April 04, 2020
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A Modern Gaze

A Modern Gaze
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I had always imagined this city as a place of dark cafes and men in trenchcoats fending off seductresses working for the other side. You can thank John Le Carre for that. His Berlin, George Smiley's Berlin, was mine for many years. Dark, rainy streetscapes in the dangerous, Communist East; shadowy figures in the roseate glow of streetlamps, perhaps a Stasi minder or a KGB assassin; meetings in shabby brauhaus with mysterious women full of secrets and bitterness. In short, I had no sense of the place after the Wall came down and the two Germanies became one. What a surprise then to discover that today's Berlin is one of the coolest cities on the planet. This comes mostly from its utter uniqueness, the fact that the narratives and burdens of history here are entirely in the imagination. Most of downtown Berlin's buildings and monuments were bombed to rubble in World War II—what remained was ravaged by years of being split asunder at the faultline of the Cold War. It has all been renewed and modern Germany has handled this extremely well.

Take the Reichstag, the German parliament. Burnt by Hitler's minions to give the Nazis an excuse to take power in 1933, it lay empty and neglected for years—a symbol of the contempt both fascists and the communists had for democracy. Now it is once again the parliament, known today as the Bundestag, but its neo-classical facade is wrapped around a new interior designed by British architect Norman Foster. The wide strip of no-man's land along the fallen wall, where once border guards shot people who aspired to freedom, is full of daringly modern government buildings—the indubitably democratic infrastructure of the post-war German state. From the roof of the glass dome in parliament, you look east to the baleful Socialist Realist apartment blocks that line Karl Marx Alle and west to the giant shopping malls of Europa and Ka-Da-We. The River Spree winds through it all, choked now with tourist boats and capitalist pleasure craft.

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