On The Kantstrasse: A Short History Of German Flânerie

Paul Sullivan strolls West Berlin’s Kantstrasse while contemplating Germany’s rich tradition of flâneuring…

“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. Street names must speak to the urban wanderer like the snapping of dry twigs, and little streets in the heart of the city must reflect the times of day, for him, as clearly as a mountain valley. This art I acquired rather late in life; it fulfilled a dream, of which the first traces were labyrinths on the blotting papers in my school notebooks.” — Walter Benjamin, Berlin Childhood around 1900

One doesn’t stroll along Kantstrasse, one is swallowed by it. It’s all teeth, this boulevard, from the looming, lone incisor of the Zoofenster that marks its Eastern edge to the rows of distended architectural dentures that rise up erratically along either side of its two kilometre length. Traffic surges in both directions, separated by a grass-covered concrete tongue that lolls westwards into infinity; if you’re not careful you’ll get chewed up and spat out at the end, a confused but enthralled mess.

Image by Paul Sullivan

The name may suggest otherwise, but don’t be fooled: there’s nothing lofty or philosophical about Kantstrasse, as you might remember from the rampant scopophiliacs that used to lurk around the garish Beate Uhse Erotic Museum (which contained some excellent Heinrich Zille lithographs, amongst more prurient pleasures, before it succumbed to gentrification); the snaking pink pipes that pump water from the swampy ground; or the way the mid-day sun caroms aggressively from the harsh surfaces of brick, granite, concrete.

You could, if the whim took you, indulge in a spot of what Kant termed interesseloses Wohlgefallen – taking a kind of ‘disinterested pleasure’ in viewing objects rather than analyzing them – though a better urban figure through which to dissect this rangy street would probably be the flâneur, a historical figure that has recently made a return to the contemporary urban landscape.

Derived from the French verb “flâner” (“to stroll”), the flâneur was invented in the 19th century by French poet, critic and translator Charles Baudelaire. We’re all urbanites now, but a century and a half ago the notion of a sprawling metropolis was brand new. London was one of the first to gain a million inhabitants in 1810; Paris followed in 1850; Berlin in 1870. Baudelaire was one of the first prominent poets to notice the effects of the city on the individual: how people were bewildered, fascinated and intimidated by this new notion of “the crowd”. Artists, he declared, needed henceforth to immerse themselves in the metropolis in order to understand it; they must become “botanists of the sidewalk.”

This idea proved contagious among European intellectuals, especially among writers, who saw the city as a new source of impressions and feelings – the flâneur became an ideal narrative device. Germany, whose capital Berlin was undergoing its own rabid development following unification in 1871, had explored these themes within its literature for decades. Traces of flânerie haunted the turn-of-the-(19th)-century letters of Heinrich von Kleist, the short stories of E.T.A. Hoffmann (whose 1817 story The Deserted House features a protagonist who stalks the streets attempting to ‘read’ the faces of passersby, facades and street signs), and socialist writers like Ernst Dronke, whose 1846 book Berlin features characters such as the “corner-idler” [Eckensteher], “idle strollers” [Muessig-gaenger] and “late night-birds” [Spaete-Nachtvoegel].

One of the most prominent German flâneurs was Walter Benjamin. Born into an upper-middle-class family in Berlin, Benjamin grew up not far from Kantstrasse in Charlottenburg, moving with his upper middle class family to various streets – Kurfürstenstrasse (where Walter Benjamin Platz is today), Nettelbeckstrasse and Carmerstrasse – before settling in Grunewald. Though he later also lived in Paris for many years, he spent a great deal of time exploring Berlin and re-discovering his childhood years (see Berlin Childhood Around 1900), as well as drawing on the likes of Baudelaire, Swiss ex-pat Robert Walser, German sociologist George Simmel and his close friend Franz Hessel, to re-define the flâneur for the Weimar era, simultaneously promoting him to a more serious position of academic study.

(Benjamin’s biggest influence by far was Hessel. The real-life model for the “Jules” character in Henri-Pierre Roché’s semi-autobiographical novel Jules et Jim, Hessel helped Benjamin translate Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu into German, and Benjamin’s seminal 1929 essay, Die Wiederkehr des Flaneurs (The Return Of The Flaneur) was ostensibly a review of Hessel’s 1925 book Spazieren In Berlin (Walking In Berlin), a classic of German flâneur-lit).

Image by Paul Sullivan

The flâneur featured prominently in many of Benjamin’s works, from his 1928 work Einbahnstraße (One-Way Street), written as an idiosyncratic montage of random impressions of Berlin (“thought-figures”, or Denkbilder, he called them) with titles like “Gas Station”, “Mexican Embassy” and “Chinese Curios”, to his never-completed Arcades Project, works like Paris-Capital of the Nineteenth Century and his two studies of Baudelaire.

For Benjamin, cities could only be explored through browsing or wandering, and his own regular walks took him through the Tiergarten, past the Victory column, around Zoo and Ku’damm, as well as to the fringes and hidden corners. “The street becomes a dwelling for the flâneur,” he wrote in The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire.

”He is as much at home among the facades of houses as a citizen in his four walls. To him the shiny, enamelled signs of business are at least as good a wall ornament as an oil painting is to a bourgeois in his salon. The walls are the desk against which he presses his notebooks; newsstands are his libraries and the terraces of cafés are the balconies from which he looks down on his household after his work is done.”

It was Benjamin who developed the concept of Irrkunst, the art of getting lost in the city in order to explore it more fully, and – being a committed Marxist – gave the flâneur a revolutionary political tinge, making him simultaneously seduced and repelled by the inexorable onslaught of capitalism. This political theme was continued up by another French writer and Marxist theorist in the 50s, Guy Debord, whose seminal work The Society Of The Spectacle (1967), posited late capitalist society as an illusion in which urban inhabitants sacrificed the reality of their environment to commercial imperatives beyond their control.

One of Debord’s solutions was the dérive, or “drift” – essentially a resurrection of the flâneur, but fuelled by cheap red wine and a more free-form kind of ambling through the metropolis in an effort to re-discover its richness and diversity, as well as conscientiously decouple from its more utilitarian aspects. From this idea also sprang the notion of “psychogeography”, defined by Debord as “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.”

In more recent times, all of these ideas and characters – the flâneur, the dérive, psychogeography – have coalesced into a scattered yet fairly comprehensive movement whose most conspicuous luminaries are British literary aesthetes such as Will Self (whose ‘psychogeography’ columns in the mainstream British press and marathon walks through interzones and edgelands have done more to popularize the term than anything else), Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd.

Despite its continued associations with ‘foppish’ or traditional artistic pursuits like poetry and high literature, a nuanced political dimension has become increasingly evident. In an era where we are increasingly dependent on public transport, distracted by technology and held captive in offices, the resultant loss of intimacy with our built environments and diminished lack of orienting skills seems critical, making walking an inherently political act.

Indeed, how many of us take time to pause and admire small details in the world around us, scan a stranger’s facial expression intently or watch how the trees move in the wind? The re-branding of the Eastern section of Kantstrasse, between Zoo and Uhlandstrasse, as a “Design Mile” by the retail temple Stilwerk is but one example of how our environments are increasingly ‘lost’ to commercial forces.

But despite such marketing ploys, Kantstrasse will never be Ku’damm. It’s too raw and rangy, and even a casual observer will surely notice superior historical and architectural statements such as Walter Jonigkeit’s Delphi Film Palace – one of the city’s premier nightlife spots in the 20s – and the architecturally connected Theater des Westens.

The famed cafés along this stretch – the Paris Bar, the Schwarzes Café – still offer a slightly faded bohemian lure, bearing as they do the psychic imprints of a range of artistic souls from Kippenberger to Bowie. Further west, the Savignyplatz is charming as it ever was, its manicured lawns hosting the bronze sculptures of August Kraus, its trendy shops and restaurants dotted with garish currywurst stands and household goods stores like C. Adolph (a fixture on the square since 1898).

The handsome streets that surround the square, weighty with the names of prominent men – Leibniz, Giesebrecht, Mommsen, Sybel (but absolutely no women) – carry the taint of 19th century sexism, though a prominent woman did live along the road at No. 30; namely, the German-Jewish novelist Else Ury, who was packed off to Auschwitz in 1943.

Continue west and the street’s make up begins to smudge. Larger rips appear in its arterial fabric. You need to look harder here amongst the strings of strip clubs, Asian take-away restaurants and garish casinos for the treasures – but they’re here: New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit) architecture courtesy of the Kant Kino (No. 126-127), where U2 played their first concert; good old Harry Lehmann’s at No. 106, the oldest perfume shop in Berlin with its apparently irrelevant side-show of fake blooms; and No. 79, whose nondescript façade hides a former women’s prison that once held the Rote Kapelle and female prisoners captive, and is now used occasionally for art exhibitions.

And then there are the people. “The crowd is his domain,” said Baudelaire of the flâneur, “just as the air is the bird’s and the water is that of the fish.” Like the park or the promenade, avenues like Kantstrasse serve as public spaces where one can obtain a measure of the city – its heft and shape, its human content – away from the socially engineered environments of the commercial infrastructure.

Scanning the history and the architecture, the eyes, thoughts and faces of the passersby, one can merrily cruise those liminal areas between past and present, solitary and social. It’s possible to combine the real with the imagined, fuse the magical and the banal, and ultimately feel at one, traditionally speaking, with the urban alienation of the big, bad city.

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