In the years since the fall of the Wall, Berlin has undergone a massive programme of reconstruction that has transformed its city centre from the epicentre of one of the defining political battles of the Twentieth Century to that of a modern-day metropolis. Yet, whilst areas such as those around Potsdamer Platz may have seen numerous new buildings rise from the ashes of division, other parts of the city have been forced to adapt and redefine their position within this new topography without undergoing any major facelift. The issue with this is that these buildings bring with them a remembered history and so pose a problem for the current transformation of Berlin as to how to incorporate this into its contemporary cityscape.
This is perhaps best illustrated in the way that the Fernsehturm, the tower at the centre of Alexanderplatz, has now become one of the default symbols for the unified city, alongside the likes of the Brandenburg Gate. When it was conceived in the 1960s, the tower was meant as a show of strength by the East German government, a communist monolith that could be seen from all over the dived city. Therefore, the Fernsehturm is undeniably communist in origin which means that, on the face of it, its strong presence within Berlin today acts as both a celebration and a reminder of the city’s communist history.
However, the problem is that, rather than being part of a greater commemoration of this part of the city’s past, the Fernsehturm’s re-appropriation by the contemporary city is done so in a way that breaks any meaningful links the building has to the old East Berlin, something that can be seen in the two major ways the tower’s image is being used as a symbol of Berlin. On the one hand it is regularly projected as the archetypal symbol of the contemporary city, a standalone logo which dominates the unified skyline. Yet the use of its image in such away, devoid of its Alexanderplatz locality, causes the tower to lose any association to the eastern part of the city. Equally, on the other hand, it crops up time and again as a kitsch symbol of the city’s communist heritage, sitting alongside images of the Ampelmann in numerous Berlin tourist shops. Whilst its use here may more obviously maintain the tower’s association with its communist past, the problem is that this past is being commoditised, becoming a product to be consumed in the contemporary city, a superficial act which once again robs the building of any symbolic, genuine link to its past.
Although it may be a powerful and bold move to base the contemporary identity of Berlin around such a strongly communist symbol, the methods used to achieve this are failing to build any connection with the building’s history into its new identity, meaning that it becomes as lacking in relevance for Berlin’s past as the new buildings around Potsdamer Platz. Obviously it would be impossible for a city with such a tumultuous and contentious history as Berlin to move on in any productive way if it stopped to commemorate every event from its history. However, the contemporary use of the Fernsehturm highlights how its current redefinition of its post-unification centre risks creating a new topography and identity for the city which pays little homage to the past, a development that would not only be foolish but could have massive implications for the future stability and growth of the city’s identity as a disconnection develops between Berlin’s past and its present.
Image: mauro_ventura on Flickr