Berlin street wear seems similar to London street wear but more so. There is a preponderance of blacks and greys. Black jeans, black tee shirts, black padded jackets. My visiting Australian friend and I wonder about this relentless dressing down, the blending in. She asks her friend, a Berliner. ‘Disguise’ says the Berlin friend, ‘everyone here is in disguise’.
I have been away from Europe for more than a dozen consecutive Springs. The last time I came to Berlin, it was Winter and there was thick snow on the ground. From time to time I suffer from a migrant’s nostalgia. I like living in Australia but I miss the dirt, the visual complexity of street life, the architecture and the plants of European cities. And I have acquired an outsider’s eye for Europe.
On a side street near the Jewish Museum one evening, after the workshop, I came across an ‘Australia Shop’. In the window is a cardboard cut out of a black dancing figure who is wearing only a red and white dotted kerchief around its hips and forehead, and upper arms. Another window is packed with yellow Australian road signs ‘beware of crocodiles’, ‘koalas crossing’, etc. It is a terrible pastiche of old colonial Australian-ness. One of the European clichés about Australia is the dangerousness of its natural world; spiders, snakes, crocs, sharks as the basic four. The idea of urban-ness in non-Indigenous Australia goes with neatening nature to hold it at bay; grass must be mown because of the snakes who would like to live there. ‘In the long grass’ is a Northern Territory euphemism for sleeping rough, drunkenly and dangerously. Years of visiting the Australian Western Desert, where nature is definitely culture, and thinking about the relationship people there have with the ground, the traces they leave on it and in it, has sensitized me to looking down as well as around.
Sitting distractedly one lunchtime on a bench off Mohrenstrasse I realise that at my feet are hundreds of just seeding shepherd’s purse plants. Berlin, it dawns on me, must have a policy of not spraying with herbicides. I start to recall and record the English common names of the plants I see; red and white clovers, chickweed, mugwort, yarrow, dock, deep rooted cats ear, daisies, buttercups, dandelions, garlic mustard, hedge mustard, blue corn flowers, red and white campions, lucerne, the foot-high spikes of viper’s bugloss happily flowering out of the grey stone chipping arranged round some street trees on Karl Marx Allee. On the bank of the river opposite the new Humboldt Forum a huge sculptural silver leaved thistle is rising out of the ground, its long tap root forcing energy to grow a few feet tall and seed as soon as possible. It is very handsome. But to my cultural eye it is out of place in the middle of a public urban park opposite the rationalist façade of the new Humboldt. Among the wild plants are cigarette butts, hundred and hundreds of fag ends that I am unused to seeing. They even walk into the apartment on my shoes. Oh freedom.
The wide verges outside the apartment where I’m staying are floriferous, mainly with plants that I know to be wasteland species which colonise newly turned ground, mixed with meadow and hedgerow flowers. One week there is a film of pink cranesbill with their long seed pods like a crane’s beak in Karl Marx Allee. There is purple leaved oxalis with yellow flowers wedged into the cobble gaps by the doorways beside the large monumental Allee buildings. These are persistent little bulbous plants which travel incognito in potting compost and which I pointlessly pull from the gravel in my garden in Brisbane. The maze of gaps between cobbles is ideal for small plants to get a root hold. Channel hopping German TV I see an advertisement for a brush with blades that cuts off unwanted resident plants in paving at the roots. I feel I might successfully export a few of these brushes to Australia to cut down on herbicide use. I wonder if there is some local policy at play here in Berlin about letting the wild plants seed and supporting insects. I learn about ‘No mow May’ in the UK. The point of this is to provide nectar for bees by letting your lawn flower.
On Karl Marx Allee the delicacy of this fauna contrasts with the monumental size of the apartments and their neo classical facades clad in ceramics. Up close each tile is slightly different; pale greenish lintels and window frames and creams, pale yellows and pinks for the wall tiles in the large wedding cake blocks. The blocks behind them also have more uniform ceramic cladding, precisely detailed. Actually, the ceramic clad buildings are the first thing I notice before the plants, ceramics that migrated from the domestic interior to the public realm (or perhaps the other way round?). The copper green coloured brick tiles in Alexanderplatz U-Bahn, the bright orange at Schillingstrasse station, the surprise of the modernist pavilions in the Allee elaborately clad entirely in tactile ceramic and the mosaic murals. Elsewhere in the city I spot bold patterns on gable ends of buildings, and new ceramic clad buildings like Libeskind’s on the Chausseestrasse.
Yes there is another nature/culture transformative thing going on here with the clay that comes from the ground made into artefacts but, against all the fashionable talk of ruins, it seems to me that ceramic clad buildings have more presence; they are doubly there, emphatic – the antithesis of Berlin’s casual street wear and the unmown street fauna. More is more with these ceramic clad buildings, not less. The ceramics make them almost anti-ruins, their surfaces becoming mobile in the sunlight. Unlike the wild plants there is no intrinsic unpredictability to them.
Diana Young is a Visiting Fellow at CARMAH. She is a cultural anthropologist who researches and teaches aspects of material and visual culture, including museums. She works at the University of Queensland, Australia.