Dismantling Berlin

It is not a new observation to say that Berlin is a city of holes. Since the
wall came down a long gash has rent the city, marking as an absence the
social, economic and psychological walls that remain between East and West.

But even before this, the city was filled with concrete manifestations of
absence. As in Tokyo, large sections of Berlin had to be rebuilt after
relentless bombing at the end of WWII. As I entered my own apartment
building yesterday, which stands next to a prewar relic still studded with
battle scars, it finally sunk in that even these walls represent a whole
physical history that was destroyed, with lives and stories attached like

“Die ganze Berlin ist eine Baustelle.” (“The whole of Berlin is a
construction site.” Forgive me if I get a pronoun wrong.) You hear this all
the time. And see it as well. Yesterday I walked down Friedrich Strasse
from Unter den Linden to Oranien Strasse. After strolling down canyons of
scaffolding, past project after incomplete project, you have to make a
detour around the hole that now stands, or rather sinks, where “Checkpoint
Charlie” used to be. The future site of an American business center, it’s
now a gray swamp filled with giant drills, caterpillar tractors, and pile
drivers. Men in yellow rubberized suits scurry about, splattered head to
toe with gray mud, negotiating the operation of the tremendous, violent
machines. They are laying the foundation, filling the holes from the ground
up, reclaiming history as they drive a new structure into the earth.

I was reminded of “Topographie des Terrors,” a quasi-museum outlining the
history of the Third Reich that occupies what was once the Gestapo
headquarters. This ruin/memorial, where the “Final Solution” was planned,
makes clear the fact that the holes are more than mere superficial scars.
They extend deep beneath the crust, into subterranean torture chambers and
secret rooms.

At Oranien Strasse I caught a bus headed East, but had to get off at Moritz
Platz due to construction. So I continued on foot through the Turkish heart
of Kreutzberg, past NGBK (New Society for Pictorial Art), a state-funded
gallery showing contemporary black and white photographs of the
Concentration Camps: barbed wire fences in the fog, bunkers covered in
snow, ovens.

Much later, I went with some friends to a club in Mitte (a district of East
Berlin) called Toaster. To get there we shared a cab through another zone
of postwar reconstruction, across the lovely socialist civic arena of
Alexander Platz, and into a part of the city that has remained largely
unchanged since Bismarck. In the last three or four years Mitte has
undergone a “Yuppizierung” (yuppification) not unlike what went down in
SoHo in the early Eighties, but architecturally it remains pretty much as
it was before the bombs fell.

Berlin is one of those European cities where the buildings are sandwiched
together side by side in a single, discontinuous facade. Within each city
block are spaces formed by the insides of buildings. Some of these spaces
have a few trees, some shrubs, a bit of grass. Maybe a swing set and a
bench or two. Others function more like parking or storage lots. Often when
you visit someone, they tell you to go to the “Hinterhoff.” This means that
you go through a set of doors, cross one of these hidden spaces, and enter
another door at the other side.

To get to the club, we turned into one of the many dark thresholds that
pierce the facade, and proceeded through a black tunnel and into a hidden
space. This one didn’t have any trees or shrubs. Just concrete and some
abandoned construction material. Then we continued further into the
darkness, through another black passage and into yet another gap surrounded
by walls. Finally we turned a corner and there was a woman with a cellular
phone standing by a lighted staircase that descended into a cellar. She
eyed us suspiciously as we passed by.

Inside, bad euro-trance echoed off the white tile walls. The dance room,
empty except for a few zombies standing against the wall and two bravely
pathetic souls who pranced about in a way that made dancing look extremely
unappealing, reminded me of the gas chamber at Dachau that I visited
several year ago. I imagined that the camouflage netting that hung from the
ceiling concealed fake shower heads. I ordered a drink and went upstairs,
where plastic ivy adorned some pipes, and vinyl airport benches were
arranged around a black slab of marble that served as a low table.

Eventually we ended up at The Glowing Pickle, a little garage shack jammed
with old Soviet technology: computers, oscilloscopes, radios, medical
equipment, all kinds of unrecognizable metal shit with buttons and dials
and lights and a jungle of connector cables and adapters that you’ve never
seen before. It’s sort of a bar (they serve vodka in test tubes) and sort
of a club (they have a tape player and give memberships to selected members
of the leather-clad kunstlerati) and sort of a store (they auction off
ancient DDR transistors and piss pots, vacuum tubes and video chips every
Thursday at midnight), and sort of an art thing like one of those
neo-dadaist “Environments” that Jim Dine and Claes Oldenberg did in New
York in the Sixties. It’s run by a Canadian and a couple of Dutch — all of
them artists.

It’s called The Glowing Pickle because they have a coin-operated machine
that uses pickles to complete a high-voltage circuit. The pickle is
electrocuted in a pyrotechnical flash of sparks and sour-smelling smoke.

So yesterday, this day of construction sites and night clubs, places where
the past and future meet in strange configurations of architecture and
social practice, was Hitler’s Birthday. The Neo-Nazis wanted to hold a
demonstration, but they weren’t allowed to, so the radical left held one
instead. They are building business offices at the former border crossing,
playing bad dance music in gas chambers, and documenting the gas chambers
in former Nazi offices. And artists are frying pickles. I wonder if they
use Kosher Dills?