A new city is like a wrapped parcel. There's the excitement of peeling off the layer of packaging, to reveal what lies beneath. But there is a sense in which you have to assemble it yourself. You have the map as your guide, but where do you begin to unfold the buildings and the contours? Arriving at the Zentral Bahnhof in Charlottenburg, I felt like a mole, emerging into dazzling light, unable to arrange any kind of meaning until I had walked the streets myself, linking one area to another.
The area where I was staying and returned to in the evening, was between Lichtenberg and Friedrichsfelde. Quiet and peaceful, it was a delight to come back after the noise and bustle, the traffic sounds and busy streets of the city centre.
This home territory was easy. From Zacherstrasse I walked up Metastrasse and if I turned left, there were the brightly painted façades of the square blocks of houses and the street leading to Lichtenberg station, Einbecker strasse.
If I turned right, I would come to the U Bahn station of Friedrichsfelde. Here, the trees lining the pavements became more dense and leafy and across the street from the underground station, there was an old building, set like a jewel, catching the evening sunlight on its plaster cornices, its steep-sloping tiled roof its delicate windows and protected balconies. Like the prow of a ship the streets split like waves on either side of it. Providing relief from the rectangular blocks of buildings and the right angles of the streets.
Walking on past the underground I turned off down a narrow pedestrian lane, but lined with fencing on either side. Inside the fencing were garden plots teeming with plant life – rows of vegetables and whole bushes of colourful flowers. And in all of them, there was what looked like a small house. Wooden structures, painted and decorated, half hidden under trailing green creepers or vivid white, yellow and pink blossoms, these were too grand to be called huts but perhaps too small for people to live in, too miniature in scale, yet they appeared like the home of the guardian of each plot, an air of habitation, the decked-out and benign intelligence of the garden. A kind of plant-concierge, protective, flower-strewn keeper of the sanctuary.
This scale of intimacy contrasts strongly with the massive architectural statements elsewhere in the city – palaces, Reichstag, universities, cathedrals, domes, the gold needle of the Siegessaule (victory column) and the endless government buildings, with their uniform windows, tiny as spy-holes. These require time even for the eye to travel up and across their dimensions, never mind focus on details and encapsulate it all into some kind of meaning.
These gardens, complete with spirit-residencies have emerged on the other side of communist structures with their smooth façades, the regular windows, so small as if they were afraid of letting in the light. From imperial pomp to intimidating light-shunning uniformity, now, individual decorative taste has been at work on the residential buildings, with their vivid colours and flowering gardens. And here, in this row of plots, the wooden houses with their profusion of
|Ship's prow building, side view|
Turning back towards the residential area and exploring different streets, I have to head back to Friedrichsfelde to gaze at the ship's-prow building, pale blue in the evening sunlight. My eyes needed its ornate façade, the architectural equivalent of the scent of acacia blossom after rain, or the sound of piano music drifting from an open window, in a quiet street.