On quiet Berlin and the gifts and prohibitions of public space

I loved Berlin. I loved the S-bahn and U-bahn systems (as poorly mapped as they are by the city). I loved German beer and German wine, German food markets. I loved the Berlin hipsters and German typographical design. I could live, I think, forever in Berlin.

I am not sure if the city itself and its particular histories offers this experience to all who travel there, or if it was my own thinking, but it seemed a city devoted to the prohibitions and affordances of urban (and otherwise) space. There is, of course, ‘the wall’ and all it did and did not do, all its remaining traces in the city. These are visible. Where it once stood is marked on and off again throughout the city in various forms. Sometimes a piece of it still stands. Sometimes its former position is noted as would be the division between traffic lanes–a line below you that you cross with or without noticing.

There is also a relationship Berlin seems to have with space, with architecture and with urban planning, that is unusual in the travel I have done elsewhere. Such diverse building styles, so much space devoted to the public, so many ways to navigate…

The first full day I spent in the city I went to the Hamburger Bahnhof where, in addition to an incredible exhibit of the relationship between fine art and architecture (Architektonika 2) there was a large room devoted to Anthony McCall’s work, Five Minutes of Pure Sculpture. I have no interest in describing the pieces (because I could not do them justice) except to stay that you feel what they are doing to you and to the space around you in a way unlike any other sculptural works I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing.

Later in the week I also spent some time wandering in the Tiergarten–a park which beats Central Park in New York City and Griffith Park in Los Angeles by epic strides.

I visited the Bauhaus Archive, a Gropius-designed building, constructed posthumously and in a space he did not intend but which none-the-less houses one of the nicest special collections I’ve come across. Klee, Maholy-Nagy, Mies Van der Rohe, Breuer–all are present in the archive as artists in process more than they are as authors, monoliths.

Finally, the biergarten. Germans, despite what must be very cold winters, know how to drink outdoors. And they know how to do it with delicious sausages. I could spend every summer afternoon in a biergarten if the company was right. We went to this one: Schleusen Krug. Next to the Zoo. We saw some idle donkeys on the way in.

All of these travels through the city, and many more I took in the five days I spent in there, were made more potent by the fact that Berlin seemed always to be functioning in a hush. Even in crowds and on main drags it felt quiet, warm.

Let me close by saying (it really has to be said): Ich bin ein Berliner!*


*I’ve been told that this most globally known of quotations is inaccurate. JFK apparently accidentally said “I am a doughnut.” But that would work, for the purposes of this blog, too. Berliners love their doughnuts. They are, in my experience, delicious.

Play of the Day

In Berlin tonight, on our way to dinner, we made a left onto Leibnizstrausse, passed Walter Benjaminstrausse and made a right onto Kantstrausse.

Even better (though I did not wander here): Karl-Marx-Strausse intersects somewhere in this city with Hegelstrausse.

I recognize this spatial joke is selling itself to a very tiny niche market. It just happens I’m in that particular niche. Hopefully one among you, oh readers of mine, is too.*


*Mexico City has its own version of literary and philosophical street-naming phenomena. I’ve mentioned it before. I probably will do so again.

Of Rotterdam and the erasure of spatial histories

I have given up chronology. On this blog, for the time being, and perhaps also in life. It is so unlike experience and it rarely coincides well with narrative. So, while I’ll post a note dedicated to each of the three European cities I’ve visited in the last two weeks, the order and content of these missives* will not run parallel to my own geographical trajectory.

The first of these notes (you’re reading it now) is about Rotterdam, a city intimately acquainted with the refusal of chronological history. Bombed twice in World War II, once by the Germans (a port city, it was an appropriate target) and once by the U.S. (by mistake, at least according to my Dutch sources) the post-war city served as a kind of tabula rasa for modern architecture. Rotterdam is all shiny surfaces, covered in a patina of dust knocked up by continuing construction. There is only one section of the city which resembles a pre-war Rotterdam and, as far as I could tell, it devotes itself to nostalgic tourists. The bulk of the city is new and committed, it seems, to the endless positioning of itself in the present. The “architectural capital of the Netherlands,” and home to the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAi), Rotterdam is in a constant state of (re)production.

It also manages to be charming. Really. I should know. I got lost in the city at least once a day for the four days I spent there. Alleys to jog down, small green spaces and canals to hop across abound. I was particularly fond of the Museumpark which houses both greenery and striking contemporary architecture. Planned and delivered by Rem Koolhaas’s OMA, it is Rotterdam high brow, perhaps par excellence.

All this city space was made more thoroughly enthralling by the fact that my days were spent attending workshops and talks for the Prototyping Futures/Occupying the Present symposium hosted at the Piet Zwart Institute.  Talks by 2012 ArchitectenMen in Grey, Danja Vasiliev and Julian Oliver; the truly wonderful Active Archives folks; and many astounding others made space in Rotterdam, in cities everywhere (and in our imagined futures) come very much alive. I was particularly fond of the workshop I attended with the Failed Architecture group. You will, eventually, be able to see my notes on the matter in the archive (also active) of the conference.

I wondered often as I wandered through the city if novelty wares on the people of Rotterdam. To have a history built, erased, rebuilt, erased, remodeled and built again (even if at the slow pace of material construction) would mean a different sort of narrative of urban life than the one that exists in a Paris or a Buenos Aires. I also wondered if such reformulation, such spatial re-telling isn’t so much more in line with the way we engage history and spatial narrative in the contemporary moment. Wouldn’t Los Angeles or Rotterdam (and the two have much, I’d say, in common) be more suited in their development, in the way they’ve turned their backs on certain of their traces, to life in the contemporary moment? Is not novelty and the quick rise and demolition of structure just the stuff to which we’ve**  become accustomed?

These are urgent questions, but ones I won’t attempt to answer here. Let it just be known that Rotterdam is an urban landscape well worth exploring. And one that might, despite itself, tell us much about city histories. Certainly, if it gets its way, it is already telling us mountains about city futures.


*Can, indeed, you call something that exists somewhere on a server a missive? What is ‘sent’ on the internet?

**’We’ is always dangerous. I know. For the purposes of this particular entry, I’ll go out on a limb and say I’m speaking from a very particular, U.S. and Western European stance. Call it ‘Global North’. Call it ‘developed.’ Call it what you will.

Of your brain on transatlantic airtravel

Dearest readers of mine, yet again I am in transit!

I arrived in the fine city of Amsterdam on Wednesday morning. I passed just a few quick days in that gem in the crown of enthralling European cities before heading to Rotterdam (where I currently sit) for what has proven to be a very engaging event at the Piet Zwart Institute. On Tuesday, I’ll move on to Berlin. More will follow on these ventures, I promise. For now, though, because I am only just now recovering from my jet-lag, I wish to tell you that air travel really screws with your brain.

It is, in a word, insane that I awoke in sunny Los Angeles and, some 24 hours and change later, I snuggled into a hotel bed on an entirely different continent. That such materially and existentially challenging movement was made possible by a jet the size of a large house (and made of extremely heavy parts) which shuttles its delicate carriage through the air, actually flying, at inhuman speeds is proof enough of the schizophrenic nature of contemporary travel.

For this, and perhaps many other reasons, it isn’t surprising that air travel does weird things to people. I’m not going to list all of the varied phenomenological and ontological upheavals excavated in us creatures by such travel. This is a topic for a much more studied, extensive volume. Instead, let me just point to one curious and mesmerizing phenomena: in-flight entertainment.

In-flight movies pull at human heart-strings in ways cinema on the ground does not. Seriously. The worst possible movies can make you ache with appreciation for the universal human condition. Or quake in terrible fear at the coming apocalypse. Or whatever.

You don’t have to believe me alone (or the fact that I once cried watching the abomination known as Glitter on a plane). Just Google it. Reuters, CNN, even This American Life have commented on the bizarre way we emote, rocketing forward some thousands of feet above the earth, while we watch movies that rank among the worst products of the American culture industry.

There are any number of theories (as far as my minimal research into the matter has discovered) about why it is that we feel so deeply as we stare at a screen, crammed next to rows upon rows of strangers, while we’re traversing the planet at high altitudes. Because the format of the blog seems so often to be confessional (and because certainly this particular blog is) I will add my entirely subjective, experientially rooted theory into the proverbial hat as well: We cry or cackle or desire as we watch the well packaged, corporate-sponsored drivel on the screens before us in our tiny seats because such drastic spatial transitions highlight, in a way no other means of travel seems to be able to, the temporal. Anything that truly brings the temporal into focus must bring with it the ephemeral and we know that once we’ve alighted on the ephemeral we have, alas, begun to share a little bit of space with our own, inevitable (if eventual) dissolution, decay, death. Death is the absolute universal. Or so, at least, I am told. It is the thing which binds all creatures, one way or another, to each other. It is the un-narratable experience we all will, none-the-less, share. If in high-speed, above-the-planet transitionality we are aware (consciously or otherwise) of our very material mortality then all stories to which we can even vaguely relate sparkle with the common. Death links me, weirdly, to Mariah Carey. So in that moment, careening at a pace I cannot conceive toward Paris from Los Angeles, I buy it. I buy her plight. I long for her success. I weep, awed, that she could achieve such glory in the face of such adversity.

If this seems hyperbolic, so be it. I tend (oh readers, as if you don’t already know) toward grand gestures. But what, I ask, is grander than a metal capsule in the sky packed full of us headed off that we may live (and die)? And what greater gesture of our shared precarity could any among us make than to feel and feel deeply when a story about living in whatever possible way, stripped thought it may be of criticality, is offered to us?

Play of the Day

I was recently asked to be the ‘cultural consultant’ on a film set in Albuquerque. It is the pet project of an art-wardly thinking (if I may coin a term) friend of mine. I went over to said friend’s house tonight for dinner to give him notes on the script and was pleased to discover that, based on dialogue alone and some minor aesthetic directions, I could geographically locate the homes of the characters.

Landscape sticks to a person. One knows the city that is, for better or worse, one’s hometown. It’s the kind of epistemological position you can struggle against but never, entirely, escape.

Good to have confirmed that space-based knowledge travels. And good that Los Angeles can deliver to a wayward Burqueño, via the strange machinations of film-making, home.