Tuesday, August 3, 2010

99 luftbalons

So the other day I was riding aimlessly around on my bike Philip, which is what I tend to do here during the hours of daylight, and I hallucinated that I saw 99 red balloons rising over Berlin. That was my immediate assumption, anyhow, because nobody else seemed to be looking at them, and if you're riding around in the hot sun beside the Spree with a powerful combination of Cloudboy and John White's Balloon Adventure pumping on your portable mp3 player, that's the sort of thing you'd be likely to hallucinate I would think.

Like a fool, I whipped out my trusty 8 MEGApixel camera and flailed wildly at the sky, in an attempt to record this phenomenon. It turns out that my camera must have been equally affected by Cloudboy and the sun, because I was able to capture the following chilling images:

Obviously they have not been altered in any way. Is this evidence of balloons? Or are the objects merely visitors from another solar system, harbingers of the great invasion? Either way, the incident gave me pause. There is clearly more to this city than meets the eye.

What I was really supposed to be doing was taking photographs of some of the remarkable things the Soviets did to this town while they were living here. There are few things your average totalitarian architect likes better than straight lines and lots of open space to put them on. Fortunately for the architects of the DDR (but not so much for the people who lived there), the Red Army did quite a good job of clearing a lot of space in East Berlin in 1945, by blowing it up and driving their tanks all over it on their way to the Reichstag. This meant that when city planners decided that they needed two kilometres of identical apartment buildings in Soviet Modern style, with good sightlines down towards a projected really quite extraordinary TV antenna, all they had to do was point their labour force toward the patch of rubble by the Frankfurt gate and put them to work. The results were more or less what they had in mind, I think:

All of the buildings, for nearly two km, look like this:

They liked the street so much, they named it after Joe Stalin, which is what you did in those days if you liked a thing. After he became unfashionable, they changed its name to Karl-Marx Allee, because there's something timelessly uncontroversial about a really good beard.

I think it's possible to learn a lot about a place by riding around aimlessly taking photos of it. I certainly haven't learnt anything much myself, but I think it's probably possible. Most of what I've learnt I've really just made up in my head. Did you know, for example, that the town planners of the 1950s thought that the streetlight of the future would look like this?

No question, those guys were onto something. When they get around to installing municipal lighting on the Mars colony, they'll definitely be paying a visit to Berlin to sort out their style guide.

In another part of town, down by Treptow, there was enough room to put up a war memorial large enough to be seen from space. In keeping with the straight line thing, its design incorporates a lot of really straight lines. Looking at parts of this memorial, you could be forgiven for thinking that one of the things that Soviet architects were trying to do was make it look like they lived in some sort of evil empire from a computer game. I'm pretty sure that's not really the look they were going for, but honestly, take a look at this:

That is totally where you would have to fight some really badassed dude who shoots fire out of his eyes. Once you had defeated him and levelled up, you would see this:

Which is way bigger than it looks, and really so full of straight lines it made my eyes hurt. Those concrete blocks down each side are massive, and they're covered with bas-relief carvings that look like this, for example:

This is a Soviet Realist artist's way of telling you that you don't mess about with the Red Army, because they will kick your ass with the ghost of Lenin. See what I mean about making things up in my head?

Once you've made it past all of these extremely large blocks of marble, you get to this guy:

He's about three stories tall, not even counting the hill and the concrete thing he's standing on. His sword is about as big as he is, and he's just used it to cut up an enormous swastika. He has a kid hanging onto his shoulder, because as well as being a tough Nazi-killer, he's a family man. Apparently the child is German, and he's saved her. They had to make the statue this tall so that they could fit all the metaphors in.

The thing I should probably mention about this place, at risk of turning this into another sad-sack post about fascists, is that it's one of the mass graves where a lot of the Russian soldiers who died in the 'Berlin Operation' were buried. About 5,000 of them, in fact, which is about six percent of the Russian soldiers who died in this operation alone. And about 0.02 per cent of the Russians who died in the whole of the war. So they had a pretty good reason for putting up such a big war memorial.

Just in case you think that the reason I'm in Berlin in the first place is to form amateurish opinions about their architecture, here is a picture of me doing what I am really here to do, which is grow a beard.

Here you can see me growing a beard on the stage at a bar called Schokoladen, where I played a show with the Mamaku Project the other day. They were extremely good, but you probably knew that already. The photo is by Ms. Elsa Thorp, who has a website here: www.elsathorp.com.


  1. Sam, (beg pardon, I should say Mr Bridge) I am confused by your pictures. You say you are in Berlin, and most of the pictures could be consistent with that, but your first picture (with the inter-planetary flying thingy) looks to have the roof of a polynesian house in front, or is it a building in the Forbidden City? - anyway, it doesn't look Stalinist. Mark (Father Bridge, as you might say))

  2. Uh-oh, sorry guys, um, my parents have come home, so we'll need to turn it down.

  3. But actually, not all the buildings here are by Mr Stalin. That one is the roof of the train station I think.