City of Glass and Other Dreams: Berlin, part 1

“Berlin is a city condemned always to become, never to be.” – Karl Scheffler, 1910


Perhaps no other city has taken up as much imaginary space over the last century as Berlin. It is a city forever in flux, not in the gradual, accumulated ways of most urban spaces, but with sudden, violent reinventions. Berlin is a place without definition, occupying a landscape unmeasured. It shifts endlessly between memory and forgetting, between future and past; it encircles the span of dreams.

In 1927 Fritz Lang made his great silent film Metropolis, an Expressionist dystopia whose cityscapes were both futuristic and fantastic. Emerging from the Golden Twenties of the Weimar Republic – an exuberant age of cultural and artistic flourishing that also gave us the architecture of Bauhaus, The Threepenny Opera by Brecht and Weill and the early Marlene Dietrich – Lang would have had little idea how equally dystopic Berlin would become in less than a decade. Like many others in the early 1930s – Jewish artists, German writers, concerned scientists, leftwing politicians – Lang emigrated with the rise of Hitler’s Nazi Party and the dark night of the Third Reich fell upon Berlin.

Hitler’s Berlin became the focal point of the Cold War in the aftermath of its destruction. The idea of a divided people, sundered by a concrete wall stretching over 150 kilometres through communities, families, transport links and shared history, fastened itself to the turbulent age, embodying the stark reality of the ideological conflict. The Berlin Wall stood in the collective imagination as much as in the real city; a symbol of totalitarian oppression. Remnants remain in place, as does a memorial line of differently coloured stone embedded into the pavement along its former route.

I walked the streets of Berlin for the first time this past autumn. Stepping over that line in the brilliant October sunshine, nothing happened. Nothing physical or easily discernible at any rate. But I felt a strange emptying, a falling away from the sure things of my life towards a space that was uncertain: the haunting of a place where lives were taken. I tried to replicate in my mind what the Wall entailed – the death strip, the towers –  but could offer nothing to the scene. The emptiness of the place was its measure.

The fall of the Berlin Wall signalled the end of a divided Europe, as well as the healing of a broken city. Since reunification, and the return of the German capital to Berlin, a process of astonishing reinvention has again swept over the city. From the glittering excesses of Potsdamer Platz to the wondrous and soaring cupola added by the architect Norman Foster to the ruins of the Reichstag, a city is rising and reborn. A Berlin condemned always to become: a place of ash, a world divided, a city of glass.

Much of modern Berlin is constructed of glass, so that the city was being continually reflected in my direction. But each sharply lit surface revealed an unusual angle, a hidden pattern of light and cloud, an unseen perspective of buildings and streets, a man or woman standing unexpectedly by my side. The glass unveiled another world, parallel but unreachable.

In Wim Wender’s film, Wings of Desire, angels descend from the heavens as men to wander the streets of Berlin, walking amongst its people and witnessing their joys and sorrows while only being visible to children. There is a sense of something ethereal about the city, something present but unseen, in the shadowing reflections. Whether it’s the ghosts of Berlin’s past, angels from its present or an unsettled fate in its future, an essence of the city’s spirit flickers in the glass.

120 thoughts on “City of Glass and Other Dreams: Berlin, part 1

  1. Though I’ve been to Germany a few times, I haven’t walked the streets of Berlin. My brother had a chance to walk on the wall as it was crumbling. I don’t know if the younger generation will understand all the suffering that was caused by that division.

    A city that consists of reflections upon reflections has still not grasped its true identity. So it is with people.

    Beautiful photos.

    1. Thanks very much, Amy-Lynn. You could be quite right about a younger generation not understanding the suffering that preceded it; now that we’re not far off a century further on from the Great War, I’ve often wondered what it means, what it signifies, to younger people. Not that I’m particularly close in age to that conflict myself, but with each passing year we are all distanced even further. It’s an even more interesting question about the Wall as it can’t be talked of as a war in any real sense. Though it was no less divisive.

      While I agree with your underlying idea of ‘true identify’ I wonder if that the fact that so much of Berlin’s traumatic history has been bound up with strict definitions of identity – religion, ethnicity, ideology – means there isn’t a purposeful blurring of that in the modern city. An affirmation that identify can be shifting as well. Having not lived there I can’t speak with any depth, but my impression while in Berlin was of a people and city comfortably at ease with its relaxed, liberal, cosmopolitan culture. I could be wrong, but I think many Berliners are glad to have the opportunity of that freedom as well at the moment. Many thanks for stopping by!

  2. Lovely to read something of your urban wanderings and
    much resonates with my own experiences of my travels in Berlin with a camera in 1992. Then, the wastelands and open spaces that I found so fascinating reflected a very recent historical event. I wonder if the glass and chrome and the fosterisation that seems to characterise Berlin today merely represents the triumph of capitalism and its bland process of gentrification; or a celebration of a great city in constant flux. Time to re-visit and have a look..
    Thanks for the thought provoking post Sid.


    1. Great to hear from you, Sid! I was trying to imagine your own explorations while writing this post – the empty lots and vacant lands that we’ve talked about over the years and that you can see in scenes in Wings of Desire. It’s an excellent question, what does the new Berlin mean? While I find the architecture, particularly Foster’s Reichstag, to be compelling, the swish and vacuous design of Potsdamer Platz is a temple to consumption and nothing else. It has a hollow and empty ring to it, but it remains only a fragment of the city, and in fact to do justice to the place I’d like to return and spend a lot of time exploring the neighbourhoods where the real, ordinary life of Berlin goes about its day. Like any city, there are ample rewards for wandering. Many thanks for reading…

    2. Hi Sid, much of the glass has to do with transparency – on purpose. Can´t tell you if the result was good. As a citizen I welcome transparency. Berlin is waiting for you & you are welcome.

  3. These are beautiful pictures, Julian, they seem to capture the “something ethereal about the city” you describe. It must have been wonderful to have the time thoughtfully contemplate Berlin’s history, present and future as you meandered around the city. Maybe the city will never be “finished,” but growth and decay is the nature of all things, even cities.

    1. Precisely, Barbara! And very well said. Cities shouldn’t be considered as though standing outside of natural cycles. Urban spaces will eventually end as well; it’s a part of their process. It was indeed wonderful wandering Berlin, but I confess to leaving with a feeling of only scratching the surface. More and more, wherever I happen to be, I want to spend as long as possible exploring and discovering, digging down. With any luck there will be a next time! Wonderful to hear from you, and hope all is well!

  4. Beautiful post. Went to Berlin for the first time last year. Now I understand why I felt a bit turned off with Potsdamer Platz. Though perhaps my being from a third-world country has something to do with it also.

    Your photos speak volumes. Made me realize some things I didn’t really notice (or perhaps refused to pay attention to) during my short visit there.

    1. Thanks kindly, sunshine! There is something very strange about Potsdamer Platz, it has to be said. Its brash commercial excesses are part of the same city as the other, far more thoughtful, spaces. Fortunately there is room for all. So glad you liked the photos; hopefully you can get back there and discover some more of the city’s secrets. Thanks for reading,

      Best wishes,

  5. I lived in Berlin back in 1961 during the building of the wall. I saw first hand the threat that the Berliners were living through. I wrote one of my first blogs about that experience. As a seven year old, it was a great history lesson to look back on. My regret is that I could not be there when the wall went down. For those interested in my experience living in Berlin during 1961, here is the link to my post.

    Congrats on your Fresh Pressed. Wonderful blog you have.

    1. I try to picture that particular era you’ve experienced and have to rely on a selection of photographs, writings and the imagination. Thanks for sharing. And yes, shame you couldn’t have been there to experience the Wall coming down, but you at least have a greater understanding of its resonance. Thanks for taking the time to read!

  6. I really enjoyed reading this and had to reblog. It is not only insightful, but captures beauty and essence of a city, as well. Thanks for this!!

  7. I was in Berlin for New Years 2007. It is an amazing place. One thing you didnt mention that I found interesting was the Soviet influence on the city. So you have old, modern, and Soviet…..It is a great place!

    1. It’s a good point! I have a feeling that a few more journeys will be required before I can even begin to have a feeling for great swathes of the city. Thanks for getting me thinking about the Soviet angle as well! Cheers!

  8. Hello Hoff

    Excellent post. You have a great eye for an image; something the most expensive camera can’t provide.

    I spent a lot of time in Berlin in my late teens/early twenties and the transformation of the pre/post-reunification city has been remarkable. The vast, empty expanse of Potsdamer Platz erupted in outgrowths of the steel and glass edifices you describe, as the city re-invented itself once again.

    For me, Berlin’s most interesting site of memory is the Neue Wache memorial on Unter den Linden. Originally built as guard house by Friedrich Wilhelm III, it subsequently housed a memorial to the fallen of the first world war. During the 30s and 40s, it was appropriated as a Nazi shrine. The communists re-assigned the site as a mahnmal or memorial to those who died fighting facism.

    After reunification the site was reinvented as the Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany for the Victims of War and Tyranny. The large chamber is empty save for Kathe Kollwitz’ Pieta – Mother with her Dead Son – which sits in a pool of light beneath a circular window; perhaps the most powerful and eloquent sculpture I’ve ever seen.

    1. Thanks ever so much, Pete, as always. I’m not sure I knew about your time in Berlin, though we must have discussed it at some point; I’d love to talk to you about your experiences there in greater depth some time. Much of my imagined sense of parts of Berlin stems from photographs and talking to people like Chris who spent a fair bit of time in Berlin in the early 90s. Let’s discuss over imaginary ales shall we?

      What is fascinating for me as I read your eloquent description of the memorial is how well you’ve conjured something that I was aware of but didn’t find the time to visit. I’ve seen images of Pieta in the pool of light and it slipped my mind while wandering. To be honest I’m not even sure I knew where it was, though I almost certainly passed close by. Which is a great shame, but even more reason to travel back. Curiously, part two of the Berlin theme will look at memorials in the city, but that particular one is obviously not included!

      The cheap and cheerful camera, I’m pleased to say, continues strong! Many thanks again and hope to catch up soon,

      P.S. I’m listening to Arvo Part’s Passio while replying to you, which seems to suit the mood of the memorial sculpture…

  9. Loved stumbling upon your gorgeous photos of Berlin now. My family has a lot of history with Berlin. My parents met and married there before the wall was built; we lived there as a family in the 60’s and 70’s after the wall was built. I’ve visited it since a couple of times. It remains one of my most favorite cities of all time.

    What still strikes me about Berlin after all her iterations is her liveability and the green spaces throughout the city. It’s hard to find an international city with as much green space.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Deirdre! Wonderful to hear of your strong connections to the city, which obviously keep calling you back. Couldn’t agree more about her liveability; although only there for a few days it really had a sense of being a relaxed and relatively easy place to live. Having lived in congested London for some years, it was an enormous shock to see that a capital city could work as well as it did. I was deeply impressed.

  10. I have never been to Belin, but you have truly painted the picture well. Uhmm, I have often wondered what it would be like to travel there, maybe now you have given me something to think about.:)

    1. Thanks kindly, amotherseyes! So pleased that the post painted such a picture for you. I highly recommend a visit if you ever have the chance! Thanks for taking the time to read…

  11. Reminded me of what a beautiful city I live in. It’s a real shame that one sort of fails to appreciate this stuff when it’s always there.
    Thanks for a great post and congrats on getting “Freshly Pressed!”

    1. Johannes, I was wondering when a Berliner would drop by, and I’m delighted that you liked it. It’s never easy writing about other people’s places, but as someone who lived in London for years without appreciating much of it until I’d left I completely understand your thoughts. Berlin is a beautiful city; and I appreciate that you took the time to read about your own neighbourhood!


  12. As was the plot of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel, the dream of the city of glass ended in the reality of famine, war, and poverty.

    Congratulations, by the way, those are very nice photographs.

    1. I also would like to congratulate you on your writing, which I must say was one of the best posts I have ever read

    2. Nice reference to the dream of an ill-fated city of mirrors and for reminding me to go back to ‘Solitude’ one of these days! Thanks for taking the time to read and I’m delighted that you liked the words and images so much. Cheers,

  13. Your well-detailed photographs and prose do a wonderful job of elaborating the temporal nature of the city. I visited there in 2005 and have just gotten around to blogging about the city’s look and history (link below). Oddly enough, I never thought of it much in terms of its glass, more in relation to its solid concrete and thick walls that have had a tendency to collapse over the last century. Glass is certainly an apt symbol of Berlin, and you’ve documented it beautifully; I look forward to part 2!

    1. Thanks kindly, Matt! I think we tap into certain aspects of a city according to our own interests and fascinations, probably without even being aware of it. Just as easily, I suppose, I could return at a different time of year and see Berlin in an entirely different light – the ‘solid concrete and thick walls.’ Endlessly compelling! Looking forward to having a look at your own Berlin post later on. Cheers,

  14. Thank you for sharing this story of Berlin with us, your readers, as well as the awesome photos. I love how you bring the city to life through its ever changing phases just as we, humans, change and evolve … it is captured through the architecture of the city as well. Thanks again ;)

    1. Thanks ever so much for taking the time to read, faeriemagic, and for the kind words. I like what you say about evolving, that cities have their phases and ages just like us and the natural world. So often we consider cities as permanent and unshifting, but a place like Berlin reveals how unsound is that idea. Thanks again, Julian

  15. Funny I was just watching, on NGC the other week, a docu on the last days of WWII in Berlin. Although the docu films were colorized, the destruction reduced attempts at color irrelevant since most of the rubbles were gray, anyway. Hard to relate those images with the pictures you included in this wonderful post, Julian. I suppose in the cycle of life and death, even cities have to die so that they can be reborn to live a new life.

    1. Wonderful to hear from you, Rex, as always! Hope all is well with you Yes, I can imagine the place dominated by grey despite being filmed in colour. What interests me is how recent that time was – even in human terms we’re not talking of that long ago. And yet, as you point out, it’s difficult to relate the contemporary city with the one you witnessed in the documentary. The magnitude of the change is astonishing, a place beginning again.

      Best wishes,

  16. Thank you for this descriptive and beautifully written post. I hardly needed the pictures (but I’m glad you included them)

    Your post brought me back to the time when the wall came down. I remember watching the reports on TV and thinking about the stories I had read in school about people who had lost their lives at the wall. I could hardly believe, being an American teen, that a place like this existed.
    Now looking at these amazing buildings and structures and seeing how beautiful it is, it gives such hope to the desolate oppressed places of the world today.

    1. Thanks very much for reading and taking the time to comment! While only two decades ago, it’s still difficult to imagine the wall existed. We forget easily I’m afraid; and yes, to perhaps understand something of Berlin and its history is to feel a wider hope of renewal and change. Thanks again for the kind words,

  17. I thank you a lot for writing this article i found on the main page. It just makes me happy every time I hear about Germany or Berlin, because I am from Berlin and I am certainly staying in the U.S.A. for 11 months. I already get excited if I just see a random picture of Berlin but this article really captures a part of Berlin in a deep way. Thank you, you made my day a bit brighter:)

  18. What a wonderful post – congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

    I’ve been following your blog for a while, but this is my first comment. I agree with all that has been said above (and far more eloquently than I could!).

    I’ve been to Germany a couple of times, but never to Berlin. The area your photos show, seems so empty and soulless in comparison to other German cities. The modern architecture an eradication of its history.

    1. I Lisa, I don´t think architecture eradicated history. It were the bombs. The new transparency is there where war inflicted wounds. As a citizen I am fond of transparency.

    2. Thanks so much, Lisa, especially to know you’ve been following Near and Far. It’s deeply appreciated, as is your thoughtful comment.

      To be fair, I’ve been quite selective in showing this side of Berlin. Across the vast city – even close to what I’ve photographed in the centre – there are other, more intimate spaces, traditional or otherwise, which give a real sense of its vibrancy, relaxed manner and links to the past. But what I ultimately found compelling about this side of Berlin was it’s sense of clarity; a soaring, and perhaps searching, way to articulate and break with its history. That emptiness you mention is, for me, extremely attractive (and overall I generally lean towards the traditional when it comes to architecture). It allows space for consideration, a place to pause without distraction. Not sure what you’ll think about this, but thanks again for reading and commenting!

      Best wishes,

      1. I was trying to say the same thing that you’ve explained in your reply to me. Just very poorly. That in changing the architecture of this area, there is a break with history. In other cities which were rebuilt after the War, things returned to “normal”. This, however, is so different from what was there before.

        I don’t know if that’s clarified my comments – or just made it worse! ;-)

        1. I think you’ve done a great job of clarifying, Lisa! And I completely understand what you mean. What’s interests me is how we perceive these places after war. Over the years I’ve spent some time in Poland, and the city of Gdansk on the Baltic Sea is a great example of a different way of rebuilding. The old city was utterly destroyed during the war, but it was rebuilt brick by brick, doorknob by doorknob, roof angle by roof angle. Using old architectural plans, paintings, photographs it is a meticulous recreation in every sense of the word. And it is a stunning old town again. But is it real? What value do we place on the authentic? Does the fact that people responded to the devastation of the war by placing their energies into a vision of rebuilding actually make it real again? In Berlin there is a definite break from that past, one that I think is intentional and still beautiful in its own dreamlike way.

          Great to hear from you! I’ve enjoyed where your thoughts and comments have taken us, exploring these ideas.

          Best wishes,

  19. Hi,

    Your post reminded me of my visit to Berlin last year.

    Here’s one of the photos I think represents what you call “the city of glass” and of “violent reinventions”…




  20. Thank you, Julian for what in my ears sounds like a veritable love declaration for my country’s capital! I shared your post on twitter to read for my German friends. I love Berlin. It’s the Germany I like: becoming more and more multicultural, open for the future, connected to the past and not forgetting about it. We have our problems with national identity because of our history, but Berlin is taking the step towards a selfconscious new Germany that welcomes people from all over the world. And it doesn’t only have the glass architecture (which I personally like), but also nice neighbourhoods and suburbs which have preserved the charme of past decades and even centuries. I bet you’ve been there, too.
    Thanks again for your wonderful post!
    Greetings from Germany, Uta

    1. Uta, what a wonderful comment on the post! I’m thrilled you liked it and deeply appreciate the thoughtful comment, particularly the way you’ve described your thoughts on the new Germany. Having only a brief few days in Berlin I didn’t manage to get out to the suburbs or really even the neighbourhoods, but what I loved about what I did experience there was precisely what you’re talking about: the city’s openness to the future, its multicultural nature, the past being remembered while still living in the present. There was something intensely exciting about Berlin, a vibrancy and diversity of people in the same place. Although my great-grandfather was German – he left what was then Stettin at the end of the 1800s to live in England and marry there – my family and I grew up English. This journey to Berlin was partly about exploring some of that past and I felt extremely at ease in the city, like a part of me belonged there. I look forward to returning some day and seeing again where the city’s fascinating path leads.

      Many thanks again for the kind words and best wishes to you,


  21. Congratulations on your article being freshly pressed, Julian! What great writing and photographs, as usual. I think we have a piece of the Berlin Wall kicking around here somewhere. My partner was there in 1989, but I have yet to visit. You did a wonderful job photographing the architecture.

    1. Thanks, Cait! Always wonderful to hear from you and I appreciate the compliment! It’s interesting that you mention a piece of the Wall as shops throughout the city still offer tiny bits of it for sale – daubed in paint and sealed in plastic packaging. Now I know the Wall was long (and high) but could these pieces in 2011 really be parts of the original? Wandering the streets I imagined I would turn a corner and stumble on an open-air workshop in some empty lot where any old stone or old building was being sledgehammered into fragments, while other workers dutifully added some authentic graffiti from little pots of paint!

      Thanks again and hope all is well,

  22. Julian,

    Some very fine pictures accompanying your prose in this post. I found the ones titled Water light, Cloud effects and City of Glass especially beautiful-light, angles and reflections are combined in artistic photographs. Great visual compositions, and always a pleasure to read your posts.

    Hope all is well,


    1. Thanks very much, P! Always a pleasure to hear from you and I’m delighted you like the images so much. They’re among my own favourites as well – it occured to me while taking the photos how rich the possibilities might be to return to the city in different seasons, different weathers and moods, and record how the reflections altered accordingly. What new mystery of light might surface each time. Unfortunately I don’t have the money to carry out such a project since I don’t live there! Still, I like imagining what the results might be….

      Take care, and hope you’re well –

  23. I am so late in but nonetheless richer for the enlightening conversation issuing from this edifying post. I suppose all places have a ‘history’, which inhabitants might be more or less aware of. I’m intrigued by what seems to me to be an inevitable difference between growing up in a place that has been judged so on a worldwide scale as opposed to here in Canada: such a young and perceptibly innocent country. It may be – suitably – naive to compare Berlin’s growing pains and subsequent reinventions to the blossoming of a young adult who has been a victim of abuse, suffered the effects and subsequently found peace and freedom – and wisdom – in facing (as in reflections in glass), allowing and leaving behind that part of self. Here, we invent ourselves from a vacuum. If Douglas Adam was right when he said, “Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so”, then how long and how wide must that “span of dreams” be? Are young Canadians, insulated in their cocoon of innocence and safety, any different than young Berliners? Will the admirable efforts of Berlin’s movers and shakers simply facilitate a new generation of global consumers? Or will it be able to maintain the maturity of collective wisdom gained so very painfully? Will the glass remain, or be replaced by concrete and steel?

    1. Thanks for the wonderfully thoughtful comment, Cindy. Never too late, though I seem to be quite behind in replying to you! I’m equally fascinated by these differences between the Old and New World, and of the differing perspectives. We knew a Brazilian working in Greece when we first moved here and she had a refreshinly upfront and dead-pan way of speaking about things. When talking about the history of Europe one day, she said: “All this history, what does it mean. You’ll all like little dogs pissing on each other to mark your territories.” I still laugh when I hear her say that in memory, but there was perhaps an interesting truth in the matter as well.

      I love the Douglas Adams’ quote, and it follows on very nicely from something you say which wasn’t mentioned anywhere else during the thread regarding the nature of glass in modern Berlin, despite a number of varying views. The idea of facing up to a history, confronting in in the reflections. There is a fascinating idea there in your idea. Interestingly, in the days since I wrote the post I’ve been reading a number of articles about the gentrification of the inner city – something I watched happen in the wonderful East End of London years ago. “That new generation of global consumers” are leading the way and the artists, the working class, the interesting cafes and galleries are all being forced out by new money. What appears to be taking their place will inevitably lack the diversity and vibrancy of the earlier communities, a staid and generic wealth at ease only with itself. I’ll be fascinated to see where it all leads…

      1. Although your wonderfully plucky friend is completely correct, I hope the we are pissing some wisdom that will stain. You have such a positive attitude. I’m saddened to read that I won’t ever be able to visit a district like Soho or Haight-Asbury – I missed the bus.

  24. A fascinating piece. The debate about “re-imagining” a city (and, more specifically, a church as in the Kaiser Wilhelm church) as opposed to “re-placing” what was there before (as with the centre of Gdansk) is a very interesting one. I very much appreciate the concept in urban planning in the UK that if you restore an old building any new bits have to be very obviously new so that the history of the building can be “read” – I like that concept much more than the notion of trying to make new bits blend in with the old bits and pretending they were there all the time!

    Any concept of the rise and fall and flux of cities reminds me of the lines from Shelley’s “Ozymandias”:

    ” “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
    Look on my works ye mighty and despair!”
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

    1. Thanks very much, Martin! Bringing ‘Ozymandias’ to the discussion adds another fascinating layer to the idea of time and human structures. It’s a poem that has left a profound mark on me; the poetic articulation of impermanence. That “colossal wreck” can be found across continents and cultures, and seems no less a poignant reminder now of the folly of so many of our enterprises.

      It’s also interesting what you note regarding the different approaches to urban planning. I recall our shared amazement while walking the streets of Gdansk all those years ago….the unreal city. Yet beautiful and compelling all the same. Thanks so much for taking the time to read…

  25. great effort
    you are not only interested in nature but also everything that you see with your eyes ……..
    i think you are always used to carry a camera with you to take this beautiful pictures
    No more to say

    1. Thank you, Thasni! I don’t always carry a camera, but it’s true that I often have it with me when I’m out walking, either in cities or in nature, as you never know when you can see something interesting!
      Best wishes to you,

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