Living where the Wall once stood

How is public space influenced by Germany’s past division into two separate states? This question is examined by the German contribution to this year’s Venice Biennale of Architecture, where Marianne Birthler, former Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Records, and Graft Architekten are the curators of the “Unbuilding Walls” project.

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The Wall Memorial at Bernauer Straße is the last border strip still in existence at its full width. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Hajotthu


It surely is a contrast-rich team that curated the German pavilion for the Biennale of Architecture in Venice, being made up of the politician Marianne Birthler and the three heads of the Graft architectural office, namely Lars Krückeberg, Wolfram Putz and Thomas Willemeit. Graft stands for modern architecture made in Los Angeles, Berlin and Peking, and Marianne Birthler embodies the critical voice of socialism: once an East German civil rights activist, she later went on to administer the Stasi files for many years. For their “Unbuilding Walls” Biennale project, the four investigated a special type of freespace – namely the empty spaces left behind following the fall of the Wall between the two Germanys.

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The Wall had to disappear quickly

28 years have passed since Germany’s Reunification, the same length of time that the Wall existed, from 1961 until 1989. Accordingly the exhibition features 28 construction projects that provide an impression of what the former death strip looks like today. The zigzag border that cut Berlin into two was some 160 kilometres long and none too narrow: the East German “control strip” was 10 metres wide and the so-called “protective strip” another 500 metres. The vanishing of the Wall left behind a vacuum, a deep wound in need of healing – quite pragmatically initially. As curator Thomas Willemeit explains, “There was no overall strategy, no masterplan, but very obvious tasks straight away: bridges had to be rebuilt, suburban fast train lines reconnected, and then there was the question of reconstruction at certain neuralgic points.”

Checkpoint Charlie
Checkpoint Charlie still ranks among the most- frequented tourist attractions. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Miriam Guterland


In the city it was generally agreed that the Wall had to disappear quickly, at best with the former border being built over as if it had never existed. As Willemeit’s colleague Lars Krückeberg points out: “Everyone wanted to forget. Today, in contrast, if an escape tunnel is found, it’s like the discovery of a new grave in the Valley of the Kings, something that has to be preserved immediately and given listed monument status. This would never have occurred immediately after Reunification, so it’s all been a process. This has been an interesting realisation for us, namely that the culture of remembrance can be very dynamic”.

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The Wall Memorial at Bernauer Straße is the last border strip still in existence at its full width. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Hajotthu


In Venice the curators feature Aldo Rossi’s Schuetzenstrasse complex in Berlin as a prominent example of a planned strategy of forgetting in the guise of a conscious reference to tradition and history. The building plot – consisting of a section of Wall-related no-man’s-land with the paltry remains of Gründerzeit buildings as well as a complete block between Schützen, Charlotten, Markgrafen and Zimmer streets – seemed practically predestined for a programmatic project that the Italian Pritzker Prize winner described as a “homage to the typical late-19th-century architecture of Berlin” at the presentation of his design.

Order your personal copy of Topos 104 here and read the full article about the “Unbuilding Walls“ project.