David Whitley visits Berlin 25 years after the wall came down and finds that the gaping void on the city’s psyche has been filled with art, colour, technology and new ways of thinking
Creeping through the trees on the scrubby, rubbly southern bank of the river Spree, we suddenly find ourselves inside a crashed spaceship.
At least that’s what it’s supposed to look like, with extra-terrestrials carved from scrap metal and a ladder up to a rusty flight deck. Up there, however, there’s no alien captain – just a couple of long-haired chaps playing video games.
This is C-Base, a club run by Berlin’s computer hacking fraternity. It’s staffed by volunteers, and non-members are allowed in for a drink if they’ve got the nous to find the place.
Upstairs is an informal school, where members learn to develop and design games. Everywhere else, there are extension leads, laptops and screens, as an evening drink turns into feverish tapping at keyboards.
By Berlin standards, this is not especially weird. Every subculture has its place in the German capital. Further along the river bank are squat bars, rough-and-ready recording studios and radio stations broadcasting to virtually no one.
Berlin’s embrace of creativity and the unconventional gives it a strangely un-German feel. English often becomes the default language, such is the globe-spanning influx of artists and musicians. It’s the city where Bowie goes to record, Banksy’s disciples spray en masse and European clubbers descend for stamina-stretching weekends. No other city in Europe can match its thrilling sense of edge and experimentation.
Despite Berlin’s reputation as a free spirit from the Marlene Dietrich era in the 1920s, its emergence as the coolest city in Europe can be traced back to the events of 25 years ago, when the Berlin Wall was torn down.
It was the abiding symbol of the collapse of the Cold War and Eastern European communism, and numerous attractions in Berlin do a good job of bringing this era to life. Berlin Walks runs excellent themed tours; the DDR Museum offers a kitschy take on what life was like; the Story of Berlin Museum puts it in a broader historical context. But the legacy is just as fascinating. The wall’s removal in November 1989 left behind something crucially important: space.
When Berlin was carved up between the Allies after World War II, it was divided into French, American, British and Russian quarters, broadly along the lines of existing districts. The Russian quarter became East Berlin while the other three morphed into West Berlin. When the East German authorities decided to build the Berlin Wall, they did so around the awkwardly-shaped boundaries of West Berlin, cutting a highly meandering path through the centre of the city.
This is something best seen along Bernauer Strasse where the road is partially lined by one of the few remaining stretches of wall; display signs along it make it something of an open-air museum. There are tales of a church being cut off from its cemetery, and children not being able to visit their parents’ grave; accounts of often desperate escape attempts – at least 136 people died at the Berlin Wall; and photos of homes being knocked down to stop people jumping out of top floor windows.
The Nordbahnhof station at the end of Bernauer Strasse is worth poking around in too, if only to understand the extent of the wall. The S-Bahn and U-Bahn network was designed long before the wall was built, and when the barrier went up, it extended underground. Pictures on the walls show how stations on the border between East and West had tunnels blocked off with concrete slabs and barbed wire, a team of gun-wielding guards stopping anyone trying to make a run for it. The tracks remained, but trains simply turned back. If there was a fire or other disaster down there, there was no escape route.
The displays inside Nordbahnhof tell of the plucky few who fled to the West through the stations. One was a corporal who assigned himself to guard the Walter-Ubricht-Stadion, then disappeared through an air shaft to freedom.
But there wasn’t just one wall – there were two running parallel, and the land in the middle of it was known as the Death Strip.
That left a huge swathe of either nothing or abandoned buildings (and, most symbolically, the Brandenburg Gate) untouched for 28 years. When the wall came down there was suddenly a massive gap to play with and it was cutting across what, in any other city, would be prime patches of real estate.
Big developers, partly through bureaucracy and partly through caution about whether anyone would want to go back there, moved slowly. Others were less encumbered – artistic and entrepreneurial Berliners saw the crumbling homes and office blocks as free accommodation and studio space. A scene very quickly developed, scruffy bars and clubs mushroomed, and people of a similar mindset flocked to be a part of it.
The story of Kunsthaus Tacheles at 54 Oranienburger Strasse neatly captures what happened. The former department store was occupied in February 1990, a couple of months before it was due to be demolished.
Artists – metalworkers, Belarussian painters, political collagists, you name it – set up studios and workshops amidst the graffiti-strewn filth, and the downstairs bar became the spot that every hip-chasing tourist wanted a beer in. After years of battling the developers who owned the site, the Tacheles cooperative admitted defeat. The artists just moved to new homes in different parts of the city.
The period between the wall coming down and big business moving in to capitalise acted as a giant fermentation tank for invention and subversion. And that mindset is now too big for Berlin to shake off – not that it really wants to.
Walking through the Friedrichshain district – which was just on the East German side of the wall – gallery curator and Alternative Tours guide Robin Smith tries to explain why Berlin is a major world hub for street art. Pointing out detailed murals, stickering blitzes and stencil campaigns, Robin asks us to look at what’s missing… CCTV cameras. “After decades of being monitored by the Stasi, East Germans are very wary of surveillance.”
Without CCTV, the authorities are fighting a losing battle. Robin estimates around 3000 people are spraying every night, and the city has no power to prosecute for anything sprayed on private property. Most business owners can’t be bothered with the time and money needed to get a prosecution, and simply paint over unwanted artwork. Others opt to commission one of the better artists to cover their building in pre-approved murals.
Friedrichshain’s best spot for street art was once the East Side Gallery – a remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall that is now frequently defaced by witless tagging. A better option is the old railway repair yards near the Warschauer Strasse S-Bahn station. The yards are full of all-nighter electronica clubs, gloriously out-of-place beach bars, skateboard parks and low-budget, industrial-looking galleries. But it’s the murals – a giant cowboy slipping on a banana skin, the naked blue-haired man with ants crawling all over his arms – that really grab the attention.
The mural-heavy railyard won’t last forever though. Nothing does in Berlin, where there’s something of an impossible whack-a-mole futility to pinning down the current hotspot. But even when the formerly cool parts get a makeover, hints of what made them cool are left behind.
Prenzlauer Berg was lost to the yummy mummy set quite some time ago, but it’s still gloriously enjoyable to mooch between the cluster of cafés and laid-back cocktail bars.
The trend-hounds currently panting their way around the ‘Kreuzkolln’ junction of Kreuzberg and Neukolln have long abandoned Mitte to the masses too, yet glorious pockets of creative absurdity remain. The Hackesche Höfe courtyard complex has been tastefully converted into a restaurants and shopping zone, but a laneway behind it has some of the best street art in town and a delightfully grungy indie cinema.
It’s also home to Monster Kabinett, a genre-defyingly bizarre installation where you pay to move through darkened rooms full of sinister-looking moving metal sculptures. They dance, shake, beckon and gesture to thumping techno soundtracks, like a surrealist take on a fairground haunted house. It makes no sense, yet it’s a strangely brilliant slice of absurdity.
As is a Sunday afternoon event in Prenzlauer Berg’s Mauerpark that is fast becoming a much-loved institution. As long as the sun is out, the shabby concrete amphitheatre next to the flea market becomes the scene for what is known as Bearpit Karaoke. An Irish bike courier turns up with speakers, microphones and a laptop, then people in the 1000-plus crowd take turns to bravely belt out a tune.
It gets increasingly rowdy as the crowd is plied with beer by enterprising chaps with coolboxes, and it’s clear that enthusiasm and willingness to make a fool of yourself are valued far higher than vocal talent. It’s so demonstrably uncool that it somehow becomes cooler than any squat bar could ever aspire to.
This deliciously bizarre celebration of life at Mauerpark takes place in what was once the Death Strip (mauer is German for wall). When the wall came down it grassed over and, in the absence of crashed spaceships and computer nerds, became a public park that united East and West. And what could be more unifying than a half-cut public singalong?
Berlin for weird-seekers
» Head through the city’s underground maze and into former nuclear fallout shelters with Berliner Unterwelten (berliner-unterwelten.de) to get an eerie bout of Cold War paranoia. Tours kick off at the Gesundbrunnen U-Bahn station.
» Nothing exemplifies the appeal of East German kitsch than the campaign to keep the Ampelmann – the jaunty green (or red) man from East Berlin’s pedestrian crossings. There’s even a restaurant (Stadtbahbogen 159; ampelmann-restaurant.com) devoted to him, which goes all pseudo-tropical in the summer with special Ampelmann deckchairs to kick back with a beer.
» Extend the nostalgia trip by pootling around the area of East Berlin that most people don’t get to see – in a Trabant. The notoriously unreliable communist era cars have long descended into retro cool, and Trabi Safari (trabi-safari.de) allows you to get behind the wheel and experience their foibles.
» The Badeschiff (arena-berlin.de) is an old cargo container that has been turned into a swimming pool right next to the River Spree. The twist? Everyone’s naked – which makes for some exhibitionist salutes to passing boats and unusual chats on the surrounding bar stools when it turns somewhat clubby in the evening.
» Berlin will mark the 25th anniversary of the wall coming down on 9 November 2014. Of the events already organised, the highlight will be the installation of thousands of glowing helium balloons along 12 kilometres of the wall. The balloons will be released at five key spots as a symbol of the barrier coming down. There will also be a memorial service at the Chapel of Reconciliation on Bernauer Strasse, also marking the opening of a permanent exhibition here about the fall of the wall. See visitberlin.de for more.
How to get there
For one-stop services to Berlin, try Etihad (from Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane) and Qatar Airways (from Melbourne or Perth). Return prices start at around $1660.
Where to stay
• Comfortable: Each room at the Arte Luise Kunsthotel (Luisenstrasse 19; luise-berlin.com) is decorated by a different local artist – it hits that sweet spot between fun, homely and centrally located. Doubles from $137 per night (with private shower and toilet).
• Luxury: By European standards, accommodation in Berlin is a bargain. Even at the Adlon Kempinski (Unter den Linden 77; kempinski.com), the most prestigious grand hotel in the
city right next to the Brandenburg Gate, rooms can go for around $340 per night.
Where to eat
• Affordable: The somewhat kitschy Max und Moritz (Oranienstrasse 162; maxundmoritzberlin.de) – an old-school survivor of two world wars and the wall, which was right next to it – is comfort food heaven, serving up hearty schnitzel and stew.
• High-end: Art-packed celeb haunt, Grill Royal (Friedrichstrasse 105b; grillroyal.com), divides opinion in Berlin – but the top notch steaks override the pretence factor.