New Walls in Berlin

The top brands and labels and trendy boutiques are fast disappearing from the city centre. Moreover, art galleries have moved from tourist areas. Remaining are more Half Prices and TK Maxxes or large shopping malls where you can find those product that have been discarded by the recognised brands and that no-one wants to buy.

The pandemic made it certain that we did not visit Berlin for three years. A place that for two decades was the destination both for long and weekend breaks. We wanted to stroll and go to exhibitions and observe the changes.

First impressions: better still, more comfortable and more on a more human scale, and more beautiful with the spring air always renewing optimism and charm. The positives; no billboards. Hoardings, tasteless and large format, the curse of Polish cities have disappeared. In contrast Warsaw, the Polish capital to boot, looks like a provincial suburb, not to say anything of its dirt

I’d lie if I were to praise the aesthetics of the road from Brandenburg airport (opened at last in November 2020). The soundproofing panels are so boring by the A113, that its only through sheer force of will that you don’t fall asleep, especially in a drizzle.

Human scale

You can’t get bored in the Mitte or down town. Building after building is undergoing refurbishment. Works are undertaken behind screens that hide the scaffolding, not beautiful but discreet. Well what’s important? In between the old tenement houses are new buildings, new norms but ones that do not contradict the fabric of the capital.

There’s no pathological property development, that particularly Polish plague. In Berlin the urbanistic order has been preserved, despite the difficult problem of merging the post-communist districts with those of the West. No one builds the nightmarish and dehumanised “glass houses” in which corporations nest and where there is no sign of social life.

Berlin keeps the human scale, especially in both commercial and residential areas. The ground floor teems with life- cafes, bars, restaurants with world cuisine, shops and service points. No problem then to see that visitors and locals move around on foot and visit bars whose prices do not lead to stupor.

Even in those places where the great companies and banks have their headquarters, buildings keep their individualism that makes navigation in the streets easier. They are built at a respectful distance from each other and designed so as not to ruin the surrounding greenery. The magnificent parks (with the Tiergarten and zoo in first place), squares, urban gardens and outside play areas are the best points about the German capital

Everything leads to life in Berlin being led at street level- irrespective of income. There is a new water activity. The Spree is a river with many tributaries and canals on which much happens…if weather permits. There are cruises along the river and the banks lend themselves to relaxation. There are walking paths that scooters and racing bikes cannot whizz along. You can stroll, swim (but not individually though only at given points), you can drink here and there on the riverbanks

Its perhaps obvious to most that there is no trading on Sundays. No one is complaining that a break with shopping jeopardises family life. The tradition of a family Sunday breakfast is cultivated and celebrated until the late afternoon. You can do this outside the home in a gastro place with a menu tailored to the needs of all generations. Some outlets close after Sunday brunch but keep late hours during the rest of the week. The employees do deserve some Sunday break at least. The weekend rest is one of Germany’s best-kept traditions.

>Shopping Tourism

I’ve praised Berlin. Now is the time for me to say what I don’t like. The German capital exposes deeper social divisions. It’s not on the scale of Moscow or Delhi. Here, it’s much more discreet. But there are points of friction. The rich have left the city centre and whare have they gone to…the swanky Wannsee.
Mall of Berlin advertised as the most beautiful in Europe, Photo JENS SCHULETER/EPA/PAP
The centre is inhabited by the poor middle class ( but quite affluent by our standards), and by tourists who throng too the packed shopping malls. In order to meet this not too sophisticated demand more are being built and bigger. You can find stuff that you can see anywhere in Europe. But shopping in Berlin is a must do.

The Mall of Berlin is advertised as the most beautiful in Europe. Really? The recently built Arkaden last year has been renamed as the Playce, another kingdom of the chainstore. They are beloved of those who go on “shopping tourism” ( a real term). The Potsdammer Platz is not one of the largest markets in Berlin. You can recite a list of similar places, Alexanderplatz takes pride of place here as well as the formerly famous Ku’damm (Kufürstendamm) the synonym for urban shopping life and which has nonetheless dropped down in the rankings.

  This is one of the reasons why luxury brands and boutiques have disappeared from the city centre. Art galleries too have moved out from the more touristic areas.

In their place Half Price and TX Maxx type store have arisen huge places where unsuitable brands from clothing manufacturers have been dumped. The stuff non one has wanted to buy. But dumping them into further circulation has at least given the hope of further profit. Wherever you look you can see more chain store clusters springing up. This is even visible in those stores run by the Museum of Film ( subsidised by Sony) and music. Culture is being forced out by trade. Building is being carried out with an eye to new tenants- popular fashion companies or gastronomic conglomerates. In other words- attractions for the less discerning.

What can we say? The city centre of Berlin is changing . It has become less artistic, deprived of its style. Who cares? The quality of offers have fallen but the turnover hasn’t.

Lesson of History

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You can see the changes on Friedrichstrasse. The street was named after Frederick III of Brandenburg and the after the king of Prussia Frederick I. It was one of the most popular streets in Berlin, laid out in the 17th century, 3.3 kilometres long. It was noteworthy for a number of reasons: transport to name one (a major railway station and several suburban lines).

A section was designated as traffic free. Benches were installed, tables and seating, and cafes nearby. It’s very pleasant in good weather. There is also the monumental Friedrichstadt-Palast theatre, the pride of the last East German decade. There is the Dussman KulturKaufhaus a famous book store. There is the Galerie Lafayette that the tourist come and photograph for some unknown reason. It’s not a old building. Its resembles 20th century shopping malls does it not?

The most popular attraction is Checkpoint Charlie. It’s on the junction of Friedrichstrasse and Zimmerstrasse and since the cold war (around 1961) it was the most used crossing between east and west. One half controlled by the DDR and the other by the western allies.

Since 1991 it has become a tourist attraction. Around are stalls selling communist tatt (stamps with the child Lenin, medal imitations and communist headgear, soviet style, and other gadgets that take the mickey out of the communists. You can get souvenir stamps, and this is cool, from the border control and choose your zone of occupation.

Those who have a more serious approach to history visit the Berlin Wall Museum or they can follow the wall or its remains along the Niederkirchnerstrasse. The monument is associated more with the memorable Pink Floyd concert “The Wall” in 1990. The wall and system fell.

Cold War, Hot Design

There are no traces of those fevered times now. But wait! In the Kulturforum in the Museum of Applied Arts there was an exhibition which caught my eye. This was entitled “Retrotopia” and subtitles “ a design for socialist spaces” and open until July 16.

It was about the contact and exchange between the designs within he socialist bloc during the cold war, mainly during the 1960 and 1970s and into the 1980s. The 1960s was the decade that saw the mist hearted exchanges about social change in the 20th century, not including the interwar period.
But the idea about ennobling the worker or the poorer civil servant was in fact a product of the inter-war era. The idea was to furnish those who could not afford household staff or large apartments with decent and comfortable living conditions. It was the central idea of many architects and designers for instance, the Bauhaus group. It was about a holistic approach to living- from clothes to interior design to the living space . It was to be cheap and modern, aesthetic and practical. It was to call a halt to the dreariness of the everyday and labour saving devices were to be available to all, or almost all.

This concept dominated both sides during the cold war considering the ideological and material differences that entailed for the citizens.

I looked at the exhibition as an unrealistic fable. Then designers were truly concerned about the social fabric and standard of living. At least for those who later have become gurus of design and architecture.

A visit to “Retrotopia” does not fill you with optimism. There are no traces left from those ideologists. It’s true that cold war conflicts have ceased to play any role. But there are others defined by money. And what of pro-social projects? Forget it. Multimillionaires pull the strings, whatever the nationality. Russian oligarchs have not lost their influence, assets or residences in London, Paris, New York or Berlin.

Karl Marx once said “religion is the opium of the masses”. Now as a panaceum for frustration, depression and a feeling of hopelessness is the compulsive accumulation of goods. Berlin serves this role superbly like other capitals. The buyer buys medium cost, medium nice, medium necessary stuff. In this way the centres of cities are changing.

Who pays for the strike

The return from Berlin was expensive. The plane was to take us to Warsaw within an hour. All air traffic was closed on account of the strikes by German ground staff. We were offered the return with a two-day delay – board and lodging at our cost. The airlines washed their hands of the matter- it was not their fault. You had to go buy a ticket for a rail journey that was announced to be an hour late at the start. Who would reimburse us for this discomfort or delay? An appeal floating in the wind.

The conclusion was that the strike didn’t hit the corporations and had no tangible effects. The costs were borne by private travellers like me. In a sense, we balanced the losses from the strike in solidarity with the working classes.

–Monika Małkowska

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

–Translated by Jan Darasz
Main photo: View of Checkpoint Charlie, the former border post between West and East Berlin during the Cold War , photo PAP/Jakub Kaczmarczyk
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