Delving into bygone eras of air raids and destruction is not my favorite past-time. But in Berlin, where the urban terrain is nothing short of a living museum, you are confronted with relics of the city's warring past.
The Nazis built a number of buildings in Berlin that once housed the masterminds of the SS, and today remain ominous and foreboding on the city landscape. Memorial plaques everywhere mark sites where gruesome events took place: pogroms, synagogue desecrations, book burnings, and deportations to death camps.
You still find building facades pock-marked with bullet holes, and workers making street repairs still uncover the occasional bomb or mine. This forces me to recognize that this peace-and-party-loving metropolis once had more pressing problems than parks overflowing with picnic litter each weekend, or an unreliable underground.
Berlin's most obtrusive residue of its war-worn past, however, is the bunkers. Close to a thousand underground bunkers were constructed during the war, from Hitler's personal, ornate bunker, to mass bunkers large enough to hold thousands of citizens. Each bunker's tale is a unique piece of the bigger mosaic and together they a a testimony to Berlin's war and post-war history.
Take the bunker in the garden colony in my neighborhood, Schöneberg, which also serves as my jogging route. In the 1930s, this botanical sanctuary of fruit trees and diligent hobby gardeners was confiscated by the military. They stripped the surface, built a bunker beneath the top soil, and used the grounds to store heavy weapons and munitions. When the war ended, the locals got busy clearing away the abandoned scrap metal, and planting food for survival. The bunker was pillaged for its supplies and forgotten about.
Still, no one in the garden wanted to grow potatoes and cabbage directly over the bunker, so a little kiosk and beer garden were built there instead - and appropriately named Zum Bunker.
The bunkers built above ground, however, were less easy to ignore. Although they're comparatively few in number the city decided it would cost too much to destroy and clear them away, so citizens had no other choice than to embrace these colossal war mementos.
And in typical, innovative Berlin fashion, they have. Aboveground bunkers have been transformed into science labs, temples of techno music, art galleries, education venues, S&M clubs, historical tour sites, and even an extremely creepy house of horrors.
It took me years to realize that one aboveground bunker, which I pass daily on my bike, was a bunker at all. This stocky, concrete structure was integrated into a newer construction - a social housing complex that was built on top of it. The housing complex itself is equally ugly, so the two are a perfect match.
This combined architectural eyesore has one small consolation. Vines of ivy have covered the bunker's exterior, turning its porous surface into a vertical lawn of patterned greenery.
The destiny of another bunker on the other side of town couldn't be more contrasting. Wedged between university buildings and upscale cafes in the Mitte district, the most exclusive part of town, a colossal bunker has been converted into a private showroom for one man's modern art collection. Some years back, an architect and art collector with both gumption and capital bought the bunker for peanuts.
After five arduous years of drilling and excavating it, the bunker now houses not just a world-class modern art collection spread over five floors, but also the architect himself. The bunker's flat roof provided the perfect surface for constructing a luxurious, 250-square-meter glass penthouse, complete with terrace garden and swimming pool.
Waiting for genius to strike
The unique and practical uses Berliners have found for bunkers have inspired me. But there is one in particular - a modest, little bunker in my neighborhood located on a small, side street - that haunts me. It sits a bit back from the other buildings, looking neglected and just begging for a function. A passing glimpse at this massive, formless clump of grey cement sets my mind into a flurry of ideas for its purposeful transformation.
But until I find the right idea and a rich investor, bomb shelters could once again be in high demand. So in the meantime, I think I'll give The Architect a call and see if I can get myself invited over for a private art tour and a coffee on the terrace.
Author: Leah McDonnell
Editor: Kate Bowen