A kind of theme park of unthreatening anarchy, Berlin is a place where real bohemianism and eccentricity safely persist. The burdens of becoming capital again, and the corporate building spree that coincided, have done little to change the fact that if you’re awake at seven in the morning here, ist much more likely that you’re still, not already, up. To my brain, this is the central paradox of the city: an extreme level of precision coexists with rough slouching of the kind that New York probably hasn’t had in a decade, unless you count bike messengers. The U-bahn and trams run impeccably and frequently, but graffiti and tags are omnipresent in the stations, as well as on walls in even the poshest neighborhoods – they’re so far ahead of us in their lack of NIMBYism about the city. The apartments and specifically the bathrooms (which I duly note thanks to our very own Tom Jacobs), are just marvels of flush surfaces, seamless joins, and gleaming fixtures, whose comfort with modernism makes you feel philistine by comparison. Yet you can rent a one-bedroom for four or five hundred dollars a month no problem. The city is stagnant and metamorphosing, the place to go to be creative on no money but also the place to go to reinvent Europe as an urban planner or celebrated architect. It’s a funny alloy.
There’s also a kind of sixth borough sensation, as though Alphabet City and you-know-which part of Brooklyn floated loose in 1990 and sailed east to become Berliniamsburg. The most international of scenes, low rents have enabled a huge community of global expats to take refuge here, many of whom nurse their screenplays in endless spacious cafes. The one on Rosenthaler Platz, to take a standard example, would easily be the nicest place in the United States to drink coffee in the presence of well-designed tables and wall-mounted antlers. Our greatest luxury in NYC is in drool-inducing supply here: it’s like the United Arab Emirates of space. Cooks from Detroit open ‘underground kitchens’ where you can eat Thai-ish food for six or seven euros. Famous German actresses that grant Descha a couch in a pinch end up having also been housed by your friend Sophie four years before. Ballet dancers from New York often forget they’re in a foreign city, and pregnant Swiss-Iranian artists humor your bland spaghetti sauce. Little kids go sledding in parks full of tagged ruins next to Kreuzberg’s Turkish markets. People drive around in old Suzuki vans and chocolate shops look like *Wallpaper magazine built them for photo shoots. People let each other use their cell phones on the street, and places don’t have to close at any particular time.
The last time I visited Berlin, about ten years ago, Potsdamer Platz was a giant pit ringed by cranes. The new Berlin was in the process of being born, and Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers and the rest of the global brand-name architects were imagining what it might be. The contruction site was maybe the icon of the city back then, symbolizing better than any actual structure the flux and transformation of the city and the nation. What Berlin was going to look like was the question to speculate on and doing so was the pastime of many who thought about European identity in the wake of the breakup of the U.S.S.R. Happily, the future lasts forever and Berlin continues to feel as open-ended as I remember it; sadly, these days, Potsdamer Platz has been realized, and the results are unencouraging. The massive scale makes for a disorienting experience, and the sheer number of new builds competing for attention (and all sponsored by Disney or Sony or somesuch) makes one wonder whether perhaps the best-laid glass curtain walls and cantilevers of Renzo and Co. might not be less interesting, in theory and in practice, than the giant excavation they replaced. The brand-new and the brand-name did not impress me much here, but I was completely bowled over by mixtures of old and new that didn’t involve starting from scratch.
Symbolically, maybe the weightiest of these reclamations was the renovation of the Reichstag, completed about a decade ago. Luckily, in a way, the Third Reich’s parliament never sat at the Reichstag, perhaps because it was associated with Weimar decadence, so its resumption as the seat of power at least didn’t have to bust those ghosts. But anxieties about German reunification and the reluctance to appear triumphal had to be carefully managed. For these reasons I think it was a brilliant move to give the job to a foreign architect, in this case the brand-namer Norman Foster. He did good. The renovated Reichstag, with its new environmentally friendly glass dome, is one of the best public buildings I know. Instead of hiding the monumental scale, Foster’s design reinflects it and modernizes it in a way that respects the building without obsequiousness. The dome itself is really super, taking Wright’s spiral ramp to give vistors a purpose, and using mirrors to channel sunlight into the parliment visible below. It’s a good example of form and function being friends. At the top, the roof is breathtakingly open to the sky, though closed to birds by a net and to precipitation by an ingenious updraft of hot air. The place is also open to visitors until ten p.m. and displays some gutsy art on its walls. All of which feels like an unburdening, a newfound lightness, but not an erasure or an escape to Sony Village.
Down the road from P.P. lies Mies’ Neue Nationalgalerie, a fairly typical yet still elegant and solid Miesian box of an art museum, currently housing a confusing and fascinating show called ‘Melancholie: Genie and Wahnsinn in Der Kunst.’ Right off the bat, the subtitle made me wonder: in Der Kunst? Whoa. Whose art? When? Typically, American curators will mount multi-artist shows in which the grouping makes sense historically (this or that coterie or commune of likeminded mutual inspirers) or transhistorically around a more concrete subject. Here it was apparently permissible to collate sculpture and painting from antiquity to the present that deals with melancholy, the definition of which was stretched quite a bit – many of the accompanying texts sought to explain why, for instance, Warhols’s portrait of Joseph Beuys was about ‘sadness’ (because it was sprinkled with diamond dust?). Apparently, the only art excluded from consideration was non-Western, so I guess die Kunst might be said to mean ‘Western Art.’ Despite the fuzziness, though, the show was really engaging and fun to look at. How often do you get to see Max Ernst and a Durer etching in the same room, or statuary from the entrance to London’s Bedlam asylum next to a threatening Friedrich sky? Fast and loose, the show’s only requirement for entrance, it seemed, was that pieces partook of the iconography of melancholy from Durer, a wide-open net that includes polyhedrons, spheres, skulls, and most importantly, a head lethargically supported by the hand. To that end, Tony remarked, the show’s title should have been, ‘Melancholie, or the Heaviness of the Head.’ Ja. Maybe the looseness of the show, its ease in playing with the inheritance of history, has something to do with making melancholy the key affective state for art. Maybe a melancholic view of history makes the present lighter, more playable, even as one is conscious of the weight of things from before. If so, that’s a very Berlin feeling.