Walking Through Berlin

During the Winter 2000 semester, Karein Goertz (Residential College) and Mick Kennedy (College of Architecture) team-taught a new course entitled "Explorations in Berlin: Zu Fuß im Kiez." Organized as a series of walking tours through Berlin's neighborhoods or Kiez, the seminar introduced students to the city through the various lenses of cartography, literature, architecture, film, photography, and music. Readings included works by important literary and cultural figures such as Rahel Varnhagen, Walter Benjamin, Alfred Döblin, Christopher Isherwood, and Peter Schneider. Building projects by architects Karl Schinkel, Felix Mendelsohn, Hans Scharoun and Norman Foster were viewed within the larger social and cultural context of the city. After spending six weeks in class creating a mental map of Berlin, the class was prepared to test its virtual knowledge of the city against actual experience. The ten-day trip during Spring Break provided an exciting opportunity for students to walk through and explore Berlin's diverse neighborhoods&emdash;Mitte, Kreuzberg, Prenz-lauerberg, Charlottenburg, Tiergarten. For most students, this was the first visit to the German capital; for some even the very first time

The travel group in the Marx-Engels forum
in the former East Berlin

Part of the first day's
walking tour through Berlin Mitte

overseas. At the end of the trip, however, everyone was intimately familiar with the subway system, had discovered their favorite bakeries and Döner kebap stands, and had picked up some useful German expressions. Those with German language skills were at a particular advantage since they were quickly able to converse with Berliners and could act as language guides for the rest of the students. While many of the cultural activities were done as a class, there was plenty of time to pursue research for the final class project and to discover the city at an individual pace. One of the goals of the trip was for student teams to assemble audio, visual, textual, and anecdotal material for a multi-media walking tour based on their own physical exploration of a particular neighborhood, area or public space.

Our hostel was ideally located in the former East, now the city's new center, facing the avantgardist Volksbühne theater. The omni-present television tower looking overnearby Alexanderplatz served as a point of orientation day and night. We were within walking distance of the Altes Museum, Humboldt University, and Brandenburg Gate. One member of our group jogger made a run down the stretch from Rosa-Luxemburg Platz, along the boulevard Unter den Linden, to the Tiergarten and back part of her early morning routine. The nearby Ubahn station also provided an easy connection to any part of Berlin. From this central location, we embarked on our daily walking tours through different neighborhoods. Following the itineraries previously covered in class, the experience of places was heightened by a sense of seeing something for the first time while simultaneously being familiar with it through study.

Throughout the week, the group was able to take advantage of Berlin's vast cultural offerings. This diversity and density of experiences sought to mimic the breadth of materials presented in class, stressing the interconnection between architectural space and performance, literary and cultural history. Thus, for example, we a piano concert by Beethoven in the Expressionist splendor of Sharoun's Philharmonic; attended a Dada play by Kurt Schwitter's about the origin of language in the Berliner Ensemble; watched a modern dance performance about Germany's split identity in Mendelsohn's Schaubühne; and learned how the architect Daniel Libeskind's training in music and interest in German literature filtered into his design of the Jewish Museum. We were given a group tour of the building by Carla Swickerath from the Libeskind office and later visited the architect's studio filled with models and drawings of past and ongoing projects. Throughout the eastern part of the city, we observed how old buildings, inner courtyards and public arcades are being renovated and reused in creative and dynamic ways. On one of the stages of the Kulturbrauerei multiplex, formerly a brewery, we saw a cabaret-style tribute to the composer Kurt Weill. In the Tresor night club, housed in the money vault of an old department store, students danced to techno music. In another turn-of-the-century department store, Tacheles, which has been left as a ruin and now serves as a cultural center, we visited artist studios. As some of the novelty of these places wears off, the Berliner counter-culture continues to seek out other places.

They look appalled at the Potsdamer Platz,
And complain about the din.
The night's a blaze of kilowatts . . .
It sounds as if the city groans
To hear a muttered curse.
The buildings twinkle, the UBahn moans.
--Erich Kästner (1920s)

Metropolitan rabbits hop to their delight on
Potsdamer Platz

Looking at this meadow

How can I believe what my grandfather recounted

Here was the very center of the world

--Sarah Kirsch (1980s)

They're churning up the ground for the capital city.

Earth removers go in in advance of the nocturnal desolation.

Germania in her bunker, stretched out on her Prussian chaise longue,

Is disturbed in her sleep, and rolls over in the dirt.

--Durs Grünbein (1990s))


This eventful week had its highlights. Most unique was certainly the experience of putting on hardhats and walking onto the construction site and roof of the Federal Chancellery building with the architect, Axel Schultes. Once this federal building is completed, only security men and the occasional mechanic will be able to savor that particular view over the city. Schultes and his partner, Charlotte Frank, joined the group for lunch to discuss their project and the Berlin redevelopment, which was clearly and spectacularly visible from the new glass cupola of the adjacent Reichstag. Most sobering was the tour of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp outside of Berlin during an unexpected snow storm. In class, we had discussed the book burnings at Bebel Platz and anti-semitic propaganda. Here we saw, in a very tangible way, the consequences of these acts. The close proximity of concentration camp, new government buildings, art museums, concert halls, glittering redevelopment of Potsdamer Platz, former Gestapo and Stasi headquarters, synagogues and mosques, wartime ruins, remnants of the Berlin wall, and expansive greenspaces make this rapidly changing city a complex, unique and intriguing place to visit and study. --Karein K. Goertz