Simon Ward. Urban Memory and Visual Culture in Berlin: Framing the Asynchronous City 1957-2012. Cities and Cultures Series. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2016. 212 pp. $105.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-90-8964-853-2.
Reviewed by Jan Musekamp (Europa-Universität Viadrina)
Published on H-Urban (February, 2018)
Commissioned by Alexander Vari (Marywood University)
Asynchrony across the East-West Divide: Changing Urban Memory in Berlin
For the second half of the twentieth century, Berlin seemed to be the prototype not only of a divided city but also of a diverging urban memory. However, despite the political and physical barriers, larger cultural developments such as modernism and trends in urban reconstruction transcended the East-West dichotomy. In his book, Simon Ward looks at the mechanisms of urban memory and its changes, using a visual culture approach and focusing “not on what happened ‘here’, in the past, but what happened to the site” (p. 13). His notion of the “asynchronous city” is opposed to the idea of a synchronic city, comparable to the completely structured “organization of attention in a modern museum at the beginning of the twentieth century” (p. 20). Along with David Frisby, Ward “suggests a way out of this perception of a determinist cityscape” (p. 21). Thus, he follows Walter Benjamin’s strolling of the city, making sense of temporal contradictions in the urban space as part of the experience of modernity. The starting year of the analysis is 1957 (time of the West Berlin International Building Exhibition Interbau), and the concluding year is 2012.
In the introduction, Ward develops his theoretical framework, based on the work of such well-known scholars as Pierre Nora, Paul Connerton, Maurice Halbwachs, Aleida and Jan Assmann, and Walter Benjamin, among many others. He works with well-elaborated approaches from memory and visual culture studies. Ward focuses on architecture/urban planning, memorials, and film/photography as three formative parts of urban memory.
In chapter 1, Ward addresses the “murdered city” between 1957 and 1974. It is astonishing to see the long-lasting shadow of wartime destruction on city planning and visual representations. The 1957 International Building Exhibition in Berlin proved to be the culmination not only of the main focus on traffic planning but also of a “synchronic gaze,” as criticized by an increasing part of the population. The corresponding example from the Eastern part was the decision to demolish the Berlin Palace (Stadtschloss) in 1950. However, starting from the late 1960s, official policies to preserve the (traditional) city image as enshrined in the term “Stadtbildpflege” gained ground in both East and West Berlin. Wim Wenders’s movie Summer in the City (1970) was one such plea for an asynchronous city—with The Legend of Paul and Paula (1973) being its more famous counterpart from the East.
Chapter 2 is dedicated to “place memory work” in both parts of the divided city between 1975 and 1983 (not 1989 as the table of contents suggests). Ward’s starting point is the International Building Exhibition initiated in 1979. He observes a sharp turn in urban planning toward the recognition of Berlin’s “genetic structure” (p. 39). Also, this period brought forth new approaches in film and photography, increasingly dissecting the previous “synchronic urban gaze” (p. 40).
In chapter 3, Ward spans the outcome of not only the 1979 International Building Exhibition but also projects connected with Berlin’s millennial anniversary in 1987, as well as with the fall of the Wall. During this period, Berlin was reconceptualized as a “Remembered City on Display,” as a “repository of the past” (pp. 113, 121), as addressed in the exhibition Mythos Berlin, in Wenders’s ever-famous Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire) (1987), or through the reconstruction of the Nikolaiviertel in East Berlin.
Chapter 4 addresses developments in the unified city between 1993 and 2012—characterized by an ongoing “commercial rehabilitation of ‘obsolete’ housing” on the one hand and an “anti-capitalist rejection”on the other (pp. 142, 143)—with the Potsdamer Platz and the Tacheles being two sides of the same coin. Ward elaborates on the contentious discussions regarding the tearing down of the Palace of the Republic and the reconstruction of the Berlin Palace—comparing it to earlier discussions regarding the fate of the Kaiser William Memorial Church. However, in the case of the palace, it seems as if advocates of a synchronic city prevailed.
The author’s methodological and theoretical acumen are impressive and shed new light on developments in both parts of the city, hitherto analyzed separately. Ward organized his chapters chronologically, defying traditional breaks in the history of Berlin, such as 1961 or 1989. He thus overcomes the long-standing Cold War approach and highlights the simultaneous twists and turns in urban memory in both parts of the city. While this arrangement is intriguing, the book sometimes lacks a more general historical context—with regard to local, national, and international developments, for example, in urban planning. To give just one example, 1957 is a symbolic year rather than a real caesura since discussions on reconstruction at the time already had been going on for years if not decades—not only in East and West Berlin but also in the wider world. Also, as the author himself suggests, the 1950 decision to destroy the City Castle seems to be another possible point of departure. Another weakness of the book is the sparse reference to novel analyses of the Berlin urban landscape that occurred in German, such as Florian Urban’s research on the Nikolaiviertel in East Berlin or Franziska Schmidt’s and Gabi Dolff-Bonekämper’s book on the Südliches Hansaviertel in West Berlin.
However, this book is highly recommended to all those who look for a new comprehensive approach toward postwar urban memory cultures in Berlin. It combines the implementation of accepted theories with a visual culture approach on the built environment and photography/film—simultaneously moving beyond the East-West divide as enshrined in the traditional 1945/1961/1989 narrative.
. Florian Urban, Neo-historical East Berlin: Architecture and Urban Design in the German Democratic Republic 1970-1990 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), 99-142; and Gabi Dolff-Bonekämper and Franziska Schmidt, Das Hansaviertel: Internationale Nachkriegsmoderne in Berlin (Berlin: Verlag Bauwesen, 1999), 8-45.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-urban.
Jan Musekamp. Review of Ward, Simon, Urban Memory and Visual Culture in Berlin: Framing the Asynchronous City 1957-2012.
H-Urban, H-Net Reviews.
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