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!

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