Browsing the book shops over the Christmas period there’s been one I kept coming back to; ‘111 Orte In Berlin, Die Man Gesehen Haben Muss‘ (111 Places In Berlin you must see). I held back on it because it’s only in German, and my German is frankly rubbish, but after a few flicks through I realised I could work it out. Each of the 111 sights has a photo and directions for public transport, so I thought I’d give it a go.
I was near Hauptbahnhof and I only had a couple of hours to kill, so I looked at the map in the back of the book and found the nearest place I’d never been to that interested me the most.
I found myself getting off the train at ‘Bellevue’ only one station away. This is a stop that previously I have only associated with the Palace (Schloss Bellevue) where the German President lives. The German Presidency is mostly a symbolic political position. It’s hopelessly dull stuff, so I’ve never really thought to bother to come back here just to stand far away from a building that was kind of important once.
I followed the S-Bahn tracks until I saw the strange looking building in the photo below.
Turned out it was the back yard for a load of shops all tied together in what feel like very low-roofed single story buildings grouped around the Hansaplatz U-Bahn station. This station is on the U9, and I never use that line, I never even go through this place let alone surface here.
I can’t say I was inspired when I first looked around, but I consulted my new Favourite Book and did a spot of Wikipedia checking (sorry) and found that this whole area was badly damaged in the Second World War and reconstructed between 1957 and 1961. They built the U-Bahn station a whole four years before it was even operational.
What interested me about this, as ever, was the historical context. 1961, the year this project was finished, is the year that Berlin was physically divided by The Wall. This is an area I’ve been looking into more and more lately, what happened in West Berlin. The reading I’ve done and the education I’ve had has always focused on the East. And why not? Not only is that political system, that culture a museum piece now, it’s so utterly fascinating because it’s so radically different from anything I know from my own life.
But that might be making it too easy, too simple. Yes, West Germany and West Berlin were closer to my native UK culturally than the GDR ever could have been, but we’re still talking about Britain and Germany, two radically different places. West Berlin was the front line of the cold war, an island of capitalism inside communist East Germany. It was a city kept alive first by American money, and then by West German tax breaks and subsidies, it was one of the most important cities in the world.
The ‘Hansaviertel’ architectural project shows that in so many ways. Famous architects from all over the world were invited to design this new heart of West Berlin, to build individual homes and high rises that would epitomise life in the future, life under what has turned out to be one of the world’s most successful capitalist democracies.
So, if you’re reading this in Berlin I recommend you check out that book, and if you don’t want to or you’re not in Berlin then at least check out the Hansaviertel, the weather was a bit rubbish as you can hopefully see, and I left the vast majority un-photographed if not un-explored.