Friday, November 28, 2008

'Harmony in Germany': Small-scale reflections on large-scale windows

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt about Berlin, it is that this city is big on reflections. It likes to see, be seen and be seen seeing. The fabulous windows in my room which run from ceiling to floor, looking out onto the drama that is Oranienburger Strasse by night or day allow, equally, for the Berliners waking past on the aforementioned Strasse to look into my hotel room and see whatever it is I intend them to.

And this doesn’t hold true just for living spaces either. The brilliant jazz clubs lining the market place off Friedrich Strasse also have enormous glass fronts looking out onto the street – a way to draw people in, clearly, but it also means that the fabulous music on display can be enjoyed even by those unwilling or unable to pay the steep (relatively) entry fee that most of these places command.

This idea of individual space not necessarily having to equate with the inability of others to look into that which is ‘ours’ is the interesting thing here. The fact that someone else can look into my hotel room from across the street doesn’t make it any less ‘mine’, because, for the most part, this gaze isn’t an intrusive one.

Whilst still preoccupied with this notion, I found myself at the Holocaust Memorial in the heart of town, next to the Brandenburger Tor, one of the better-known symbols of Berlin. The memorial is unprepossessing in appearance – it comprises a series of concrete slabs of varying height and size, laid out in a symmetry which chills by virtue of its total and complete precision. In every direction, the Memorial gives out onto parks and solid new constructions, visible from any point within its confines.

Underfoot is gravel, and thousands of small, tar squares, which put one in mind of the ruthlessly methodical, clinical fashion in which the events the Memorial marks took place. The concrete slabs get higher, reaching almost twice a person’s height the closer one gets to the centre.

The irony, driven home impeccably by the Memorial, is that the victims of the regime, like the visitors to the monument, could see, clearly, that there was an elsewhere – an outside world – it’s just that they weren’t going to be allowed to be part of it.

The murkiness of Germany’s history, therefore, to my mind, goes a long way towards explaining its people’s newly-found insistence on transparency in every way shape and form: in governance and its procedures, in accountability at the work place, and, as it happens, in windows as well.

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