Friday, November 28, 2008

'Harmony in Germany': Another small-scale reflection on a decidedly human-sized city

If this piece sounds like an ode to Berlin, so much the better: that’s exactly what it is meant to be; a paean to a city which celebrates ‘humanity’ in its many facets, most notably in its architecture.

Where the imposing (undeniably beautiful, nevertheless) gothic cathedrals of Cologne, Angers, Paris or Tours are meant to dwarf; leaving one with no delusions of aggrandisement to labour under, the scale of buildings in Berlin is decidedly human – it fits us well, and doesn’t make people feel like immaterial specks of dust to be trodden rough-shod over by a whimsical higher force.

In this, perhaps, lies the city’s singularity. It places the human being at the ‘centre’ of its ontology, and derives an exquisite pleasure from letting its inhabitants know as much. This physical scale isn’t, however, to be confused with a smallness in the scope of Berlin’s undertakings: ‘Charité’, one of the biggest hospitals in Europe is housed here, and has long been recognised as one of the leading lights in the progress of medicine; the awe-inspiring Bode and Hamburger Contemporary Art museums (the latter housing some brilliant Warhols – but that is another story waiting to be told) are food for some of the most spectacular thoughts one can possibly hope to, well, think.

The focal point here is that these institutions don’t confound because of their size; they don’t overwhelm or make one long for the surety that only a 10X10 room provides, to make us feel ‘relevant’ in this world and in our own skins. It feels as though the thought that went behind these constructions was one which sought to reinstate our faith in ourselves, since it used the normal human being as the model in its determining of the scale of the structure at hand.

The religion that Berlin is founded upon, therefore, is clearly that of humanism.

This fact is also borne out in the ‘walkability’ quotient of the city. There are several cities and towns in Germany considerably smaller than Berlin, and yet one can’t help but walk while in Berlin. Or cycle, of course. Taking a cab, the (super-efficient, but then almost all things German [save their national railway] tend to be) tube or a bus just doesn’t allow for the same familiarity as walking the streets of Berlin does.

The Wall might well have come down in ’89, but the psychological barriers which were its attendants persist yet: people are ‘Easterners’ or ‘Westerners’ first, and ‘Berliners’ next. A city poised on this wildly interesting precipice, the surest way to come to terms with the diversity and ‘many-headed monster’, to borrow from Rushdie, that is Berlin, is to walk. And it isn’t difficult when the city’s streets and very architecture call out to you to do just that.

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