Scratching out the City

From City Spaces: Filling in Berlin’s Gaps;
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

Many a ruler has leaned over a model of Berlin. It must be gratifying, perhaps dizzying with power, to take the houses of entire streets off the board and set them aside, where they are disposed of by subordinate creatures. Then it’s time to reorganize. The model city has no inhabitants who might scream, complain, or commit suicide. The real-life evictions are left to the subordinate creatures’ lackeys.

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Albert Speer ‘On the White Shores of the Saale’

On Saalestraße, the street extending from Neukölln Station along the raised tracks of the circle line towards Sonnenallee, the front sections of all the apartment buildings numbered from 1 to 24 are missing. On my first foray there I thought it must be war damage caused by planes, aided by mine chains or carpet bombing with incendiary devices. In fact, though, the street was in the way of the plans for the Reich capital drawn up by Hitler’s General Construction Inspector, Albert Speer, some years before Berlin was bombed. The new capital, Germania, needed large railway stations. For the sake of a few platforms, one street in Rixdorf, only 37 years old, was removed almost entirely, house by house, floor by floor, neatly disassembled. Wood was separated from brick, pavement cobbles piled in neat hillocks, bow windows, miniature towers, gables, and façade decorations meticulously documented by photographers. The only evidence of people living behind the windows were the balconies still in blossom, as though there had been hope up to the last moment that the eviction process might pass by that particular building. Like at Number 8, where on the gable above the balcony door a larger-than-life stone woman stood with a small child in her arms, bracing herself against the wind on the shore of a sea to wait for the return of her sailor, whose sailing ship was just sinking. Hardly had Widow Agahd, Braune the architect, Kettner the teacher, Lengricht the waiter, Meyer the clerk, Mrs. Protze and the weapons dealer Reuß moved out and the gable been torn down, when the war came and put a stop to the demolition work.

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‘Berlin 1945’ by Winston Churchill
Based on an Idea of Adolf Hitler’s

At the sight of Berlin on his return from exile, Bertolt Brecht wrote of an “etching by Churchill based on an idea of Hitler’s.” The now defunct Museum of the Unconditional Surrender in Karlshorst housed a model of Berlin made to show Red Army commanders storming the Reich Chancellery the way through the dead inner city. Instead of houses there were stumps of ruins and piles of stones carved out of plywood. Astounding that all this rubble still had house numbers. Some streets vanished from the map for good. Roonstraße, Kronprinzenufer, and Viktoriastraße exist only in the rubble-clearing files at the Tiergarten Museum.

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‘Old Berlin: History’ by Walter Ulbricht

From the white shores of the Saale towards the Baltic coast. Circle line via Ostkreuz, almost 180 degrees anti-clockwise. In the days of the sector border they said the city got darker after Sonnenallee Station. Really it was just greyer.

In the capital city of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht scratched out the area around Alexanderplatz. The quarter around St. George’s Church vanished entirely from the map to make way for car-friendly eight-lane streets and buildings like shoeboxes. All that remained of Fisher’s Island was its name. In the end, the blueprints of Alt-Kölln, Luisenstadt and Königsstadt were white with occasional blue lines and dots – elongated 11-storey houses and square tower blocks. The white was empty space, also known as ‘light, air and sun.’ Subsequent dictators great and small soon ran out of money and energy. Even now, the circle line passes between old-style backyards on display alongside the S-Bahn’s elevated tracks between Ostkreuz and Schönhauser Allee.

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Willy Brandt’s ‘Red Vineta’

Circle line to Gesundbrunnen Station. Rear exit Swinemünder Straße. Turn right at the corner of Rügener Straße. When Werner Kohn photographed his way along Putbusser Straße in March 1976, most of the buildings between Rügener and Lortzingstraße had been emptied of their tenants, their ground floors bricked up. The war hadn’t torn a single gap in the rows of houses on the South side. Now empty window caverns yawned here, their cross bars broken out, the glass smashed with cobbles from the pavement. Only in Number 44 had one man made a temporary stand against his relocation and was looking out of the window at the empty street, while the Engelhardt-Klause one floor down from him still seemed to be serving beer and schnapps to soften the trials and tribulations of the last upright residents of Wedding, before the drinkers and the barman alike were carted off to the Märkisches Viertel or Gropiusstadt on the edges of town. Here, urban redevelopment meant not only more comfort, but also pacification. The disappearance of the buildings and the relocation of 39,000 people spelled out the end of a working-class area where the spectre of communism still cast its shadow, at least in the nightmares of West Berlin’s politicians. In fact, after the Nazis, Walter Ulbricht’s politics in the East of the city had exorcized communism among the people of Wedding once and for all.

When the Wall was built, the residents of the neighbourhood around Brunnenstraße had ended up in a dead-end, so the area lent itself to urban planning experiments. Here, in the Social Democrat Willy Brandt’s constituency, it was full steam ahead for ‘construction as symbolic politics.’ For the reconstruction of Wedding, soon revealed as its eradication, a gigantic money-wasting machine was set in motion, private land was bought up by noncommercial housing associations, old houses demolished and new ones built that looked thin-skinned and made only for sleeping in, even from a distance.

Is it an irony of history that there’s a square by the name of Vineta at the heart of the neighbourhood? And that the only relic of the 19th century is the Vineta Primary School? The legendary city of Vineta was allegedly inhabited by ‘barbarians, Greeks, Slavs, and Saxons.’ It was so wealthy that it was said the mothers wiped their children’s behinds with bread rolls. The same couldn’t and can’t be said of Wedding (despite a twenty-year regeneration programme), although Putbusser Straße was multicultural even before the demolition, judging by the names of its residents in the address directory. It is still multicultural today, just not alive.

The lack of money and the reluctance of the inhabitants, along with a new species that emerged at the end of the 20th century, the repairer-occupiers also known as squatters, was a blessing for the city. They meant that Prenzlauer Berg survived in the East, and Kreuzberg in the West.

The scratchers-out of the new German capital at the turn of the millennium leaned over plenty of models. With a few exceptions, all that remains of their grand plans – the most gigantic being the dream of hosting the Olympics in the year 2000 – is debt, vacancy, abandoned investment projects and a municipally owned bank on the brink of bankruptcy.

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Children Drawing the City in the Year 2100

People are only sketchily visible on the poorly lit streets of the Vineta Quarter in the fog of a February evening, the houses impossible to distinguish from those out in Hellersdorf, as I walk back across the million-mark bridge on Swinemünder Straße to the circle line. Beneath me lie the beginnings of Gesundbrunnen Station. Piled-up earth, half-finished platforms, ballast and tracks. Construction of the new railway junction is taking a while. A vertically stacked container village has been planted between Ramlerstraße and the track bed. As in a doll’s house, people act out scenes behind the windows. In the fourth container from the left, third floor, someone takes off his helmet; in the second container from the right, ground floor, there’s someone in bed in his work clothes; in the middle of the second floor someone’s sitting at a table, his head cushioned on his folded arms. Every person is self-contained and yet only centimetres away from the others.

Perhaps future generations will be allocated a container at birth, one for each child, colour-coded around the world by year of birth, place of birth immortalized in lettering on the wall, as if they could hold onto it in times of need. If it’s in the way of a strategy, or disasters lay waste to the country, a container like that can be transported complete with inhabitants, by ship or by truck, by cargo plane or train, to a happier place.

From City Spaces: Filling in Berlin’s Gaps. Published by Readux Books. Translation © Katy Derbyshire, 2015

Original German publication by Edition Nautilis in: Annett Gröschner,  Parzelle Paradies © Lutz Schulenburg, 2008