Old and New(ish)
It’s always a good feeling when the term is over and there’s a holiday on the horizon, and I’m looking forward to a few days in Berlin this week with all of the opportunities that it entails for seeing sights, drinking excellent beer, and consuming bratwurst-related products. It took me a while to make a first visit, but having been once it was clear that there were plenty of reasons to go again, not least because it was also clear that the place was changing so rapidly that even a short window of time would bring in significant changes, as seen in Norman Foster’s spectacular re-design of the Reichstag and the skyscrapers rising on the former no-man’s land of Postdammer Platz. Some pre-trip reading this week of Rory’s MacLean’s fascinatingly interwoven history ‘Berlin: Imagine a City’ has also whetted my appetite for another look around.
Taking in the sights on my first visit, from the formerly empty spaces either side of the (largely) no-longer existent Wall to the unsettling grandeur of the Olympic Stadium complex, I found the city a space of history both visible and partially concealed. Its 20th century past has not been one that can be easily celebrated, and yet the events of that past remain so crucial not only to the German sense of identity but also to much of the larger world that it would be an act of willful blindness not to spot the traces of it where they occur. I found myself thinking as I walked of James Fenton’s poem ‘A German Requiem’ – “It is not what they built / It is what they knocked down. / It is not the houses / It is the spaces in between the houses.” What was there in Berlin was simultaneously a reminder of what was not. Sometimes, though, what was being built was also a reminder of other, older things, and there was no better reminder of this for me than the Neues Museum on Museum Island (photo above). Once part of the late-19th / early 20th century complex of museums and galleries (also including the magnificent Pergammon Museum) with their imitation-classical facades suggesting the wealth of treasures within, this museum – where Heinrich Schliemann had deposited the objects he’d found at Troy for public display – had been a burnt-out ruin from 1945 to the turn of the 21st century. It’s charred brickwork and empty windows ensured that it once stood out like a missing tooth amidst the other, restored and reopened cultural institutions around it.
Now, of course, things are different. Following its high-profile remodelling by David Chipperfield the Neues Museum is perhaps the busiest of all attractions on the Island, not least because its restoration chose to leave visible the evidence of its destruction in spring 1945. This was what affected me the most: the scorched columns and pock-marked walls framing the artifacts on display within were reminders that museums exist to preserve traces of what has been destroyed or lost over time. Every object in a display case is a link to a lost world: and rather than overlook that the Museum makes it an integral part of the visitor’s experience by reminding them that you don’t have to look back to Troy or Carthage to see evidence of cities reduced to rubble. Rebuilt to testify to its fragility, the Neues Museum is, for me, one of the most remarkable buildings, both architecturally and conceptually, that I know. Seeing it again this week will be a delight.