:: Article

Excerpt: The Walls of Berlin

By Stephen Barber.


Excerpted from The Walls of Berlin, published by Solar Books, August 2011

Urban facades in Berlin are often pitched at their last-ditch moment, secured to their profound or subterranean underpinning only by a tenuous adhesive of memory. At the eastern end, or origin, of the Karl-Marx-Allee – the vast and ornate arterial avenue constructed as the Stalinallee, conceived in 1949, and conjured out of the decimated wasteland that had been created four years earlier by the invading Soviet’s army transit through it, supplemented by bombing and shelling – the rear facade of one of the apartment buildings had come unstuck. At some point in the terminal decades of the GDR, the original and indestructible stone cladding which formed the predominant surface of the Karl-Marx-Allee had been mysteriously replaced here by a celluloid casing, as though intended as a screen for outdoor film projections, in which the film’s own celluloid had unaccountably been confounded with the surface on which it was to be projected, resulting in an ultimately awry, film-inflected urban surface. That celluloid casing, as though protesting its mishap, had then warped, split apart, and peeled, entire chunks vanishing into the street below. In some sections, where the celluloid had gone, the concrete layers and rusted metal wall-brackets below could be seen, though the concrete had grown as friably eroded as the surface of a Kiefer painting, and the wall-brackets had themselves warped like the original celluloid, expelling their nails, as though jostling for position and visibility in the city, projecting themselves outwards, even if it meant tearing themselves away from the building’s surface. In other places, a further internal layer of the facade had been unearthed, within jagged patches of exposure: perforated, plastic channels, running horizontally within the facade, installed for no other reason than to await the moment to burst through it. At the building’s edge, those unsecured channels had no choice but to turn outwards, and point directly into the Karl-Marx-Allee’s exterior space. That surface appeared anomalous within the remainder of the avenue’s facades, which had been comprehensively renovated in the 2000s in a great homogenising endeavour, so that the uniquely unpeeled and revelatory celluloid casing on that building constituted the very last unreconstructed facade that had miraculously eluded a corporatised urban re-surfacing.

Equally, that botched and wounded surface of Berlin could have been created intentionally as the very first trace of a new manifestation of the avenue’s existence: as embodying a seminal engulfing into decay, in which all of the avenue’s buildings (and those of all of Berlin) violently unscreened their internal layers to expose and disclose their memories, obsessions and histories. The original construction of the avenue, as the Stalinallee, had been a significant event for the consolidation of the then still-formative GDR state, demonstrating that East Berlin was no longer a precarious, blackened terrain and could eventually possess the prestigious solidity and permanence of the avenues of Moscow. Many artists documented the building of the Stalinallee, which, at that time, arose out of a vast zone of flattened, irreparable ruins which was only later filled by many hundreds of other, far lower-grade apartment blocks. Heinz Löffler’s painting Aufbau der Stalinallee (Construction of the Stalinallee), from 1953, shows the massive construction complexity ongoing at ground level, with many cranes and networks of miniature railways needed to transport its elements into place; the painting’s urban viewpoint is an omniscient one, poised high on the still-raw but palatial buildings, looking down at the intensive but ordered activity required to bring that avenue into existence. The corporeal dimension of that urban activity was highlighted in Otto Nagel’s painting Junger Maurer (Young Bricklayer), in which the figure of a grinning Stalinallee super-quota worker-hero stands directly in front of the stone-faced edifices he has just completed; the painting was made during the year of the death of Stalin, to whom the avenue had already been dedicated and named (before being snatched away in 1961, with its renaming as the Karl-Marx-Allee, together with the statue of Stalin that occupied a key site on the avenue and was erased, along with those in other Soviet-Bloc cities, such as Prague, once it suited Stalin’s successors in the USSR to reveal and revile the infinite scale of his death-dealing strategies).

Stalin had been a pre-eminent obsession for Berlin ever since the city’s fall to the Soviet army in 1945, as though the city could not be restarted from zero without his presence; in the Soviet director Mikheil Chiaureli’s 1949 film The Fall of Berlin, the fighting has barely finished and the Reichstag has only just been captured, on 30 April, when an aeroplane abruptly appears in the sky, skids to a halt nearby, and Stalin himself has already landed in the city, to universal acclaim, as though compulsively drawn to begin slicing Berlin apart and incorporating it through his own presence (Stalin’s postwar manifestation in Berlin had actually taken place several months on, in July, for the Potsdam Conference, but when he later saw Chiaureli’s film of his arrival, he exclaimed: ‘I should have arrived like that!’). The avenue’s entire process of construction resonated with that determining, hallucinated presence of Stalin; Kurt Maetzig’s 1952 film Roman einer Jungen Ehe (Story of a Young Marriage) features a prominent sequence in which a celebration is held by the Stalinallee’s constructers, sited between its still in-progress facades, to dedicate the avenue to the glory of Stalin; an actress performs a grandiose text, written by the GDR state-poet Kurt Barthel, that positions Stalin as the sole originator of Berlin’s resuscitation from ashes. In that text, Stalin re-activates Berlin’s hopeless urban inhabitants, infuses life into the voided city, and instils it with a new momentum: one vitally propelled by his own all-overruling compulsions with death and power, and which, almost as a negligent afterthought , materialises that palatial, scarred avenue as his own embodiment.

The torn ochre celluloid casing of the avenue’s extremities emanates that memorial scarification and its temporal sites of focus, across the past and the future, among them the workers’ street-riots that originated from the Stalinallee in June 1953, three months after Stalin’s death, and flared through East Berlin before being lethally suppressed, as though (in addition to protesting working-conditions and the very existence of the GDR) they had transmitted an involuntary response, of negation, towards that aura of death and power, infused by its naming into the essential fabric of the avenue from which those riots emerged; in Nagel’s painting of that same year, the young Stalinist super-quota bricklayer, seemingly proud of his achievements, must simultaneously be dreaming too about those riots, and the conflagration of his just-accomplished urban work. The ripped-open, celluloid-panelled facade of the Karl-Marx-Allee – in exposing a sliding, transmutating terrain of disintegration, within the multiple layers of its interior space – mediates a pivotal urban fascination and attraction for those unique instances in which buildings irresistibly open their apertures, to make their revelations, as urban and corporeal acts that envision the city, but also intimate the process of the future annulling of that vision.


Stephen Barber is a Professor at Kingston University and a writer on urban culture, experiment in film and Japanese culture. He has been writing since 1990 and has published twenty books (sixteen non-fiction books and four novels), many of them translated into other languages.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, August 1st, 2011.