July 1, 2007

The Many Faces of Berlin

Although Kevin and I were ostensibly in Berlin to meet other Humboldtians, I was really more excited about acquainting myself with the city’s wealth of architecture. Berlin is one of the rare cities that wears its full history on its sleeve. Despite heavy bombardment during World War II, you can occasionally see remnants of its glittering Weimar past. And there are still distinct differences between East and West Berlin, even though Reunification was more than 15 years ago. Add to that another layer of world-class contemporary architecture, and you’ve got a truly varied cityscape.

What I love most about Berlin architecture is that Berliners aren’t afraid of altering their old buildings. Unlike Bavarian cities, Berlin never feels like a Heimat set piece, all stucco and fachwerk. Take the Sony Center, really just a massive mall in the heart of old East Berlin, but it’s built into the remnants of the old Grande Hotel Esplande, a bar and hotel for the fin de siécle jet set. A brightly lit tent towers a hundred feet over an open-air courtyard, and the light illuminating it changes gradually every thirty seconds from magenta to violet to blue. The two architectures seem apposite, but somehow it just works.

On the other hand, there are a few modifications I don’t get. For instance, while we were walking Unter den Linden, we passed by the famous Humboldt University, one of the most prestigious universities in Germany. The main building of the university was getting a new paint job: A giant white “V” across its 19th century façade, even across the windows. I have no idea what the “V” stood for (maybe it was the Roman numeral for 5?), and it wasn’t really an improvement on the building’s looks, but I appreciate nonetheless that the University wasn’t afraid to be experimental.

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