Berlin is one of the three cities in Europe that really made me go “wow.” It’s the one that I find hardest to characterize, but here’s an attempt.
Let’s start with the history. Berlin was hopping in the ‘20s, one of cultural capitals of the world. Soon the fanatics took over and made it the capital of the Third Reich. Next came the Allies’ bombs and the Soviet tanks. Then it was divided, and a massive wall broke it in half. That wall endured for thirty years before it was torn down. Now it’s a vibrant place of 3-and-a-half million.
You can’t go through all of that without being weird, and that’s putting it mildly. I went to Berlin before I visited London and Paris, and didn’t then appreciate that it’s so special. Now I’ve had the chance to reflect, and I think Berlin is simply far more interesting than the other two.
Walk around. Notice that Berlin has no organically-developed architecture. You won’t find the consistency of London and Paris. Everything clashes with everything else; there is not the white, neoclassical grace of Westminster, or the more striking grandness that grows along the Seine. Not every building agrees even with itself; witness the glass dome designed by Norman Foster placed on top of the Reichstag.
After a while, you might alight on a thought. It’s an uncomfortable one, because you don’t really want to believe it, and maybe it’s because you’re just tired, so perhaps you shouldn’t entertain it at all—but you do. Berlin is sort of ugly.
There are no skyscrapers designed by brand-name architects, like in London. There’s no central, well-preserved “oldtown,” like in Strasbourg. The heart of the city isn’t dominated by a centuries-old cathedral, like in Cologne or Milan. If you want to see well-preserved cities on the eastern side of Europe, Berlin is not your best bet; go to Prague or Budapest instead. If you want to see “typical” German architecture, drive through the Black Forest, up to the Rhine valley, or through Bavaria. Berlin might be thought of as a northern Munich, with its old Baroque buildings mixed with contemporary work; only Munich is sunnier, richer, and a hundred times cleaner. To me it’s not obvious if Berlin is example of any aesthetic perfection. There’s always another city that does something better.
But I don’t take this lack of beauty to be a negative. Instead I think of it as quite marvelous.
When I reach for examples of German culture my references always go in one of two directions. It’s either the highly-polished works of Beethoven, Schiller, Brahms, or Fontane. Or it’s the really dark stuff: Berg’s gruesome opera Lulu; Kafka’s surrealist short stories; Brecht’s near-tragic Threepenny Opera; Schönberg’s atonal string quartets; Schiele’s crude, erotic paintings; Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz; and on and on.
The first group feel like the product of a Munich or Cologne upbringing. The latter, with its seediness and edginess, belong to the spirit of Berlin. (Yes I know that many of the people here aren’t Germans, but their works are in German or they’re German-speaking and that’s what’s relevant.)
So what’s attractive about Berlin is precisely what’s missing in the cities that are beautiful. It’s not perfect and it cares not to be. Walking through its streets and thinking about the place is unsettling; you don’t know if something strange and unfortunate is going to happen next. That gives it an incredible vibrancy, a freedom that comes from knowing that it doesn’t have to be gorgeous or be beholden to the aesthetic past. Consider that both east and west were equally vigorous in destroying old buildings. The east even managed to demolish the Berlin Palace (Berlin Schloss), the summer residence of the Hohenzollern kings.
Berlin will surprise you. One hears all the time about how Germans are so great at planning and engineering. And then you read of something like the construction of the new airport in Berlin, which has been so mismanaged that every year it needs to add two more years to its completion date, and needs to take out another billion in loans. It was supposed to start operating in 2011, and completion now looks like it’s going to be 2017. The story of its construction involves huge plot twists, and at this point you can’t help but laugh at headlines like “Berlin Airport: The five biggest mistakes,” and “An endless debacle at the BER airport.”
What fun to live in a place like that, in spite of knowing that the hilarity comes from the mismanagement of your taxes. My great complaint with living in southern Germany is that it’s far too comfortable. Things are beautiful and need no change. The occasions for surprise are always structured. Where are the plot twists, the vendors selling delicious goods without a license, the spontaneity that comes when you know that neighbors don’t judge? Everything in the south is polite. Berlin is not that.
The message of Berlin is that not everything is set, that it has room for you. The latter I mean quite literally: There’s plenty of housing available. Someone told me that his two-bedroom apartment in a nice area of the former West Berlin costs 200 euros a month. It’s a small place, but a good location. Is it possible to live anywhere close to SoHo or the Ninth Arrondissement for less than seven or eight times that amount? And it’s not just housing; the food options are diverse and cheap, and you hear sometimes of the amazing nightclubs set up in abandoned warehouses.
Berlin can’t stay weird and cheap forever. Plan a visit before it turns into Paris.