Arch. Myriam B. Mahiques Curriculum Vitae

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Memories of the Berlin wall

Berlin Wall in 1963: Fetcher’s memorial. (copyright James B. Obson)
Berlin Wall in1999: A German sofa creates a new place next to the wall. Artists: Bali Tollak and Wolfgang Denning. (copyright Heiko Burkhardt)
We must be aware that the standard habits, inclinations, perceptions, and activities in one's culture with its own collective memory, may seem exotic to other. In this context, there is no “appropriateness”. Spatial patterns can be attractive for many or be highly controversial, up to sickening, for others.
We link this idea with Terry M. Mikiten concepts of declarative knowledge, as one form of knowledge in contemporary cognitive science. Two ideas are linked, and when memory of one member of the pair is activated, the two ideas come to the surface together and can be responsible for strong emotional experiences. Clusters of linked concepts are called association networks or conceptual structures. Intuition, would be the cause of mental processes that create and store concepts and links between them. So, memory is accompanied with perception and thought. Everyday experience is defined as perceiving something, remembering it, thinking about it. (Mikiten, 1995).
People is considered to have both short-term and long-term memory. All sensory experiences first pass through short-term memory and are held there. Then, they are converted for long-term storage in a process called consolidation. When we enter a building, or stay in an urban place, and suddenly we feel the “something else”, here it comes the relationship among ideas we find familiar. Sometimes, it is very obscure to understand and we pass through the metaphorical understanding that tries to characterize the unknown in another recognizable concepts.
One important condition for it, is that different locations (places) in the same space will differ in the quality of their sensibility.
William James (1890) explains it simply in this analogy: “If the skin felt everywhere exactly alike, a foot-bath could be distinguished from a total immersion, as being smaller, but never distinguished from a wet face. The local-signs are indispensable; two points which have the same local-sign will always be felt as the same point. We do not judge them two unless we have discerned their sensations to be different.”
A similar situation happened with the Berlin Wall. Though not an architecture building in itself, it had promoted different situations (places and sentiments) along the years. In his interview with Hans Obrist, Architect Rem Koolhaas expresses his feelings on the Berlin Wall. And he was surprised to discover that a wall with one important historical meaning was different in many locations.
“That was one of the most exciting things: it was one wall that always assumed a different condition…… In permanent transformation. It was also very contextual, because on each side it had a different character; it would adjust itself to different circumstances.”
Koolhaas had his own reflections. When submitting a proposal involving the wall space, he was shocked by the wall lack of remanents as a living memory. This time the impression comes from the emptiness.
“We thought that the zone of the Wall could eventually be a park, a kind of preserved condition in the entire city. I've been appalled ever since that the first thing that disappeared after the Wall fell was any trace of it.”
And what is more, he explicity feels that the City has kept, somehow, the Nazi spirit in his buildings and to exorcise them is not enough with the construction of new buildings. Is it a kind of phenomenology in architecture that goes beyond the existence of buildings that generated it?
“For instance, their conversion of the Reichstag is at least as strange as the emphasis on Prussian building, because these are two forms of innocence or naïveté, and to think that in the Reichstag you can exorcise the spirits with a new sort of dome is a sort of very polite gesture and a very compromised esthetic……..realizing that they actually have to inhabit Nazi buildings as their new ministries, with the anxieties that emanate from that, that demand exorcism, but do glass and steel still drive out evil spirits?”.
Koolhaas concludes that the whole Berlin, is scary. This is his feeling extended to the city in the comprehension of its buildings.
“That's the whole point, Berlin is very scary. And somehow everything that tries to cover it up, either by an Ersatz past or by a kind of Ersatz exorcism (which is what modernity is doing), is equally implausible. I also believe that the monumental production of monuments is not going to work either, because that's part of an "official exorcism.”
Finally, he admits to be an admirer of the aesthetics of emptiness, which can be so appalling as the built environment.
“The Berlin Wall as architecture was for me the first spectacular revelation in architecture of how absence can be stronger than presence. For me, it is not necessarily connected to loss in a metaphysical sense, but more connected to an issue of efficiency, where I think that the great thing about Berlin is that it showed for me how (and this is my own campaign against architecture) entirely "missing urban presences or entirely erased architectural entities nevertheless generate what can be called an urban condition….. For me, the important thing is not to replace it, but to cultivate it. This is a kind of post-architectural city, and now it's becoming an architectural city. For me that's a drama, not some kind of stylistic error.”
The threat to familiar atmospheres -integrated by places, spaces, buildings, materials- is also a threat to identity, to the collective memory which keeps a group's consciousness and feeds its spatiality, as a liminal experience needed in order to survive as social beings.

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