Change. Contrast. Progression. These three words are what are at the forefront of my mind as I adopt the role of a typical tourist strolling around Berlin’s city centre. As I visit the iconic sites of Brandenburg Gate, The Reichstag and Tiergarten the remnants of soviet infrastructure are still visible but are becoming increasingly hard to see, and when I say this, I mean it literally. The glass towers and offices dominate Berlins skyline with their ‘blinding’ beauty and their reflective qualities forcing the attention of the public eye away from the ‘old Berlin’ infrastructure and towards this new future for Berlin embodied by the glass infrastructure. Despite the constant need for sunglasses on a sunny day, it is hard not to be impressed by the glass city of Berlin.
As seen in my ethnography extract, the omnipresence of glass infrastructure in Berlin is what attracted me to focus my blog post on this subject. From the contemporary dome that sits on top of the Reichstag to the futuristic Marie Elizabeth Lunder government building; the urban landscape of Berlin is a sharp contrast to Berlins post WWII and Cold War urban environment. Berlin’s glass spectacle made me think why use glass? Why out of every material would glass dominate Berlins infrastructure? This was when I started to think about the symbolism attached to glass and began to explore the architectural geographies of glass with Gruffudd (2003) explaining that materials can be used to symbolise meanings, cultural assumptions and histories of a place. Therefore, the glass buildings of berlin are afforded both meaning and value by the public due to their specific architectural design.
One characteristic which sets apart glass to any other material is its ability to see through it: its transparency. Reflecting on this through a geopolitical lens, the consistent use of glass in Berlin may be seen to be politically motivated as the transparency of glass could be used to challenge the feelings of espionage and secrecy that were rife within the Cold War era (Byford, 2013). Moreover, not only does it challenge the Cold War assumptions of espionage it symbolises the progression of Berlin as a city and essentially appropriates the past to fixate its place as thriving developed capital in contemporary times; so, the bridge seen in figure 2 really does symbolise a (glass) bridge over troubled water
What is particularly poignant about the Marie Elizabeth Lunder building is its proximity to the Reichstag, a building with strong connotations to Nazi regimes, as it sits directly opposite to the building. Once again, the themes of transparency and contrast are expressed through the infrastructure as the decision to locate the glass government building opposite to the opaque Reichstag acknowledges the progression and transparency of Berlins political ideologies. Kraftl (2010) supports this through his understanding that buildings can act as signs and symbols of political and social discourses and this is further emphasised in figure 3. The figure showcases the basic laws for the Federal Republic of Germany which have been transcribed onto a transparent piece of glass again illustrating how the political ideologies of trust and progression are inscribed into the everyday of Berlin through the infrastructure.
Throughout my trip I made sure that I took note of the uses of glass throughout Berlin whether it was used for an information post or an office block but the glass memorial for the Sinti and Roma of Europe was particularly thought-provoking (figure 4). The musty glass appearance accompanied by the opaque nature of the glass in figure 4 juxtaposes the clear emphasis on transparency in Berlins built environment. This becomes particularly significant due to its decision to be used at a memorial as to me it again embodies the political and social discourses which Germany’s government want to emit as the inability to look through the glass represents the progression of Germanys political ideology. I say this as the opaqueness of the memorial condemns the totalitarian Nazi regime and whilst it remembers the victims it is used as a public reminder that contemporary Berlin has surpassed its fascist history and has developed into a place where people are proud to be attached to. This idea is reinforced by the works of Kraftl and Adey (2008) who recognise that the materialities of buildings and infrastructure have the ability to engender particular connotations and political values onto a place.
Alongside the ability of the glass infrastructure to embody political and social discourses, Lees (2001) recognises that buildings and materials should be about more than just representation highlighting the affective and ‘nonrepresentational’ import of architecture. From experiencing Berlin and the vast amount of glass buildings I feel that these buildings are more than just representations as to me they are used to engineer particular kinds of affective states and emotions (Thrift, 2004). To highlight this, there is no better example than the glass dome that sits on top of the Reichstag which you can see in figure 5. The transparent modern dome highlights the way the government look over the German people and keep them safe and this helps to engineer a sense of security and safety as the glass dome is easily visible from the area surrounding the Reichstag. Furthermore, the transparency of the dome which looks over the parliamentary building empowers the public as it positions them above the government and prioritises the public view over the governmental views.
To conclude this blog, I have constructed a poem which stresses how the glass architecture in Berlin provokes feelings of safety and visions of progression. Reflecting on my time in Berlin and my exploration of glass this blog hopefully highlights how the ‘Glass City of Berlin’ has used the every day scale to embody the country’s political ideologies and to transfer these ideologies into a sense of pride and hope for Berliners.
The flash of a camera makes Berliners freeze
Frantically staring away from the CCTV
Flashbacks of East Berlin flood their minds
Anxiety creeps back, a feeling they thought they’d felt behind
But then, the glass dome of the Reichstag catches their eyes
They tell themselves, this isn’t East Berlin, there are no more spies
The glass skyline reassures them, these are different times
The reputation of Berlin is on the climb
They are experiencing Berlin in its prime
Howard, B. (2019). Figure 1.
Rowe, N. (2019). Figure 5.
Further Reading and References
Byford, J. (2013). The Spies Dilemma: A Cold War Case Study on East German Espionage. The Social Studies. 104 (4), p139-145.
Charney, I. (2007). The politics of design: architecture, tall buildings and the skyline of central London. Area. 39 (2), p195-205.
Diefendorf, J. (1989). Urban Reconstruction in Europe After World War II. Urban Studies, 26(1), p128-143.
Gruffudd, P. (2003). Building sites: cultural geographies of architecture and place-making. In: Blunt, A., Gruffudd, P., May, J., Ogborn, M. and Pinder, D., (eds.) Cultural geography in practice. London: Arnold, p238–254.
Kraftl, P and Adey, P. (2008). Architecture/Affect/Inhabitation: Geographies of Being-In Buildings. Annals of the Association of American Geographers. 98 (1), p213-231.
Kraftl, P. (2010). Geographies of Architecture: The Multiple Lives of Building. Geography Compass. 4 (5), p402–415.
Lees, L. (2001). Towards a critical geography of architecture: the case of an ersatz Colosseum. Ecumene. 8 (1), p51-86.
Thrift, N. (2004). Intensities of feeling: Towards a spatial politics of affect. Geograﬁska Annaler Series B, 86(1), p57–78.