Friday, June 29, 2007

Berlin #3 - The Wall

For me, reading about the Berlin wall and seeing the remains of its ominous and sinister presence are two entirely different experiences. I knew very little about the ‘nature’ of this wall and as I walk around Berlin, even though the wall no longer imprisons and contains, it’s hard to miss the enormity of its impact on the lives of people. I’m always one for maps, and this one . (Visit for large and small maps of Germany) shows how the country was divided. Note the 'island' of West Berlin in the tan part of the map.
Indeed, West Berlin, under the protection of the allied forces, was surrounded by Soviet East Germany, and became the ‘island’ around which the wall was built – all 96 miles of it. This map shows the wall around West Berlin. General Berlin city map, 1961 based on a map published in "Unser Berlin", Paul List Verlag, 1961
Its construction occurred in the early 60’s as a ‘Anti –Fascist Protective Rampart’ by the East German government and what is chilling is to see the way in which the wall evolved in its sinister design, fortified with additional barricades and other inhumane detractors.

Today, much of the wall is gone, its traces marked by a single line of cobbles along the original footprint. However, the wall was never just a wall – it was at least two concrete barriers with land in between called the death strip, where the watch towers, massive rolls of barbed wire, trenches, and underground cells were located. The death strip is where most people trying to escape were killed. It’s chilling to see remains of this architecture in some places.

Parks and gardens, trees and flowers, have emerged in playing an important role in healing and remembrance along the Berlin wall. As I walk around, small groves of trees, gardens with vegetables and flowers, and circles of benches have been created by local artists and gardeners, some with official sanction, and others as free-spirited and temporary expression.

Parlament der Bäume

One place in particular that captivates me is the Parliament of Trees. Wedged in between the new government district along the River Spree, this space defiantly holds its own as a grass roots initiative that could not be removed to make way for the new office buildings. The grove of trees stands adjacent to sections of the original wall, and memorializes the 258 people who died trying to cross the wall. It’s sad to note that the last victim fell four months before the wall came down. “Parlament der Bäume” was initiated by artist Ben Wargin who brought together many others to create the grove of trees, the granite memorial stones and the wall inscriptions. Willows now occupy the death strip. Ben happens to be there busily working with a photographer, talking rapidly in German. He has lots of plans, but his biggest challenge right now is letting people enter the site. Apparently while concessions were made to retain the site, Ben is not allowed to have people on the property - one has to scale a fence to get in!

Chapel of Reconciliation

I walk up to an oval wood frame building through a field of rye, the landscape is unreal. So is the story of this new chapel that now stands on the footprint of its predecessor originally built in 1885. In the sixties when the wall went up, this chapel had the misfortune to be right in the middle of the death strip. For many years, it stood abandoned amidst the walls and barbed wires as a symbol of the separation, and then in 1985 the East German government tore it down, stating that it was interfering with monitoring efforts. Pictures of the chapel tower coming down were broadcast all over the world.

The new chapel was imagined by the parishioners who felt a deep sense of loss and as early as 1990, came together to imagine its new chapel. Amidst the rubble, they found the altar, the bells and the statue of Jesus Christ. The decision was to return the altar and the bells to their original locations, but to create a new Chapel of Reconciliation, with architecture that would be a symbol of a new and peaceful future. I walk into the oval building built of rammed earth and wood – it’s peaceful in its simple beauty. Through a window in the floor I can see foundations of the old chapel. The rye fields, interspersed with poppies and blue flowers, give the space a surreal feel. Every fall the parishioners come together to harvest the rye and bake bread for the community. This is a space that is not shiny and glitzy, its quiet beauty is its heart.

East Side Gallery

I walk to the east side gallery, with some anticipation! When the wall came down, one of the first things to happen was a gathering of more than a hundred artists who came armed with brushes and paint and created the largest outdoor gallery in the world. What had been completely inaccessible section of the wall in East Germany is now filled with images and paintings touching on many a topic. There were plans to take this wall down and make way for new developments along the river, but a group of artists prevailed and the wall remains. It shows signs of wear, and a non-profit has been formed to promote its restoration – however funds have been hard to come by. The mile long stretch feels stark, but behind are some of Berlin’s most frequented restaurants and bars along the River Spree.

Berlin # 2: The Ampelmann thrives

In the push to westernize East Berlin after reunification, a plan was made to standardize traffic lights all across Berlin. The new standard involved replacing thousands of East German traffic lights that have sported the ‘Ampelmann’ since the 1960’s. The uproar was huge. Everyone wanted the Ampelmann saved. This may seem like a small victory but for East Berliners it's huge. The Ampelmann symbolizes a hope that reunified Berlin will retain some elements of the east.

So what is the Ampelmann, you ask! The literal translation of the word is ‘little traffic light man’. In the sixties, an East German traffic researcher, based on his theory that people would respond better to a friendly figure on the traffic lights, created the Amplemann. Basically when the light is red, a portly guy wearing a hat extends out both his hands to stop pedestrians. When the light turns green, this portly guy jauntily turns to one side and strides across. There was a time when one could tell whether one was in East or West Berlin based on the traffic lights, but now the city has adopted the Ampelmann as its new standard. There is even a small museum and store about the Ampelmann!

So, thanks to the outpouring of support of Berliners, the Ampelmann continues to tell people to stop and go in Berlin. I chuckle when I come to a traffic light - will the Ampelmann be there or not?

Thursday, June 28, 2007

City of Possibilities

City of Possibilities… City of Change …….. – These are the words I most often hear to describe Berlin after reunification. Indeed, Berlin’s own Mayor has a much catchier description of this great city – ‘poor but sexy’. This catchy phrase underscores the huge challenges that the city continues to face with its economy, while highlighting its seductive, urbane qualities attracting young people and entrepreneurs from all over Europe.

I feel consumed by this extraordinary city. Berlin brings out every emotion one can imagine. All at once, I see hope and humanity, signs of unspeakable horrors and deep tragedy gone by, degenerated thinking and cruel actions, and then miraculous recoveries, new aspirations and amazing creativity. If a city was ever on a roller-coaster ride through history, it’s Berlin. So much happened here.

It's humbling - I find it hard to find adequate words to describe all that I see and experience. There are many great books that describes this great city, and one that I remember thumbing through, and now plan to read is ‘The Lost Border: The Landscape of the Iron Curtain’ by Brian Rose. From what I remember, this book documents the landscapes and architecture of East Germany as a way to remember this dark period, possibly before it all gets erased. Another book that I’ve just started reading, ‘The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape’ by Brian Ladd (This book has an engaging start for those of you that are weighed down by the title!) promises great insights into how to address memory and come to terms with symbols of a dark past. Should one get rid of every trace of the era, or should one find ways to some ways to remember this phase of Germany’s history? Indeed, this is today’s dialog in Berlin.

Since reunification and in the last decade, Berlin has been at the centre of dramatic changes and has been forced to adjust and reinvent itself to accommodate huge changes – its new role as capital of unified Germany, the process of capitalization, the cultural and community challenges, the physical impact of the more than 80 miles of the Berlin wall coming down. How complex! I outline the complexities above mostly to free myself and just offer some vignettes about this great city. My personal impressions - nothing more and nothing else.

Its impressive to see the German parliament building - the Reistag with is beautiful glass dome, and the building restored to its former glory. When the wall was built, this building was left on the West German side, seriously damaged during the war, empty of purpose since the West German capital was Bonn. The building goes back to 1894 when it served as the parliament building of the German Empire until before WWII. When the wall came down, and the decision to make Berlin the capital of reunified Germany, there was debate about whether to keep the building, still ruined and in disrepair. Well, with the help of Sir Norman Foster, restorations were completed in the early 90's and today the building sports a beautiful glass dome as a replacement of the original cupola. What is amazing is that anyone can wait in line and visit the dome, and view the proceedings in parliament - symbolic of a new transparency in government. How cool is that! The views are amazing, and I could not count the number of green roofs I saw from up here.

Today the skyline of Berlin is notably different, with Potsdamer Platz as a prominent new center. The German government has pumped in more than $ 1.4 trillion euros into Berlin in the last decade. Brandenburg Gate has been the site of many historic events, good and bad. Built in the 1790's, it served as one of Berlin's twelve entrances. The Doric architecture, twelve columns and graceful proportions, and the goddess of peace on her chariot at the very top highlight the original intent of the gate as a symbol of peace. The gate is located at the nexus of many important avenues in Berlin. In the sixties, when the wall was built, this gate was part of East Berlin, and the wall ran right past here. This is where President Kennedy and President Reagan made their famous speeches. The view below is taken from the western side, where previously all that they could see was the wall and the top of the gate. And as a sure sign that the wall has come down, right in the shadows of the gate is a ........ Starbucks!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Five sunny days in Dublin

Every year, alumni Eisenhower Fellows get together and organize conferences that bring together fellows from all over the world. How lucky am I that the Dublin conference falls right in the middle of my travels in Europe!

Ireland’s Celtic tiger roars again – we’ve all read these headlines. Ireland’s rapid economic growth started in the 1990’s as part of its joining the European Union, and a lot of other important factors coming into alignment. Today, the transformation of one of Europe’s poorest countries to one with a robust and growing economy is an amazing story of transformation. So, I take a break from Germany and am eager to visit the land of the rising Celtic tiger!

I arrive in Dublin tired and grouchy after a long and delayed flight. What should have been an hour’s hop over continental Europe ends up being a seven hour nightmare. I hop into the first cab, eager to get to my hotel without any more adventures. My cab driver is an older gentleman who is just starting his shift. Irish charms prevail, and he has me chatting about my travels, my family and my work in no time. Actually, I have to confess that I’m thrilled to be speaking in English without hand-gestures and furious checking of my handy-dandy translator.

After a month of journeying through Spain and Germany, its great to see familiar faces. I meet staff from Eisenhower Fellowships, meet with alumni Philadelphia Fellows, 2007 USA fellows and the 2007 Multi-Nation Fellows. What we all share in common is our area of interest – urban challenges.

The conference is Dublin is a roaring success. I am inspired by the camaraderie among the Irish fellows organizing the conference. Great food, thoughtful conversations, fabulous entertainment, interesting perspectives on the development of Dublin, visits to new business enterprises and development projects. Some highlights include a visit to the Intel plant in Dublin that is part of the economic regeneration of the city. It’s an impressive workplace generating many higher paying jobs for the region. Another great Irish tradition - a visit to the Guiness Factory and Museum where we enjoyed the views from the towers and enjoyed a great reception and dinner. Amongst the notable guests at the event was the Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern (Yes, I did get a picture with him and will get a copy from the Eisenhower office when I get back). And finally a trip to a nearby castle and the oceanside.

In between the conference program, I had a chance to see Dublin – a bustling and vibrant city filled with loads of young folks. People are really friendly. Every time I consult my map, someone stops to ask if they can help, walks with me to the next destination and offers their perspective on local history, politics and the state of the world. Public spaces are much loved and used, and I was impressed to see how well the spaces are cared for and programmed. St. Stephens Green in the heart of Dublin, goes back to Medieval times. A local lord turned it into public park in the late 19th century. Its presence as part of the street grid is very interesting – the edges are filled with trees and shrubs that create a green envelope for the park. Once you get though this buffer, the park itself is a jewel. Graceful pathways, gorgeous water features, loads of history and amazing horticultural treats fill the park. Merrion Square is the grander public park, surrounded by Georgian homes, museums, upscale restaurants, and offices. one of Dublin's largest and grandest Georgian squares. The attractive central park features colorful flower and shrub beds, and a gorgeous lake in the middle. Much like St. Stephens Green, the park is hidden from its surrounds with thick vegetation, and is a treat to be discovered. Pheonix Park is a larger regional park in close to the city center. Its a beautiful bucolic landscape with rolling hills and expanses of meadows. Graceful tree lines mark the park boundaries. When Pope John Paul visited in the mid 1990's the giant cross was installed in his honor.The rolling meadows give a sense of expanse - its hard to believe that we are a few minutes from the city. We stop here briefly on the way to conference meetings, and I am tempted to get left behind!

The Docklands area is on the east side of the River Liffey in Dublin and has been a part of a massive redevelopment effort led by the Dublin Docklands Development Authority, created in 1997.
Since then the progress has been remarkable, including the relocation of the College of Ireland to a new, high tech ‘campus without walls’. It was great to walk around the area after listening to the city manager of Dublin and the head of the Development Authority paint the bleak picture of what existed before. Very impressive – and a great new connection to the river.
Would you believe, five days in Dublin and not a drop of rain!

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Rust to Green

There is no escaping mishaps and missed trains on the Die Bahn for those of us with very little experience with complex and highly efficient public transportation systems! Well, I mistakenly get on a super-duper high speed train to Amsterdam, and just as I revel in how much train comfort four euros can buy, I am unceremoniously booted off at a stop that is luckily just 50 miles away! (Actually the conductor is very nice and makes sure that I get on the right train!) Having given myself some time for such misadventures, I arrive at the Essen train station just in time to meet Michael Schwarze Rodrian, my guide for the day.

Today’s plan is to visit a few highlights within the Emscher Regional Park. My previous entry - the Duisburg Landschaft Park is part of the Emscher Regional Park. Actually, it’s a small part of a massive effort to revive a region devastated by hundreds of years of industrialization – specifically steel and coal. Flowing through this region is the Emscher River receiving industrial effluents for centuries until just twenty years ago. The image of this region is that of powerstations, smokestacks, huge pylons and massive powerworks.
Yet, the region is no longer the engine it used to be, and what was left are the industrial artifacts in the landscape.

To start, I would like to introduce you to Michael Swarze Rodrian. As a landcape architect and planner, Michael has worked on landscape design and ecology issues in the Ruhrgebiet since the early 80’s. As I get to know his background, I realize that he has been a key collaborator in creating the vision for the Emscher Regional Park project and has been patiently negotiated many political administrations, economic ups and downs, and career changes, holding onto the idea of the regional park. Its very impressive to see the level of dedication and perseverance, and I could not have asked for a more knowledgeable guide. Michael views the industrial remains in the Ruhr region as the greatest assets that can drive the regeneration of the area. To this end, he explains that ecology and environmental restoration are the key organizing principles behind renaturalizing the Emscher River, bringing positive use to the riverbanks, and reusing the industrial buildings with new and sustainable uses. Today this regional partnership includes three counties and 23 large cities. Each city or town takes on its own projects based on the agreed upon master plan (I mailed a copy back for us.) Check the project website at As I absorb the extent of the efforts made, I realize that this region is possibly the largest such interpretation and reuse of an industrial landscape ever!

We stop at a small mark – an ‘XE’ at the start of a trail at Bottrop, our first stop. Michael shares that in the first few years of the project, a group of local environmentalists started a hiking group marking the trails with an X, followed by an E for Emscher. That is how it all started. Today, the trails run in a circle around the region for more than 250 kilometers.
Bottrop is the location of the Tetrahedron, a massive steel sculpture that captures the ridge on a slag heap. As we get to the middle of the circle next to which the structure rises, I notice that there is a gentle and steady drop in grade to the middle. Michael explains that the designers intended for the person in the middle to view nothing else except the rim of the slag heap, the tetrahedron and the sky. I pause to stand in the middle of this vast circle of stone and view the sky all around me. In the far distance, I see a solitary figure crouching over the stones. When I ask Michael what the man is doing, he says, ‘You’ll find out when you climb to the top’. The Tetrahedron was built to reveal the landscape of the region to its people, and has become something that everyone is proud to visit and show off. The pictures illustrate this project much better than I ever will in words. In the night, the steel bars are lit in a special way and can be seen for miles around. As I start to climb, the landscape of the region emerges – smokestacks - some working and others not, train lines, massive steel structures, coal mines. It’s quite extraordinary.

Then, I look down at the stone circle below and the mystery of the solitary figure reveals itself! Giant martians and other terrestrial beings stare up at me!
Michael mentions that the man picks out the lighter colored stones to create these figures and has been doing so for five years now. When we descend from the tetrahedron, we stop to talk to him - I am curious about the future. Michael says that he’s interested in expanding the martian family!

Our next stop is the Nordstern, a former Colliery that is now a fully functional office, housing, retail complex with many acres of a landscaped park that was created by the National Garden Show in 1997. (Flower Shows here are outdoors, run for six months and are in the process of design and actual implementation for a couple years before the show opens – interesting model.) The main administration building of the office complex is housed in the factory, and new bridges and pedestrian walkways connect various parts of the site together. There are open air theatres, rose gardens, a small daycare center, water fountains and large plazas, all used now by the office goers and nearby residents. A beautiful riverfront amphitheatre is being set up for today's concert. The remaining wall of an old factory building has been retained, and the landscape that has colonized next to it is fascinating to see. An old coal shaft is now the new entrance to the museum. I am taken by the harsh angles in the landscape, the vast meadows and sharply sloped walkways. The grades make for dramatic views of the old industrial infrastructure! The environmental issues in this area continue to pose huge challenges. I’m shocked to view the open sewer that still runs the length of the region. Its presence is a knife cut in the landscape, right adjacent to the clean waters of the Ruhr. Our next stop is at Zollverien, the best known site along this industrial landscape. The plant was closed in 1986, and today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In its heydays, This colliery and coking plant produced 12,000 tons of coal and turned it into coke. Today, it’s a meeting point for cultural activities, and design professionals. The largest boiler house has been transformed into the Red Dot Design Museum by Sir Norman Foster. This museum is all about products that have been tested and given the ‘red dot of approval’ celebrating contemporary industrial, product, furniture and home designers. The site also houses local architects and designers in studios integrated into the old storage houses. A reflecting pool becomes a skating rink in the winter. When I look around I understand that there is an eco-exhibit and a meeting of the German Environment Ministry being held - there are lots of men and women in black suits and headphones buzzing around. Apparently it’s also an exhibition and conference center! I travel up the huge orange escalator to the main museum space – a Rem Koolhas signature piece.