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Berlin, Thebes, and the Reemergence of the Muse

July 2, 2014 2 comments

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RT, as it turns out, has some German ancestry; his father was half German. Well, over the last little while, he has been revisiting an interest in Berlin the city, that is its architecture and street plan. Partly, RT thinks, his interest is due to the fact that one of his maternal ancestors was a builder in California, some of whose buildings still stand, partly to the role the city has played in European history, and partly to having recently seen the movie The Reader. But most of all, RT is intrigued by the way that Berlin has been rebuilding itself since the Berlin Wall came down and Germany was reunited. So RT over the last two days has given himself a virtual tour of Berlin, mostly via–what else?–Wikipedia. He has learned lots about the city.

The question that emerged as RT made his Wiki tour had to do with appropriateness. How can architecture and city planning be used to reclaim Germany’s capital as a great city, in view of the terrible events of the Nazi era and the city’s long post-war division into eastern and western zones? How can ghostly memories be accommodated even as the city continues forward as an important part of the human community?

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One thing to bear in mind, of course, is that any human city has had terrible things happen within its boundaries. Though cities are rebuilt time and again as one generation after another inherits them, surviving architecture reminds us of the great (and sometimes awful) events that have taken place there (just think of Rome). To judge by the number of tourists that pass through, for instance, the Pantheon, the experience of being in a particular, ancient building is important to our sense of connection with the past: this place is still here, these things really happened. This sense of connection seems to be vital to maintaining a balanced sense of  life’s possibilities.

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Planning isn’t about outcomes; it’s about possibilities. It’s not a mandate or an edict, it’s the permission that a parent gives a child. When Cadmus , that slayer of dragons, founded Thebes, he followed a cow and marked out the city where the animal lay down. Other founders have suckled the milk of wolves or planted a tamarisk tree; these acts are resonant.

Foundations are multiple. They build on each other, and the city invites them. Cadmus never did find his sister, Europe, the original reason for his departure from Tyre. Then Plato exiled the poets from his Republic.

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What can we do but hold onto the things worth saving? Berlin has done a good job of that, it seems. RT will point out only the city’s compromise decision to reconstruct three facades of the old imperial palace and behind them build a modernist museum to contain art from Africa and other foreign cultures. Something new and brilliant has blown in on the winds of change.

As for the rest, RT will confine himself to remarking that there is something unmonumental about the reemerging Berlin. He will even go a step further, and say he detects a note of humor in some of the city’s recent architecture, as witness the new Chancellery. As we and the city learn to forgive, we will see more of this, a long-delayed, much needed healing. The poet with his horn, the muse with her flirtatious smile, may be seen once again outside the walls of a museum.   RT

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Photo: The Federal Chancellery, Berlin. Uploaded by Madden. WikiCmns; CC 3.0 BY-SA.

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