Living layers in Berlin

In Berlin, the past and present of the urban landscape interweave in poignant and productive ways to transform the city of ghosts in to a city of promise.

By Eliza Apperly


Berlin is a big city. Spanning 892km², its sense of scale is intensified by the breadth of its boulevards, the tall grandeur of West Berlin doorways and windows, the stretch of GDR-era apartment blocks, the skyward soar of the TV tower, and, above all, the vast geographical and historical reach across which actions originating in this city have rippled.

Thinking about urban experience amid this expanse, it seems the simplest way to begin is with the beginning. My day begins with Rosa, Markus, Lucie, Flora, Sonia and Georg. As I step out from sleep into the city, my very first encounter is these six names. Often, wobbly kids pedal past on their way to school. On Tuesdays and Fridays, the street is preparing for the Turkish market – steaming coffee in polystyrene cups amid the clatter of trestle tables. In winter, the sky is a suspension of grey, and sharp air whips off the icy canal around the nape of your neck. In summer, there is sunlight and swans on the water, and the air is sweet with the smell of leaves. Every day, every morning, Rosa, Markus, Georg, Lucie, Flora and Sonia are there.

Their six names are engraved in cobblestone-sized brass plaques, set in the pavement just before the front door to my building. The plaques don’t mince words. They don’t pretend to mark anything other than miniature biographies of lives cut, without exception, prematurely short.

BORN 1873
DEPORTED 19.11.1942
MURDERED 8.3.1943

There are thousands of these stolpersteine, or “stumbling stones” in Berlin. Conceived by artist Gunter Demnig, they each record the known name, birth, deportation and death dates of a victim of National Socialism, outside their last residence. The project originated in Cologne, and moved to Berlin in 1996, where they first came to the attention of the authorities when they impeded some construction work. Project managers wanted to have the plaques removed, but the workers on site refused. Bureaucrats came, bent over these names of the dead in the street, and the stones were retrospectively legalised.

A candle and flowers placed at the Stolpersteine on the anniversary of Kristallnacht
A candle and flowers placed at the Stolpersteine on the anniversary of Kristallnacht

With official approval, and widespread expansion, the project has lost none of its integrity or intent. Every single stone remains handmade. For Demnig, any element of mass-manufacture would recall the mechanised deaths of the Jewish, Sinti, Roma, gay, Jehovah’s Witness, and politically persecuted individuals whose memory he seeks to preserve. In response to some who find these plaques in the pavement undignified, Demnig suggests instead a particular poetry in having lost lives at our feet. For him, the idea is to “stumble” over the memorials not just in step, but “with your head and heart”. “One of the most beautiful pictures I find”, he explains “is this aspect that, when you want to read, you have to bow, before the victim.”

He’s right. They do. And in the middle of a busy day, on a busy street, in a busy week, an unfathomable past pierces through.

Pedestrians bow to look at Stolpersteine in West Berlin
Pedestrians bow to look at Stolpersteine in West Berlin

So the daily present in Berlin begins with the past. A past, quite literally, at my feet, and a past that remains present throughout the day, and through the weeks and near year and a half that this Hauptstadt has been a new home. It’s at my door, under my wheels when I pedal to work, skirting the 19,000 square metres of Peter Eisenmann’s Holocaust Memorial; jolting over the cobble line in the road, which follows the former route of the wall between East and West; and waiting at traffic lights opposite the Topographie des Terrors, another citizens’ initiative which campaigned to save the former site of the Gestapo and SS Headquarters from redevelopment and to establish instead an “open wound in the cityscape”. The name “Topographie” was chosen, in the words of Klaus Hesse, curator of the Topographie des Terrors foundation, to disallow denial, to “find words again” out of the tangle-weed, foundations and dust.

In the capital of a nation that journalist Kate Connolly describes as “a country which like no other has painstakingly documented its misdeeds”, urban existence in Berlin is perforated by tokens, markers, memories of trauma. It is, unremittingly, a city of ghosts.

Winter view across the Topographie des Terrors
Winter view across the Topographie des Terrors

But Berlin is also a city of hope. And it is a city of freedom and imagination and art. It is a city where for every visitor come to pay their respects to the innocent dead, there are four more come to dance until dawn. It is a city of start-ups, of urban gardens, of open access symposia in old electricity stations, of installations in abandoned shopping centres. It is a city with a profound yet nonchalant acceptance of eccentricity and individualism, where there’s little point in posing, because there’s little to posture against.


And what seems especially particular, and particularly special, to Berlin is the way in which the ghosts and the hope, the memories and the creative moment coexist. The relationship could well be called causal: bright, artistic energy creating always on the edge of, perhaps because of, the devastation that went before, and an entrenched individualism reckoning constantly with the scars of two successive totalitarian regimes. To me, the past-present interplay is also profoundly architectural. It is the city’s space and its structures that allows for both the present moment, and the collective memory.

As the memorials excavate, erect, and commemorate what is historically past into the immediate exterior, so much of Berlin’s present is, instead, tucked away. Focal, public space and surface structure recovers a temporal past, while it is only by venturing behind facades, through dilapidated, disused space, backstreets, backyards, courtyards (most buildings in Berlin consist of a “front house”, a back-building and perhaps a side-building too, all arranged around a communal yard space), that some of the most original and exciting contemporary ventures appear.

So it’s only by taking the escalator to the top floor of the Neukölln Arcaden shopping centre, crossing into the adjoining multi-storey car park, and climbing the ramp to the roof, that one reaches Klunkerkranich, a come-one, come-all 2500 square metre expanse of cold beer, herb boxes, and soul-soaring city views.


It’s only by peering over the fence at an unprepossessing roundabout in Kreuzberg that one finds the Prinzessinengarten, a five-year-old project launched by non-profit Nomadisch Grün, which transformed the wasteland site of a disused department store into the city’s showcase urban garden, where bees and bugs buzz, herbs and vegetables grow in raised compost crate beds, and where “children, neighbours, experts, and anyone curious” can come to learn about organic food, sustainable living, and climate. Meanwhile, back in Neukölln, in an imposing, red-brick former electricity substation, SAVVY contemporary has taken over 400 square metres to display, and foster dialogue with, non-Western fine and performance art, arranging exhibitions, round-tables, and an ever-expanding library.

Research area at SAVVY Contemporary
Research area at SAVVY Contemporary

Then there’s the Boros collection, one of the city’s big-name contemporary art collections, housed in a former Nazi bunker of 1.8 meter-thick walls. There’s INFARM, which has transformed a back courtyard building in a side street not far from the longest surviving stretch of the Berlin Wall into a pioneering case study in organic, non-GMO, indoor farming, with a workshop and lecture program to explain cost-effective and eco-friendly nutrition. And there’s Pfefferberg, an old brewery site in the North-Eastern district of Prenzlauer Berg, restored into a sprawling cultural and social centre, currently home to the Institute of Cultural Inquiry, Olafur Eliasson’s studio, and outdoor tango classes on sunny summer Sundays.

Eco-friendly urban farming at INFARM
Eco-friendly urban farming at INFARM

Gardens, galleries, discussion groups, dance classes, Berlin’s contemporary energy is often as concealed as it is copious, discovered only by peering inside, behind, wandering around, or up or down. As the city lifts the temporally lost to the architectural surface, so it nurtures a creative present behind its concrete-clad facades. Being in Berlin becomes an inherently exploratory existence, an experience shaped by double discovery through time and space: past to recover, present to seek out.



Eliza Apperly has lived in Berlin since January 2013. After working as a journalist for Reuters, The Guardian, The Week and the Art Newspaper, she is now an editor for TASCHEN Books, focused particularly on art, architecture, photography and history titles.


All photos by Eliza Apperly – all rights reserved.