unique involuntary crucible for a high number of drastic and contrasting fictional urban narratives. Its urban body was raped with incomparable violence and rhetoric from many opposing political quarters, from the extreme—Nazis and Soviets—to the moderate—the Allies and Wilhelmine era administrators. All these potentially catastrophic ‘narratives’ seriously threatened to annihilate an urban model that now makes mockery of the increasingly popular (Dutch) claim that the ‘West has stopped thinking about urbanity.’ The sheer ability to come to terms with, resist, survive, and eventually forget the impossibly high number of life threatening interventions imposed in the condensed space of a just few decades appears today as a vibrant testimony of the astonishing resilience of Berlin’s urban fabric. Berlin stands out as a significant alternative in a nearly universal landscape of pessimism about urbanity’s increasing soil consumption in most of the planet. It represents a positive, doable, and pertinent model of clearly defined goals, long-term ambition, capacity to come to terms with its own past, and a stubborn determination to stay clear of the material and cultural debris globalization is incessantly producing elsewhere.

The tabula rasa option was a popular prewar option in urban and architectural theory, though it was seldom used (or discussed) appropriately. Unlike the numerous cases where the concept was evoked but not implemented, Berlin found itself, in May 1945, firmly marooned in it, with drastic erasures and transformations everywhere. ‘Nothing but a cumulus of debris,’ commented Churchill on a visit a few weeks after the war’s end. A fifth of all Berlin’s buildings had either been demolished or left beyond repair. Around 600,000 buildings had been destroyed, engulfing its urban space with some 70-million cubic meters of rubble—an amount under which almost any administrator in any other part of the world would have succumbed. Heinreich Weber suggested ‘rebuilding Berlin elsewhere, away from the rubble.’ The idea was anything but unpopular and was discussed as a real possibility for some time. Martin Wagner revamped it as late as 1948. In 1945 the border of Berlin’s Lebensraum had, in short, become problematic, or not quite agreed upon. This was just one dramatic showdown between discussing and decision-making in a series that kept repeating thitself regularly for almost three-quarters of a century. Like most ongoing discussions, that of ‘tabula rasa ’ emerged a number of times in the years of radical crisis before and after the erection of the Berlin Wall—1919, 1929, 1937, 1945–46, 1949, 1953, 1961, 1989—becoming a sort of ‘talk of the day’ around the future of the Stadlandschaft—the landscaped town.

Since the proclamation of the German Empire (1871), Berlin’s urbanity had followed a scattered, almost casual, model that, not surprisingly, Hitler could not fathom. His psyche found it too random or not classic (read Hellenistic) enough. ‘Unsystematic’ is the word he reportedly used to describe an urban layout he found ‘inappropriate’ for what he had in mind, namely the new Nazi-dominated world capital—Welthauptstadt Germania. Accordingly, he asked for ten years to provide a new urban system, convinced that, by ‘curing’ Berlin’s urbanity via tabula rasa, he could, by extension, cure Germany’s own health. Berlin was not, for him, a world-class capital. As he stated in Mein Kampf, Berlin, like other industrialized German cities of the day, lacked the dominant public monuments needed to give community life focus. Berlin lacked pathos. It lacked theatricality. It badly needed a stage from which he could stun and lead the world as a true Führer. In consequence, the city had to be transformed into a bombastic repository of monumentality at a scale the world had never known—a monumentality that would reflect the greatness and timelessness of the regime he wanted to found, a regime meant to last a thousand years. In 1937 Hitler invested his main Nazi rally designer (Bühnenbildner) with exceptional powers to turn his urban dream into reality. Albert Speer was nominated General Superintendent for the Capital Urban Plan (General-Bau-Inspektor or GBI) with a staff of about 100 people and powers overruling all other urban authorities except the Führer himself. The urban plan for the capital insisted upon a specific urban layout: a new grand, central, north-south axis running perpendicular to the existing east-west axis. This was a distorted reinterpretation of the Roman, not Greek, planning principles of the cardus and the decumanus that he had apparently had in his guts since the early 1920s. A north-south axis stretching seven kilometers south from the Reichstag to Tempelhof airport was envisioned to make, in comparison, the existing (45-meter-wide) Prussian east-west axis look minor, in spite of stretching over 13 kilometers from Olympiastadion to Alexander Platz. It was supposed to form the intimidating axis of power of the new Reich—a German word cognate with the English ‘rich,’ but also used to designate an empire or nation. Berlin was to be reorganized along a central five-kilometer-long ‘backbone’ called the Avenue of Victory.

Hitler’s master plan was to be made possible by resorting to the tabula rasa option. Western culture has traditionally considered such authoritarianism a temporal aberration, a deviation from the norm. Yet the tabula rasa model uncannily became Berlin’s new norm for almost a quarter of a century. From the early 1940s (Allied hailstorms of bombs, postwar demolition) to the early 1960s (Soviet socialist urbanism), the razing of Berlin’s urban body became a regular act performed without any apparent shamelessness and justified by the most incredible arguments. While Berlin was under heavy bombing, Speer produced a statement to underline how the bombings raids were, in fact, very literally ‘paving the way’ for the establishment of Germania, which required the destruction of some 80,000 buildings. What is interesting is that, for a long time, unprecedented quantities of urban void were produced in the place of new urban substance. All this brutal evidence now offers precious, if overlooked, arguments for unraveling the discipline of urban design. In 2011 Berlin is a promising urban incubator that, unfortunately, only Berlin seems to have noticed and dealt with, developing a compelling solution.

Contrary to Hitler’s wishes, Berlin never became a city with one imposing centrality and stands today as a collection of centralities or ‘individual towns.’ Yet Hitler’s grand plan is worth recalling because it switched the illness for the cure, and because it may uncannily become a potent argument for an undervalued model of deurbanization. Like most of his (and our) contemporaries, Hitler understood urban planning as an overall system that could be ‘controlled’ or managed. His plan is perhaps the last example in a history of massive misunderstandings, which failed to accept that the regime of complexity characterizing urbanization cannot be reduced to a single, pure unitary system. Like many modernist (and contemporary) urban planners, the Fuhrer wanted to brace urbanization into the rigid corset, the girdle of basic schemes or topoi that get declined indefinitely in a regular, irregular, casual, or even monumental fashion, while the fundamental typology always remains the same, be it designed by a street, a corridor, an atrium, a courtyard, or a piazza.
Hitler wanted to give Berlin a ‘backbone’ where a seemingly endless parade of awe-inducing, oversized administrative buildings would remind citizens of their own insignificance in the community as a whole. The scale of the solitary monuments that were envisioned was to have been intimidating enough to ‘cure’ the very quality that today stuns so many Berlin visitors—the scattered, multicentered, deurbanized, romantic nature of the city’s urbanity.
But how did this unique urban system come about? For a half a century Berlin was a symbol of division, struggle, and awkwardness; tabula rasa and the wall had established a degree zero or a zero hour—stunde null. West Berlin is said to have functioned and lived as an island, a city-state enclosed by a wall and surrounded by hostile territory. It was a city in a state of closure, a forced state of captivity during a severely harsh, postwar urban crisis of physical and psychological destruction. West Berliners were citizens of the Federal Republic of Germany with no voting rights and no military duties, using an independent postal service and stamps. East Berlin, to some extent, though not circumscribed by a wall, turned into a different sort of political and bureaucratic island, the capital of an island called DDR. Both islands went through a process of depopulation. Until recently, almost a fifth of both West and East Berlin’s buildings were either abandoned or unoccupied. The fabric of both ‘islands’ looked like a mesh filled with holes ‘interrupted’ by vast tracts of empty space in which the isolated buildings looked like islands abandoned in the midst of a numerically decreasing population.
The war’s destruction and the clearing of the rubble brought about a unique urbanity in Berlin, an urbanity that did not rely on large-scale urban planning but on the casual accumulation of formally distinct micro-cities sitting in a natural, terrestrial archipelago of vast and intimate green, empty, or abandoned spaces. It was, and still is, an urbanity in a state of permanent evolution or incompletion, made of yearnings, nostalgia, paranoia, and the perpetual search for something unspeakable. Like the Grail, it is an urbanity whose principles seem, at heart, undiscoverable, or better left unspoken.

Schicht is the German word for layer, stratum, film. Geschicte is the German word for history. History is then, in German, a literal and semantic accumulation of layers. Berlin’s urban history is the history of a multipolar growth logic, confirmed time and again, layer after layer. It is a logic that keeps contradicting the belief that shapes the very basis of Western culture and urban planning: the idea that urban planning should ‘order’ an empirical situation—a natural landscape made of randomness, practical constraints, and social necessity—by resorting to methods that can bring mutually exclusive facts back to a ‘rational’ system. This system, however, rules out romanticism, which is to say the last movement to transform the Western world before the digital revolution. It rules out the many opposed facets of the romantic: the primitive, the untutored, the vibrant world of childhood and youth, and the exuberant sense of life of natural man as well as the exotic, the strange, the ruined, or the innumerable, the distraught, the destroyed, the irrational. It does not account for nostalgia, reverie, intoxicating dreams, bittersweet melancholy, or the suffering of exiles.
Perhaps Berlin’s urban history bothered Hitler so much because it stood as a firm confutation of the Western canon. It never forgets the oppositions upon which its fabric is made. It never forgets the necessity of having complementary places and the utility of understanding urbanization as a system of layers. It is a Geschichte that is part of the DNA of Berlin, a city that has been several different cities. In the beginning, it was a Doppelstadt or two cities: Berlin and Kölln, the first for traders and the second for fishermen. It then became a market city, a residential city, a capital, and eventually, in the XIX century, an industrial city. Finally, it became a metropolis and then once again die geteilte Stadt, a city divided by a wall instead of a river, as it was at the start of its 700-year-long history. In the XVII century, however, ‘Berlin’ had already been ‘a federation of towns,’ formed by six different towns: Berlin (a commercial town), Kölln (an industrial town), Friedrichwerder (an administrative town), Dorotheenstad (a residential town), Friedrichstadt (a military town), and the Eastern suburbs (factory towns). By the turn of the XX century, the Berlin urban area was a network of 20 small and medium-sized towns, designing a large scale urban archipelago. When the great Berlin was formed in 1920 by consolidating all 20 towns into one, the multipolar logic of this gestalt figure found its first contemporary, romantic confirmation that extended well beyond the immediate border of the Grosstadt.

Unlike many places around the world, Berlin’s urbanity is built on, not one but, a plural centrality. The city has grown as a terrestrial archipelago and is governed as such. This administrative model, however, is still little understood or fully appreciated for the provocative logic with which it has established a unique paradigm transcending both modernist and postmodernist urban thought. Berlin’s romantic paradigm renounces the idea of urban control or of reducing the city to an overall system. It is a paradigm that has formed a formal grammar establishing an archipelago of formal events. It is a paradigm that rather than ‘solving’ the city’s problems, rather than filling its many voids, proposes to exploit them as thematic forms for new projects. It is a paradigm that, by acknowledging the notion of an urbanity formed by contrasting parts, provides ample room for enjoyment, a quality that most contemporary urban conglomerations lack. Berlin is a collection of ‘islands,’ each of which has a different nature. They can be ‘institutional’ (Ku’damm, Potsdamer Platz, Kulturforum), commercial (Alexanderplatz, Wittenbergplatz), natural (parks, zoos, botanical gardens), spontaneous (flee and food markets), or body-based (sailing, rowing, biking, skating, athletic fields). The terrestrial archipelago accommodates every aspect of contemporary life. It functions as a workplace, a commercial center, and a resort or playground for enjoyable activities of all kinds. It reflects the splintering form of contemporary society within its own fragmented fabric. It embodies the fluctuating state in which urbanity finds itself. It suggests that urbanity is a field of delimited forms. It is a model composed of irreducibly divergent parts in a state of permanent incompletion. Could it be a city-scale, memory-free Hadrian’s villa?

Almost a quarter of a century after the fall of the wall, Berlin is, perhaps, as one of the last ‘true’ places. It is a city that seems to have been built upon its own true romantic memory, and is the opposite of a Potemkin metropolis. It is the only place where ‘professional fabricators of memory’ have no place. It is an authentic, dignified place that is not afraid of hiding the past and present anxieties that populate its multilayered surface and Geshichte. It is place of many qualities in a global horizon of places without qualities. It is a place of romantic urban enjoyment, and its romantic urbanism represents the true face of the truly ‘livable’ and ‘enjoyable’ rather than the ‘sustainable.’
Romantic urbanism shares little with the theme park model. It does not replicate reality embracing an aesthetic of accumulation and collage. Romantic urbanism has understood that urbanity shaped as an archipelago of organs of limited size is more feasible than all-encompassing projects like those proposed by the modernists. Or the Nazis. Or the Soviets. Romantic urbanism even allows their ‘ghosts’ to be permanent citizens of its urbanity. Romantic urbanism does not promise to deliver all the seductive appeals of consumerism that a reality-show-based society can produce. Romantic urbanism emphasizes public transportation and natural paths at every turn. Romantic urbanism takes issue with over-scaled conglomerations engulfed by countless car owners fighting to get by, or an endless series of fictional non-places where human interaction is annihilated. Romantic urbanism breaks down the barrier between illusion and reality, between dreams and waking, between the conscious and the unconscious. It produces a sense of a wall-less universe, of perpetual change and perpetual transformation. Like Novalis who, when asked where he thought he was tending, or what his art was about, it says: ‘I am always going home, always to my father’s house.’

Human interaction is the engine of romantic urbanism. Romantic urbanism is built on the slow spaces (langsame Räume) Sharoun first mentioned in 1946, on spaces in which urban dwellers can nurture their technical, intellectual, or social needs. Romantic urbanism rejects the re-composition of existing conditions and, on the contrary, attempts to make the most of out of them to reinterpret fragmentation. Romantic urbanism is made up of islands of density and islands of sparseness juxtaposed to each other. Romantic urbanism emphasizes the right balance between built and empty areas, which are understood as compatible and complementary forces. The vast ‘green sea’ between the ‘islands’ is as important as the ‘islands’ themselves, a simultaneous withdrawal and embracing of urbanity. Romantic urbanism suggests that, to commune with nature and live among uncorrupted people, there is no need to flee to some Robinson Crusoe island, or to resort to dandyism or violent aestheticism.
Romantic urbanism embraces both the desire for stability and the need for instability. It has no ambition of reconciling all ends. It has no ambition of solving all the problems of urbanity, or society. Romantic urbanism is a dialogue between what is fixed and what is unstable and in permanent flux. It reminds one that urban life is not a jigsaw puzzle where all the pieces fit. It reaffirms that the idea that one single, coherent pattern is more abnormal than the normal.
Is romantic urbanism a new urban ‘species,’ as Magnus Hirschfeld would have said? A simple aspect of Berlin’s Physiognomik rather than a general condition? Romantic urbanism is based upon urbanity as an array of idiosyncratic collective forms in amiable contrast. Romantic urbanism accepts both Viennese-style superblocks and vast empty spaces, like Tempelhof, a true uninterrupted pause in the process of becoming one of the most enjoyable open spaces of all time. Hitler thought that architecture affected both the landscape and the mood of the population served by it. This is the only thing he was right about, as his failed attempt on the life of Berlin’s urban archipelago reminds us.

Non si interrompe un’emozione, figuriamoci la Soncini!


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