Paul Sullivan on the aesthetic significance of Berlin’s ruined and decaying buildings…
Why do images of ruin and decay appeal to us so much? The question pops into my head often whenever I find myself hypnotised by a crumbling wall or alone inside an abandoned building – which as a photographer obsessed with Berlin happens more than you might think.
For many people, not just photographers and urbex aficionados, ruined places tend to provoke a mix of emotions including nostalgia, longing, fear and wonder.
Berlin, the site of some of the most spectacular and sordid events in recent world history, seems to have a special relationship with decay and ruin. While not abandoned like Chernobyl, or in a state of advanced economic atrophy like Detroit, the remnants of previous turbulent regimes haunt the city like ghosts.
Despite the war and division of the 20th century, a surprising number of industrial, residential and entertainment buildings have survived most of Berlin’s major epochs: the Grunderzeit, the Weimar-era, the Third Reich, the Cold War. Sometimes you have to go looking for them (Krampnitz, Beelitz, Spreepark), but other times they are suddenly in front of you: an unrefurbished Altbau, a tattered sign, a disused factory.
While the city certainly couldn’t be accused of shirking from its past, official memorials and monuments work on us in a different way than the unofficial ones. Where the former offer carefully-worded information and state-approved formats, the latter draw us in with uncommunicable secrets, auras of incidents and conversations, lives enjoyed and ended.
The power of these decaying fragments intensifies as the city gentrifies. The post-reunification race to push Berlin towards an undefinable yet idyllic future has already resulted in the erasure of many significant sites of memory – the Palace der Republik, Tacheles, the statue at Leninplatz, parts of the East Side Gallery – and in some parts of the city, such as Prenzlauer Berg, all but the most minimal traces of former existence have been rubbed out, restored, refused.
It’s interesting that two major figures during Berlin’s turbulent history – Nazi architect Albert Speer and the Jewish-Marxist philosopher and cultural theorist Walter Benjamin – had very strong, if opposing, theories about ruins (even of the former’s was more a vague idea than a real theory). The fascination with the city’s ruins continues, the thrill both heightened and assuaged by the knowledge that we weren’t there to experience the vast range of pleasures and horrors of the things they’ve seen.