12/19/09

The Fa├žade



My experience with Germany before this adventure was limited to two very different sojourns to Frankfurt. The first was on my very first study abroad, with Brigham Young University’s communication department. The second was while I was serving a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

With BYU, we traversed the continent, meeting many of the leading newspapers, government agencies and LDS Church officials. While in Germany we met with the Frankfurter Allgemeine and huddled with the general authorities of the LDS Church in Western Europe.

During my mission, I contracted meningitis in the forests of Latvia. Two weeks after having been evacuated to the Baltic-American Clinic in Vilnius, Lithuania, I had stabilized to the point where I was flown to an American Army medical hospital outside of Frankfurt.

Frankfurt, 11 years ago was the pride of Germany. A glistening city, with modern skyscrapers, it served as the financial heart of the continent. I have assumed that Frankfurt was representative of the rest of Germany. I couldn’t have been further from the truth.

The shape and feel of cities and urban areas rarely happen by accident. After World War II, German communities had to decide how and where to rebuild. To an 18 year old from Denver, Colorado, this thought never occurred to me. The Kansas National Guard has never occupied my city, nor has the Canadian Air Force bombed it into unrecognizable obliteration. Most German cities though, had to make very serious choices as to how they would rebuild.

Some cities, like Frankfurt, decided to hit the reset button and build a new and “modern city”, complete with new city block grids, roads, suburbs and all. Others, like Munich, decided they wanted to keep the feel of the old town in tact. They rebuilt their old roads, their old buildings, their parks and their churches.

Munich today probably doesn’t feel exactly like it did pre-WWII, but I bet it’s close. I imagine that people are still walking the same patterns, to get to the same places as they did 100 years ago. This is just simply not possible in Frankfurt anymore.

I pass no judgment on which approach is best. “To each their own”, the saying goes. But for me, going back to Germany now, I saw what I want my own city to look like, to feel like, to breathe like . . . and that was in Munich.

And 11 years hence, I look forward to discovering completely new and exciting things about Germany that I will have inevitably missed this time around . . .



12/18/09

Late Jurassic Dreams

My age group is probably the youngest to remember anything of the Cold War. For me, I didn’t care so much about the Soviet Union or the consequences of a nuclear winter. No, what I cared about most when I was a young boy was dinosaurs.

It’s important to understand that this was before the really cool computer generated graphics of dinosaurs that I secretly still geek out about to this day. My world of dinosaurs was almost exclusively derived from books. I’m not aware of a dinosaur book that was published that I did not possess growing up.

Of all of the dinosaurs in those books, I picked the biggest to be my favorite, the Brachiosaurus. I fell in love with this giant when popular thought suggested that Sauropods immersed themselves in bodies of water to support their great mass. But no! These walking skyscrapers lived on land, ate at the tops of the trees and had no natural predators once they reached their teenage years . . . (I know, I know, I still get excited).

In all of my books, they teased me with the fact that the only fully mounted Brachiosaurus skeleton in the world was in the Humboldt Natural History Museum in East Berlin.

Yep . . . East Berlin.

I remember pulling out an atlas and finding East Berlin on a map. When I learned what this meant for my chances of visiting, I was devastated. It was then and there that I became staunchly anti-Communist. Communism was the diabolical enemy that was keeping me from seeing this amazing creature in person.

As we grow up, we often forget about our life’s major dreams and goals when we were 5 years old. By the time I was 25 I had already seen a Brachiosaurus skeleton in Orlando, one here in Utah and yes 2 count them 2 in Chicago alone. Who doesn’t seek them out when on vacation or traveling for work?

So, as I was sitting eating a wonderful Russian lunch, under the tracks of the SBahn in Berlin this past October, this whirling rush of clarity came into my brain. I pulled out my map of Berlin only to discover to that the museum that held my Brachiosaurus was only two stops away.

This was too good to pass up. I was scheduled to go and tour the newly remodeled Reichstag with my group. Thankfully my professor sensed that this was a profound moment in my life and gave me his blessing to take off like a bat out of hell toward the museum with three of my friends in tow.

It’s hard to describe fulfilling a dream that has been tucked away in a dusty corner of your mind for the past 26 years.

When I entered that hall and looked all the way up at my Brachiosaurus, that longing adventure of my 5 year-old self was satisfied.

I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t blink, all I could do was stare and smile and my friends gave me my moment with my friend from the books of so long ago.

And so I ask you . . .

What . . .

are your . . .

. . . Late Jurassic Dreams?


12/16/09

Dessau



“Many things, which appear to be a luxury today, will be accepted as the norm tomorrow.”
-Walter Gropius, 1930



Dessau is full of discordances. It is a city that seems to be a reunification afterthought for infrastructure investment, yet has the Federal Environmental Protection Agency’s 10-year old headquarters that serves as a model for the E.U. and the world on how creative architecture and planning can conserve energy and reduce unwanted structural waste.

Dessau is the city where the Bauhaus finally settled nearly a century ago. To compare the ideals of the Bauhaus with the outer rings of Dessau itself, you feel yourself entering into a bipolar world that has deep feelings of resentment and self-reliance.

The Bauhaus today is merely a shell of its former glorious self. Run by a non-profit that has done an excellent job of restoring the complex, with meticulous detail, to the way it looked when its founder Walter Gropius graced the halls. It was a place to dream, to push boundaries and to promote social equity.





Within the context of post World War I Germany, these ideas were indeed radical and were on par with what we think of in the United States as the roaring 20’s. It is no surprise that this institution functioned for a total of 14 years as successive Nazi and Communist governments found the ideas espoused by the Bauhaus too threatening to their own agendas.

So why the conflict in the built environment of Dessau? Dessau has always been an industrially strong city. After the Second World War the Communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) government took full advantage of the infrastructure already there. With every Eastern Bloc Communist government, hubs of industry were designated and specialized and in Dessau’s case it was oil.



With communism comes a very high quality and level of city planning. With the idea of everyone being equal it is fairly simple to design neighborhoods and entire communities. The execution of the designs was of poor quality and poor materiality. The communists left cities across Central and Eastern Europe scarred with unimaginative residential and commercial neighborhoods that have proved too costly to renovate even 20 years after the fall of the wall and the reunification of Germany.

The opportunity to stay in these old communist buildings 10 years after I had spent two-years living in the former Soviet Union was bittersweet for me. It brought back many wonderful memories of my time in the Baltic countries. It reminded me of the hopefulness and idealism in the original ideas of Marx and Lenin that the older generations still wistfully talked about the (not unlike the Bauhaus).

In the 60 hours that I spent in Dessau I can only guess as to the development of the city after World War II, but I think I’m close. The future leaders of the city still have the task of reconciliation on their list of missed accomplishments. As the Mecca of architecture students and professionals around the world, the city must demand more out of their visitors and themselves. They must do more to entice people to see what life is like on the other side of the tracks. To venture into the outer-ring neighborhoods and see what life was like when East Germans were not able to choose where they wanted to live.

My thoughtful and hopeful wish is that we all can channel the spirit of the Bauhaus movement to encourage groundbreaking ideas that are transformative for the citizens of Dessau. Once this begins, hopefully the divide (both physical and mental) can start to be bridged and the process of unification can finally be referred to in the past tense.