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Berlin’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Part 2

November 7, 2014 | by

Life on the Karl-Marx-Allee. Read Part 1 here.

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Karl-Marx-Allee Block C South, 1951.

Philipp and Quentin live in an apartment next to the Rose Garden, in Block D North, a comely segment of the Karl-Marx-Allee designed by Kurt Leucht.

“It takes time to get used to the style of the buildings,” Quentin tells me. “It’s so massive. There’s nothing delicate in the style.” He points to the oversized street lamps from his window. The lampposts dwarf the cars parked beside them; the lights alone are taller than a seven-year-old child. Life disappears in this enormity. “If you’re sitting on the grass, you don’t see the insects. If you look out the window, you see everything.”

The apartment’s former tenant, Philipp tells me, spent some six decades here and just recently passed away. In the kitchen, Philipp shows me the “refrigerator” that tenant used in the days of the GDR: a wooden cupboard under the window, built into the building’s thick walls. It was the coolest space in the room.

When they were built, the buildings of the Stalinallee were—with their elevators, gas heating, warm water, and private bathrooms—considered luxurious. But the GDR faced a severe lack of resources: certain innovations and foreign-produced goods, like automobiles and refrigerators were produced and acquired at a stiflingly slow pace. Over time, the immaculate facades of the Karl-Marx-Allee fell off. The GDR was coming apart, and so were its buildings. The ceramic tiles began to drop—some fifty thousand square meters of them were lost. There were no replacements, and even if there had been, there were no volunteers and hardly any workers to put them up. Read More »

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Berlin’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Part 1

November 6, 2014 | by

Life on the Karl-Marx-Allee, Block C South. Read Part 2 here.

© WalcherBild Fridolin Walcher 2014

In the late eighties, the German Democratic Republic was bleeding people like money; the Iron Curtain was coming apart at the seams. November 9, 1989, would be the turning point, the evening on which the Socialist party allowed what had once been unimaginable.

In Block C South of the Karl-Marx-Allee, Otto Stark sat in the quiet of his apartment, tuning in to the historic national blunder that precipitated the fall of the Berlin Wall: one of the few international press conferences in East Germany’s history, with one very ill-prepared party spokesman, Günter Schabowski, at the microphone.

Schabowski: (reading from a memo) “Permanent departures can be made through all border crossing points of the GDR to the [West German] Federal Republic of Germany. This eliminates the temporarily allowed issuance of appropriate permits in foreign missions of the GDR or permanent exit with the identity card of the GDR via third countries.” […]
Reporter: When does this take effect?
Schabowski: (leafing through his papers) To my knowledge this takes effect immediately … without delay.

Further along the Karl-Marx-Allee, people were buzzing at the Kino International. They had come from the West to see the first—and what would be the only—gay film of the GDR. Later, these West German visitors would witness, by accident, the historic event, as thousands of East Berliners gathered at the border-control points and the confused guards finally relented. Thousands of East Berliners strolled through the gates of the Berlin Wall, their blue GDR passports waving in the air. Scaling the Wall, sitting on the Wall, ecstatic reunions between families after three decades apart.

But things were quiet in the Stark household on the Karl-Marx-Allee. Mr. Stark, the famous actor and later director of the Cabaret Distel, and his wife, the famous actress Ilse Maybrid, did not go out that evening: they would wait until the next day to see for themselves what was going on at the Wall. Otto had had a long day; it was nearing midnight when the gates opened, he was already in his late sixties, he’d just returned home from work. The Starks held a privileged position in the GDR. They were a prominent couple, they traveled to the West on professional engagements, and they lived in a penthouse on the showcase boulevard—something reserved for celebrities and the “best workers,” as Otto Stark, now ninety-two, tells me from his living room of fifty-four years. The same living room in which he and his wife first watched the collapse of the GDR on television, twenty-five years ago this Sunday.

Less than one month before, tanks had rolled down the Karl-Marx-Allee for the fortieth anniversary of the GDR. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had hugged General Secretary Erich Honecker, the two sides coming together after years of stubborn disagreement. “If we stay behind, life will punish us immediately,” Gorbachev told Honecker that day. The last Day of the Republic, the last military parade on the crumbling Karl-Marx-Allee. Read More »

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Make Your Dream City a Reality, and Other News

October 6, 2014 | by

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A seventeenth-century map of Palmanova, Italy, a medieval star fort.

  • Wyatt Mason profiles Marilynne Robinson: “Somebody who had read Lila asked me, ‘Why do you write about the problem of loneliness?’ I said: ‘It’s not a problem. It’s a condition. It’s a passion of a kind. It’s not a problem. I think that people make it a problem by interpreting it that way.’ ”
  • How do outlandish ideas in architecture become reality? “The cities we live in need not have been as they are. In fact, they aren’t as they are. There’s a strange desperate hope in realizing how much of life is fiction.”
  • Lyudmila Ulitskaya’s novels—her latest, The Big Green Tent, appears in the U.S. next year—challenge the Russian state, taking on subjects that make many readers uncomfortable. “A book can be an inspiration or a murder weapon. Ulitskaya is fascinated by these transformations, but even more so by the peculiar trajectories that create fate—the travels of a person, a picture, a book. If there is a strange journey to be traced, she cannot resist the retelling.”
  • The e-book is an unstable medium: in a given edition, publishers are always swapping out advertisements, modifying content, rescinding access, or upgrading technology. So how do libraries preserve e-books? “Everyone knows that if we don’t do something now, we’ll be in big trouble later.”
  • Manufacturing stardom, then and now: “Trying to create a coherent image is always going to be the same, no matter if the star is from the 1930s or 2010s … Beyonce is producing an image using Tumblr and Instagram, which obviously stars in the thirties didn’t have, but she’s still trying to create a very specific understanding of the type of woman that she is. She’s trying to also make it seem like there isn’t a publicity campaign and that she’s not doing that, which was also done in the 1930s.”

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Inside Albertine

September 26, 2014 | by

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Nations of the world, take note: there are a number of benefits to running an embassy out of an historic mansion on Fifth Avenue. First, look around: you’re in an historic mansion on Fifth Avenue! Second, go upstairs: you’re still in that same historic mansion, on the same Fifth Avenue! Third, take stock of the fact that, because you don’t pay rent, you can kiss off market forces and open any business you’d like … in your historic mansion on Fifth Avenue!

Antonin Baudry, the cultural counselor for the French Embassy, had such a realization a few years ago. For more than sixty years, the embassy has made use of the Payne Whitney House, an opulent Italian Renaissance–style home erected from 1902 to 1906 at Fifth Ave. and 79th St. It seemed a shame, he thought, to deny passersby the chance to see its tongue-lollingly gorgeous interior. It also seemed a shame that New York had lost its last French bookstore, the Librairie de France, in 2009 …

You may see where this is headed. Baudry and his staff are at this moment putting the finishing touches on Albertine, a new French bookstore housed in the embassy—it opens Saturday at eleven A.M. When I visited yesterday, Baudry showed me around its impressive two floors, which had already achieved—though the ladders and drop clothes were still in evidence, and the painters were still painting, the burnishers still burnishing—an enviable blend of new bookstore smell and old building smell. It resembles a magnificent private library of the sort you’d expect to find in a turn-of-the-century estate. Read More »

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Raiding Updike’s Garbage Cans, and Other News

September 2, 2014 | by

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Paul Moran took these address labels, among many other discarded items, from Updike’s trash. Image via the Atlantic

  • In the years before John Updike died, a man began to steal a lot of his garbage—thousands of pieces, actually, including “photographs, discarded drafts of stories, canceled checks, White House invitations, Christmas cards, love letters, floppy disks, a Mickey Mouse flip book, and a pair of brown tasseled loafers.” Taken as a whole, the collection amounts to a kind of secret history, a trash biography. (“My life is, in a sense, trash,” Updike said in his Art of Fiction interview.)
  • How does one choose books that one knows one is going to enjoy? The obvious answer is that you can’t … Think of all the times we start a book that we think we should be reading—because everyone else is reading it, because it’s won a prize, because our book group has chosen it, despite our misgivings. And think of all the times we refuse to abandon a book we are not enjoying—because we are peculiarly puritanical about literature—thus creating an antagonism and a reluctance that must damage our relationship with reading.”
  • This year’s Venice Biennale, an architecture show, “reveals that modernism was never a style. It was a cultural, political, and social practice: the practice of making buildings suited to certain exigencies of life in a rapidly changing and developing world. And since, by definition, the question of how and what it meant to ‘make something modern’ changed over time and space—different in Finland than in Morocco—so also did the design of the buildings that emerged from it.”
  • In which the keening of a single blue whale teaches us something about loneliness.
  • What kind of worker is a writer? On Tillie Olsen, who wrote in dribs and drabs while holding down menial jobs and raising four children: “Writing, Olsen reminded her readers, takes time, education, energy, and resources, and these things are unevenly distributed. She encouraged us to attend to unorthodox writing produced in unfavorable circumstances—letters, diaries, scrapbooks like her own—and, in doing so, to question what counts as literature.”

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The Erotics of Architecture, and Other News

August 18, 2014 | by

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Dig those curves: the Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Niterói, in Rio de Janeiro. Photo: Rodrigo Soldon

  • In the summer of 2011, Phyllis Rose went to the New York Society Library and read one entire shelf of fiction—specifically, the shelf marked LEQ-LES. “In their obscurity, these books might be dull, bad or even unreadable; they might, in fact, be a total waste of her time. But she also felt certain that, should she embark on such a scheme, she would find herself on the readerly equivalent of virgin snow, for who else would have read this precise sequence of novels? … What followed was sometimes hard work and sometimes great fun. It was exasperating but also invigorating; deeply boring and yet surprisingly exciting.”
  • Congratulations to Louise Erdrich, who’s won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize’s distinguished achievement award. “The Dayton prizes are meant to recognize literature’s power to foster peace, social justice, and global understanding, and the distinguished achievement award is given for body of work.”
  • “You can’t kill e-mail! It’s the cockroach of the Internet, and I mean that as a compliment. This resilience is a good thing … E-mail is actually a tremendous, decentralized, open platform on which new, innovative things can and have been built … Yes, e-mail is exciting. Get excited!
  • From “a guide to the sexual understanding of great buildings”: “Right an­gles don’t attract me. Nor straight, hard and inflexible lines created by man. What attracts me are free and sensual curves. The curves we find … in the body of the woman we love.”
  • It’s a radical act of self-reference. It’s a paradigm-shattering instance of recursion. It’s … the world’s most profoundly stupid sign, a sign whose sole purpose is to warn you against hitting your head on it.

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