Landscape architecture, garden design, planting design and management - Rowland Byass

Ruins, weeds and wastelands: Berlin


(This text is part of a paper I presented at a Material Memory: The Post Industrial Landscape as site for Creative Practice, a conference organised by the Fine Art department of the School of Arts and Cultures, Newcastle University in November 2014.)

Late summer in Berlin. Arriving by train from Schonefeld airport, the first things I notice are the tall weeds growing along the railway sidings. I recognise some – American ruderals like Goldenrod familiar from similar wasteground settings in Britain. The white umbels of wild carrot. Tall, fine grasses with parchment coloured seedheads – Calamagrostis I think. Via the German nurseryman Karl Foerster, selections of Calamagrostis species have found their way into ‘prairie’ and ‘wild’ planting schemes all over the temperate world. These weeds are finer, with less dominance of rank grasses than I’d expect to find on the clay soils of London. They speak of poorer, sandy soils. Of the great north European plain, stretching thousands of miles eastward to the Ural mountains.

There is a wide set of railway lines running east-west that roughly bisect East Berlin. Wider than the river Spree, this corridor is somehow more significant than that natural feature in defining the form of the modern city. You can cycle along Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse, over the Spree onto Museumsinsel and again over the river onto Unter den Linden without really noticing it. But Warschauer Brucke carries you up over the railway and from the peak of the bridge, offers up a panorama of the city. Below, multiple railway lines carve their way through a broad hinterland of weeds, scrub and trees. Weeds grow up to the rails, grading from tall grassland communities to the scrubby beginnings of woodland further from the tracks. Even on the wide avenue of Warschauerstrasse, grass and weeds grow between the rails of the central tramline, trimmed by the undersides of trams passing above.

Then there are the pavements. Weeds grow in the cracks between the granite cobbles flanking every pavement, on every street. Berlin has a standard pavement design, visible everywhere. On older pavements the central path is of large granite flagstones – more usually ‘terazzo granite’ flags. On either side are smaller irregularly riven setts of granite. Both flagstones and setts are bedded on sand and the joints filled with sand, creating a permeable surface and allowing self seeded weeds to establish in the joints.

Walking the city streets, patches of weedy wasteland are still evident - fifteen years after the fall of the Wall, sixty-nine years after the end of the War. Sometimes you see people playing music on these pieces of ground in the summer. Elsewhere are improvised tent encampments. There is a distinct sense, for all the new buildings, that there has been a great disjuncture here in the past. A catastrophe, a series of catastrophes. Humans are re-occupying places built in another time, for other purposes. Squatting in the ruins. There’s something casual about this re-use, a lack of automatic deference for the past. The way graffiti covers old and new buildings without discrimination. The past is everywhere; it’s also up for grabs. This city’s refusal to be merely pretty. And everywhere weeds, those ‘global signatures of disturbance’ in Richard Mabey’s words, and the marginal land on which they thrive.

For me this is a significant clue as to why I can feel free in Berlin, in a way in which I don’t in London, or Paris, cities whose monuments are still stiff with the unreconstructed national myth. No such simple imagined relationship with the past is possible here. Berlin is a broken city. Broken and remade into something else. Kintsugi on an urban scale. The gaps between the broken pieces of the urban fabric are the spaces in which things rich and strange emerge.

Here’s another clue. In Berlin you can find ruined buildings aplenty – less than there used to be, certainly. But still the city is littered with them: old hospitals, an abandoned theme park, bombed out nineteenth century villas, even the former Iraqi embassy. There are two kinds of ruin in Berlin. There are the incidentally abandoned or officially forgotten ruins, left to the mercy of the elements and contemporary urban explorers. Then there are the official ruins, those relating to the war. These ruins have been scrupulously repaired, but not reconstructed. The tell-tale sign is the zinc flashing. It follows the broken-off edges of the portico of the former Anhalter Bahnhof railway station like a cauterised wound. The flashing arrests the decay, fixes the ruin neatly. What is left of this building is not allowed to crumble in a picturesque way, weeds sprouting between the masonry like the basilicas of Rome or the city walls of Istanbul. Because this would romanticise sudden annihilation. This was one of Berlin’s major rail termini. From here Jews were deported to concentration camps. Damaged in a huge bombing raid in 1943, it was demolished in 1960. Here, ruins are not just ruins, wasteground is not just wasteground. Tabula rasa is just not possible in Berlin.

And yet I said that I felt freer here in Berlin than in other European cities, similarly freighted with history. How is this? I think it’s because somehow, the violent discontinuities of Berlin’s history, the spaces and places that have resulted, have made these meanings up for grabs, capable of remaking in new and invigorating ways. What inspires me are the possibilities that these places hold, rather than any individual uses or meanings (of which there are many) that they may hold. These patches of anthropogenic wilderness are a large part of what makes Berlin such a livable city, one alive with natural life and poetic possibilities. Because of the presence of so much accessible open land between built-up parts of the city, Berlin – uniquely among European capital cities - offers a range of landscape experiences in addition to the more conventional pleasures of walking the city streets. This includes things usually associated with wild or rural landscapes, like picking wildflowers, cooking over an open fire, playing music in the open air and camping – even when done within sight of a huge retail warehouse. This strange confounding of the usual rural / urban binary is part of the very necessity ambiguity of wasteland landscapes. With the natural and human ecologies that they enable, waste grounds are integral to the experience of place in Berlin.



The usual approach to Berghain is from the south, from Ostbanhof through a zone of large retail warehouses built within the last ten years. A broad, dusty path enclosed by wire mesh fences leads to the building’s entrance, a small double door at the foot of a monumental, Pharonic-looking façade. It looks like a gigantic tomb, a portal to the underworld. Large piers with narrow vertical windows in between rise out of a horizontal plinth up to a heavy overhanging cornice. In front of the south façade is a piece of remnant wasteground, a spontaneous meadow of annual and perennial weeds that grades into scrub and a copse of trees at the edges. The trees frame the building; at night the light from dozens of windows in Berghain’s façade backlights the trees and makes the building itself even more otherworldly, looming over this piece of urban wilderness. By forming the foreground to visitor’s first sight of Berghain, this wasteground makes it visually separate from the rest of the city.

It’s an illusion – there’s an Aldi supermarket within spitting distance on one side and to the north, Berghain is bordered by an ordinary city street with the large vehicular access that a building of this size requires. But it creates a powerful first impression of a place apart, and this impression is integral to the place that Berghain occupies in the imagination of those who enter it.

Berghain is the most recent incarnation of a culture of techno parties and raves that moved into an abundance of deserted spaces after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Clubs sprang up in an assortment of abandoned spaces like underground vaults, a former transformer station and an abandoned soap factory. A new underground culture of techno music united young people from east and west Berlin and in the process forged a new cultural identity for Berlin, one that has become world-renowned. The club has been in its current home since 2004. Its predecessor was a gay fetish and techno club called Ostgut, based in an old railway warehouse nearby. When that was demolished to make way for a large new event arena (O2 World), Ostgut moved into a former power station, built to supply heat to the model Socialist Realist apartments of Karl-Marx-Allee.

The name Berghain elides the suffixes of the two districts which it adjoins - Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain – formerly divided by the Wall. It is both a symbol, and tangible embodiment of, reunification and the new cultures that sprang up in the depopulated districts of East Berlin after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Inside Berghain, freedom is more than an idea: it is an ongoing experimental practice, lived out every weekend.

During the time I spent in Berlin, I kept returning to the land around Berghain, exploring all the accessible areas around it. I walked through the spontaneous grassland and scrub to the south of the building. I noticed familiar weeds of  agricultural and waste land: scentless mayweed and wild rocket (this one seen everywhere in Berlin), Canadian fleabane (a north American annual found on disturbed ground worldwide) and Goldenrod, another naturalised North American. The colour palette of flowers and foliage seems to me to perfectly evoke a time and place: yellow, dirty-white-to-cream shades, the parchment brown of grass seedheads, the furry dark brown of the bullrush seedheads growing in a drainage swale. I picked these wildflowers and made arrangements from them.

Immediately west of Berghain is a former railway yard and buildings from which coal was unloaded from freight wagons. A tall building with vast sliding doors, presumably connected with the unloading of coal from freight wagons, is now artists’ studios. Around it a scruffy garden has been built – raised beds, ponds, seating and firepits are formed out of former granite cobbles that presumably used to pave the city’s streets. Tall concrete walls are covered with graffiti murals. Unenclosed and unpoliced, this place is an open invitation to use and occupation. With friends, we held a barbeque one Friday night here, under the tall building, where someone had helpfully built a home-made firepit and grill. As the sun set over the car park next door, we scavenged firewood from the undergrowth nearby, built a fire and cooked food on it. We were surrounded by woodland, cooking food over a fire, and yet having an indisputably urban experience.

A friend used the word ‘DIY culture’ to describe the social, sexual, artistic and musical cultures of Berlin. By this she means people improvising music, art and culture with little or no money, without commerce as the primary imperative. I think that this is the common thread that connects the emergence of techno culture in the buildings of East Berlin in the 1990s through to the current incarnation of techno in Berghain, with what we, in our small way, were doing: repurposing the city’s buildings and landscapes to new uses. Commercial space – non-place – pressed in at the edge of this patch of woodland, visible in the arc lights of the car park, the acres of tarmac beyond the fence. Is making a picnic on wasteground a revolutionary act? I don’t really know. Still, there was something wonderful about cooking food and singing songs around a fire in the centre of a European capital city. We were active agents in the remaking of a place for our own purposes and meanings. When we finished our urban barbeque, others immediately adopted our fire to sit around.

It’s possible to theorise endlessly about the meanings that urban wastelands accrue, and the creative practices that they enable. Or perhaps to speculate about how all this space might be used by being programmed into art and cultural activities. But we should resist the fetishism of urban wilderness in such specific terms. Perhaps these places are most important not for any specific meaning, use or creative practice that they accommodate, but for their necessary ambiguity, the unprogrammed nature of the uses that they enable. As urban nature habitats, as location for informal, diy and underground cultures, as site for personal ramblings – wastelands are places that allow for re-imagining things as other than they are.




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