Saturday 5 August 2023

Berlin: Concrete And Chic, 1994

Jeder hat Kraft, or Everyone is powerful

Who knew the Iron Curtain, or a considerable chunk of it, was hiding in plain sight beside Sydney's Goethe-Institut? I traipsed past it on several occasions before noticing the large piece of grafittied concrete in the middle of this pocket park. Hullo, what? Surely not?, thunk I, but investigating closer after the double-take of faint recognition proved it to be so. Once seen, of course, it's hard to miss the 2.4-tonne, 4-metre embodiment of Berlin's modern history as the epicentre of the Cold War. And so far from the action, as it were, in this sedate suburb in Australia.

Your Correspondent has only been to Berlin once, a two-day work trip in late 1994, memorable for so many reasons. The Berlin Wall had been down for a few years by then, and the pioneering tourists had already swarmed across. At the casual announcement of my intended visit, various seasoned travellers yawned, "Oh, you're too late ... " It appeared that unless you were there while vestiges of the Wall were still hanging on was it cool to be in Berlin.* How to explain to the world-weary that what did that matter when you were actually going there for a meeting? And as for cool, it was probably going to snow.

Meeting and dinner with the client done, I had the full Saturday to myself. I was in and out on foot during the day, marvelling at the simply gorgeous and statuesque young men and women I would see as I passed through the lobby of my Hilton-esque hotel**. So not what I expected of the German people!*** By the evening I was up for a night out and a conversation with an elderly, black American poet and long-time resident (of course) at the next table in a bistro sent me with directions for a very Berlin experience.

I found myself in a roofless semi-derelict warehouse, each floor of this heaving nightclub an exercise in German after-dark cool. There I met a young architecture student who proposed a tour of his city and an object lesson in European modernist archicture post-haste when I wrinkled my nose over our discussion of Brutalism. I was flying back to London in the morning and there was no time to lose!

Next I knew, we were driving around in the sleet in Berlin, various concrete buildings we passed given a precis of their history, merits and contribution to the cityscape and I found myself becoming more appreciative as the tour wore on. The city was bristling with cranes, (all the cranes of Europe were employed on sites rebuilding Berlin, apparently), and architects were in hot demand. 

East Berlin bar-hopping was next on the tour, moody and mournful places in the wee small hours, anonymous ground-floor apartments facing streets still pockmarked with scars from their life as the poor half of the city, just with a bar set up amongst the domestic furniture. Finally, a spin back to the architect's apartment for breakfast at dawn. Freezing cold, no lift, but sitting eating toast with my coat and gloves on, just had to admire that it was, of course, by Le Corbusier. Concrete and chic.

* By this time, the Jeder hat Kraft slab had been long ago shipped to a warehouse in outer Sydney by the German-Australian businessman Peter Kubiak, where it languished until its donation to the Goethe-Institut park in 2019, on the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

** It was only when I was checking out of my hotel that I clocked all the signage in the lobby announcing it as hosting Vogue Magazine's "Face of the Year" while I was there, hence the cream of Germany's models were trooping through for the duration.

*** Apologies Dear Britta & Sean for my youthful gaucheness! 

Image credit: Flying With Hands

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