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Scene in Berlin

Jonathan GiffordMay 10, 2013

In Berlin, contrasting cultures have managed to emerge literally side-by-side. DW's Jonathan Gifford discovers that perhaps the secret to this small miracle was laid down by design, many years ago.

Sketch of Berlin's urban structure by Anna Kostreva
Zeichnungen von Anna KostrevaImage: Anna Kostreva

A wander to a coffee shop, some drinks with friends in a local park, the leisurely bike commute to work; There's no doubt, as the sun begins to emerge and the seemingly endless grey of winter dissipates, that my local neighborhood (known here as a Kiez) of Prenzlauer Berg has a heap of simple pleasures all within a stone's throw of my front door.

The flip side, of course, is that sometimes I feel like I haven't ventured far from the neighborhood I call home for days, or even weeks. But then again, why would I? I can feed, water, clothe and keep myself fairly well entertained within the 11 square kilometers that make up "my" part of the city.

That one-of-a-kind vibe

My Kiez has a unique vibe, a special environment that's formed through local residents and new arrivals alike. I freely admit that it may not have the best restaurants, grand avenues or über cool bars, but it's certainly got something of its own going on and that something is a good fit for me.

Berlin's Kiez culture has been well documented. Each of its neighborhoods has a unique set of characteristics and communities that make it special. The city's tourism office acknowledged this by producing a brochure a few years back which tried to entice visitors away from the major sites and into the local Kiez that suited their style.

Anna Kostreva
Kostreva sees Berlin with different eyesImage: privat

As the brochures sets out, "In Mitte, not only the chancellor rules, but also fashion. Neukölln is changing from a problem district into a trendy area and City West is experiencing a renaissance. Prenzlauer Berg is family friendly, Kreuzberg is multicultural, and Friedrichshain is the heart of alternative living."

Like a tree

But how did Berlin become the multitudinous feast it is today? It's all in how the city grew, argues architect and artist Anna Kostreva. She says that as the city expanded from its historic beginnings - from an ancient kernel, as she describes it - it expanded in concentric rings. Today, each of those rings is a Kiez.

Kostreva is a 27-year-old American who brings an outsider's perspective to Berlin: She's lived here for only three years. Her passion is studying cities and the ways in which the past defines their present. She's looked at New York and Johannesburg and has seen how history's lurches have left grids, scored shapes and imbedded patterns that still have an impact on the way people exist in the built space around them.

"You could think of the networks of streets as being what the rest of the built structure of the city hangs off it," explains Kostreva. "For me those streets are coming out of a very deep history, much deeper than just the transportation that we see around us. It's something that has been built up since medieval times."

Sketch of Berlin's urban structure by Anna Kostreva
Kostreva's drawings reveal tree-like ringsImage: Anna Kostreva

Heading back along that history, what was once the twin settlements of Berlin-Köln emerged at the intersection of three trade routes. "The fact that three trade routes intersected each other at one point gave it a quality that made it have axes and thus also develop radially and concentrically," explains Kostreva.

This structure caused the city to grow outwards in a set of more-or-less concentric rings, or growth rings - like the ones you can see on a tree trunk.

Kostreva says you can still see evidence of these growth rings, which continue to define how residents move around the city. She's traced the rings in her drawings, overlaying historic impressions onto the streetscapes of today - and the similarities are striking.

Two growth rings that have defined movement around the city are the Ringbahn tram line and the A10 freeway. "The Ringbahn goes around Berlin in an hour," says Kostreva, "It has this distinct feeling of what is in and what is out of the city - especially after the Cold War, now that Berlin has been recombined we have had to take both sides into account and the Ringbahn still does that."

The A10 freeway also expresses Berlin's ambitions to continue growing and expanding, laying down its growth ring in wide, black asphalt. It's not a concentric ring, however, but takes on a herniated shape toward the southwest, where it bulges out to head around the satellite city of Potsdam.

Links to the past

The growth rings also manifest themselves in the former city walls that have played various roles in the city's history. The medieval City Wall, which was in place between the 12th and 17th centuries, left its mark. Today, newer buildings near Hackescher Markt incorporate towers in their structures in the same place that imposing stone defensive towers formerly stood to protect city residents from intruders.

The so-called Tax Wall, built in the 18th century, also left an indelible impression on the city. The names Brandenburg Gate, Kottbuss Gate, Silesian Gate and Oranienburg Gate all date back from that time. A number of vast brewery complexes to the north of the Mitte district, in my Kiez Prenzlauer Berg, are also relics of that time. They were built in part to cash in on the commercial opportunity presented by city residents' desire to spend time outside the tax constraints of the city, and presumably imbibe some of the brewers' wares at the same time.

Sketch of Berlin's urban structure by Anna Kostreva
Kostreva's work overlaps bygone Berlin structures with current buildingsImage: Anna Kostreva

"Some of the things I've found out through my research looking at the historic walls and gates have allowed me to see in our current surroundings with structures that no longer exist," says Kostreva.

One such personal coincidence is that in 2010, when I was a fresh arrival in the city, my wedding reception was held in one of these former breweries, the König's Brauerei. The location has had its many rooms and halls converted into artists' ateliers, offices, bars and venues.

Learning of the building's former role made me feel connected in one sense to the past, and also hope that the festivities on my wedding day lived up to the revelry during the times of the Tax Wall.

Another such coincidence is that my leisurely bike journey to the office takes me through the Rosenthaler Platz - where the Rosenthal Gate was located. The journey itself clearly divides my life, in a spacio-temporal sense, between work and pleasure, from one side of the Tax Wall to the other. Heading home and up the hill away from the gate, today nothing more than a shadow of history, has taken on special meaning since I learned of its significance. It certainly puts an extra spring in my pedaling.

Kostreva explains, "It's nice to think about the history of the places that I'm in, it might be the small discoveries that make a big difference about the way you move through the city."

And the more I think about it, the more I agree. The way the past and the future come together at various points is not just of passing interest but of actual import. And so the next time I find myself wondering why it's been so long since I made it outside of my Kiez, I can feel content. It was designed that way, once upon a time.