For the duration of my first, week-long sojourn in Berlin, my fellow students and I boarded in a hotel in the heart of the city’s West End, just a couple of blocks away from Wittenbergplatz, home of the famous department store, Kaufhaus des Westens.
Situated on a quiet and unassuming backstreet, our hotel was an extremely modern and clean establishment, if rather bland, like any new hotel tends to be. On the ground floor there stood a formal reception desk, and behind this, a bar and restaurant area furnished in an intriguing combination of pine veneer, mirrors and green lighting.
According to our trip itinerary, we were due to spend the morning of our first full day in the city exploring the modern treasures of the Neue Nationalgalerie: Kirchner, Grosz, Dix and more. At breakfast we consulted our street maps and tourist guides, plotting the best route from our hotel to the Kulturforum, the complex of postwar cultural institutions of which the Neue Nationalgalerie—Mies van der Rohe’s most notable contribution to Berlin—was part.
Unsurprisingly, most of my colleagues opted for infinitely wiser and warmer option of taking the metro to the gallery. But for the four of us who felt more adventurous, the prospect of making the journey on foot seemed far more enticing. The route was straightforward; all we need do was follow the main road north, up to the Landwehrkanal, and then follow the canal itself in an easterly direction towards Potsdamer Platz.
A modest amount of snow had fallen overnight, lightly dusting the pavements with what looked like icing sugar. Above us the sky was leaden grey, while the temperature remained stuck at several degrees below zero. For the first leg of our journey, we encountered a succession of drab postwar edifices: bland developments built by the West during the Cold War, and occupied by an equally bland procession of corporate hotel chains. As we sauntered alongside the busy main carriageway An der Urania, we looked into the windows of these establishments, exchanging blind glances with groups of American and Japanese tourists who were busy enjoying their continental breakfasts.
As we crossed the Landwehrkanal and turned right into Von-der-Heydt-Straße, the character of the buildings around us changed dramatically. Here, a great deal many more historic buildings had survived the air raids of the Second World War. Thankfully also, the road along which we now walked was far more peaceful than the dual carriageway we had just left. It ran alongside the Landwehrkanal, all the way up to the Neue Nationalgalerie.
After a few minutes walking my colleagues and I came to a street branching off to our right called Hiroshimastraße. Like so many of Berlin’s streets, this one has suffered an identity crisis over the years, in the process making it something of a political barometer. During the Imperial and Weimar epochs it was known as Hohenzollernstraße, and then during the Third Reich and Cold War era, it went by the name of Graf Spree Straße. It was not a particularly long street, and we could easily see its far end, just a couple of hundred yards away ahead of us, where it connected with the southern edges of the Tiergarten.
What particularly fascinated us about Hiroshimastraße though, was the peculiar variety of buildings arranged down each of its sides. Immediately to our right stood the Friedrich-Ebert Archive, a modest and yet quite impressive new construction, dominated by large windows and a tasteful purple brickwork, much in vogue in the newer buildings around the city. A little further down on our left, we saw the preposterous embassy of the United Arab Emirates, a gaudy new construction which, I reflected, looked like the sort of creation Disney might come up with if they ever got into the embassy-building business. Alongside this stood the administrative offices of the North Rhine and Westfalen region of Germany, a vast transparent box, behind the glass walls of which we could discern an intricate framework of wooden gothic arches.
Directly opposite this tasteful and extremely clever façade, on the right-hand side of the road, stood a pre-war building, a four-storey boarded-up ruin, whose cracked and derelict surfaces were partially obscured by overgrown flora and metal fencing. The sight of this wreck, sitting alongside the polished modern products of post-reunification Berlin, hit us like a shock. The contrast between the old and the new was further exacerbated by the fact that the pre-war ruin was flanked on both sides by overgrown open ground, upon which it appeared that someone had made a half-hearted attempt at horticultural maintenance.
These open areas permitted us to look down the full length of the building, which was far deeper than it was wide. Along each side I saw exposed interior walls, still bearing the marks of the rooms, fireplaces and stairwells that once existed there: the shadows of spaces and lives long gone.
I learnt later on that this building had been erected around 1912, in the neo-classical manner which was popular amongst the stately mansions and villas scattered across Berlin’s West End at this time. During the Weimar and Nazi period, it had been home to the Greek embassy. My natural assumption on first encountering the ruin—that it had been bombed during the Second World War and left neglected ever since—turned out to be mistaken. Surprisingly enough, it appeared that the embassy had escaped the Second World War largely unscathed, only to be gutted by fire as recently as 1988. When I last visited Hiroshimastraße, as I often do when I am in need of a sense of perspective on my complicated relationship with Berlin, the façade of the former embassy was hidden behind a scaffolding frame which, in typical Berlin fashion, was covered by a huge canvas depicting the building as it had once been—and as it will be once more when its renovation is complete.
But to return to that first visit to Hiroshimastraße, and the shock I received upon encountering this intriguing juxtaposition of old and new. In many respects, the streetscape of Hiroshimastraße on that day stood as a microcosm of the whole of Berlin: a collision of past, present and future, whose impact creates ruptures in the urban fabric which, when peeled back, are capable of revealing complex layers of history. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Hiroshimastraße acts as a reminder that immutability is illusory. Even great cities, when they appear at their most durable, are nothing more than shifting sands. What makes them great, enduring, amaranthine is, ultimately, their transient, fugitive qualities.