Walking The City

Paul Sullivan on why walking is the only real way to understand the city…

“A city is a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities. Just as language limits what can be said, architecture limits where one can walk, but the walker invents other ways to go.” – Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust

Image © Paul Sullivan
Image © Paul Sullivan

Like writing someone a letter by hand, visiting a friend across town spontaneously or just sitting on a bench and watching the world go by, the act of meandering slowly through the city streets with no particular destination in mind is one of life’s simple pleasures – and an almost entirely lost art. While most of us would argue that we do stroll through the city to some extent – to the post office, through the park, around the block – a combination of factors, chief among them a general deficit of leisure time and an abundance of convenient public transport options, conspire to ensure we usually don’t get very far on foot.

Even when we do indulge in longer walks, our ‘culture of distraction’ – a term coined by Siegfried Kracauer in 1920s Berlin and epitomised today by the constant nagifications of our smartphones – usually prevents us from engaging fully with what surrounds us. If we’re not checking our e-mail or calling a friend to say we’re running late (we’re never early), we’re checking Googlemaps for directions or blocking out the city’s natural soundtrack with headphones. All of which is a shame, because walking is by far the best way – arguably the only real way – to get to know the city.

Other forms of transport are too fast, too enclosed. Drive a car and not only is your worldview restricted to the shape of the windscreen, but you’ll be (one hopes) way too focused on driving to drink in any detail. The city disappears for large chunks of time when you take the U-Bahn while trams and S-Bahn trains remix the blurred landscape into a flickering, stuttering collage; funky, perhaps, but hardly a recipe for intimacy.

Our minds are well-attuned to travelling at these speeds now but 150 years ago, when the first trains arrived in Berlin, people were shell-shocked. Cultural historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch – a native Berliner – describes in his snappily-titled tome The Railway Journey: Industrialisation Of Time & Space In The 19th Century how trains were initially perceived as terrifying “projectiles” that “shot” passengers through the landscape, making them “lose control of their senses”. One can only imagine the psychological distress had they been forced to travel on a plane at 630 mph (let alone made to watch a George Clooney movie while doing so).

“The speed and mathematical directness with which the railroad proceeds through the terrain destroys the close relativity between traveller and travelled space,” claims Schivelbusch, adding that “…speed does not make travelling interesting, but duller…” John Ruskin, notorious for his dislike of the railways, made a similar point: “It matters not whether you have eyes or are asleep or blind, intelligent or dull…all that you can know, at best, of the country you pass is its geological structure and general clothing.” Put simply, to use public transport is to almost entirely miss the city.

Walking, on the other hand (or foot), re-connects us to it, especially if done in a mindful way. Berlin, like all large metropolises, is both accretive and secretive, comprised of historical layers and hidden details that are only really visible if we slow down enough to see them. The intellectual centre of Europe’s post-Enlightenment revolutions in everything from philosophy and science to industry and the arts during the 18th and 19th centuries – as well as the dark heart of the continent’s ruination and division during the 20th century – the fragments of the city around us are not only a portal to its own endlessly fascinating past, but to that of the broader history of modern Europe.

Image © Paul Sullivan
Image © Paul Sullivan

Walking the city reveals itself to us at a macro level that even cycling can’t quite access. When our shoes strike the Straßen, our surroundings seep more deeply into our psyches, allowing questions to bubble up into our brains:

“What did that faded signage once read?” 

“Why did the city stop building in red and yellow brick?” 

“Is that guy over there old enough to remember the war?”

Only in this way can we piece together the city’s disparate fragments and make it whole again, if only in our imaginations.

Such is the intensity of history in Berlin that in any given square kilometer you are likely to find diverse traces of multiple epochs, events and individuals. A recent hour-long stroll through a lesser-trodden part of Mitte took me past a statue of Rudolf Virchow, a large chunk of former City Wall built by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, a WW2 bunker transformed into a contemporary art gallery, one of the oldest hospitals in Europe, a 19th century canal that flows all the way to Spandau, and a GDR watchtower turned into a memorial by the brother of one of the Berlin Wall’s first victims.

But walking is not just for history nerds. A more rigorous stroll from one side of the city to the other – whether aleatory or outlined in advance – is also the best way to get a feel for its urban topographies and the human communities we share the city with. Berlin lends itself wonderfully to walking, too. It’s as safe as häuser (relatively speaking), as flach as a Pfannkuchen and has broad, well-maintained pavements that, though decidedly emptier than those of New York or London, teem with interactions, frictions, moments.

A recent conceptual meander around the city’s Ring Bahn introduced me to many parts of the city – industrial zones and peripheral neighbourhoods alike – that I had never set eyes on before, while a recent hike around the 160km Mauerweg (Berlin Wall Trail) lent me a much sharper understanding of the city’s most infamous piece of architecture – especially as I was able to talk to many locals who had grown up in its shadow. Even walking a single street can yield multiple surprises: I once sauntered along the entire length of Friedrichstrasse and back again, noting with irony how all the glamorous, high-end boutiques and department stores lie in the formerly “socialist” eastern section of the street and gradually give way – right after the Disneyfied tourism circus known as Checkpoint Charlie – to the working-class residential estates and immigrant-run shops of the “affluent west” (Kreuzberg). The possibility of reading the city in this way is just one significant reason to choose leg-power over public transport.

Walking & Writing

“Not to find one’s way around a city does not mean much. But to lose one’s way in a city, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires some schooling” – Walter Benjamin, Berlin Childhood around 1900

bundesarchiv_bild_183-r52689_berlin_potsdamer_platz
© Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R52689 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

To walk is to see, and some of the best – or at least best-known – observers of the city have been writers. One of the first writers in Germany to treat walking as an artform was the philospher-writer Karl Gottlob Schelle, whose 1802 book Die Promenade als Kunstwerk (The Art of Walking) talked of how “spaces define those who move through them”, how walking ideally combines “bodily activity and sensual impressions with mental activity” and even how “man is only wholly man when he goes for a walk…”

The culture of urban walking arose with the emergence of the modern metropolis itself around the middle of the 19th century – or at least with the advent of municipal developments such as street lighting, drains, pavements and traffic regulations, which made cities generally more hygienic, safer and more pleasurable to stroll. As early as 1846, writers such as Ernst Dronke, in his book Berlin, were attempting to capture the Prussian capital at street-level, documenting its dramatic urbanisation with particular emphasis on the misery of the working classes.

“The streets…are where you can best get to know the orientation and the lifestyles of the city dwellers. Since there is seldom a domestic life to be found and everything revolves around chasing pleasures, the expression of life is no longer found in the kitchen, but rather outside of the home in the wild and confused chaos of urban life…it is very educational for the unobtrusive observer to walk the sidewalks and study faces…the open community life is the pulse of this city. Out in the public streets everything surges and roars chaotically, the noble and the lowly, rich and poor: no one is limited by others.”

Realist novelists such as Wilhelm Raabe (whose 1856 Die Chronik der Sperlingsgasse is set in a fictional Berlin street) and Theodore Fontane (who penned an influential five-volume work about Berlin-Brandenburg’s nature and suburbs between 1862 and 1889 entitled Walks In Brandenburg) were also among the first to tackle the emerging themes of industry and consumerism and their darker flipsides, anomie and poverty. But it was the Weimar flâneurs, writing in the interregnum between the two world wars, who truly transformed the urban stroll into an intellectual pursuit.

ADN-Zentralbild/ Archiv Berlin 1926 Im Garten des Berliner Hotels "Esplanada" spielt zum 5 Uhr-Tee eine Jazzband. 17187-26
© ADN-Zentralbild/ Archiv
Berlin 1926
Im Garten des Berliner Hotels “Esplanada” spielt zum 5 Uhr-Tee eine Jazzband.
17187-26

The original flâneur, i.e. an aimless idler, dates back to 17th century France, but was reinvented by French poet Charles Baudelaire in his 1863 essay The Painter of Modern Life as a dandy intellectual or “artist-poet” of the metropolis; in 1920s Berlin, the flâneur was recast yet again as a literary and political figure by cultural-theorist Walter Benjamin and Franz Hessel, both of whom had spent time in the French capital working on translations of Baudelaire and Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu.

A character who observes everything around him while himself remaining invisible – “who looks but doesn’t touch like a disembodied eye” – the flâneur proved a perfect literary contrivance for writers operating in the post-WW1 German capital. With the fixed social orders of the pre-World War One imperial city gone, Berlin was remade as a crucible of avant-garde culture, sexually-liberated lifestyles and consumerist abandon. Crowds jostled, trams screeched, neon signs blinked the night alive and the grand cafes were crammed with artistes and dilletantes flirting with modernist ideas – Cubism, Expressionism, Surrealism – as well as each other.

Academics, critics, journalists, artists and authors such as Kurt Tucholsky, Erich Kästner, Joseph Roth, Heinrich Zille, Christopher Isherwood and Siegfried Kracauer – many of them (Benjamin and Hessel included), Jewish – stalked the city in search of stories, characters, moments and other inspirations for their works. Benjamin’s Einbahnstraße (One Way Street) appeared in 1928, the first of only two books he would publish during his lifetime. Merging aphorisms, philosophical fragments and associative insights into the conceptual structure of a randomised walk, its chapters bore headings like “Gas Station” and “Mexican Embassy”.

Benjamin’s principle theorizing on the flâneur occurred in Die Wiederkehr des Flaneurs (The Return Of The Flâneur), a review of Hessel’s 1929 Spazieren in Berlin (Walking in Berlin), a classic collection of texts created from the latter’s own wanderings around the city. Another native Berliner, Hessel’s mission was to remain purposefully open to all impressions and associations in a bid to see ‘democratically’, and witness the city afresh. In the story-chapter ‘I Must Learn’, he wrote: “It’s not enough just to walk around. I have to conduct a kind of investigation into the place I call home, to pay attention to the past and future of this city, a city that is always going somewhere, is always on the point of becoming something else. That’s why it’s so hard to discover, particularly for someone who lives here…”

In ‘Berlin’s Boulevard’, Hessel gave his own take on the character and role of the flâneur: “To be a flâneur is to read the street, seeing human faces, displays, show windows, café terraces, trains, cars, and trees as letters, of equal value, that together form words, sentences and pages in an ever-changing book. To do this properly, you can’t have any particular destination or purpose in mind…you can risk going for a stroll without a specific destination and open oneself up to unexpected visual adventures.”

A Weimar writer who saw (and saw-through) was Austrian Joseph Roth, who in his 1921 story, Ein Spaziergang (Going for a Walk), wrote: “Confronted with the truly microscopic, all loftiness is hopeless, completely meaningless. The diminutive of the parts is more impressive than the monumentality of the whole. I no longer have any use for the sweeping gestures of heroes on the global stage. I’m going for a walk.” The author of numerous novels and plentiful poems, Roth wrote over a thousand feuilletons (newspaper articles centred around personal opinion and observation rather than hard news), which were collected together posthumously into: . His explorations of Berlin – a city he at least partially loathed, once describing as “an aimlessly sprawling stone emblem for the sorry aimlessness of our national existence” – took him beyond the city’s surface and into homeless shelters, hospitals and dive bars where he chronicled the lives of the downtrodden and forgotten.

Like Hessel, Roth attempted to see the city through fresh eyes, to render the familiar strange in order to access hidden truths. Though he did not consider himself a flâneur as such, he was a master at wringing epiphanies from everyday details: “What I see is the day in all its absurdity and triviality. A horse, harnessed to a cab, staring with lowered head into its nose bag, not knowing that horses originally came into the world without cabs; a small boy playing with marbles on the pavement – he watches the purposeful bustle of the grownups all around him, and, himself full of the delights of idleness, has no inkling that he already represents the acme of creation, but instead yearns to be grown up.”

The idea of the human eye as recording advice was perhaps most famously taken up by British writer Christopher Isherwood, whose well-known quote “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking” appears in his ambulatory 1939 novel Goodbye To Berlin. Written during a prolonged stay in the city between 1929 and 1933, the book captured both the heady decadence of the Weimar era and the ‘brown shift’ of the incoming Nazi regime, which hated the notion of casual loitering and social critique as much as it hated Jews and Marxist ideology. Indeed, Isherwood’s book would the last of its kind in Berlin for a long, long time.

Walking & Photographing

“The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera” – Dorothea Lange

In the rubble heap of post-war Berlin, the art of urban walking understandably took a back-seat. With the literary culture of the pre-war period more or less annihalated, the task of documenting the city fell to another kind of observer: the reportage photographer. In On Photography (1977), Susan Sontag described how, since the development of hand-held cameras in the early 20th century, the camera had become the tool of the flâneur: “The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. The flâneur is not attracted to the city’s official realities but to its dark seamy corners, the neglected populations—an unofficial reality behind the façade of bourgeois life that the photographer ‘apprehends,’ as a detective apprehends a criminal.”

Where the flâneurs sought to capture truths and epiphanies through words, the post-war street photographers froze their observations in visual form. In fact, the flâneur perspective had already been translated into visual culture as early as 1927 thanks to Walter Ruttmann’s “Berlin, Symphony of a City”, in which the camera roams the city with its shutter open, Isherwood-style, passively recording what it sees – as well as native street photographers such as Willy Römer.

Römer had been photographing the city since the turn of the 20th century, capturing all the chaos and commotion of the early Weimar period (including the abdication of the Kaiser, the Spartacist uprising, the mass demonstrations and workers’ strikes) as well as everyday life in the city’s streets and backyards. He also documented the rise of the Nazis, who closed down his famed photo agency, Phototek Römer & Bernstein, in 1935 (although his archive has fortunately survived).

One of the first photographers to explore the ruins beyond the post-war propaganda was Friedrich Seidenstücker, who was once described as a “flâneur with a camera.” Motivated by a desire to record exactly what he saw, without spin, Seidenstücker took over five hundred photographs of the city between 1945-1955, often eschewing politically significant events in favour of smaller, everday activities such as the work of the Trümmerfrauen (Rubble Women). Like Roth, he believed that “only the small things in life are important”.

Despite the restrictions of the East German government, and artists like KP Brehmer specifically pointing out the difficulties of Cold War flânerie in a series of films called Walkings (1969-1970), visual reportage continued on both sides of the Berlin Wall, sometimes by the same person. The photographer Arno Fischer, for example, became famous for covering protest culture in the East while snapping fashion portraits of Marlene Dietrich in the West; he finally settled in Weissensee (East Berlin) where he set up a photographic business with his (photographer) wife Sibylle Bergemann – who went on to found the Ostkreuz photo reportage agency with Ute Mahler and Harald Hauswald in 1990 – and helped mentor other photographers like Bernd Heyden, who documented Prenzlauer Berg through the ’80s.

One of the most famous films about walking in the divided city, Wim Wender’s 1987 masterpiece Himmel Über Berlin (Wings of Desire), stars Peter Falk as an angel who, having grown tired of “always observing and never experiencing”, renounces his immortality in order to become a ‘participant’ in the world and spends a great deal of time stalking the innercity wastelands created by the Wall. When Falk died in 2011, Wenders wrote an article reminiscing over their times together on the set: “In any break he just wanted to go for a walk…and he never found his way back to the set! Once we even had to call the police to search for him. Months later, when we recorded his interior monologue in Los Angeles, [that could be overheard in the film by the angels of Berlin] I had written down a line for him, in memory of his runaway walks: “If Grandma was here, she’d say: Spazieren… go spazieren!””

Walking & Thinking

“Walking is a state of mind in which mind, body and world are ideally aligned – three notes made into a chord. It allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them. We can think without being wholly lost in our thoughts.” – Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust

Image by Paul Sullivan
Image © Paul Sullivan

Walking encourages us to think. The value of this simple statement cannot be under-estimated in today’s production-obsessed, time-pressured cultures, where myths like “efficiency” and “time-saving” are taken as articles of faith. The rise of the so-called creative industries have resulted in a generation permanently chained to desks and devices, faces bathed in the perma-glow of computer and phone screens; little wonder we often feel overtired and uninspired. The rhythm of walking, conversely, serves to decelerate time, allowing us to enjoy the gentle unfurling of the minutes, hours and seconds rather than race against them. This in turn lends our minds the space required for thoughts to drift and develop freely. Not for nothing did Nietzsche once claim that “all truly great thoughts are conceived by walking”, and Henry David Thoreau state: “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live! Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.”

In a recent New Yorker article entitled Why Walking Helps Us Think, science journalist Ferris Jabr put the same notions into more contemporary language: “The way we move our bodies further changes the nature of our thoughts, and vice versa. Walking at our own pace creates an unadulterated feedback loop between the rhythm of our bodies and our mental state that we cannot experience as easily when we’re jogging at the gym, steering a car, biking, or during any other kind of locomotion…because we don’t have to devote much conscious effort to the act of walking, our attention is free to wander – to overlay the world before us with a parade of images from the mind’s theatre.”

The article cites the results of a scientific study by Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz, which measured the way walking changes creativity in the moment and found that test groups are far better at creative thinking while walking rather than seated. As such, leaving our desks and going for a walk is the ultimate antidote to the restrictions of the office and the screen, and can often prove inspirational as well as personally uplifting. Although it’s set in a home rather than an office, Kafka’s 1912 short story Der plötzliche Spaziergang (The Sudden Walk) captured this feeling perfectly:

“When it looks as if you had made up your mind finally to stay at home for the evening, when you have put on your house jacket and sat down after supper with a light on the table to the piece of work or the game that usually precedes your going to bed, when the weather outside is unpleasant so that staying indoors seems natural, and when you have already been sitting quietly at the table for so long that your departure must occasion surprise to everyone, when, besides, the stairs are in darkness and the front door locked, and in spite of all that you have started up in a sudden fit of restlessness, changed your jacket, abruptly dressed yourself for the street, explained that you must go out and with a few curt words of leave-taking actually gone out, banging the flat door more or less hastily according to the degree of displeasure you think you have left behind you, and when you find yourself once more in the street with limbs swinging extra freely in answer to the unexpected liberty you have procured for them, when as a result of this decisive action you feel concentrated within yourself all the potentialities of decisive action, when you recognize with more than usual significance that your strength is greater than your need to accomplish effortlessly the swiftest of changes and to cope with it, when in this frame of mind you go striding down the long streets – then for that evening you have completely got away from your family, which fades into insubstantiality, while you yourself, a firm, boldly drawn black figure, slapping yourself on the thigh, grow to your true stature. All this is still heightened if at such a late hour in the evening you look up a friend to see how he is getting on.”

Walking, in this sense, is a way of reclaiming our leisure time, an aspect of our lives that has been severely compromised by the increasing demands and pressures of work culture. As far back as 1947 German neo-Thomist philosopher Josef Pieper was campaigning ardently (and elegantly) for the resurrection of leisure time as a way to revive our sense of spiritual freedom as well as our cultural life. “Leisure is only possible when we are at one with ourselves,” he wrote in Leisure: The Basis Of Culture – the original print of which came with an introduction by T. S. Eliot. “We tend to overwork as a means of self-escape, as a way of trying to justify our existence…”

Image by Paul Sullivan
Image © Paul Sullivan

And let’s face it, there is something very not-right about the way we in the Western world, with our relatively affluent lifestyles, are paradoxically so leisure-deprived. If anyone in the world can afford some decent downtime it should be us, and yet we continually battle to squeeze it into our packed schedules to the point where it feels more like a burden – or even ‘work’ – than something to enjoy: hopping into the gym on the way to or from work, eating health-conscious lunches at our desks, staying up beyond the point of exhaustion to spend some ‘quality time’ (or network) with friends or watch a movie.

The blame can be laid at the feet of both neoliberal economics (the postmodern intensifying of the capitalist ethic) and the related revolutions in information and communication technologies. In a 2014 Baffler article entitled Sacking Berlin, writers Quinn Slobodian and Michelle Sterling talked of how the “new, creative Berlin is also a privatized Berlin“, and how the Social Democratic Party (SPD), a former Marxist working-class party, has been instrumental in ushering in and supporting the city’s creative class. “The symbol of the change was the party’s Internet guru, Sascha Lobo, known for his fuchsia Mohawk, his Fu Manchu mustache, and the wireless headset he frequently wears in photographs. In his 2006 book, We Call it Work, Lobo had celebrated what he called the “digital Bohème” and described himself as ‘online for most of my waking life.’”

This is indeed a very long way from Aristotle’s proclamation – in his Politics (384–322 B.C) – that “the first principle of all action is leisure. Both are required, but leisure is better than occupation and is its end; and therefore the question must be asked, what ought we to do when at leisure?” In the ancient world, leisure (‘schole’ in Greek, ‘otium’ in Latin) was not simply an interlude between bouts of work – a way of recharging the batteries briefly before diving back in – but a distinct form of activity in its own right. Technology has ensured that we almost never switch off in this way, and the trend is set to get much worse before it gets any better.

In the same way that the current neoliberal milieu has corroded our free time, it has also curtailed our freedom of movement. Walter Benjamin noted, in his unfinished Arcades Project, how individuals were increasingly becoming at one with the emerging consumer society, and subsequently infused his flâneur with a political (Marxist) edge – someone able to ‘observe but not buy’ the ubiquitous commodities around them. The idea of walking as revolutionary act was taken to a fuller conclusion in 1960s Paris via cultural philosopher Guy Debord – author of the influential The Society Of The Spectacle (1967) – who created the concepts of the dérive (drift), a kind of free-form movement through the city in a effort to ‘reclaim’ it, and psychogeography.

Debord defined the latter as “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals”, though Merlin Coverley – the author of Psychogeography (2006) more compellingly describes it as “a whole toy box full of playful, inventive strategies for exploring cities…just about anything that takes pedestrians off their predictable paths and jolts them into a new awareness of the urban landscape.” The notions of both the “drift” and “psychogeography” have been resurrected in the last decade or so by pro-walking writers such as Iain Sinclair and Will Self, who in his inaugural lecture as Professor of Contemporary Thought at Brunel University, wrote about how “to walk the city and its environs is, in a very powerful sense, to use it. The contemporary flâneur is by nature and inclination a democratising force who seeks equality of access, freedom of movement and the dissolution of corporate and state control.”

Image © Paul Sullivan
Image © Paul Sullivan

While Berlin might not be as hyper-controlled as London or New York, the emphasis of the (debt-ridden) City Senate has certainly been, post-Wende, to sell off property and associated urban space to private investors and corporate interests rather than creating useful spaces for its inhabitants. One of the first and most obvious examples of this is Potsdamer Platz, which was quickly remodelled as a vacuously commercial area whose vainglorious edifices contain offices and retail. Notably, the area’s concession to ‘leisure space’ refers to the Sony Centre – an ostensibly open-access area that’s given over almost entirely to consumption. Just this week, a 270-store complex called, somewhat grandiloquently, Mall of Berlin – as if there weren’t already scores already existing throughout the city – opened on the site of the former Wertheim department store, just five minutes from Potsdamer Platz. Featuring around 100,000 sq. metres of shops in a building designed to evoke the area’s prewar architecture, its London-based developer (Harald Huth) plans to expand the mall by another 30,000 square meters next year, making it the largest shopping center in Germany

The mall – sorry, Mall – is of course just the latest indication of Berlin’s increasing role as a capital of tourism and commerce. In the last year or two, retail giants like Apple, Primark and Uniqlo have all opened their first shops in the city, urged on by the burgeoning Berlin economy, which increased more than all other German states last year – a record given its post-reunification lag. In their Baffler article, Slobodian and Sterling profile a Berlin company, Wall Inc., a veteran in terms of exploiting the reunited city’s commercial possibilities. By constructing public bus shelters and public toilets in return for the right to charge 50c for the latter (a service that was formerly free) and access to some of the city’s prime advertising space, they are able to target specific demographics such as “Yummies” – Young, Urban & Mobile – those aged between 20-39 years old with “an affinity towards digital media, a high ‘leisure’ mobility (i.e. making spontaneous trips for pleasure and out of home everyday, and who are always up to date – following trends and being trend-setters themselves, they seldom miss out on anything, thanks to their digital companion, the smartphone.”

According to the company website, “Berlin is clearly the showroom for Wall products, and a showcase for modern out-of-home media. Our innovations in Berlin wow Berliners and tourists alike, and make life in Berlin that bit more comfortable. And we don’t forget the basics, either. With street furniture like bus stop shelters, benches, recycling boxes, city information panels, advertising pillars, etc., we make sure that Berlin stays nice and clean, and nobody is left standing in the rain.” What they don’t specifically outline is how their ‘Yummie Net’ – “a network of ‘points of interest’ across the city that positions ads where Yummies ‘gather spontaneously'” – creates an unsettling environment where (according to Slobodian and Sterling), “the public places where Berliners hang out are not really spaces for leisure or culture, but lucrative targets on a map. The sense of liberation that draws so many to Berlin only comes in the shadow of a new Wall.”

Debord and his Lettrist (and later Situationist) Internationals came up with yet another concept to combat such monopolies: détournement. A method of subverting the source and meaning of an original work (i.e. advertising) in order to create a new one (i.e. anti-advertising), it’s ostensibly an act of parody and sabotage similar to the modern concept of culture-jamming. Artists like Banksy and organisations like Adbusters have become global masters of this, but examples can also be seen in Berlin – for example, the not-so-subtle détournement of the recent Marlboro campaign.

Détournement, Berlin style. Image © Paul Sullivan.

The etymology of the word “city” comes from “citizen”, so it’s with good reason that we feel slighted when our public areas are infringed for private gain in this way. Resistance to such developments are rife, ranging from a healthy ‘culture of trespass‘, where security fences and betreten verboten signs are blithely ignored by camera-wielding Urbexers, and stiff resistance to plans property developers to build on public areas, some of which are successful (see the Tempelhof referendum), but others not (see the luxury apartments at the East Side Gallery). And why shouldn’t we protest? In the end, as Michel de Certeau says in his much-cited Walking in the City: The Practice of Everyday Life (1984), “it is people who make the city, not buildings or shops. It is people who will take the empty shells of buildings and make them function. It is people who take space and turn it into places. It is people who anchor the city in time, even if only for a fleeting moment.”

The act of slowly mooching wherever one chooses can equally be regarded as a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) subversion of the twin concepts of speed and productivity that define capitalism. Our intensely crowded and overworked lifestyles means there is something increasingly revolutionary in standing still in the street to watch the sunlight filter gently through the trees, gazing up at the clouds or blatant people-watching; all are a blatant refusal of the ubiquitous “time is money” mantra, and all return us to ourselves, helping us cut through the distractive bullshit of so-called modern life. “Walking reminds us of our being, and the rest fades gloriously into the background for a while,” states French thinker Frederic Gros in his Philosophy Of Walking. “You’re doing nothing when you walk, nothing but walking. We revert to children, looking at the brightness of the sky, the trees, the plants. To walk is to experience the real.”

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Comments

  1. Billy Mills says:

    Fascinating read, thanks.

  2. kingberzerk says:

    Thank you very much – great work. How do you take your photographs? What’s your gear and which film and lenses are you using? Do you develop the films yourself? Or is it digital and converted?

  3. Rhea Boyden says:

    I really enjoyed this Paul. I have bought a good raincoat and have been exploring the streets of Dublin on foot. The sun has been shining a lot too which is great but I keep the raincoat handy just in case! I talked about Christopher Isherwood’s quote ‘I am a camera with its shutter open….’ in my essay ‘Goodbye to Berlin’.

  4. TimE says:

    Inspiring and truthful piece. There’s few cities I’d like to wander aimlessly around than Berlin.

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