How on earth did they get up there? On our last night in Berlin, as it happens the hottest May night on record, we take a boat up the river Spree to see just how much the city has changed since the wall came down. Perched on the ruin of one of the many bridges destroyed by Hitler – his parting gift to the city – we see an extraordinary sight which seems to sum up the spirit of the new Berlin: a sofa sits high up on top of a crumbling concrete column several metres from the bank and on it three young people wave, lifting their glasses as we glide by. We wave and lift our glasses in return and spend the next few minutes wondering how the hell they got themselves and the sofa up there.
I didn’t manage to get a picture of the young people on the sofa but M.Kuhn’s photograph of Molecule Man on the River Spree has a similar spirit (downloaded from Flickr) and we saw that on our boat trip too.
From east to west there are glittering monuments to the triumph of capitalism, glowing pleasantly red in the light of the setting sun. But even more interesting is the space between. Berlin’s derelict buildings are buzzing with creative life. Beach bars and clubs vibrate on both sides of the river; it’s amazing what you can do with a few tons of sand and assorted deck chairs.
Berlin is changing so fast the guide books can’t keep up. “Are you sure about this jazz club?” asks George leading us to an East Berlin address Ray plucked out of the guide book, “when was your guide book published? If it was more than a year ago it will be out of date.” George is a German academic who knows Berlin well. Fifteen years ago, he remembers, these streets came alive – there were no bars, no cafes, no lights, no licensed premises at all, but people brought out their tables and chairs and any booze they had in the house (‘warm beer, they didn’t have fridges’) to sell to anyone who wanted to join them on the pavement. They lit hundreds of candles and they made music in a spontaneous burst of creative anarchy. A real cafe culture made by real people.
Already of course business is moving in on the act to make money from these streets but the bohemian spirit seems untamed. The great thing about a derelict building is that it can fire the imagination (in that sense Glasgow has more in common with Berlin than Edinburgh). Despite the building frenzy (attracting every star in the architectural firmament), the underpopulated Berlin still has plenty of undeveloped spaces. Although a huge Sony complex dominates the former wasteland of Potsdammer Platz, there are still lots of old warehouses in East Berlin to provide affordable studios for designers, artists, musicians and creative souls of all sorts.
By the way, the jazz club is very much there, full of young people (George, Ray and I raise the average age considerably when we slip in to a table at the side) though now the beer comes chilled.