Saturday, December 30, 2006

Magical Hatred as a Platform

The Central Council of Jews in Germany is renewing the call for a ban on the NPD, or National-democratic Party of Germany [Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands ]. Such bans have failed in the past, yet the Council is seeking to reactivate the urgency of this goal. To American readers, it may sound absurd to ban a political party you don’t like, so a little background helps explain the call: the NPD platform is based on xenophobia and scorn for what they deem non-German. As their charter describes, they are against the “Enlightenment-influenced Utopias and multiethnic excesses” of modernity. Like the Nazi party they emulate, they define enemies as those who don’t have the magical quality of inherent German-ness, enemies of “the Folk”; this, naturally extends to citizens of Turkish descent and Jews. Their followers perpetrate the waves of right-extremist violence that leave hundreds dead or injured annually and make certain areas of East Germany no-go zones for those who don’t look white enough.

But can you ban a political party just because what they say is trash and their influence is abhorrent? As Green Party political Volker Beck points out, “Banning the NPD won’t solve the problem of right-extremism. Their following would still be there and they would simply look for new forms of organization.” In addition to being ineffective, such a ban also risks admitting that the current democratic methods of combating hatred are ineffective: Heribert Rech of the Christain Democratic Union believes that “Party-banning-processes don’t get us anywhere; we must fight the NPD politically.” Finally, others claim that such a ban would lessen current awareness of the NPD’s actions, even if it eventually failed, only strengthening the party.

These claims are all wrong. While banning the NPD won’t solve right-extremist violence, it will stop its condoning and legitimization from a political party that has recently made its way into Parliament and sits on many local councils. Forty-three thousand Berliners voted for the NPD in the last elections this fall; these are lost votes that should have gone to parties that want to use public funds for social benefit rather than hate. The more money is used to promote a philosophy of xenophobia, the more “okay” such destructive thinking becomes. It is an ignoramus' answer to East Germany's high unemployment (in some places, 25%) but it works when trumpeted loudly enough and in the right tone by men in suits who have the legitimacy of the political arena behind them.

Claims that an attempt to ban the NPD would draw attention away from it are ludicrous at their core, and one wonders which of the non-NPD politicians who consistently condemn extremist violence and xenophobia would feel justified in shutting up if the NPD no longer existed. One must also look at the atmosphere in which the call for a ban comes: Germany has already banned Nazi-related emblems. In the sea of Hitler mustaches and “homeland” slogans at NPD rallies, swastikas remain out of sight because of the strict illegality of displaying one. Although Mein Kampf can be found at most Barnes & Noble’s in the United States with nary a raised eyebrow, it is notoriously difficult to find in Germany and even most libraries don’t keep copies available. Such a country refusing to ban a massive Neo-Nazi organization is dangerously strange.

Finally, resistance to the ban often revolves around the distasteful idea of censoring politics, but is the NPD a political party or a hate crime organization? No one would dare call the Ku Klux Klan a “political party” in the United States, although for years they controlled the South with a specific social agenda. A glance at the NPD charter reveals ideas familiar to Americans raised on the rhetoric of the Religious Right: the importance of (heterosexual) family, anti-abortion stance, and pro death penalty. Not surprisingly, women appear on the group’s website only as contact partners for senior citizens’ or family affairs. Yet far beyond such conservative-but-not-criminal ideology are passages that call for an end to the German examination of its Holocaust past: “We Germans are not a nation of criminals!” The website also contains an image of Germany showing its pre-1945 borders, encompassing much of Poland and all the way up to Kaliningrad. Its discussion of the danger non-German-ness poses to the mystical inherent German-ness of the people is deeply troubling: no platform should be built on fairy tales.

This is not a group that should be allowed to wear the mantle of “political party” any more, or permitted in any way to participate in a democratic government. It is sad that the citizens have chosen such a group and that it cannot be defeated politically, as its growing numbers and influence attest, but the answer is not to continue to come up with self-contradictory reasons about why it should continue to appear on the ballot. Along with an NPD ban, educational measures to combat violence are needed, and sharp awareness of Germany’s problem with xenophobia must be maintained. We needn’t watch it continue to masquerade as a political platform, however.

Heribert Rech quote from "Neuer Streit ueber NPD Verbot,"
Top NPD rally image courtesy BBC. Other NPD images courtesy NPD Homepage.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Us vs. Them

“East Berlin wishes you a good trip home! Christmas 2006.” What a nice sign to have hanging on lampposts and buildings all over trendy, fast-gentrifying Prenzlauer Berg! Except that the implication is that those who were not born in the neighborhood are not “real” residents, or not truly at home—distance markers below the slogan show mileage to western cities a ways from Berlin. The ubiquitous signs are anonymous, reports the Berliner Zeitung, although they have been linked to a store called Koof im Kiez, which translates clumsily as "Buy Locally."

Rivalry between older and newer residents is an unavoidable phenomenon of areas that grow stylish: as more people move in and new shops open their doors, demand increases, prices rise, and those who have lived there for a long time feel squeezed. They also don’t appreciate the physical changes they see in a neighborhood that they feel belongs more to them than to the newbies introducing these changes. This resentment is understandable; everyone likes home to feel like home and even the corner falafel stand in Prenzlauer Berg costs too much compared to a less trendy neighborhood like southwestern Kreuzberg (in photo above). The current mood is comparable to the controversy about the gentrification of Williamsburg in New York City.

However, this incarnation of the timeless new vs. old resentment is distinctly Berlin in its East vs. West framing. “Westerners are like this,” one long-time resident is quoted as saying, pushing his nose in the air with his finger. He is echoing sentiments that have been around since early 1990, when a t-shirt saying “I want my wall back” became popular throughout Berlin. As author Peter Schneider predicted quite presciently in 1982, “It will take us longer to tear down the wall in our heads than any wrecking company will need for the Wall we can see.”[1]

In the article, another resident accuses, “They all act so cool, as though they brought their smugness with them from the West.” Defensive words from a local--except that he just moved in four years ago and was born in western Hannover. In other words, it is easy to frame petty, common resentment (Us vs. Them, Old vs. New, me vs. the Other) in the rhetoric of East vs. West; it is almost expected, and it gives such assessments a wave of self-aware, self-justifying flavor. Have you ever met a middle-class sociology major who despises the “bourgeoisie?” Exactly.

In fact, “feeling the pain” or at least identifying with those who grew up in the former East has become a bit stylish itself with the recent rise of ostalgie, or nostalgia for things Eastern. It represents both backlash against reunification sweetened by time into romanticized memory, and also an attempt to re-color history along more pleasing lines. Wolfgang Becker’s Goodbye Lenin (2003) is a fantastic example, wherein the pitfalls of life in East vs. West Germany are summarized as outdated, anachronistic-looking food packaging and less trendy clothing.

The Christmas signs aren’t just reactionary, however, they’re also inaccurate. Frequently “outsiders” appreciate a place better than those born there, for the tautological reason that they chose to come, indicating a certain esteem for the location. Like New York, Berlin is an immigrant city made up of people from other places who frequently don’t identify with their birthplace as much as with the cosmopolitan place they now call home. “Outsiders” who become "insiders" most often make a city better by directing their energies towards use, enhancement, and preservation of its good qualities.

Luckily, according to the article, the younger generation in diapers when the Wall “fell,” seems relatively free of resentment, geographic or otherwise. One can only hope they retain their open-minded outlook when, as middle-aged taxpayers, trendsetters from other cities move into their neighborhoods and start selling chic commodities. When grumbling about how their daily latte costs twice as much, one hopes they leave behind labels of “east” and “west,” which, as time passes, are becoming just—dare I say it?—trendier, smugger ways to express tribalism.

[1] Peter Schneider, The Wall Jumper: A Berlin Story, Trans. Leigh Hafrey, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 119.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Poverty and Secret Police

The municipal bureaucracies of both Berlin and New York are receiving makeovers for the New Year. On Monday Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a new $150 million initiative to fight poverty that will focus two-thirds of its funds on brainstorming incentive-based programs to increase financial literacy, while cutting out programs over time that appear ineffective. With an assumption that built-in feedback-loops will allow for continual self-improvement, this entrepreneurial approach sounds like it has learned something from the Silicon Valley 80-20 mentality: throw a product out when it is 80% finished and work on the last 20% when the problems become apparent. (Witness eBay or Gmail.)

Of course, the question of whether success and failure are as easily and quickly measured in the social sector as they are in the economic sector might throw a wrench in the works, but on the other hand, it might not. Bloomberg is employing hard-core managers and capitalists to design this program and presumably they will bring their knowledge of how to measure success in diverse environments with them.

This kind of capitalistic improvisation would most likely never fly in well-planned and relatively big-government Germany, perhaps partially because the welfare system in place is less likely to let citizens fall through the cracks into abject poverty and give rise to its own need for creative solutions. Yet there are recent signs that the Berlin government is performing an official version of looking in the mirror and asking itself, “Do I look too fat?” Following a recent study that compared Berlin to other cities in Germany and found its bureaucracy comparatively bloated and unnecessary, there have been rumors that up to a third of public servants could fall under the knife. Mayor Klaus Wowereit has begun the hack job by eliminating, among other appointments, the storied position of Culture Senator and folding it into his own office.

To explain to those confused New Yorkers who know from Hilary what “carpet-bagging” means but don’t understand what a Culture Senator is: someone in this position is an official government cheerleader for the arts, a representative different artistic community members can approach as well as somehow who has a certain say in how funds are used. The Culture Senator also enjoys the privilege of attending the big art-world debuts, monument dedications, and so on, such that when Wowereit took over the post, one Berliner Zeitung columnist seriously lamented “Thomas Flierl [the previous senator] barely made it to all the museum openings; how will the Mayor ever find time?”

Perhaps more interesting than worries that a figurehead won’t be present to anoint cultural offerings with a sprinkle of civic approval are the new accusations against employees of the Stasi-Documentation-Office [Stasi-Unterlagenbehörde] that handles the mountains of paperwork left behind by the demise of the East German Ministerium für Staatssicherheit. It has recently come to light that more than fifty employees of the Stasi Documentation Office [BStU for short] used to work for the Stasi itself, as a consequence of one official accusing them of hindering the work of the office. These workers, however, cannot legally be fired from a position for which they might be essentially inappropriate; they can only be shuffled around within the massive Stasi-paperwork-sorting bureaucracy, a bureaucracy with apparently very close ties to the past. For example, former GDR government employees heard to be making snide remarks about civil rights activists cannot be released, but must rather be assigned a different task. Here is a bureaucracy that sounds in desperate need of a trim.

Perhaps, though, in his dual role as Mayor and Culture Senator, Wowereit can take a stand against historical revisionism of the sort expressed by Almuth Nehring-Venus, member of the PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism) the successor party to the SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany) which ruled East Germany until 1990. Recently Nehring-Venus explained in a speech at an exhibition opening that, “Stalin admittedly wanted to model Germany after his own image..[but]…the Soviet Union long [strove for] a united Berlin and Germany.” This discussion caused political opponents to call for her resignation, which seems sensible, since she clearly needs time off to open a history book and read about the Soviet Berlin blockade and airlift as well as the Soviet-constructed Berlin Wall. (For more on historical revisionism see post Nov. 27).

Nehring-Venus gave this speech in her capacity as the City Representative for Culture, Economy and Urban Development of Pankow, one of Berlin’s districts. While one Stalin apologist doesn’t imply the whole lot of public servants are rotten, it does make one more sympathetic to the prospect that Berlin’s bureaucracy be trimmed a bit. That is, tax dollars are going to Nehring-Venus with trust that her perspective and capabilities bring added value to the city’s cultural landscape. That seems pretty dubious.

In conclusion, the two metropolises, one on the Hudson and one on the Spree, are now seeking decidedly different bureaucratic strategies. While in New York, Bloomberg has identified failures in the social system and responded by creating more municipal offices and jobs, in Berlin it may be high time for the opposite to be done: in response to failures of the social system, Wowereit has begun to identify where it is time to cut back and eliminate offices. He could go further, removing particularly those offices where individuals are paid to assess culture rather than exclusively perform objectively beneficial work.

Image of Bloomberg courtesy Office of the Mayor.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Avant-Garde in the Vacant Lot

Since the federal government refused counted-on financial aid to broke Berlin (see post Nov. 6), the future of the Berliner Schloss stands in question. It may end up sharing the fate of the former GDR seat-of-government-come-public-entertainment-complex Palast der Republik being steadily ripped down to make way for it: nonexistence. (See posts Nov. 19 and Nov. 26.) Although Wilhelm von Boddien, head of the Schlossverein that promotes the rebuilding the former royal residence, suggests that individual donations can close the funding gap, this is incredible optimism. As a Tagesspiegel writer correctly observed this weekend, it is dubious if the Berliners, who don’t spend money on anything, (see post Nov. 6) will support the Schloss financially, especially since not all of them support its rebuilding.

Since the Schloss cannot be rebuilt without money, the debate has turned to what to do in the euphemistically-named “between-use” [zwischennutzung] period, the perhaps decades-long time frame in which the space will be a vacant lot. A recent suggestion is to build a large hall for contemporary art. This suggestion is justified by the fact that despite Berlin’s reputation as the international capital of contemporary art, residents like star Olafur Eliasson, whose 2003 installation "The Weather Project" for the Tate Modern propelled him to fame, have no proper space to exhibit their art. Although his studio is in his adopted second-home of Berlin, Danish-born Eliasson lately had to exhibit his larger-scale works in Wolfsburg.

Mayor Klaus Wowereit, who recently trimmed the city’s roster of public posts by anointing himself Culture Senator and kicking out the
incumbent, has announced his agreement: Berlin needs a major exhibition space for contemporary art. The Schlossplatz--whose name is quickly becoming ironic--is the perfect site. Accordingly, the press has bemoaned how a broke city whose recent political bickering has revolved around the extent to which its enormous bureaucracy should be cut down wants to spend more money to build a modern art hall.

Yet, why not build the hall with different terms of engagement? Why not sell the land on temporary lease to the highest bidder and allow them to build a lavishly trendy exhibition space and charge outlandishly high entry fees? The obvious roadblock is the local shallow-pocket mentality, but in a central spot, tourists would pay for such a spectacle. High-minded artists might boycott such a popular and gimmicky exhibition space, but perhaps not if this space gained international acclaim with a couple big names at the start and became an irresistible resume-booster. It could even broker a deal with the Schlossverein to turn over some of its earnings in exchange for access to the verein’s massive publicity machine and meddling political sway.

Finally, destroying central state architecture from multiple eras in order to build a temporary shrine to the very newest and freshest art conveys the amnesiac urge for self-invention which has been a hallmark of this city for so long—it’s traditional. Then, in another thirty years or so when the money to build the Schloss has finally been collected, everyone will have another opportunity to argue about the cultural blindness of ripping down the beloved Contemporary Art Hall, the symbol of turn-of-the-millenia aesthetic savvy, the product of the nascent Berlin Republic! There will be another public debate about historical irresponsibility, one more argument for old time’s sake. That would be true Berlin.

Wowi headshot courtesy of

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Muckraker in the Museum

“BECAUSE THEY DIDN'T LOOK GERMAN” large letters spell out across the front of a building a mere fifty meters from the Brandenburg Gate. Below the sign are placards listing the victims of right-extremist violence in Germany, mainly foreign-born immigrants who were killed because, well, they didn’t look German. Dressing up the façade of the prominent Academy of the Arts [Akademie der Künste] with documentation of provincial bigotry alongside a major tourist landmark is, however, relatively toothless for artist Hans Haacke, the man behind the sign. As “Hans Haacke for Real: Works 1959-2006,” the exhibit inside documents, Haacke’s work often bites the hand that commissions it, turning upon museums and galleries as participants in morally questionable societal practices, and exposing the skeletons in the closet of those places that invite him to create art for them.

For example, Haacke’s Manet-PROJEKT 74, created for the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum’s 1974 exhibition “PROJEKT 74,” chronicled the lives of the owners of the recently acquired Manet canvas Bunch of Asparagus. In so doing, it made public the Nazi-related past of Hermann J. Abs, the driving force behind the canvas’ acquisition. It called to attention the widespread practice of “sweeping under the rug” of National Socialist past that occurred in the Federal Republic of Germany, a point only doubly proven when the museum declined to exhibit it.

Haacke has also been censored when his works do not explicitly target the institution, such as in Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971, which meticulously documents an implicitly immoral real estate practice through a series of photographs and charts. The “political” nature of the piece led to the Guggenheim’s refusal to include it in the show for which it was commissioned, creating one of the most famous cases of censorship of this century—at least until New York Mayor Rudolf Giuliani tried to strip the Brooklyn Museum of Art of its funding in 1999 for showing a painting he thought was offensive.

Because They Didn’t Look German presents a point upon which educated viewers will doubtlessly agree, as well as exposing reprehensible behavior of a non-white-collar sort that museum owners, trustees, boards, and the like, are not involved in or linked to and can safely condemn. (It also camouflages a building whose appearance Haacke recently likened to a “bank from the Seventies.") However, Haacke’s work needn’t have an implied “up-yours” to challenge the viewer: in many cases, the plethora of information calls upon the onlooker to piece it together. An appreciative glance is not enough to "get" the work, which often seeks above all not to be aesthetically "appreciated" but rather and above all understood.

Thus, the way Haacke’s work defines itself as art leaves a question mark hanging in the air. Those pieces composed of informational plaques or graphs, like Shapolsky, could just as easily be found in a sociological museum or a town-hall citizens gathering or college history class; they become “art” through their location in a museum or gallery. They defy clichéd notions about viewer subjectivity, since statements like “art is what you get out of it” or “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” don’t apply to Haacke’s works. Rather, each has a fairly specific point which cancels out other messages; for Shapolsky, is it obviously not correct to conclude that Haacke is praising Shapolsky’s business acumen.

In fact, Haacke’s use of the phrase “Real Time System” is meant to indicate an art object that continues to function as depicted regardless of viewer perception or presence.[1] In Haacke’s early Conceptualist pieces, like 1965's Blue Sail, where a simple fan blows a blue sheet in the air, this functioning was mechanical. In later works like Shapolsky, it is sociopolitical. The choice to portray his message through the medium of art, then, when it is at times patently sociological and political, has been criticized by Slate editor Judith Shulevitz who encourages Haacke to stop “hiding out in an art museum” and join public discourse through the published journalistic word.

However, the author of “Museums and the Consciousness Industry” knows what he is doing: he picks museums as his medium because he believes they are participants in cultural discourse to an equal degree as newspapers (or online culture rags).[2] Two of these “generators of consciousness” are exhibiting “Hans Haacke for Real” right now: the Academy of Arts here in Berlin until January 14th, and the Deichtorhallen Hamburg until February 4th, with the former focusing on works where politics and history play a central role, the latter on earlier works as well as works which address economic roles of corporations and museum sponsorship.

The Berlin exhibit, filling the downstairs gallery space at the AdK, is curated with an emphasis on dialog between the works, chronologically mixing them in order to create cross-decade correspondences. For example, Manet-PROJEKT 74 is shown alongside Der Bevölkerung, Haacke’s 1999 installation in the Reichstag, presumably since both address Germany’s sometimes selective and reluctant memory of its past. In the latter case disputed memory can be seen more prominently in the response to the work than the work itself: the parliamentary debate about whether or not to install it is shown here on video. Such supplementary explanations throughout the exhibit form a necessary backdrop to understanding Haacke’s work the way he would like; as he states, “When a work of this nature is shown outside its original context, background information needs to be provided so that the viewers can understand the references and the impact it might have had.”[3] The only drawback is that explanations of the work’s cultural relevance are all in German and no supplementary English materials are available, an ironic shame given the imperative to read and understand embedded in Haacke’s ouvre.

The last gallery features Haacke’s latest works, placing pieces critical of American jingoism, flag-waving, and attitudes towards Iraq, alongside his suggestion for a memorial to 9/11 and a smaller commemorative piece, the aptly titled Commemorating 9/11. Responding to a call from arts support group Creative Time for poster suggestions in October 2001, Haacke’s entry is simply a white outline of the World Trade Center’s two towers’ silhouettes, which is posted on top of previously existing billboard paste-ups such that the advertisement composes the body of the towers while white defines the space around them.

The silhouette suggestion shows an almost insider’s sensitivity to what the loss means to New Yorkers once familiar with the sight of the World Trade Center. As seen in the annual re-creation of the buildings’ shape through the high-powered illumination of the Tribute in Light, the towers’ absence is a keenly visual loss to city inhabitants. The tragedy is not minimized but rather referenced with exquisite minimalism by these two projections of light into the sky. Haacke’s recreation of the silhouette even before the first showing of Tribute in Light—the visual memorial was first lit on March 11, 2002, six months after the attack—intuitively exhibits the same metonymy of visual loss for enormous societal loss, which makes sense since Haacke is a long-time resident of the city. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, Creative Time is also behind Tribute in Light).

Unfortunately I didn’t notice that these images of billboards contained a World Trade Center outline and had to read the wall text to put it together, assuming instead it was a commentary on pervasive visual culture in public space. If a native New Yorker equipped with the awareness of cultural context that Haacke describes as equally necessary to his process as “bronze or paint on a canvas,” doesn’t make the connection, then perhaps the need for explanation has gone too far.[4]

The opposite problem was apparent with other new works, such as the enormous ripped American flag hanging from the ceiling, or the man wearing a flag-printed hangman’s hat-come-pillowcase that not only blocks his vision and obscures his individual identity but also threatens to smother him. Such simple social commentary seems a bit too obvious and uncomplex after the multivalent works in previous rooms.

Despite the weakness of the survey’s more recent offerings, it nonetheless presents a slice not just of the career of a thought-provoking artist but also snapshots of postwar Western society, through its descriptions of the work’s censorship or resultant political hullabaloo. Haacke’s work itself tries to prod the viewer into doing more than just “visiting a gallery” and the curators here ensure that the visitor sees not just a survey of painting but also of social criticism of the last several decades. And this relevance has no expiration date—with increased restrictions in American civil liberties as well as the growing Neo-Nazi movement in Germany, to name a couple examples, Haacke’s earlier work remains biting and important.

Exhibition catalog: Flügge, Matthias, and Robert Fleck, editors, Hans Haacke for Real: Works 1959-2006 Düsseldorf: Richter Verlag, 2006. (With contributions by Walter Grasskamp, Benjmain Buchloh, Rosalyn Deutsche.)

[1] Walter Grasskamp, Molly Nesbit, and John Bird, eds., Hans Haacke (New York: Phaidon, 2004), 41.
[2] First English publication: Ian North, ed. Art Museums and Big Business (Kingston: Art Museums Association of Australia, 1984), 33-40.
[3] Grasskamp., 12.
[4] Ibid., 12.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Arch of Compromise

Recently the courts ruled that the ceilings of the lower floors of the Hauptbahnhof, Berlin’s new central train station, must be rebuilt at a cost of 40 million Euros. The ruling came after architect Meinhard von Gerkan sued Deutsche Bahn for altering his original plans for arched ceilings without the architect's consent, indeed, without even telling him. The flat ceilings that Hartmut Mehdorn, leader of the Bahn, chose to build in the face of rising costs represent violation of contract to von Gerkan and apparently also for the courts. Now the ceilings must be altered at a high price and lower transportation efficiency, just when the city was giddily excited about its finally-functioning train station.

The assertion of the architect’s rights before those of the paying client’s has been received as wondrous and revolutionary right of entitlement—an act that will single-handedly change the history of how structures are commissioned. But what is truly revolutionary is the aesthetic implication of the court’s decision: that the part is representative of the whole, a metonymy that mustn’t be violated for risk of injuring the entire the entire structure. In contrast to the back-and-forth history of much architecture, where parts are viewed as subject to change without damage to the work’s integrity, this act signifies a holistic understanding of architecture. Some might say that it’s about time; after all, if a Picasso canvas were partially painted over, it couldn’t be pawned off as original, yet buildings frequently receive face-lifts or alterations while retaining their creator’s name or representative associations.

However, compromise as a hallmark of the architectural process doesn’t necessarily breed disappointment. For example, the transparent cupola of the Reichstag, from which one can look down into the German parliament or out over the city, presents a pleasing space-as-democracy metaphor for representative government as well as visual charm. However, it is a product of negotiation; Santiago Calatrava, who was taking part in the rebuilding of the Reichstag complex, asked the government to ensure that the Reichstag be created with a cupola that he had been earlier informed would exist and according to which he had shaped his own designs. The government, in turn, requested that Lord Norman Foster round out his intended flat roof. The result has become a proud symbol of the Berlin Republic.

So is the decision “a good thing?” Legal precedent does not necessarily apply internationally so it is difficult to say if this decision will affect commissions outside of Germany, or even how far-reaching the local consequences will be. It may, however, scare clients into creating a new contractual culture whereby changes to the existing model are allowed only under clearly defined financial strain. But where does this leave client satisfaction, if changes may only be introduced under certain limited and constrained conditions? If Mehdorn and his company paid the artist for a service rendered, do they not have some say in how the “service,” in the case, an aesthetically pleasing yet functional and affordable train station, is enacted?

The keystone, then, to propping up the fluid process of building creation remains old-fashioned negotiation. In the matter of the Reichstag cupola Foster agreed to the government’s requests, but his contact also contains a clause outlining his right to review future suggested alterations to the Reichstag’s exterior (shown here) and interior. Mehdorn was wrong to hire another architectural firm to design flat roofs without von Gerkan's knowledge or assent; it would have been wiser to consult him and attempt communication. Now von Gerkan's resulting fury has found legal validation. He refuses to back down, pointing out that thousands of people would see the alterations to his design and associate the damaged, flat-roofed work with him. The secondary problem, then, after miscommuincation, is ego: what perhaps hasn't occured to von Gerkan is that these thousands of people will also be moving through an efficient new train station, grateful for the services it provides to the city. When the new arched roofs are installed, these people will be made to suffer delays and inconveniences, to say nothing of possible ticket price increases if the Bahn looks for ways to cover additional costs. What will these people think of von Gerkan then?

Friday, December 01, 2006

Post-Modern Power or Merely Playtime?

Here in Berlin a competition is taking place. It is between neither football teams nor politicians nor beauty queens, but rather two Ferris wheels: the “World Wheel” and the “Giant Wheel.” Neither has been built yet, but in their planning stages both represent the city’s continual effort to transform into, and literally be able to see itself as, a first-class metropolis of recognizable stature. On the drawing board, the latter wheel is winning, sort of, with 5 meters of height on the merely 175 meter tall World Wheel, although the World Wheel is having an easier time collecting funds—200 million Euros--necessary to start construction. The competition also has a dicey tinge of East-West rivalry to it, with the World located near the famous Western transportation center Zoologischer Garten, and the Giant alongside the newly spruced-up Ostbahnhof, or “East-train-station.”

(Note: both Wheels bear names in the original English. Perhaps the world’s current-day lingua franca is employed to denote construction of international significance, or perhaps the owners simply know where the tourist dollars come from).

As with the London Eye, the premise behind these wheels is a popular and profitable tourist attraction that relies on the giddy pleasure of being high up in the sky and seeing all. And, as was the case in London in the pre-Eye era, there are sufficient extant look-out points in Berlin, for example, the cupola of the Reichstag or the cloud-grazing top of the Fernsehturm, or TV tower, unofficial icon of the city skyline. The added appeal of these wheels, then, is that their slightly peripheral location provides a view of all the viewing points, an ability to take in what you can’t take in if you are in the center of the city trying to take it all in.

But is that all? The paradox of a Ferris wheel is how sharply it exposes one’s atom-like existence compared to the spreading terrain out there while empowering the individual with an expansive gaze otherwise impossible to attain. The panoramic gaze has been a source of delight for centuries; in the United States nineteenth century landscape painters like German-born Albert Bierstadt showed their enormous canvases in conjunction with carefully constructed platforms, lighting, curtains, and curved walls so that the sweeping gaze would feel real, so that the view out over the landscape would be actual. These paintings were presented not as hermetic art but rather as entertainment; Bierstadt was no avant garde artiste but rather a showman.

In fact, George W. Ferris created his eponymous attraction for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair only twenty years after Bierstadt rose to the peak of his fame, at the close of the same era of wild geographic expansion and attempts at consolidation of the American identity. It was incredibly popular, grossing over half a million dollars at fifty cents per ride, and it rose about 80 meters, or 264 feet, off the ground. Its influence has been felt at fairgrounds ever since; the photos here depict an amusement Ferris Wheel from the current Christmas Market in Berlin’s Schlossplatz.

However, to paraphrase Stanley Kubrick's film Full Metal Jacket, “this ain’t your granddaddy’s Ferris Wheel.” Unlike the amusement-park Wheel, which one rode as part of a larger fair experience of entertainment and oddities, and which positioned itself as part of a greater festival atmosphere, the new Wheel is proud of its stand-alone shock value and peddles itself as no more than the all-consuming gaze. These new Mega-Wheels are distinguished by this self-imposed uniqueness, evinced in their sheer enormousness as well as their physical distance. They are not for views of the terrain but rather out and over it; their marketing draw is the all-encompassing nature of their gaze which by definition stems from a point outside. If one is looking at something, one is not of it: the new wheels mark a boundary between onlooker and looked-upon, between individual and urban sphere.

This gaze is not just separate; it is also empowered by its mind-boggling breadth and reach. The equation of an all-seeing gaze with power has been discussed by thinkers like Jeremy Bentham, whose “Panopticon” prison tower posited a world where the threat of constant surveillance, rather than certain punishment, keeps people in line. (The Panopticon was popularized by French theorist Michel Foucault.) Art historian Allan Wallach has called the panoramic gaze in American landscape painting “Panoptic” to connote just these struggles to gain control over the landscape, to come to terms with new geography by forcing that geography to conform to the terms of one’s own vision.

So is this new Mega-Wheel proliferation a post-modern attempt to reconstitute the individual citizen as a powerful agent in the face of ever-larger and ever-more chaotic modern metropolises? Is it a way to make the nearly-atomized viewer, who increasingly counts for less in the over-populated globe, a judge on the perimeter of the brave new world? Perhaps a cultural attempt to figure out what to make of the sprawling society that we’ve created? A push to regain the upperhand over decadent millennial civilization through re-established visual supremacy?

Or is it just another way to make money and have fun?

If the link above becomes outdated, information about the two wheels can be found in Karin Schmidl, “Das Geld reicht sogar fuer sechs Raeder,” Berliner Zeitung, 30 November 2006, 27.
Wallach’s assertion is in: "Making a Picture of the View from Mount Holyoke," in American Iconology: New Approaches to Nineteenth-Century Art and Literature, ed. David C. Miller (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 83-84.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Irony and Zoo Animals

Today’s Berliner Zeitung reported that at the Sunday funeral of Stasi bigwig Markus Wolf, whose career focused on foreign espionage, one speaker praised the dead man for “always accepting a variety of outlooks [and] listening patiently to different opinions.” Hmm. For a former leader of the German Democratic Republic’s notoriously repressive Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, this is unlikely. Wolf’s long-time pal Gerhard Neiber, known for brutally taking care of “special assignments,” was also in attendance but didn’t bother to speak up about whether or not Wolf was the Voltaire this eulogy made him out to be.

There was also coverage of the office of the President's annoucement that former Bundespraesident Horst Koehler was spied on by the Stasi during his career. The representative insisted that it was a one-time incident on a trip Koehler made to the GDR, and insofar as spying practices of the day went, fully routine. The federal office that handles former Stasi files—literal tons of secret paperwork were discovered after Reunification—refuses to release the file because it contains private information about the then-employee of the Finance Ministry. The private information does not have to do with Koehler’s historical role, the office clarified.

Finally, the paper reported on a meeting in Parliament between “troubled youths,” i.e. the teenage and twenty-something children of immigrants in poor neighborhoods, and the mainly old white Germans who want to help them integrate. One youth pointed out that all this talk about not being part of German society is nonsense; if one goes to school and works hard, one becomes integrated. However, he asked whether his own culture can then remain a part of his identity as an “integrated” society member. This seems like a pretty good question in light of the fact that he was sitting next to Kurt Wansner, parliamentary representative for the conservative Christian Democratic Union, who once campaigned in a Turkish neighborhood under the slogan, “Germany must remain recognizable [here].”

Since recently coming under new ownership, the Berliner Zeitung has been criticized for weaker-quality reporting and increasing technical imprecision, such as growing numbers of typos. The recent surprising number of articles about the lives and migratory patterns of animals seems to be a symptom of the downward trend in quality, from a blurb about the new blue shoes of New Zealand zoo penguins to a long feature about stranded whales. Coverage of Wolf’s funeral lay below a feature about endangered Chinese dolphins. However, despite the perhaps negligent and fauna-friendly editorship, the Berliner Zeitung still makes a valuable contribution. Its transmission of the ironies of political chatter is worth flipping past the penguins for.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Putting Beauty to Work

Although the Palast der Republik debate is frequently cloaked in East-West political language (see post Nov. 19), or arguments about the sanctity of memory and preservation, many view it purely as an aesthetic question. The obvious rejoinder here is that the aesthetic is political, and that beauty is not Platonic but rather selected and preened by society. These are good points, to which I respond to with a quote from a taxi driver, who told me last week, “The Palast needs to go. Ten years ago they could have still made something of it, but now it’s so decayed and ugly that they need to rip it down and build something nice.” In other words, the pragmatic notion of beauty-utility, of using central city space to be both functional and attractive, is democratic: the Palast and the Schloss are both considered pretty until they embody the image of urban decay. As well, although notions of beauty may be political—see, for example Susan Sontag’s breakdown of the fascist aesthetic Leni Riefenstahl developed for the Nazi party—the Prussia-worship of Schloss supporters is hardly imperious in nature.

Firstly, their whole-hearted embrace of the democracy of dollars demonstrates a certain crass commercialism from which one certainly cannot position oneself as superior. Foerderverein Berliner Schloss e.V.’s Infocenter a few hundred meters from Schlossplatz sells cringefully tacky mini-busts of Friedrich the Great as well as “historical novels” detailing the romantic intrigues of powder-haired Prussian dames. As well, the methods by which they fundraise—appealing to thousands of citizens to donate to the cause, or pointing out how much could be made if X number of people gave the equal sum of Y euros—are civic and equalizing in their language, even if their publications are aimed at the upper crust, judging from their placement in high-brow hotels. Leader Wilhelm von Boddien is also eager to project a man-of-the-people persona when he predicts that a “People’s Party” will take place upon the Schloss’ reconstruction, adopting the same comrade-brother-tinged vocabulary of the structure he is eagerly ripping down. The final nail in the aesthetics-is-politics coffin is the suggested use of the newly rebuilt royal Schloss: “A Sanctuary for Art, Science and Communication.” This plan suggests that geographically peripheral museums move their collections to this prominent location and together with the offerings of nearby Museum Island for “The World in the Center of Berlin.”

Some may argue that this attempt to bring Berlin to cultural prominence has its own echoes of the Kaiser-era quest for greatness. However, the modern-day project of capital cities to ever-expand their cultural offerings is not comparable to an earlier era’s territorial ambitions. Although the lens of Germany’s history may make almost any ambition sound a bit ominous, there is nothing wrong with Berlin aspiring to be an important place on the scale of international cultural awareness. The plan for the Schloss’ use sounds pretty neat to a Berlin resident who would love to have all these museums in one place. Humboldt University, (pictured at top) located across the street and with 32,000 students, would also doubtlessly benefit from a construction of such proportions. It is easy to mock the Schloss-supporters as foolish Utopists trying to reconstruct a lost past, but much harder to disparage the space they hope to build, a place of culture and art that has very little to do with the spot’s autocratic legacy.

Cubism, Kafka and the Castle
Prague’s New Museum Scene

Who knew that Prague, tourist trap of central Europe, would continue to build its infrastructure and develop several new concept museums in the last few years? When I visited in summer 2003, packed between hordes of other Americans and several thousands Italians swarming over the Charles Bridge and trying to have an “authentic” pivo [beer] break on the Old Town Square, I had no idea that the innate charm of the old and picturesque was about to be updated. On this last visit, I was pleasantly surprised.

Down the street from the Powder Tower entrance to Old Town is the Museum of Czech Cubism at the so-named House of the Black Madonna, where the Lady stands in a small golden cage protruding from the third floor. This is a Cubist building; after taking college seminars about Cubism’s keywords of Picasso, Braque, Krauss, semiotics, and African masks, I still didn’t know there was a such thing as Cubist architecture. There is—it was enthusiastically developed by the Czech Cubist school into a theory of dynamism of form that was brought not just to the canvas but also to the drawing board and even the workshop; furniture and applied design are also on display in this museum, which opened in late 2003. As a bonus, the fantastic Grand Café Orient on the second floor of the House of the Black Madonna is furnished from curtains to floorboards with visually indulgent Czech Cubist flourishes. From their extensive menu I recommend trying the local Frankovka wine, a mild, fruity red.

Across the Charles Bridge is the newly opened exhibit The City of K: Franz Kafka and Prague, which only arrived in the eponymous city in 2005 after touring other world cities such as Barcelona and New York first. Rather than present a series of mummified artifacts in chronological order, the typical approach of museums dedicated to a single great figure’s life, the space seeks to conjure up the “existential topography” of Kafka—that is, the bundle of childhood and adolescent anxieties that brewed within him during his residence in Prague and led him to create masterpiece literature. This is created by the manipulation of film, projection, photography, and strangely-shaped rooms, as well as a soundtrack of Poe-like Romantic “horror” noises such as water dripping in an echo chamber and crows cawing. “Let this space talk. Let the sound guide you,” the exhibit introduction explains. While the curator’s insistence upon drumming up a sense of Freudian childhood anxieties may grate in these forced instances, the exhibit is by and large fascinating and the psychological template it provides for approaching Kafka’s life is as interesting as the almost-pretentious premise promises. Minor inaccuracies, such as a mistranslation of the word shiksa into fiancée, or wrongly cited pages from his German diary, cannot hide the curator’s obvious sympathy for Kafka’s internal mental struggle and the masterpieces it produced, or outshine the superbly-worded wall text explaining different aspects of his development.

Finally, rag-tag Prague Castle up above the city has its own new museum. “Castle” misleadingly suggests one structure, whereas the complex actually contains structures developed and enlarged over the last thousand years, from Romanesque St. George’s Chapel to the Renaissance Royal Rooms to the only-recently-completed Gothic cathedral. In fact, although the Cathedral dominates the maze of courtyards both in size and number of tourists, it actually plays a relatively unimportant role in the history of the site. With such confusing topography, “The Story of Prague Castle” exhibit, opened in the Old Royal Palace Building late 2003, is long overdue. The well-designed series of halls explains the different eras and rulers the space has seen while providing diagrams detailing its physical development. It also provides plenty of objects from different eras to help visitors imagine the changes, before they go on and try to decide which combination entry tickets to purchase for the warren of chapels, residences, and other attractions. That the municipal cultural authorities have become rather trigger-happy with their ticketing for the complex is yet another reason to visit the Story of Prague Castle museum and find out what exactly one is paying for at each doorway.

Images courtesy:,

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Memorial Snippets

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, in the middle of Berlin, has been generating debate since it was suggested in 1990. Questions such as whether such a huge memorial was necessary or desirable, futile or useful, kitschy or earnest, came up immediately, and the specific Memorial that's taken shape after a design by Peter Eisenman also throws up huge question marks. PBS has a great website that introduces the important issues at stake.

Today I participated in a long and interesting discussion about the Memorial with a room of twenty-something students in the Cultural Science [Kulturwissenschaft] department of the Humboldt University and their comments make an interesting confetti of assertions. The motivating query was whether the monument is actually "disturbing," given its location in the heart of Berlin's touristic sight-seeing network:

"It doesn't stand out from the city or disrupt the center in any way [despite what may have been intended]. It fits perfectly. You visit Berlin, you visit the Reichstag, you walk for a minute and visit the Memorial and experience a little remembrance. The children play, the parents picnic. Yep, perfect addition to the city center."

"That may be problematic, but it's not totally wrong. The Memorial fits into the city in a certain way that the event fits into German history."

"Eisenman wanted this openness anyway."

"It's not a memorial for the Jews but rather for the Germans. It's from Germans, for Germans."

"I think it's effective. You go in the middle and the traffic noise fades and you're down in the middle of these tall stele and you have a space to think a little. In this sense, the earlier design, with taller blocks and greater enclosure, would have been even more effective."

"It's about getting the most Germans possible to reflect. That's why it's in the center, and it's good that way."

"I don't know whether or not you can control how it affects people. It's a total issue of personal taste."

"Let's remember this is a Mahnmal, not a Denkmal. It's goal is to mahnen, to honor the victims, not necessarily to make you think, to make you denken."

"As a non-German, it's not really my monument. Of course when I have visitors we go however."

"Well you know there's the question of authenticity; it's just there in the middle of the city. No one would picnic at Auschwitz."

"Thirty seconds of engaging oneself in the theme is better than no time. At least you have a starting point then."

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Right vs. Privilege: Two Definitions of "Preservation"

In the debate about the demolition of Berlin’s Palace of the Republic (see post Nov. 19), many have argued that as a historically significant building, the structure belongs under Denkmalschutz, or, roughly, “landmark preservation,” and to tear it down is a blatant violation of this legal condition. To argue for the inherent worth of a structure based on its historical baggage is an interesting concept and it got me thinking about how architecture is or is not preserved at home in New York.

To begin with, the concept of Denkmalschutz in Germany is far more wide-ranging than the American idea of “landmark preservation.” While the former is an umbrella term for the refusal to let old things be destroyed, the latter refers to the careful judgment and selection of what is worthy of preservation. Things like crumbling factories or deteriorating public works are frequently scrapped in America rather than renovated; in Germany such structures fall mainly under Denkmalschutz.

Both systems have their quirks and fallbacks. The reuse of old structures creates interesting spaces such as Berlin’s Kulturbrauerei, or “culture brewery ,” a cultural complex containing clubs, restaurants, theaters, and other performance spaces in a former beer brewery. The large brick structure, with its turrets and vast interior courtyard, reminds one a bit of a castle and a bit of a labyrinth and is a cultural symbol for the trendy neighborhood, Prenzlauer Berg, in which it sits.

On the other hand, I was surprised during a visit to Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp in the northern suburbs of Berlin, to see a lot of construction taking place alongside the camp walls. I asked if private houses were being built and an employee answered that the building were merely being sanitized and renovated; as former Gestapo lodging and administration they belonged to the complex and stood under Denkmalschutz, so they had never been ripped down. I asked what they were going to be used for after renovation. The answer? Training grounds for the modern-day police academy.
At right: image of a memorial in Sachsenhausen.

Despite such astoundingly ironic blunders—all with good intentions—the German system’s emphasis on valuing physical history, even when not gorgeous or profitable, is commendable. In New York the drawbacks of the “landmark preservation” approach are constantly apparent as historic structures are torn down despite Herculean efforts from concerned citizens. The Colonial Club, formerly on the southwest corner of 72nd street and Broadway, was a visual ballast to the neighborhood for a century, but did not pass muster with the Landmark Preservation Commission, which requires that buildings “have a special character or special historical or aesthetic interest or value as part of the development, heritage or cultural characteristics of the city, nation or state.” Despite its slightly lofty name, the Club was in principle a social club only notable because it admitted women in a time when few others did (albeit through a separate entrance). It closed soon after its 1892 opening due to financial collapse and many of its pretty architectonic elements, such as limestone floors or an iron balcony, were removed during its transformation into office space.

Two separate evaluations from the Landmarks Preservation Commission found that the building wasn’t worthy to carry the name “Landmark” and it is now shrouded in scaffolding, awaiting transformation into something sleeker and more modern. A neighborhood group that “fights” for landmarks didn’t mount a campaign to save the Colonial because even though “there’s no reason it shouldn’t be a landmark…in the scheme of things, a lot of buildings deserve to be landmarks,” and the group had to prioritize. An example of this prioritizing is the1964 Palazzo-cum-Woolworth building by Edward Durell Stone at 2 Columbus Circle. Battled over for years by those who wanted to preserve the architecturally significant structure as an example of Modernism, the building’s fate was sealed by a recent city permit allowing for the dismantling of the façade. Despite the desperate lobbying of groups including the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the World Monuments Fund, which placed it on the “100 Most Endangered Sites for 2006,” the Landmarks Commission never held a hearing that may have led to the building’s preservation. Like the Colonial Club, it is now behind a tomb of scaffolding, a new building to house the Museum of Arts and Design set to emerge in 2007. As a New Yorker, I am sad to see Stone’s work go, not because I am a particularly qualified judge of historical value, but rather because I grew up with it and like the way it looked. It stamped the image of Columbus Circle with a neat, weird little flare, and would have been an especially nice counterpoint to the sleek, dominant minimalism of the new Time Warner Center.

To summarize, in Germany one can almost take for granted that an old and even faintly interesting building will be legally protected from demolition; in the United States buildings must be deemed good enough to deserve protection, a judgment so difficult to obtain that frequently citizens band together to combat economic or social forces and lobby for the preservation of their neighborhoods. The American cultural attitude behind this is that new things are occasionally more valuable than older things, and that physical history is open to alteration with minimal loss. As 2 Columbus Circle and the Palace of the Republic show, it is not always that simple. As the Colonial Club shows, sometimes it is.

Dunlap, David W. “The Colonial Club: A Landmark in All but Name.” The New York Times, 9 November 2006, Metro.
Wikipedia’s site about 2 Columbus Circle provides a good overview of its history.

Monday, November 20, 2006

An Inconvenient but Pretty Truth

Here is a view of Tiergarten, Berlin's largest park, from last week. It's still green and idyllic despite the coming winter, perhaps because meteorologists are reporting this as the warmest fall ever recorded for Berlin. In the last couple days gardeners reported that annual flowers were blooming in their backyard, thinking it was spring.

Tiergarten is part of a collection of parks that make up 1/3 of the city. This photo was taken right below the Strasse des 17. Junis, a wide avenue made famous this summer when the city gamely hosted up to 700,000 screaming football maniacs on the "Fan Mile" during the World Cup.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Doubting Thomas vs. Hopeful Wilhelm

During Berlin’s January 2005 “Long Night of Museums,” when the eponymous institutions stayed open all night with concerts and special programs in the spirit of a culturally edifying pub crawl, the darkness near Museum Island was illuminated by an enormous neon DOUBT. Seven letters, each 6 meters high and together spanning 38 meters, spelled out the German word “ZWEIFEL,” or “doubt,” across the top of a run-down, squat building shaped like a roachtrap. This dark hulk was nearly drowned out by the light, but nonetheless there was no mistaking the Palace of the Republic [Palast der Republik], the former seat of East German government, a boxy structure condemned by the unified government to sit uninhabited for a decade after the discovery of asbestos within. Or so the West claimed—many former Easterners viewed this “discovery” as a political calculation and pointed out that plenty of buildings in West Berlin were also full of asbestos but running smoothly. This claim is the tip of an iceberg of political contention surrounding the structure, a great societal difference of opinion on how to treat the past. This post will be the first in a series outlining aspects of the debate.

PALAST DES ZWEIFELS [Palace of Doubt], a work of art by Norwegian Lars Ramberg, is a good place to begin. In the most immediate sense, the large “doubt” that stood atop the Palast from January-March 2005 represented the controversy surrounding the proper use for the spot of land, one which lacks a doubtlessly “correct” answer. The spot where the Palast stands, although not for much longer, was occupied for four hundred years by the Hohenzollern castle [Schloss], the seat of Berlin’s ruling power. Its last incarnation was a Baroque façade designed by Andreas Schluter in 1706. After World War Two, the government of the Soviet-controlled German Democratic Republic claimed that the building was too war-damaged to be worth salvaging, and despite outcry, began demolishing it in September 1950. From 1973-6, they built a gold-glass rectangle that housed the German Democratic Republic’s parliament, as well as cultural exhibitions, performance space, cafes and even an ice-skating rink for the citizens, and proclaimed it a “Palace of the Republic.” After re-unification came the discovery of asbestos and resultant closure, and several years after that, in 1993, the government decided to tear it down, generating immediate consternation from former east-Berliners for whom the space had enormous cultural and sentimental significance. The debate was not entirely split along geographic lines; there were also many Westerners who saw the destruction of such a historically significant structure as disrespectful to anyone who had lived through Berlin’s division.

The controversial tear-down decision wasn’t truly put into action until January 2005, when Senator Ingeborg Junge-Reyer, the leader of Berlin’s municipal governing body, announced that demolition of the large, boarded-up wreck would soon begin. In its place, the Baroque Schloss would later be rebuilt, to the delight of lobbyists who had long dreamed of restoring central Berlin’s Prussian elegance. With support from the Norwegian embassy and several other organizations, Ramberg’s artwork was erected above the ultimately condemned Palast on January 20th, 2005. Ramberg explained that his work should cause “doubt and reflection from local and official levels about the pursuit according to continually new perspectives of the lost, past Utopia.”[1] In other words, the latest Utopists should look at their Prussian aspirations with a critical, shall we say doubtful eye.

The work did not cause enough doubt. A year and a half later in fall 2006, the tear-down is in full swing and a patchwork of cloudy sky is visible between gaping holes in the Palast’s steel skeleton. The project has not and will not stop ruffling feathers; many insist on referring to the Schloss' rebuilding as a fool’s errand, an argument easy to support when the numbers are examined. The advocacy group currently fundraising for the Schloss’ reconstruction, Foerderverein Berliner Schloss e.V., hasn’t clarified where all the money will come from, other than to suggest, in full-color newsletters placed in the rooms of Berlin’s toniest hotels, that citizens “sponsor” different stages of the reconstruction. One can choose between supporting an individual architectonic element, such as a “colossal column capital” for 151,450 Euros, or be one of the “only” 200,000 citizens to pledge 400 Euros over the course of ten years to make the 80 Million Euros needed to complete the elegant façade. In addition to someone who plays hopefully with numbers all day, the group also has a tremendous sense of optimism. The willpower behind the project can be traced back to one powerful personality, Wilhelm von Boddien, head of the Schlossverein, seen at left in this picture.

In an interview with the Berliner Morgenpost during the 2005 wave of controversy after the final decision to rip the Palast down, von Boddien expressed nearly blind optimism. When asked how he planned to pay for the façade reconstruction, he responded by asserting that if merely a third of Berliners were willing to pay 50 euros each, there would be plenty of money for the project. He did not acknowledge that this may have been asking a lot from a city with almost 20% unemployment. He also didn’t do the math very well; 50 million is not 80, but no matter. Von Boddien also brushed aside concerns of Eastern resentment, enthusing, “I’m telling you, it’ll go like the Frauenkirche [the reconstructed church in Dresden.] When the building begins, it will bring the opposition together.” He predicted that the reconstructed palace would be ready to open in October 2015, the 25th anniversary of German reunification, and could be celebrated with a week-long “Volkfest” or “people’s party.”[2]

Ramberg’s “doubt,” then, is both prescient and innaccurate. Von Boddien’s expectation that hundreds of thousands of individual citizens will elect to pay for the rebuilding, a hope he actually seems to believe, is dubious at best, especially for a society whose structure is not the American system of private wealth donated to public causes, but rather complete federal fiscal responsibility in the realm of culture and the arts. The Schloss falls under this cultural rubric not least because plans for it include gallery and exhibition space. Yet if von Boddien’s assumptions appear as all else but dubious or misguided to him and his supporters: official Schlossverein material trumpets an exuberant, exclamation-marked mood of jubilation. There is no doubt in their minds: the Schloss will be rebuilt, and it will be better than ever!

[1] “Dieser Zweifel wiegt schwer – Zehn tonnen, um genau zu sein.” Von SOF 29/30 Jan 2005, p. 1.
[2] “Das Stadtschloss steht 2015,” moderated by Katrin Schoelkopf, Berliner Morgenpost, 1 Feb 2005, p. 16

Images courtesy of, Berliner Morgenpost and Foerderverein Berliner Schloss e.V.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

A(nother) Nation of Materialists

The United States is frequently attacked for being too materialistic, that is, valuing the acquisition of property too highly and missing the point that all that stuff is just…stuff. Living here in Germany has certainly confirmed that we are more willing to view life as a sequence of purchase opportunities. As a college graduation present, an American friend of mine received a new cell phone and new computer not because she needed either goody, but because her parents figured “why not?” It’s not bad logic since the new gadgets work well and make her happy, but yes, they were completely unnecessary.

In contrast, Germans hold on to their possessions, including technology, for longer. Many households have appliances in them that are “really old” by American standards, for example ancient TVs or radios, because they still somehow function and there is no apparent reason to replace them, no matter how outdated they may be (or look). In comparison, when I was growing up my parents would routinely throw out any appliance that couldn’t compete with the latest model—which, as it turns out, was most things. This is not a complaint or criticism; like most American kids, I took it for granted that getting new stuff all the time is a pretty neat lifestyle choice. In other words, I was raised as materialistically as the next.

However, materialism doesn’t always revolve around the constant and competitive consumerism the world associates with the US. Materialism can also be of a less physical type, what is called “intellectual materialism.” The kind of materialism is concerned with the accumulation of knowledge, or even spiritual experiences, in order to be better. This sort of drive to better oneself is discussed for example in Buddhism, which describes intellectual materialism in much the way as physical materialism: equally characterized by the feeling, “if I could just have something more I’d be whole; with that extra thing I don’t yet have, I’d be good.” For intellectual materialists, the pursuit to be worthy revolves around the baggage they carry in their head rather than the things in their living room.

Intellectual materialism is a characteristic of German society. Just as the attitudes of American materialism are clearly visible in advertisements that convince one s/he’ll be sexier (read: a more worthy human being) if s/he gets the new cell phone, Germany’s print media and advertising world hammer home the message that acquiring more knowledge makes one not just more knowledgeable, but better. Advertisements for encyclopedias abound here—no, really, they do---breathlessly describing the newer, better edition now available. They make encyclopedias look as exciting as sport cars.

Book reviews are also a huge feature of the newspaper media, more so than in the US to the extent they are not ghetto-ized in special sections but rather get front-page billing in culture sections or blurbs on the paper’s headline page. The language used in these reviews is meant to instill desire: if the reviewer liked the book, s/he will describe how its ideas will improve one’s awareness, expand one’s thought process, truly open one’s eyes like no other book until on this subject could have; in short, with this book, the reader will become better and closer to being a whole human being. The magazine and publishing house Der Spiegel’s advertising campaign says it all: “Readers know more.” These three words are appealing enough without explanation: to know more is to be better.

The picture painted is that the average member of society here ought to work on acquiring as many facts as possible in order for self-betterment, kind-of like how US society is frequently encouraged to acquire as many new shampoos/sweaters/cars/cell phones etc. to be cool, timely, smart, sexy, in short, worthy. The difference in German is that worthiness is measured differently: by the abstract yardstick of knowledge.

This is a pretty subtle attitude and one many would deny—ask an American if they think buying the new iPod makes them a better person and they’ll probably say “no.” Ask a German if reading an extra newspaper per day makes them a better person and they’ll also probably say “no;” however, if they say yes, it’s because intellectual materialism is so easier to defend. To a certain extent, its would-be defenders are right: it is generally better to know more than to know less. And the watered-down version of intellectual materialism is simply valuing a cosmopolitan worldview informed about politics and the ways of different countries. As the cliché runs, many Americans know very little about the rest of the world, and I’ve found this to be true, although I can’t produce any statistics that substantiate the overwhelming sense of ignorance one sometimes senses in the US. It would be nice if we emphasized understanding what’s going on in other parts of the world a bit more.

But let’s examine more deeply: is reading the latest published diary from the Nazi era going to teach the reader more tolerance, political awareness, world savvy, or any of the other things promised in the book reviews? Probably not. The root source of the values that Western liberal society holds dear—democracy, human rights—is the belief that everyone is equal, in other words, that there are fundamental similarities across humanity that make us all worthy, whether or not we have the latest sexy new encyclopedia or race car. The highest value of the Western world is a deep understanding of other people as just as worthy as oneself, and this is a concept both rational and emotional learned from family and environment. Each nation, regardless of how often they read a new encyclopedia or go shopping, has the opportunity to figure out how to transmit this message to the new generation. This value can’t be taught by buying a lot or reading a lot; it comes from a good upbringing in a healthy society. Meanwhile, after the most basic lessons are taught, the belief that knowing more equals being better is incorrect. (As is the American belief that buying stuff equals being better.)

We all have a lot more in common than we think—we all want to feel good about ourselves in whatever form of materialism our culture values. It bears mentioning that consumerism in the US is an offshoot of our Protestant work ethic: since works makes us good, when we spend the money we earned at that work, we see physical proof of our worthiness. And let’s not forget that the United States is a country founded on the idea of equality, which is why so many Europeans flocked to it rather than stay in oppressively hierarchical societies. Their descendants are now those ignorant fat people at the mall. So next time I hear the US casually dismissed as a nation of materialistic morons, I am going to suggest the speaker direct his/her energy towards seeing Americans as long-lost cousins: perhaps weird or annoying, but in every way as worthy.

Monday, November 13, 2006

“One-Euro-Job” is a Misnomer

As a solution to the scourge of unemployment, the German government has recently created new “Work Opportunities,” also dubbed “One-Euro-Jobs,” or positions that force people who have been unemployed for years to re-enter the workforce. They work in a variety of mainly low-skill positions such as cleaning litter in parks for 20-30 hours per week, for a term of 6-9 months, and earn the piecemeal salary of 1 Euro and fifty cents per hour. The goal is to supplement their state-supplied welfare income and reintroduce them to the working world, thereby readying them for long-term employment both psychically and practically.

This new measure has been attacked as taking jobs from those who are actually qualified and replacing them with under-qualified workers, i.e. spreading unemployment rather than solving it, although there are no good numbers available to substantiate this criticism. There are also claims that the measure allows workers to be fired—only to be offered their previous job back at a new low price. Others say that the requirements within the policy are not always met, especially that which requires the work to supplement pre-existing workforce conditions. Instead, so-called “One-Euro-Jobbers” are used as place-fillers where full-time workers are needed, such as a care-taker in a welfare institution or nursing home. In other words, the measure is a way to supply cheap, necessary labor that the government otherwise can’t afford. All in all, public opinion seems fairly critical; the nickname itself shows a fixation with a seemingly insultingly low wage, a ridiculous phantom of income in expensive times.

To explain the climate in which this development is taking place, let’s look at the example of Harald Ziehm, who was profiled recently by Der Tagesspeigel (under a changed name.) He receives 350 Euros a month from the government, of which 305 goes for rent, and after he divides the rest for transportation costs and health insurance, he has about nine Euros/day leftover, the newspaper reports. He spends half of this on cigarettes, and another euro and change on a daily beer, an expenditure he defends by explaining “non-alcoholic beer is more expensive.” He has been unemployed for five years and believes he will never find another job.

This sad hopelessness is not uncommon, as seen in another recent article that chronicles a family where nearly every member unemployed; only one son works, as a cook at a welfare center. Meanwhile, the grandparents, jobless, sit at home and with their other children, who are also jobless, and watch TV. The grandfather also believes his three-year-old granddaughter will be unemployed: “She’ll turn out like us.”

Mr. Ziehm and the members of this family are far from alone: unemployment in Berlin is currently 17.5%, up to 30% in certain parts of former East Germany, and mainly less in western Germany, but still high relative to what American economists consider healthy. (The average 2005 unemployment in the United States was 5.1%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics; typical consensus is that a figure between 3-5% is ideal.) Not everyone without a job is also left without hope for the future, and it may be that the hopeless make the best newspaper features, but the numbers must be great indeed.

To those who sit at home for years, living by self-made routines of taking walks, watching TV, and smoking cigarettes, the psychic value of actual work cannot be underestimated. Work creates a sense of productivity and accomplishment which leads to self-worth; this is why Americans, with their Protestant work ethic, are so incredibly addicted to it. More importantly, work forces an individual to become part of a greater societal whole, to "make a contribution;” Mr. Ziehm spends his days alone and has dropped out of public life altogether outside of his trips to the grocery store. After years without being in some sort of social structure or larger purpose, is it any wonder that he can’t imagine himself waking up and going to work?

The value of "One-Euro-Jobs," then, is more than the derogatory nickname lets on; a better title might be the less catchy "Social-Reintegration-Jobs" or "Self-Worth-and-Confidence-Jobs." The government is hoping that this psychic energy, coupled with newly-learned skills, is enough to make long-term employment. Despite the accusations that these cheap jobs are harming the labor market rather than helping it, the real effects of this policy will only be seen in time. It may prove positive for the millions who don’t believe they count anymore.

Criticism, for example:
Anne Allex, interviewed by Cornelia Jeske, “Die Arbeit muss tatsaechlich zusaetzlich sein,” Berliner Zeitung, 7 November 2006, p. 23).
Harald Ziehm:
Philipp Lichterbeck, “Unten Durch,” Der Taggespiegel, 10 September 2006, „Berlin ist Leben“ Sonderseiten, p. V).
The family:
Maxim Leo, “Das verflixte Leben,” Berliner Zeitung, 21 October 2006, Politik, p. 3)

Friday, November 10, 2006

Let there be **Light**
The fall/winter sunlight in Berlin (when it rarely appears) is really a treat. Berlin is 1000 miles North of New York, i.e. so far north that the sun doesn't rise all the way in the sky, giving the light a permanent twilight feel and warm yellow color that paints objects with a golden glow. Also, because the sun laps around the sky rather than rise directly overhead, the light is always coming from a low angle, creating long shadows stretching out behind illuminated objects in that romantic, late-afternoon sort of way. OK, this little ode to winter sunlight is finished: here is a picture I took today at the Brandenburger Tor showing these effects.

(P.S. Two notes: Poking around in the ruins of Caesarea, an ancient Roman city on the Israeli coast, I stumbled on a particularly dark, empty tunnel with a small hole off-center in the ceiling. A plaque explained that this was a temple for a cult of sun-worshippers, and the hole was there to let in the light. So much religious architecture, such as cathedrals with their window-encircled apses, makes clever use of illumination, but I'd never seen a chamber so simply constructed for the regular worship of pure light.

Note two: Because it's so far north, the only thing that keeps Berlin warm is the Gulf Stream, which also keeps Scandinavia from turning into one big iceberg. But Berlin is on the eastern edge of the Gulf Stream, and it's striking how much colder it is only a couple hours away in Poland. I discovered this by surprise two winters ago and will never take the "warm" Berlin winter for granted again!)