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Since The Wall: Berlin's Transformation to a Cultural Capital

Since The Wall: Berlin's Transformation to a Cultural Capital

On August 13, 1961, during the height of the Cold War, the East German government built a wall to keep residents of East Berlin from defecting to West Berlin. This so-called ‘antifascist protection wall,’ as it was called in East Germany, corroborated the separation of Germany. Walter Ulbricht, a German Communist politician responsible for aiding

by Brittany Garcia March 13, 2018
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On August 13, 1961, during the height of the Cold War, the East German government built a wall to keep residents of East Berlin from defecting to West Berlin. This so-called ‘antifascist protection wall,’ as it was called in East Germany, corroborated the separation of Germany. Walter Ulbricht, a German Communist politician responsible for aiding the creation of the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (KPD) and later the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (GDR), brought forth the most restrictive period in East Germany’s culture.

Beginning in “1959, there were renewed efforts to bring artists into line with the communist party’s expectations at a series of conferences. Amateur groups in the arts received greater attention and funding, inhibiting any sense of art’s autonomy that might be associated with professionalism” stated Marilyn Rueschemeyer, Adjunct Professor of International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Only in 1971, then General Secretary of the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands (SED) and Head of State, Erich Honecker, "declared in a speech given to the Central Committee that ‘from the standpoint of socialism there could be no taboos in art and literature, neither in content nor in style’” stated Rueschemeyer.  

It is estimated that 40 percent of East Berlin’s performing artists, such as actors, musicians, and directors in theaters and opera houses, lived in West Berlin but were employed by East German cultural institutions after the Wall was built, as claimed by Laura Bradley of the University of Edinburgh. After the completion of the border, they were given a deadline to decide where they wanted to settle. However, it is estimated that 360 artists refused to decide where they should live. In response to this, the West Berlin Senate eventually stopped converting their East German salaries, which inevitably forced many of these artists practically on the streets.

As many artists left East Berlin, various cultural institutions were founded in West Berlin, which was modeled after institutions in East Berlin. Essentially, West Berlin ended up creating duplicated institutions within their borders because free movement of people was restricted. The different zones had to create, for instance, their own zoos and city centers to compensate for the lack of access. Nevertheless, there was a fear of people’s mass migration to West Germany due to West Berlin’s isolated physical location from East Berlin. In consequence, a stronger political focus on culture manifested as a solution to keep people in the city.

The white front facade of Hansa Studios with cars parked outside of it near Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, Germany

A major city planning policy intervention was to remove the imposed curfew in bars and clubs in West Berlin. A thriving nightlife developed from this, and it was naturally influenced by the Allies and their musical styles. There were numerous clubs for jazz, rock’n’roll, beat music, as well as British and French clubs sprouting up in West Berlin. Later on, “the city began a marketing campaign to advertise West Berlin as a 24/7 tourist destination with slogans such as ‘Berlin nonstop’ or ‘Berlin, continuously open'” states Dr. Janet Merkel.

Furthermore, Berlin has kept and developed this nightlife culture as its selling point to attract a young, international audience. In view of that, Berlin’s techno temple, Berghain is the most famous club in the world, according to Rolling Stone and the New York Times. Rumor has it that even Britney Spears was turned down once because she was wearing the “wrong clothes.”

According to the freelance urban planner Jakob Smeid, “Nightlife is often considered an urban indicator and is important to any city. On the other hand, the night economy - that is, clubs, pubs, and discos - also create specific problems for many cities. The keyword here is noise pollution. These issues are often spatial, which make them a fundamental part of urban planning. That aside, nightlife often defines the character of entire streets or districts.

Nightlife in Berlin, Germany in light centers

Moreover, there is not only one hotspot in Berlin as in other cities. Instead, the nightlife is spread over different areas. This can perhaps be explained by its historical need to keep people from leaving Berlin when the Wall was still erected. Smeid explains that in other German cities, the nightlife is “often focused on the city center, usually on the streets directly surrounding the center proper. In these areas, the quality of the location is the same, but the rent prices are significantly lower.”

Smeid states that there isn’t a great deal of research on the issue in German-speaking countries and that “discourse about it tends to be problem-focused and very restrictive.” He adds that “Unlike areas such as retail, local authorities and urban planners know very little about the patterns of the night economy.” Smeid has a message to all planners: “Town planners, study the nightlife! Seriously, municipalities should know more about this subject.”

Subsequently, both city halves, East and West Berlin, “continued to position themselves as cultural metropoles and intended to raise their cultural reputation and international profiles by constructing new institutions and advancing urban planning projects” stated Dr. Janet Merkel. The West Berlin Senate advocated the construction of the Kulturforum near the former Potsdamer Platz as an equivalent to the prestigious cultural organizations around Unter den Linden in East Berlin.

East Berlin also built the TV Tower on Alexanderplatz, which is located right in the center of the city. Neighborhoods such as Marzahn and then later Hellersdorf, were constructed to display the achievements of Soviet social housing architecture. These Soviet plattenbau buildings can still be found throughout Berlin. Additionally, the legendary ‘Palace of the Republic’ was inaugurated, a new cultural center where the old Prussian Royal Palace (symbolically destroyed by first East German government) used to be for the national parliament and for the production of TV Shows, art shows, and entertainment.

Black and white portrait of David Bowie that is hung behind glass in front of Hansa Studios in Berlin, Germany

Furthermore, one famous musician decided to take up residence in this divided city. The pop icon, David Bowie, moved to West Berlin in 1976 to retreat from the drug culture in Los Angeles. During his Thin White Duke period, Bowie developed a severe cocaine addiction and looked to escape to a place where he could be cured and to stay out of the spotlight to recharge his creative batteries, so to speak. Bowie was a creative powerhouse during his time in Berlin.

Bowie and Iggy Pop shared an apartment on Haupstrasse 155 in the Shöneberg district of West Berlin for three years, where he wrote his Berlin Trilogy — Heroes, Low, and Lodger. A white plaque commemorating David Bowie’s time in Berlin was unveiled by the Mayor of Berlin, Michael Muller in 2014. Muller mentioned at the unveiling ceremony that Bowie’s song “Heroes” has become the unofficial anthem to Berlin. Many Berliners anticipate seeing whether Hauptstrasse will be renamed David Bowie Strasse in 2021. According to German Law, the streets in Schöneberg can only be named after someone five years after the person’s death.

Between journeys to Checkpoint Charlie and late-night sessions with Iggy Pop in clubs such as the Dschungel and SO36, he recorded three highly acclaimed albums. Bowie recorded only two of his famous albums from the Berlin Trilogy at Hansa Studios. The recording studio is walking distance from Potsdamer Platz, which was the widest point in Berlin’s death strip -- where guards in more than 300 sentry towers could shoot anyone trying to escape around the Wall. Once the Wall fell, the area quickly turned into Europe’s largest urban construction site in the 1990s. After reunification, the Berlin Senate sold the plots of land at Potsdamer Platz to the former Daimler Benz AG.

The area was divided into two different complexes: the north-western Sony Center, which encompasses approximately 290,625 square feet (27,000 m2) and Potsdamer Platz with 753,473 square feet (70,000 m2). The Sony Center was designed by German-American architect, Helmut Jahn. It is composed of a cinema, a film museum, offices, apartments, and flats as well as Sony’s European headquarters. The Deutsche Bahn high-rise marks the end of the Sony area in the direction of Potsdamer Platz, with the buildings designed by architects Renzo Piano and Christoph Kohlbecker joining to the South.

Potsdamer Platz's gray main train station that is located between two high rise buildings

Today, Potsdamer Platz is considered the heart of Berlin because of its eclectic architectural styles, the wide range of world-renown cultural events and the many sightseeing destinations; making this quarter a central attraction for domestic and foreign tourists. Every day Potsdamer Platz attracts up to 100,000 visitors. With the underground rapid transit train and railway connections, Potsdamer Platz is one of Berlin’s main transport hubs, which allows it to be accessible for all to experience the hustle and bustle in the German capital.

In the words of Marcela Faé of Fotostrasse, “Lots of cities are famous for their art and culture, but just a few special ones come with their own soundtrack. From Lou Reed to Iggy Pop, Atari Teenage Riot to Depeche Mode, Nick Cave to all the minimal techno DJs… Berlin’s image is shaped by the creative and unique music created in the city.” Berlin has transformed from a city that was once culturally repressed to one of the world’s most beloved cultural cities.

Is your city a cultural metropole? What is it known for? What famous cultural events take place in your city? Share your thoughts and your city’s stories in the comments area below.

Credits: Images by Brittany Garcia. Data linked to sources.

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Urban Planning Blogger

Brittany is a Berlin-based graduate student with a penchant for environmental sustainability and urban planning. Her research focus centers on how urban agriculture revitalizes local economies. Follow her to discover why Germany's capital is a gritty...

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