Berlin – City of Reinvention

First of all, I want to echo my classmates in sending a huge thank you to our colleagues in Berlin for an amazing trip. We’re currently preparing what we hope will be an equally enlightening experience for you. Don’t forget to pack good walking shoes!

One thing that travelling to European cities tends to remind me of is how young the United States is. I think to most Americans, a city founded in the thirteenth century is almost unimaginable. Hans’s introduction to the old city through maps as well as tour stops such as the monastery ruin and the mills’ dam pointed to this long history, yet the physical traces were few. This stands in contrast to cities such as Istanbul or Rome, whose even longer histories peek out at many points in the urban fabric. Although this comparison says as much about the other cities as it does about Berlin and may have much to do with the level of bombing experienced in Berlin, for me it underscored the extent to which Berlin is in many ways a very new city.

Although all cities go through a process of choosing which parts of the past to carry forward through preservation and adaptive reuse and how to reflect history in new construction, it seems that Berlin’s history has given the city large share of both opportunity and desire to reinvent itself. WWII left the city with a tremendous need for reconstruction which coincided with a desire of the part of many Germans to distance themselves from the Nazi era. Similarly, the reunification of Germany provided an opportunity for Berlin to redevelop previously central areas made marginal by the wall, as well as to integrate the eastern and western parts of the city. The very conscious and contentious reconstruction of the city led to some curious development practices such as the ‘historic’ housing built in the Nicolai Quarter for Berlin’s 750th anniversary and the moving of the Ephraim Palace in order to widen the road.

Our readings for class highlighted some key buildings and sites that were controversial in choosing Berlin’s future, and these readings were reinforce on our tour, for example through our visits to the Ministry of Finance building and the former site of the Place of the Republic where the City Palace is being reconstructed. What did not come through so much in the readings were the uncontroversial reconstruction projects and the extent to which the city was redeveloped. The extent to which the formerly divided city has been reintegrated was striking to me and many of my classmates. Beyond the kind of ‘showcase’ newness in places like the Sony Plaza, I was impressed by how much reconstruction seemed to have taken place in Berlin since I was there about nine years ago.

Thinking through Berlin’s long history but most particularly the events of the last hundred years, I am curious whether the dramatic reconstruction of the built environment and the attendant reinvention of history also has an effect on social life in Berlin. Dorit and Claire shared with us some of Kreuzberg’s history of attracting people who led a kind of ‘experimental’ lifestyle. Today too, artistic types are coming to Berlin, to enjoy low rents perhaps, but also perhaps because of a certain spirit of reinvention that has evolved through Berlin’s tumultuous past. Berlin has a certain ‘edginess’ to it that seems to reflect the population’s desire to reinvent itself and reinvent society.

I have posted some of my photos from Berlin here,, and I look forward to our DC adventures!


One response to “Berlin – City of Reinvention

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