From D.C. to Berlin and back again
By John Kelly,
It would be an understatement to say that the architecture of Berlin was influenced by World War II. Hitler built his fascistic monuments, and then the Allies thoughtfully renovated them. The city’s subterranean layer is still wormholed with bunkers from the Third Reich. The Cold War left its mark, too, most famously with the Wall that snaked through the city. Berlin is a place constantly reinventing itself.
Which makes it not a lot like Washington, frankly.
Still, Berlin was the city that four District-based research fellows traveled to in search of inspiration. Their ideas are on display through Nov. 2 at the Goethe Institut, the German cultural center in Chinatown. The show is called “Parks & Passages,” and the catalyst was the Dupont Underground, the seemingly damned former streetcar turnaround that’s being considered as an arts space.
The exhibit traces the history of the streetcar tunnels. It seeks to make connections between the District and Berlin. If there are precious few concrete ideas that could be immediately transplanted from the capital of Germany onto the capital of the United States, there’s nevertheless a thought-provoking spirit.
I think it’s the same spirit that most people bring back after visiting Europe: How come D.C. can’t be more “fun?”
“We limit ourselves,” said Edgar Endress, an artist and a fellow at George Mason University’s Provisions Research Center, organizer of the trip and exhibit. In Berlin, on the other hand, “nothing is precious. Everything can be transformed. Everything can be restructured or recomposed.”
For example, Edgar said he was impressed by the layers of graffiti in the German city, a constantly changing palimpsest that is emblematic of Berlin’s vibrancy.
Lucy Burnett, assistant director of Provisions, thought Berlin’s looser drinking laws make for a looser atmosphere. “Wherever you are becomes a more intimate place because you have more freedom in that place,” she said.
There were some actual Berliners at a roundtable discussion when the exhibit opened last month, among them Martin Pallgen, who is developing Templehof Airport, the old Nazi airfield. His impressions of Washington?
“The Mall, it seems to me to be a core space for Washington and the U.S.A. in general,” he said. “I also think: Is this a free public space or not? It seems to be a public space, but then I saw all these small fences.”
The fences may have been there to protect turf that was being reseeded, but I think Martin was on to something when he said, “There seems to be a certain openness in the city, but, on the other hand, it is very strictly built and completed.”
Raukia Abrantes de Figueiredo, who leads an effort to encourage people to visit Berlin, spoke about the blank canvas that the end of Communist rule provided. “After the Wall came down, there was so much unused space,” she said. “People with creativity could fill it.”
In Washington, Raukia pointed out, “everything looks so perfect and neat. It’s being afraid of chaos and not being aware that chaos can create something. I think in Berlin people are not afraid of chaos.”
Don Russell, executive director of Provisions, floated the idea that art could have tangible political benefits, among them District voting rights.
“Maybe art and culture can come forward, not as a demand, but by giving a case for why congressional representation could be a good thing,” he said. “We can dream.”
The danger when pondering this stuff is that you can find yourself in “Sprockets” territory. Washingtonians don’t want to touch the monkey. And we’re not exactly a city that embraces: (a) graffiti (b) public drinking and (c) chaos.
And yet. . . . The ideas the fellows kicked around reminded me of testimony I heard recently from Judy Scott Feldman of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall. Why do we commit to so many permanent memorials in Washington? Couldn’t we have more temporary works of art celebrating figures other than politicians and warriors?
Can we loosen up a bit and graft some Berlin cool onto overplanned Washington?
I received an e-mail the other day from Crowds on Demand, an L.A.-based company that, for a fee, will send a bunch of “team members” to your event, stuffing the crowd with confederates to make you look important. It is hoping that Washingtonians will take advantage of its “Celebrity Arrival Service,” in which clients “are greeted at the airport with fans and fake paparazzi to give them an arrival experience fit for a top politician in D.C.”
I think it has seriously overestimated the sort of arrival experiences politicians receive these days. Most politicians are just happy to arrive somewhere and not find a boiling kettle of tar and a pile of feathers.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.