Friday 15 September 2017

Berlin sur scène: a Paris-themed Berlin interview

This summer saw not only the publication of my Paris Cityscopes guide, but also the Cityscopes guide for Berlin, written by Joseph Pearson, an author and academic based in the German capital and editor of influential local blog ‘The Needle’. To mark this double publication, Joseph and I exchanged questions and answers on our respective cities. How Berlin-like is Paris and how Paris-like is Berlin? Find out on our respective blogs!

A Paris-themed Q&A on Berlin

Answers (and all photos) by Joseph Pearson, author the Berlin Cityscopes guide and editor of ‘The Needle’. 

Read my answers to the Berlin-themed questions on Paris here.

Paris is known as the city of light, both for being the home of the enlightenment movement and for the city's gaudy illuminations of the 19th century. What is the luminosity like in Berlin?

JP: Natural light in Berlin is in constant play. I recently Skyped with a photographer and showed him the sky here in early August, and he sighed, “ah! Pantone 428” (or medium grey). The same shade, a little deeper, oppresses for much of the winter. But then, in total contrast, at any time of the year, we can get days of brilliant engraver’s light etching the red-brick neo-gothic of Kreuzberg churches. Or in late Spring, with the alteration of winter and summer temperatures, and resulting confusion of clouds, we have Caspar David Friedrich light, with the moon passing mysteriously behind filaments of stratocumulus. 

My favourite is late on June evenings when it is light both when you go into a club and when you come out. Artificial light in the city pools around lampposts and train stations––because the city is not very dense, in between there are many dark spaces, illuminated only by passing bicycle lamps or the shadows of overgrown greenery. Can we speak more metaphorically about Berlin light? Perhaps about the absence of light: that there are many dark corners, and many things to discover that are not obviously illuminated. 

Paris is the territory of the flâneur, and also later of the Debordian drift. Is Berlin a city to discover on foot too?

Parisian ideas of the flâneur were, in fact, very much taken up by two Berliners: Franz Hessel’s Walking in Berlin (1929) was a model for another Berliner, Walter Benjamin and his Arcades Project (-1940), which of course is one of the quintessential oeuvres of Parisian “walking literature”. Hessel, however, experienced a very different walking city than Berlin today: it was more densely populated in the past, something since altered by aerial bombardment and depopulation during war (both hot and cold). Walking Berlin today is a strenuous task, as one can travel lonely long distances between often disparate "Kieze”, or neighbourhoods that are hubs of activities. For this reason, the bicycle is a more popular form of transport. But I like to walk Berlin because I don't care for crowds and don’t think twice about chalking up ten or twenty kilometres on foot. The alteration between lonely avenues, yards of Communist mass housing, and a hopping hipster hood, offers a variety of temperaments, and moments both for quieter contemplation and "gastronomy of the eye". 

"The Parisians looked at each other constantly but were more concerned about each other's shoes than their sexual availability" noted writer Edmund White. Could this also describe a night out in Berlin?

Berliners don’t care much for clothes; perhaps that is why they are naked so much of the time (lakeside, in a sauna, or in more transgressive places)! It’s a city where people who dress up are often looked at with suspicion: as if they have rolled into the neighbourhood only to buy up the place. Even in the most bourgeois quarters––Charlottenburg or Grunewald––there’s an emphasis on restraint and a scepticism of conspicuous consumption. Chalk it up to left-wing politics and vestigial Protestantism. That said, there’s a certain conformity in non-conformism, especially in Berlin youth culture. There is pressure to live up to the city’s reputation as a capital of counterculture and "cool", and more often than not young people in Berlin look like they should belong to an Indie band. Those who don’t know what to do simply wear black. A night out in Berlin involves spending as little (or much) time needed to look properly dishevelled; you wouldn’t remark on anyone else’s clothing choices, much less their shoes, unless the person appears overdressed and too fancy. As for sexual availability, I’d say it’s assumed everyone is available; and people generally are looking just a little higher than shoe level. 

Parisians look down on the city's suburbs, either for being residential and dull or for being unkempt and dangerous. In reality, they are the city's best-kept secret. How do Berliners observe their neighbours?

Berlin is eight times the surface area of Paris (entre les murs) with about half again as many denizens (not including Paris’s extensive suburbs). And so there is no dividing line in Berlin as psychologically important as Paris's périphérique. The result is that Berlin blurs into its suburbs, which are often still part of the city. They are not considered inferior for being a long way from the centre. Berlin doesn’t distinguish itself either from its urban hinterland by class or income: you are just as likely to see workers in overalls riding the subway in the centre (where they might live), as you would farther out. 

That said, there is a staggering psychological divide between the State of Brandenburg, which surrounds Berlin like a doughnut, and the capital. Brandenburg, part of former East Germany, is one of the poorest and least populated German States. It is stereotyped by Berliners are a place of the unemployed, or land-bound farmers, and as monocultural, unsophisticated, given to reactionary politics, or stoic and suspicious. If one visits, one quickly realises how wrong many of these stereotypes are, but most Berliners only venture into the forested “wilds” of old Prussia to bike to a lake and eat on the way a piece of plum or cherry streusel cake cut from a sheet. Berlin is meanwhile considered by many in Brandenburg to be something of an urban zoo, full of non-conformist people there weren’t even born in the city (when if fact 52% were). Berlin and Brandenburg remain, then, two solitudes, and are set to remain divided because Berlin’s great size provides such a buffer.

The sheer weight of visual history in Paris - largely untouched by war and natural disaster - has created a sometimes stifling 'ville musée', which is beautiful but with an imposed architectural and cultural conservatism. Could this also describe Berlin?

Berlin couldn’t be more different from Paris in this respect. Flattened by the Second World War, re-industrialised after that conflict, and then deindustrialised in the 90s, it’s an eclectic mix with many still-abandoned factory spaces. It is also one of Europe’s greenest cities, so not only is it aesthetically heterogeneous, but it is also sprawling. All this might sound like code for: Berlin is ugly. And it’s true that there isn’t a lot of solace in mid-winter; in Paris at least you can walk in a maze of historic buildings that lean towards each other all honeycomb-coloured. In Berlin, in February, with the trees denuded, one stands before a motley mix of pre-fab modernist, neo-Classical, or monstrously commercial edifices. But as a friend told me, Berlin is like a conversation with a male prostitute who is too ugly to charge a lot of money, but who can compensate with intellectual conversation. I'm not sure how appropriate this metaphor is, but somehow it fits. 

Joseph Pearson

Berlin might not always be beautiful, but it is stimulating. I wonder to what extent the “interesting” comes from the freedom of being in a city with so much space. Space for ideas, space because it's unfinished. The cake is not yet baked. If you want sublime buildings, you can find them in Berlin (many are contemporary: such as the Jewish Museum or the Neues Museum). But you are more likely, despite gentrification, to find a messed-up industrial hangar where electronic music is pulsing, and drag queens are spray-painting the walls. For Berliners, there is something precious, even parochial, about Paris’s manicured boulevards and proscriptions for how to dress "en ville". Paris seems turned towards an imagined past, rather than an imaginative future. Then again, Parisians can find Berlin just a little too green, dark, quiet, a little too… provincial. 

The obvious solution is to spend Berlin’s dreary winter months in Paris’s outdoor museum, and Paris’s crowded summer suffocation in Berlin’s open spaces of freedom. One doesn’t need to choose one over the other, and as Europe rediscovers its mojo, the two cities are increasingly the positive and negative poles (depending on the season!) of a recharge(able) battery. Let’s see how together they power that future.  

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