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


  1. Hello Pipistrello, Brutalism is such an unfortunate word for an architectural style, much of which is handsome and elegant. Of course, there are more than a few buildings that deserve the full opprobrium of that name's common associations in English.
    It is not as impressive as Sydney's sample, but my sister and I have a small chunk of the Berlin Wall in a velvet bag, complete with authenticating documents. Someone gave it to us after finding out that we appreciated such things and would give it a good home.
    p.s. What a cool travel adventure (except the cold part). I am envious!

    1. Dear Jim, living as I was then in London, I was utterly baffled by the likes of the Barbican, and thusly thought I knew all there was about ugly cement architecture. Ripe for re-education, I was! The trip proved one of my favourite travel adventures.

      How very interesting you were gifted a chunk of Wall. I knew an entrepreneurial type who somehow got a large-ish bit and then smashed it into smaller pieces for selling. In the early days, many foreigners paid $$ for a bit of history.

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    1. There was still a kind of gold-rush atmosphere in 1994, but the most exciting months, not only for journalists working across the border, were certainly those between 9 November 1989 and 3 October 1990. Eleven months in which I worked as much as one normally would in two years.
      Although not a "Mauerspecht" / wall-(wood)pecker myself, like Parnassus / Jim I have a small piece of wall lying around somewhere that a young colleague brought me.
      As for Mr Kubiak, I would like to know how he got "his" piece of wall legally to Australia.
      P.S. Youthful gaucheness, Signora Pipistrello – at least with hindsight – may be considered a venial sin. ;-)

    2. What an exciting time to have been a journalist on the ground, dear Sean. I must say, Germans of all stripes, and not just you eminent professionals, do have a great way with words. Mauerspecht is marvellous! And how Mr. Kubiak's rather large peck landed in his hands is anyone's guess. Neither the blurb at the park nor any googling could shed any light there.

  3. My youngest went to live in Berlin briefly, about 20 years ago. At the time it had become very trendy, and was the hub of Europe. He loved it, but didn't stay too long.

    1. Your kids have had such interesting lives, dear Cro. I can think of another near neighbour of yours in Brighton, singer Nick Cave, who also lived in Berlin, although I suspect your son wasn't quite as wild the child there!

    2. Yes, Nick lives in Brighton. One of our better known residents.

    3. And becoming more so owing to his very interesting newsletter, "The Red Hand Files". It's well worth a look.

  4. Why did Peter Kubiak want the slab to be preserved in Australia, do you think? Did we, in particular, have something to be learned?

    1. I couldn't say, dear Hels. No light is shed when you google the story and he seems to have vanished from the scene. I expect he was more interested in grabbing a piece of history for posterity and then personal circumstances led to his chunk living in storage for decades.

  5. yes yes yes I am glad to see your posting again.
    I went to Berlin in the late 80s; how strange it must be to see it again now.

    1. I, too, am rather keen to see Berlin after all this time, dear Ur-spo.

  6. 1994 I was in FLORENCE!
    I for some odd reason have no desire to see BERLIN.........
    I think my traveling days are over now.I was lucky enough to see a good amount of the world as a student.Africa, India, Hong Kong, JAPAN.
    Traveling is an EYE OPENER that is for CERTAIN!

    1. Dear Contessa, your ife has so been full of colour and movement and most interesting travel experiences, so there is no apologising for not being attracted like a moth to the bright flames of the likes of Berlin.

  7. Dear Pip, when I came back from my travels (last stop: Berlin) to Bavaria I read your post and saw your glorious find.

    Of course I wanted to write a witty answer - and thus I put it off as long as possible, and that didn't lighten it.
    Ha, now I jump into imperfection!

    I wonder why that part of The Wall is now in Australia. But then I see that it is in the garden of the Goethe-Institut and it makes sense - they wand to convey German culture to others.

    If I read the inscription right, it says: "Jeder hat Kraft" - "Everyone has power".
    Of course we see the side of the wall that was on the West side, BRD. The drawing: could it be a - female - tiger? A tigress?

    You write about the world-weary ones you met in Berlin - blasé (and I always think that attitude thwart a very self-rewarding virtue: enthusiasm. Excitement. Buzz. Zest. I could go on - but I do not have to explain that to YOU - I think we both know what it means and we posses it. (Honestly, I have huge difficulties with "cool" as a way to see the world - at the moment it might even destroy a good relation - it is an attitude I find more as a trait of men - and I am on the other side of "cool" - let's say I try to see all in the Zen way - "looking with new (fresh?) eyes").

    Berlin can be very, very hot in summer - and very, very cold in winter - people call that then "The Russian whip."

    Yes, sometimes one finds "concrete and chic" - though it is not my cup of tea, and in this moment many of those concrete buildings are showing the negative virtues of concrete: they rot. They renovated now the Neue Nationalgalerie for 140 million Euros.

    I love that you accepted the tour though you had the flight next day - that, dear Pip, is what I think the opposite of world-weary and "cool".

  8. PS: There exists a long article how that part of the Berlin Wall came to Australia. (I cannot copy the link - it is from the Goethe Institut "Wie die Berliner Mauer nach Sidney kam" by Scott Wales - and in the long article you see that this part is only a part of a "series" of graffitis: "Tu was! - Do something", "Stop / Stop / Stop", "Stop Death!", "Jeder hat Kraft" - Everybody has power!", "Rettet die Erde!" - save the world" - all cats with open mouth, and under your now Australian car sits an owl (not what I thought I saw).

    1. Dearest Britta, welcome back from your travels and apologies for my tardy reply - there has been a whirl of busy-busy hereabouts which has kept me from the blogoverse.

      You are correct, the big cat (I didn't see that before but each time I pass it now, that's what I see) could only have adorned the West side, the Eastern face is practically bare. There is a sign in the park with a picture of this segment in situ in Berlin between its neighbouring sloganned beasts' fangs. It makes more sense as part of the frieze but has more mystery standing on its own. Mr. Kubiak got his mitts on the best bit, I think! As to his what he expected to do with it, it has ended up in the perfect spot. And when it goes the way of all concrete into decrepitude, it can merely meld naturally into its environment without $$ needing to resurrect it, in my opinion.

      "Cool", that's a whole other subject. I hadn't noticed that it's more of a draw for men but I, too, am the opposite so the sample comprised of you and me proves your thesis!

      And speaking of the "Russian whip", it reminds me I must do a long-overdue post on Anna Karenina, hahah!


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