Of all Berlin’s central public spaces, the Gendarmenmarkt is the one I enjoy visiting the most. I think this has much to do with it being one of the few squares in the city that has retained a sense of human proportion. While Berlin’s other notable public spaces, such as Potsdamer Platz, Alexanderplatz, the streets surrounding the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche, the Spittelmarkt and Wilhelmplatz, all bear little or no resemblance to their pre-war appearance, the meticulous reconstruction of the historic buildings of the Gendarmenmarkt throughout the 1980s and 1990s, restored the space to something approaching its original classical symmetry and dimensions. The Konzerthaus and the twin forms of the Französischer and Deutscher cathedrals, grace the square much as they did a century and a half previously.
During one recent September, while staying a few blocks away in a former East German apartment block on Wilhelmstrasse, I often wandered down to the Gendarmenmarkt as the early evening light began to fade. Here, I would spend the remaining half hour of daylight, reflecting upon the inevitable passing of another summer with a quiet sense of melancholy. My favoured panorama of the square was acquired by sitting on the top steps that led up to the south door of the Französischer Dom. Here, I could look out across the square from an elevated viewpoint. Looking south, the Deutscher Dom lay immediately ahead of me, while the Konzerthaus sat to my right. On my left ran the Markgrafenstrasse, whose six-storey blocks closed off the eastern side of the square.
Despite the architectural grandeur of the concert hall and cathedrals, it was this eastern edge of the Gendarmenmarkt—the side bordered by the Markgrafenstrasse—that most fascinated me. The majority of the buildings along the street are postwar Plattenbau blocks; six-storey prefabricated Communist constructions of the type which dominate the landscape of the eastern half of the city, artfully finished with a roughly-textured brown-grey concrete. Obviously, whatever buildings ran along the Markgrafenstrasse before the war were not magnificent enough to warrant their later reconstruction. And frustratingly, it is difficult to ascertain precisely what stood on the street before the War because hardly anyone, it seems, ever bothered taking a photograph of that particular view. Every historical photograph and postcard to be found in the city’s tourist shops and flea markets not surprisingly focuses on the three most photogenic sides of the Gendarmenmarkt. It strikes me that the eastern side of the square along the Markgrafenstrasse is analogous to the so-called ‘fourth-wall’ of the theatre or television set. From my vantage point, I frequently observed the more discerning tourist-photographers—armed with chunky digital cameras fitted with telephoto lenses and aimlessly pursued by their bored-looking other halves—jostle for the vantage point on Markgrafenstrasse that would reward them with the perfect symmetrical shot of the Gendarmenmarkt.
Personally I am content that, whatever did previously grace the Markgrafenstrasse, what is there now—though it’s no architectural tour de force—suitably compliments the historic buildings standing opposite. They perform the admirable task of being unremarkable, and therefore easily unnoticeable. They humbly accept their inferior status, accepting that a square isn’t a square unless it has four sides.
On many an evening I sat here and let my senses be seduced by the respectable proportions and satisfying space of the Gendarmenmarkt. And I do not recall myself ever disdaining the postwar façades along Markgrafenstrasse. In fact, I probably paid more attention to this side of the square. Should this be surprising? As sublime as the cathedrals and concert house are, they are essentially representative of an absolute architectural elegance. The fact that the German authorities committed themselves to such a faithful reconstruction of these buildings is testament to their resolute and unchanging architecture. But while the three most graceful sides of the Gendarmenmarkt stand immutable, the Markgrafenstrasse betrays events of the past, while simultaneously functioning as a canvas for the present. Along the Markgrafenstrasse, one can watch early twentieth-century omnibuses and horse-drawn carriages clatter by, filled with camera-toting tourists. Negotiating their way past the omnibuses and horses are coaches filled with foreign visitors, and top-of-the-range products of German precision innovation—BMWs, Audis and Mercedes—driven by Berlin’s more affluent residents. These sleek black coupés and four-by-fours pull up outside the street’s exclusive jewellery boutiques, and from them step lean, middle-aged and well-tanned women, wrapped in black, chic dresses and expensive sunglasses. As they glide across the pavement, from the kerbside to the boutique’s glass entrance, they appear blissfully unaware that they are—for but a few brief seconds—sharing their personal space with tourists sporting baseball caps and Hawaiian shirts, who drift aimlessly in and out of the Ampelmann shop next door. Elsewhere along the street, the café bars are now strangely silent, having mothballed their outdoor tables and chairs for the season. Another indication that summer is drawing to an end.
As the daylight drains out of the sky to the east, I watch the last of the tourists linger around the square. They stand around in groups, holding their camera phones above their heads, the silent pulses of their camera flashes unable to penetrate far in the twilight. Finally, the surfaces and objects before me lose their colour. Now, as the gloaming takes over, the elegant many-headed lanterns dotted around the square bathe the space in a warm and subtle glow, complimented by the myriad spotlights that point upwards, tastefully illuminating the surrounding buildings. The last of the tourists begin to melt away into the surrounding side streets. As they wander back to their hotels, they are serenaded by the solitary violin or harp player, who mournfully plays on under Schiller’s watchful gaze at the centre of the now near-empty square. In the darkness, the air quickly cools, as an invisible layer of chill settles over the city. The hardness of the stone steps against my backside impels me to move, so I slowly and stiffly descend from my vantage point, and head towards the bright lights and illuminated window displays on the nearby Friedrichstrasse.
© Mark Hobbs 2010