Monday, August 16, 2004

Jeremy Paxman’s book, The English, has several interesting observations. One in particular that had me nodding in agreement was this, on our attitude to housing:

“..the obsessive English belief that the only ‘real’ England is some other version of Arthur Bryant’s land of singing milkmaids [Bryant wrote patriotic histories of England] is dangerous for three reasons. Firstly, it is counterproductive: the consequences of a belief that the only ‘proper’ way of life for an English person is to live in a house with a garden with access to what’s left of the countryside will eventually turn most of England into one vast suburb. Secondly, it does nothing to improve the conditions in which the vast majority of people live. And thirdly, it necessarily excludes most of the population from an idea of what their country is about.”


“Rich and poor differ in their expectations, but they share the same ambition. It is a house with a garden. Not all Englishman can live in a castle. But they all want their moats and drawbridges.” [emphasis in the original, although I would have added it anyway]

This determination to live an English ideal has led to a population that doesn’t know how to live in cities. Flats are considered a poor man’s choice and shared public places are not embraced by the populace, who prefer to spend their leisure time in a private garden. We love our cars and the freedom we perceive in them; an alternative interpretation is that our determination to live in the suburbs (for that, as Paxman points out, is what it is) leaves us slaves to our cars. Consequently the political will to improve public transport is wasted, while the will to improve the motorist’s lot is rewarded at the ballot box.

It was with these thoughts in mind that I travelled to Berlin, and they serve to explain why I was so impressed with the city: finally, somewhere that knows how to live in urban environments.

My first stop was the Jewish Museum, and it served as the most wonderful illustration I’ve ever seen of the power of architecture over our lives (something that would become a common theme on my trip). The exhibition was excellent, but the building is the star, both metaphorically and literally, since the design is based on a shattered Star of David. The ideas of the Garden of Exile, The Holocaust Tower and the Memory Voids are so simple yet original and wonderfully executed. I don’t want to go into detail lest I spoil it for future visitors, but I will say that this was my first (to my knowledge) experience of Liberskind‘s work and if this is anything to go by then Ground Zero is in safe hands.

In contrast the two museums I saw the following day were disappointing. Checkpoint Charlie, the museum at one of the former East/West Berlin border crossings, was a disgrace. Lots of excellent exhibits and a fascinating, relevant story ruined by amateur presentation. Haphazardly and incoherently arranged, poorly translated writing, too many people and overpriced it is the classic tourist trap. You can even buy Stasi border guard hats from the hawks outside, and one man had set up a stall selling an East Berlin stamp in your passport for one euro. You could also pay one dollar, which perhaps suggests where many of his clientele come from. The film museum was far more professional, but rather dull; there is a far better one in Girona, near Barcelona.

In between museums I strolled around the city, from second-hand clothing store to second-hand clothing store. Berlin must have the highest density of such places in the world, and this enthusiasm to recycle - to make new what is old - seems indicative of the city. Grey Socialist apartment blocks are now brightly coloured, modern desirable living spaces; bikes are the preferred mode of private transport and city bikes are obligatorily old; tram lines fallen into disuse decades ago are incorporated into a coherent public transport network; and old warehouses are turned into independent exhibition spaces and shops. This city is still obviously undergoing huge changes, and that makes it, now, a vibrant and exciting place to be: the corporates are yet to move in, but the individual has his own voice.

And then the crowning glory: New York’s Museum Of Modern Art is currently being refurbished, and so 200 of its most prominent exhibits are, for seven months, residing in Berlin’s New National Gallery. I may have been disappointed to arrive there at 7.30am and still find over four hours of queue in front of me, but it was worth it. I’m not going to sell it all to you here, but if you wish to know more, here’s the website.

In the evenings I met with some acquaintances and enjoyed good food and excellent beer. Having also seen the Brandenburg Gate and Norman Foster’s dome above the German parliament building, there was little left for me in the way of obvious tourist attractions. However as a place to live I have never been so impressed with a city, and could not recommend a visit highly enough. Especially if you go before MoMA returns home.

(Photos to follow next week. Meanwhile here is one more from Ely...)

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