Berlin by Bike

Berlin is bracing and beautiful in winter!

My last visit here was in the summer of 1993, and at that time the city, and particularly the central zones surrounding the old Berlin Wall, were a sea of construction cranes, stitching back together the recently reunited East and West.

This trip I borrowed a bicycle (and some much-needed handlebar mitts to mitigate sub-freezing temperatures) and had a great time crisscrossing the gleaming unified city, with its spectacular bike-friendly streets and bridges, lined with hysterically optimistic new architecture, melancholy relics of old times, and a very friendly neighborhood character that lies somewhere in between.

I stayed with friends in a large, airy apartment in Kreuzberg, in an 1890’s courtyard building that was built as a military barracks. This neighborhood, once an isolated district of West Berlin, filled up with squatters and poor immigrants in the 1970’s but, situated nearer to the geometric center of the expanded city,  is now also home to professionals and bohemians sipping fair trade coffee at the local organic food coop.

The new Berlin is enormous, and these days it is hard to see the seams from the Cold War division, as even some of the sorriest and cheapest-looking East German buildings in Mitte and Friedrichshein have been scrubbed and animated by hip, eco-friendly shops and great ethnic restaurants. Potsdamer Platz, the historic square near Brandenberg Gate that was flattened by American bombs in World War II and left nearly vacant through the Cold War, was reconceived in the 90’s as a corporate headquarters and entertainment center. A decade on, it’s an orgy of glass, steel and fancy tensile structures and, like most new construction in the city, frighteningly transparent. You can watch people drinking coffee and playing computer solitaire at their desks from any street corner through floor to ceiling windows. That goes for the new government buildings surrounding the Reichstag too. It gives a feeling of almost compulsive hygiene and earnestness, as well as an indication of the German appetite for precious sunshine.

In spite of all this overt prosperity and hypermodernity, Berlin is still scruffy and low key in most areas outside the reunification zone. It seems that in anticipation of up to 9 million people living in the new German capital after the fall of communism, the city overbuilt, and the population has stabilized at about half that number, leaving rents affordable and the city’s abundant natural and cultural amenities in easy reach.

Tempelhof Flughafen, once the main city airport, has recently been reclaimed as a public park, completely un-reconstructed. You can take your picnic, kite-surfer or jogging shoes out on this vast prairie of old asphalt runways and scrubby lawns, and have acres of space to yourself. It’s right on Merhingdamm, the north-south street running through Kreuzberg, accessed around the side of the 30’s era terminal and gate structure, once the largest single building in Europe, now awaiting a new use. Treptower Park, a relic of Stalinist East Germany on the banks of the Spree River, features cheap beer and smoked-fish stalls on the waterfront as well as gigantic Russian and German inscribed monoliths celebrating the defeat of the Nazis. Strolling amid the funky and bombastic elements of this quiet haven on a bright, cold day seems somehow the best way to enjoy its strange juxtapositions.

I’m told Berlin is a totally different place in the summer (in fact, a number of people were rather insistent that I MUST see it in the warmer months). But I thoroughly enjoyed the winter city and finally understood what a friend once described to me as Berlin’s “tender” side, amid all its robustness and efficiency.


A couple of highly subjective architectural shout-outs:

— Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum: a C- for its bunker-like street presence and dreary, slash-windowed façade. (Note, we finish here on our Jewish Berlin walking seminar.)
— Helmut Jahn’s Sony Center: a B- for the mall-like, urbanistically sterile quality of its open spaces and street facades, mitigated by the spectacularly high-tech, high quality detailing of the buildings and of the signature “sail” canopy over the plaza. Maybe better when there are more people there.
— Peter Eisenmann’s Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe: an A- for the surprisingly haunting, lonely effects produced by a simple undulating ground plane and an acre of dark concrete stellae, with occasional glimpses of the Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate. (Our Topography of Terror walk visits this site.)


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