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Radical History Review 83 (2002) 115-142

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Empty Space and the City:
The Reoccupation of Berlin

John Grech


One of the central points Lewis Mumford makes in his classic study The City in History is that, historically, cities are places where more and more people have gone to realize their lives. 1 This article deals with cities; in particular, it deals with the city of Berlin, or should I say, with a portrait of that city, a city that lies at the heart of many events marking the development of the West in its current form. This work takes as its central themes the emptiness and space in the city created by the Berlin Wall. I develop these ideas in the form of a meditation, an essay in the tradition of Montaigne, a personal reflection on a theme, that more than documents the transformations of the city from the 1980s to the 1990s. It is also a travelogue. Thus this article transcribes spaces geographic, economic, political, cinematic, personal, and linguistic on an ambling sojourn from Potsdamerplatz to the Reichstag.

The impressions and speaking positions given here are those of a Maltese Australian who has spent much of his life in the heart of Sydney, and who has traveled to Berlin occasionally. This is the position of a misplaced individual who stands both here and there, on the margins, a migrant and a tourist. The present essay considers these positions, the migrant and the tourist, alongside that of the citizen in an analytical synthesis examining how "the people" occupy space in "the city" today.

I might have titled this essay "Sydney/Berlin: Center/Periphery," but such a name might have suggested an anachronistic exploration that travels from center to [End Page 115] edge along two big cities at the end of the twentieth century. In fact, I want to displace fixed notions of time-space, here-there, past-present, in-out as part of a larger, ongoing search for a sense of belonging. Today, places like Sydney and Berlin form part of a global web of habitable spaces emerging in the city of the twenty-first century.

Yet if Sydney and Berlin constitute explicit nodes in this network, places like Malta and Amsterdam remain implicitly available as places where cohabitation and belonging may become more actual, that is, places where both the symbolic and material occupation of space may be accommodated more satisfactorily. While I never fully explicate these places in this article, they exist within my work nonetheless.

This essay presents a range of sources. Two films by Wim Wenders—Wings of Desire (1987) and Faraway, So Close! (1993)—are central to formulating an initial impression of Berlin. A selection of writings and my own work as an artist and writer accompany these two sources. In this way, I seek to establish an intersubjective text that does not claim a singular authorial voice over either the places evoked or the texts referred to. What I hope to do is open up a third space—for the reader—that we may coinhabit. Projects like this also always address difference and identification, integration and exclusion, a desire to participate and contribute, as well as a need to be honored and recognized.

I have structured this article into three parts. Part 1 talks about Cold War Berlin, in particular the sense of space created east and west of the city. Part 2 deals with the reoccupation of the city during the 1990s, first by looking at how capitalist enterprises took up a place in Berlin, and then by looking at the role language plays in the demarcation and capturing of space. I have created two intersections between parts 1 and 2 that discuss the disappearing/reappearing subject.

The communicative strategy behind this essay seeks to create a dynamic relationship between the different roles and parts found therein, an approach that will prove quite demanding of you, its receiver, too. If you seek to measure the success of this strategy, you might like to ask if there is a space, or a sense of...


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pp. 115-142
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2004
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