- Urban Memory and Visual Culture in Berlin: Framing the Asynchronous City, 1957–2012 by Simon Ward
“In fact, what I like about Berlin,” Peter Schneider writes in his novel Der Mauerspringer, “is what distinguishes this city from Hamburg, Frankfurt, Munich: the remnants [End Page 205] of ruins, in which head-high birches and bushes have put down roots; the bullet holes in the sand-grey, blistered façades, the yellowed advertisements on the fire walls” (Darmstadt, 1982, 7). Simon Ward’s book Urban Memory and Visual Culture in Berlin highlights how Berlin’s marginal sites became “unintended monuments.” It is difficult in a brief book review to account for the exceptional number of examples the author draws on in his study of urban memory. In a long-term project bringing together over seven years of original research and a broad range of visual sources, including exhibitions, newspaper articles, films, photography, and installations, Ward presents a comprehensive study of the relationship between memory and urban change. The remembrance of place and its remediation are interpreted as a direct response to demolition and reconstruction in postwar Berlin. Ward traces how the city’s specific topography and a slower pace of redevelopment allowed for the paradigm of “place memory work” to emerge. Visual culture has played a crucial role in framing urban memory and Ward’s study emphasizes the importance of the visual arts in challenging official forms of commemoration and accounting for different urban pasts.
The book begins with the period between 1957 and 1974, a time that has thus far been largely overlooked in studies of the production of urban memory in East and West Berlin. In the late 1950s, official planning policies were geared toward frictionless circulation and caused a new phase of demolition after wartime destruction. Ward examines how on both sides of the Wall, the Gründerzeit tenement buildings became key sites for the revaluing of urban memory and the resistance to the ideal of the automobile city. By the mid-1970s, the memory value of Berlin’s past had emerged as a key motif in East and West Berlin. Ward makes a brief but important point that the modernist tradition of the Weimar period presents a historical lineage that was largely forgotten in public discourses valuing the urban past, even in post-Wall Berlin.
Chapters 2 and 3 trace the continuities of conceptions of “place memory work” from the mid-1970s into the early post-Wende years. Central in this period is the figure of the curator foregrounding the tensions between the institutional and noninstitutional curating of urban memory. Ward contrasts different approaches to urban memory developed in the context of the International Building Exhibition (IBA) 1987 in West Berlin. While the IBA section directed by Joseph Kleihus was centered on “critical reconstruction”—a paradigm which prevailed throughout the 1990s in the planning scheme for postunification Berlin with its formalist approach based on the elision of cultural memory—another section led by Hardt-Waltherr Hämer focused on “careful urban renewal” and placed a strong focus on social and traumatic memory, exemplified in the response to the unearthing of the former SS headquarters. Site-specific art projects, such as works by Raffael Rheinsberg, drew attention to neglected sites by excavating the past and presented critical sources for cultural memory work. Yet, from 1984 onward, the city’s official event culture adopted and codified such [End Page 206] critical strategies for its staging of “the city as museum.” In the early 1990s, a range of visual arts projects, for example by Sophie Calle, Christian Boltanski, and Shimon Attie, began to address the disappearance of both Jewish and East German cultural memory in former East Berlin. Ward discusses how these artists articulated a concern with the preservation of obsolescence in the context of increasing values of real estate.
The final chapter focuses on the production of urban memory for consumption in postunification Berlin and shifts the focus to centrally located large-scale obsolescent spaces left behind...