Memory tools: A bombed out church turns into urban scale artwork
I’ve seen this sort of stuff before in Germany. Many years ago in Cologne, I remember walking on a street with a giant circle inscribed in it, to remember the Roman structure that once stood there. It was 1999. I had recently graduated from architecture college and the simple memory tool simply blew my mind!
This summer in Berlin, I noticed that the heavy scent of memory and nostalgia, tinged with sweetness and pain, still hangs around every street corner. And so I was particularly struck by this little open space near Checkpoint Charlie.
It’s called Bethlehemkirchplatz. Here, where a Church once stood, stands a metal frame that recreates the outline of the original building in a giant three-dimensional sculpture designed by Spanish artist Juan Garaizabal (it is a tube structure that plays with light apparently, but we saw it only in the daytime). You walk inside it and you see the plan of the erstwhile church inscribed into the paving in a distinct colour. It urges you to try and conjure up its walls and roof, its interiors, furniture, people. And you cannot, because it is in fact an empty space, filled with memory and emotion.
A 16th C church built for Szech Protestant refugees who came to Berlin at the time of Frederick William the 1st. Built around 1737, the church was bombed during the WWII in 1943 and in 1963 the ruins were brought down. The current artwork was inaugurated as recently as 2012.
We first caught a tantalizing glimpse of the sculpture on our way back from Checkpoint Charlie on Day 1 of our exploration of Berlin (more on that later). But it stayed in my mind and we went back to it another time to feel wha its like to stand inside that shell. Interestingly, the plaza is also known for the building in the background that was designed by well-known architect Philip Johnson and in this way, the place holds more than just memory but is linked to Berlin’s recent history and architectural prowess.
Missed out on Berlin’s famous graffiti
Our first glimpses of Berlin
After a congenial and comfortable train ride from Amsterdam to Berlin, we weren’t exactly tired. And so, shortly after we dumped our bags in our hotel room, all four of us were eager to walk around and explore our new destination.
At first sight, I found Berlin hard to read. So much was happening around me visually. Heritage structures abounded, but the skyline was dominated by the slender and modern TV tower, the 4th tallest structure in Europe. Cranes dotted the horizon as well and I could sense the energy of a city that seemed to be in a constant state of re-invention.
Despite the broad research I had done, I hadn’t dwelt on what it would be like to walk the streets of Berlin and I loved the feeling of taking in a new place, the tingling sense of curiosity, the eagerness to discover. Rahul and the kids seemed to share this feeling as well and we found ourselves walking around the Nikolaiviertel (St Nicholas Quarter) that was adjacent to our hotel.
Aside: We stayed at the Novotel and Aadyaa called it the No-Hotel for two whole days to our utter amusement. A decent place to stay, not luxurious but well located.
Interestingly, this is the oldest residential area in Berlin dating back to medieval times. We circled Nikolaikirche, the oldest church in the city, which was to become a familiar landmark over the next few days. We walked past the ornate Ephraim Palace and the red Rathuis (Townhall). We admired the River Spree and paid our respects to St. George slaying the dragon.
Everywhere, I saw the infill new buildings that had been fitted into the fabric of the older city and it took me some time to shake off the visual symmetry of the Dutch landscape and accommodate the more kitschy urbanscape of Berlin. Somewhere in between our wanderings this first evening, we sat down to a hearty German meal of bratwurst and potato salad, beer and schintzel. A good beginning to a packed 4 days ahead in one of the most interesting cities in the world!
Dinner at a windmill: How Dutch can we get?
One of the highlights on this time’s Netherlands trip, for all of us, was the lovely dinner Anne and Marijn had planned for us at De Molen, a traditional windmill converted into a restaurant. There are several of these in The Netherlands and it was a great introduction to the Dutch countryside as we drove from Amsterdam through lush green fields, pretty canals and past picture-perfect provincial homes and farmsteads to the this fantastic old windmill, all restored and poised, waiting for us.
It was a lovely summer evening. We had only been in The Netherlands a couple of days and were easing into the peculiar feel of the European summer. Long leisurely evenings full of light, gossip, laughter, relaxation. Time to explore, or just be! The windmill was the perfect place to do all of that.
Built in 1766, windmills like this are scattered all over the countryside, many of them rebuilt from scratch to their original glory. While they performed the all-important job of using the wind’s energy to grind cereal in the pastoral 18th century, today these structures have become a touristic symbol of Dutch culture, along with tulips and clogs galore! The Dutch love to conserve the past and it’s delightful to drive by numerous windmills even as you see the countryside dotted with modern windmills as well! I loved the way this structure has been creatively re-used, maintaining its essence and character. A family run restaurant meant it had a distinct charm and standard of service that made the experience especially pleasant.
So through this perfect summer evening, we (the lazy grown-ups) chilled and chatted with the windmill behind us, while the children explored the nearby canal and a little ‘island’ they found there. At some point, Marijn got them into skimming stones over the water and that kept them busy for a long long time.
The menu at De Molen was a small selection, not designed to confuse certainly. And we could all choose something quite different. Rahul ate a pork Schnitzel (we would mostly give that a pass in Germany, but it was very good this evening), Udai had a dish of pork tenderloin that he pronounced was excellent, I had a very typical Dutch dish that comprised a super thin well-cooked fish fillet. Marijn also had the schitzel while Anne ate something that looked particularly healthy! The desserts were fantastic. Apple strudel and a sinful chocolate concoction sealed the deal for us. We returned home to Haarlem one set of very happy holidayers!
Stretched imagination: The wonderful world that children have inside their heads! May 21, 2012
Udai attended a 6-day art workshop this past week. Conducted by Sonal, a dear friend of Rahul and mine from the good old days in Lucknow, he had the time of his life exploring and discovering in himself new abilities and talents. Ten kids varying from age 7 to 11 and a wonderfully involved and talented teacher- Here’s a short run through of what they did…..
What kids love most about summer vacations is the unstructured time and absence of pressure! May 7, 2012
As the heat rises and vacations begin for the kids, I am taken back to the memories of how we spent summer vacations as children. In Mumbai, were we lived from ’81 to ’87, we had cousins from Goa visit us during summer and we traveled there at times as well. I was among the youngest in that group and I got teased incessantly. We played a lot of make believe games, full of role play and imagination. We played carrom, ludo, snakes and ladders and a host of indoor games. With my parents, whenever I could catch them (usually during travels), I played Scrabble and card games like Rummy, which my dad loved!
Wherever we were, home or in Goa or Bangalore (where my maternal grandparents lived), we were usually homebound. Days went by in a routine of breakfast, lunch and dinner interspersed with games, gossip, snoozes and snacks. Occasional treats like outings to the beach or museum did happen, but they were…well, occasional. We didn’t think of complaining. We were fine with the pace of our lives. Of course, we also said “I’m bored” 50 times a day like kids do now, but we were happy to be handed over another book to re-read, or another board game. Many a time, we were just asked to shut up and take ourselves away! And we did!
Later, in Lucknow, we had a teenage gang and hung out together doing stuff as varied as 100-piece jigsaw puzzles, endless card games, watching VCRs, talking and even reading together!
What made my childhood and especially the summer vacations a joy was the unstructured time we spent with our friends. Schooldays signified the shackles of a time-bound regime and holidays meant we could live in our alternate world till a parent or house help dragged us away for lunch or dinner!
Despite the plans I am making for my kids’ vacations, I know in this, the world has not changed. Udai and Aadyaa truly prefer the company of their friends over any class or scheduled activity. It is our failing as parents that we are unable to create safe, supervised space and time for this to happen all through the summer. We need to resort to some structured activities to tide us through! Hopefully, I will be able to negotiate a balance so they can enjoy both!