Tuesday, January 5, 2010

At Ground Zero of modern history

Well, I'm back. Apologies for the lack of posting but I have been pointedly avoiding computers for the past few weeks as I travel around central Europe.

At one point my travels took me to Berlin, over a bitterly (and, I am told, unusually) cold couple of days. There are plenty of things I could say about the place. The short answer is that I highly recommend it (and the Aloha Hostel on Torstrasse where I stayed.) It's particularly appealing if, like me, you lived in Montreal in the early 1990's and pine for those days when a huge metropolis, still staggering from the forces of history, had ample nooks and crannies and spaces for broke and eccentric people to do cheap and fascinating things. It is changing, alas, as all such places do, but for now Berlin is still a great place to be young and interesting.

The weather being as I said absurdly cold during my visit, I was drawn more than usual to museums and other outposts of the great indoors. I must confess that I like the idea of museums more than I enjoy museums themselves. I am always disappointed to go somewhere full of relics and artifacts of the past and find that the past does not come alive, that I cannot feel the Middle Ages or the revolutions of 1848, that this is just a collection of stuff. It is the feeling I imagine I would have if I were to open up an old high school yearbook, seeking comfort and connection in the past, and finding that I do not remember any of these people. It's a letdown.

One museum that did not disappoint, however, was the Story Of Berlin museum on Kurfurstendamm in the old West Berlin. This is a very well designed multimedia experience (I mean multimedia in the true sense, i.e. sound and film and light and text as appropriate to convey information and understanding, not in the more usual sense of "the latest computerized doodad designed to impress you with its deterministic program disguised as interactivity.")

For instance, while most of the museum is located on the upper floor and arranged in more-or-less chronological order, there comes a point where you make the descent into the Nazi years. (You can't have a Berlin museum or decent Indiana Jones movie without Nazis.)

To get to this section of the museum, you literally descend three flights of stairs. At each landing is a collection of black-and-white photos of famous Germans of the era. At the top landing, all the frames have pictures in them. The next landing down, some of the frames are missing photos, replaced with words like "emigrated." The next flight down, more missing pictures, and words like "murdered," "suicide," "preventative detention." Meanwhile, from below, the hellish lights of burning books and recordings of chanting crowds. The air gets colder. It is literally and figuratively chilling.

What's even scarier is the tour of the bunker under the museum. (Fittingly, even lower than the Nazi exhibit.) This is a Cold War-era bunker designed to house about 1300 people in the event of a nuclear attack. All steel and concrete and blue light, like a vintage James Cameron movie. The guide, with the black ironic humour that seems to be standard issue in the old Eastern Bloc, pointed out that all the bunkers in Berlin could house about one percent of the population. As he detailed the conditions under which the bunker would be expected to operate, it became clear that these things would never work. Over a thousand people, eighteen-inch-wide aisles between bunks, three toilets and probably a lot of people with radiation poisoning. Next to no ventilation (and even those shafts would be likely as not to be clogged from the destruction up above, on the surface.) These were nothing but a public-relations exercise--something to keep the public from objecting too strongly to an insane arms race in which there could be no victory, just varying degrees of defeat. The German slogan, equivalent to our "Duck And Cover," translated as "Everyone Has A Chance."
As a planner, I wonder what it must have been like to be one of the guys designing these things. Did they know it would never work? Did they consciously block out that knowledge and just do their jobs? What an awful way to make a living--confronted every day with the total destruction of the world and knowing that even your best efforts will make no difference.

When I was a kid, I took it for granted that I would not live into my thirties; the destruction of the world seemed imminent and inevitable. The threat of nuclear annihilation isn't gone. We now have arguably even more serious problems on our hands. For all its terror, nuclear annihilation required that a handful of people decide to do something incredibly stupid. Now, avoiding a different disaster requires that everyone decide to get real smart, real fast. It's enough to make you feel like a kid again.

But here we are, surprisingly enough. Despite my generally anxious and pessimistic nature, I need to remind myself from time to time that sometimes disasters are averted. Then again, a lot of those blank picture frames on the way down to the Third Reich exhibit probably told themselves the same thing.


  1. This reminds me of an Architect friend of mine who was working to retrofit an entire Stalinist factory town in Serbia to make the bare concrete houses, offices and factories into something that wouldn't drive the people using them to depression and suicide. (as they were doing quite effictively). Somehow she made it all work, with a minimum of money. Just adding plants to an office made a huge difference. Some coloured paint etc. Minimal actual rebuilding.

    Anyway, I got to watch the town being bombed into rubble by US plains while sitting on a couch next to her. She was not too pleased, I must say.

  2. "Tonight, on HGTV... Extreme Home Makeovers."

  3. like the description of the berlin museum. it reminds me of the same feeling wandering down into the holocaust monument in Berlin(the field of obelisks) and the sense of alienation, claustrophobia and foreboding that overcomes you.

    I found many of berlin's WWII and coldwar "tourist attractions", quite garish and nauseously surreal--it's hard to feel the weight of history when people are selling you trinkets. But my visit to Oranienberg concentration camp was a whole different story--what you experienced wandering through that place just cannot be learned from books