Peaceful& The expansive Tiergarten park provides a tranquil escape from the built environment, but artists resent the gentrification of the city.
Peaceful& The expansive Tiergarten park provides a tranquil escape from the built environment, but artists resent the gentrification of the city.
Reconstruction& The Brandenberg Gate is one of Berlins landmarks that had to be rebuilt after WW II. Pictures: Mary Corrigall
Reconstruction& The Brandenberg Gate is one of Berlins landmarks that had to be rebuilt after WW II. Pictures: Mary Corrigall
Freedom& Graffiti are a signature of Berlin's urban landscape and speaks of a sense of freedom.
Freedom& Graffiti are a signature of Berlin's urban landscape and speaks of a sense of freedom.

By Mary Corrigall

Berlin - It’s like I have arrived in a post-apocalyptic world. We’re standing in a courtyard flanked by the skeletons of two tall decrepit buildings and in one corner is a large sculpture fashioned from disused objects; old washing machines, rubber tyres and such detritus are piled on top of each other forming a sort of post-consumerist totem.

Young revellers skip past us making their way down to the bank of a river – I’m not sure if it’s the Spree as we’ve hopped from place to place, bar to bar that I’ve lost my bearing. I’m with a Berliner, so I don’t need a map. I don’t have to keep track where I am and how I will get back to my hotel in Charlottenburg. It’s a liberating feeling and Cater Holzig, the “wooden cat”, is a good place to be feeling liberated.

It isn’t just nightclubs that facilitate this emotion, Berlin is the ideal place to revel in this quality, or unleash your own sense of what they may entail, for it is a city that has famously luxuriated in the idea of “freedom” since the process of its transformation and reunification began in the late eighties, and climaxed when the notorious wall between East and West was torn down.

It’s this sentiment which has established it – since the early nineties and the explosion of electronic music clubs – as the city to go and party.

This is why Mirko Schmitt, my Berlin connection, has brought me to Cater Holzig. You can’t come to Berlin without wiggling your tush to some form of electronica. It’s like going to Paris without sampling a croissant.

But I have this feeling that I have somehow missed the boat – that the height of Berlin’s party days are over. Cater Holzig was once called Bar 25 and dancing here would continue for days – or until the last determined party-goer passed out.

It doesn’t look like a 48-hour party, or we have joined the stragglers at the tail end of one. The bar and dance floor are housed in a building that resembles a beach hut with the river beside it standing in for the sea. The dance floor isn’t seething with sweaty bodies; there is only a smattering of people dancing and the rest are all drinking at small tables dotted around.

It’s not quite party-central. At least we didn’t have to queue outside for hours; I’ve been apprised of tales of long, frustrating waits to get into clubs that often aren’t successful. It’s all the Americans, opines Schmitt.

The city’s reputation as a partygoer’s paradise has attracted hordes of twenty-something hedonists who decamp in Berlin over the summer, sometimes longer. This American invasion is seen in a positive and negative light; it has signalled that Berlin is cosmopolitan, desirable, but such attention seems to have marked the denouement of Berlin’s party culture.

Schmitt believes its height was in the early noughties when he returned to Germany after growing bored with London. He recalls three-day long parties, though he might not be able to recount the details.

As a session musician he naturally gravitated towards the party scene. Berlin seemed the perfect place for a musician to resettle in Germany – he originally hails from Saarbrucken in the South of Germany.

He reluctantly admits, that an earlier generation of Berliners claim that the city’s cultural scene was at its best in the early nineties, soon after the wall came down. Berlin wasn’t only the party capital but a locus of the arts. Cities on the cusp of transformation are magnets for creative minds; it’s the opportunity to rethink the fundamentals of a society, to be part of rebuilding something alternative that makes it irresistible.

Alternative models for cities and their urban design at Architektonika 2, an exhibition of architectural design and art-related architecture works, on display at the Hamburger Bahnhof, a gallery for contemporary art, affirms the potential that rebuilding a city can offer.

There is a model and drawings of Ron Herron’s Walking City, a nomadic city proposed by the British architect in the mid sixties. The idea wasn’t conceived for Berlin; but it’s easy to see why this exhibition, exploring these imagined futures (of the past) make sense here.

Of course, Berlin wasn’t only rebuilt after the wall came down in 1990, unifying the now defunct German Democratic Republic (GDR) with West Germany. Berlin underwent its major reconstruction after World War II, when it was pummelled into the ground in an effort to stamp out what was left of the Nazi regime.

“Reconstructed” is an appropriate term for what occurred in the sense that former iconographic structures, such as the Brandenberg Gate, that had been virtually destroyed during the war, were rebuilt into exact replicas of what had existed there previously. As a result you encounter landmarks that parade a neoclassical or other dated forms though they appear new and shiny. They thus look like cheap knock-offs, though they remain quite grand in scale such as the Brandenberg Gate, which boasts a stunning golden quadriga supported by a elevated line of Doric columns.

The process of rebuilding Berlin continues. Construction sites are dotted everywhere and they mushroom overnight. When I leave my hotel in Charlottenburg one morning a few construction workers are arriving on the street and by the time I have returned that evening; five makeshift offices have been set up and scaffolding is already wrapped around a building.

Germany has entered its third phase of renewal, posits a journalist in Der Speigel International, an online English version of one of the country’s popular newspapers. Despite all this reconstruction, Berlin doesn’t feel like a new city. This may have something to do with its cumbersome and ever-present history. Charlottenburg is part of the former West and it still boasts 17th and 18th century buildings; the old and the new are seamlessly interwoven, as is the case in most big cities.

In the 1920s the area was a popular haunt for artists, but now, they grimace when you mention the name. It’s for two reasons: it’s part of the former West Berlin and is associated with bourgeois tendencies. Such areas are considered to be conservative and dull. Unfortunately, I wasn’t privy to this information before booking my trip.

It comes as a surprise that the distinctions between the former west and east areas of the city are still so distinct. The wall may have come down but an invisible boundary seems fixed in the minds of locals.

As Schmitt drives me around he keeps pointing out which parts are east and, which west. The wall’s location through the city is also marked on my tourist map. It is like a scar that has yet to, may never, heal. Superficially, I can’t tell the difference between these opposing areas.

My visit first begins in a hotel in the former east side on Friedrichstrasse, which is lined with mostly generic multinational retailers – Mango, Cos – and a few German bread or sandwich shops.

The Maritim Pro Arte Hotel is an art-themed establishment, crudely expressed via second-rate abstract works dotted along the walls. It is central and in the heart of Mitte, on the east side but I prefer the hotel in Charlottenburg, Bleibtreu Berlin.

It too is within walking distance of a shopping boulevard, the famous Kurfürstendamm, though it has more of a suburban feel, with old trees pushing through the wide concrete pavement. The hotel also has an art vibe to it; it is a design-centred establishment with a Bauhaus influence but it’s more tasteful. In line with the idea that Berlin is an artistic centre, there are art-themed hotels all over.

Berlin might be party central but it is also art central. Though, to my dismay, not in summer. In summer Berliners make an exodus to other locations to holiday; leaving the tourists to the packed museums. Almost every commercial or independent private gallery is closed, so I am left to explore public art institutions. It’s not wholly disappointing; I wander through a wing of the Hamburger Bahnhof which is devoted to Joseph Beuys, a German artist associated with the Fluxus movement. At the Guggenheim Berlin is a small collection of some new work from Gabriel Orozco, the Mexican artist who has catalogued disused objects found in a field and by the sea into pleasing colour-coded arrangements. It’s satisfying finally to get a grip on all the influences and different phases of the Bauhaus era at an eponymous museum and at the Martin Gropuis Bau it is a treat to be able to study a collection of photographs by the acclaimed American photographer Diane Arbus, who had a penchant for snapping the marginalised, those with physical differences – “difference is sameness” reads a quote of hers in the exhibition.

At the Neue National Galerie I gain insight into Germany’s postwar art movements; artists in East Germany remained dominated by social realism, while in the West artists experimented with form, embracing expressionism and minimalism. The collection is dominated by the latter; art did not flourish in the East.

A squashed journey through the modest GDR museum makes clear the degree of that government’s repressive policies. Every aspect of people’s lives was predetermined by the state; even down to the time a child should go to the toilet. It is no wonder they had to build a wall to keep people in. Germans living in the GDR didn’t even have the freedom to choose what career they wanted to follow. It was an absurd, paranoid political system that inevitably imploded. Without any avenues to enact a rebellion, a display shows how people would appear naked in public places. It was the only gesture available. In the light of this it is easy to grasp the nature of the euphoria that followed when the GDR collapsed and the wall came down.

It was short-lived, however, confirms Katrin Bettina Müller, arts editor at Die Tageszeitung, aka the Taz, a daily newspaper based in Berlin. Many East Germans lost their jobs when the country was unified and their lives didn’t necessarily improve. A long period of disillusionment set in, observes Müller.

In an effort to reclaim what had been lost to the repressive state, the rundown areas of the former east have become the most fashionable addresses for artists – until the property developers get stuck in and gentrification takes hold. Hackescher Markt is one such area. It brings to mind London’s Covent Garden - it’s slightly off-beat but mainstream. Some shops are unique – though there is an American Apparel and another Cos outlet – and there are lots of charming and unpretentious small eateries.

My first foray through the suburb is under the guidance of another Berliner, Ariana Pauls, an artist employed by the Goethe Institut to oversee my visit. Like most of the artistic types in the city she lives in the former east, Mitte, though like Schmitt she admits that gentrification schemes have shifted the characters of suburbs so quickly and dramatically, that she has been prompted to move several times, as this kind of bland western bourgeois feel, aesthetic even, creeps in, pushing rent up and divesting the area of its off-beat, run-down character. Reconstruction isn’t warmly received by all Berliners, particularly the artistic set, who are slowly edging towards the outskirts of the city to maintain their position in Berlin’s “liberal” and more inexpensive areas.

Hackescher Markt is a prime example of the effects of this conversion, according to Pauls. A brisk walk that threads us through Hackescher Höfe, a series of interlinked courtyards framed by stunning Art Nouveau buildings, suggests that some of its charm has remained intact, despite all the commercialisation of it. Discrete plaques honouring former Jewish residents who died in Nazi camps are a silent reminder of the unthinkable history that haunts this city, this country.

We are looking for a place for dinner but Pauls won’t settle for any of the restaurants here – they’re too touristy, they’re not representative of the real Berlin. Pauls settles on a place called Clärchens Ballhaus on August Strasse.

It’s a warm summer’s evening, so like most of its patrons we take a seat outside in a large courtyard, flanked by degenerating buildings, covered in graffiti. This is a kind of signature of Berlin. Like at Cater Holzig, it exudes this postwar aesthetic, though the last war was over 50 years ago. Inside, on the first floor is a dilapidated ballroom that is the main attraction – the restaurant takes its name from it. It looks as if it has been untouched since the 1920s. No effort has been made to restore it, though it apparently is frequently used as a venue for all sorts of events.

As I marvel over the large chandeliers hanging from the vaulted ceilings, it strikes me that some Berliners value degeneration. Or perhaps, more significantly, are keen to hold on to their past, despite it being so fraught with violence and bigotry. It’s not a nostalgia for the Nazi or GDR eras but a desire tokeep physical traces of what occurred and retain that moment of liberation, when both of those repressive states that held Germany ransom were ousted. The sense of euphoria, relief, that the worst was over, and uncertainty of what lay ahead, was simple to understand and express, through a frenzy of dance, which has become a signature of this culture of pursuing, grasping freedom. Does this activity have any meaning now?

Under the shadow of the architectural skeletons of the past that maintain the atmosphere at Cater Holzig it feels like we are going through the motions, trying to be part of another time. - Sunday Independent

l Mary Corrigall visited Berlin under the aegis of the Goethe Institut’s Visitor Programme