The Myth of the Centre
1. Our big cities are “laboratories of civilization”, “lived Utopia and suffered destruction of Utopia in one”, to quote Ulrich Beck, a German sociologist 1. The future of our world is dealt with, planned, made and eventually lost in our cities. In contradiction to or in creative adaptation of their concrete claim for eternity, our cities are phenomena of constant change being the mirrors of our ever changing societies. What is more, cities are and will increasingly be the arenas where the fundamental mutations will take place and become visible that we are the actors and victims of our cultural codes and that we are used to name their changes the shifting of paradigmas.
2. Perhaps that Berlin is a particularly rewarding object of investigation – eine Stadt, die niemals ist, sondern stets wird: a city that never is, but always becomes or changes, as one of the Berlin slogans goes. lt represents, sometimes simultaneously, the major antagonistic agents and movements of the 19th and 20th centuries – bourgeoisie and proletariat; nationalism, internationalism and cosmopolitism; monarchy and democracy; capitalism, and fascist versus communist absolutism. Not to forget: Berlin has been and continues to be an ‘artslab’ of that period’s creative movements from romanticism and naturalism to post-modernism.
3. Following a period of suffered Cold-War-immobility and standstill of history, the miracle of the collapsing Wall has just called forth a period of hectic activities about to thoroughly transform Berlin within the years to come. We are still in the lull before the storm, Berlin still shows the features of a self-conceited, provincial community blocked between two mentalities with the Wall surviving in the Eastern and the Western heads – but the muscles are tense already for the dash into Berlin’s future.
4. Berlin has been considered as one of the centres of Modernism and its mania of progress. Indeed, Berlin has that label of a capital city of “surprise”, this peculiarity of European civilization since World War I which on its part has been labeled as the “Big Surprise”. Berlin has been proud to be the capital city of the shock, of the “épater les bourgeois”, of the “revaluation of all values”, of an insatiable eschatological urge for newness, of “a culture of the event, of action, instead of a culture of significance or of moral command“2.
5. But, to begin with, I would like to speak about a stabilizing factor in history: about myth or mythology. In this, I think, I can count on the sympathy of an American audience, “because” – I am quoting Leslie Fiedler – “as long as Americans have been American, they’ve been inhabitants of a mythology and not of history…“3 And in the context of mythology, I will come to speak about some aspects of the ongoing debate on center and periphery.
6. The notions of the ‘myth’ and in particular the myth of the center may be helpful to the analysis of the actual situation of metropolitan agglomerations in general, and especially to the understanding of Berlin’s specific fate and to the question of how this city may recover its lost urbanity. “The Wall in our heads”: is that not a marvelously picturesque metaphor concerning the present psychological state of Berlin? We are all inhabitants of mythology. According to the historian Egon Friedell all present times are “an optical illusion”. Referring to that incredible year of 1989, the year of total surprise and unexpected miracle, Peter Handke speaks of “history as the great fairy tale of the world, of mankind.“4.
7. I am speaking of the functioning of our perception in conflict with the perceivable, constituting what we name ‘reality’. By ‘myth’ I understand all we are carrying with us as our mental and physical baggage, as our ancestral or genetic inheritance, as the heritage of our real and fictional past, of past creative acts and collective inventions, as the fruits of our own imaginations, introspections and projections into the future, of our fears and hopes. Our ‘mythological’ constitution allows us to speak of the present of the past. We may compare ourselves to time tanks accumulating ‘history’ adapted as our personal legend. This forces us to question to what extent our thinking and acting, how far our consciousness of ourselves and of the others are at all determined by visible or invisible presence or absence, to question the essence of reality…
8. It seems obvious, indeed, that our lives are dominated by our ideas and expectations, by our need for permanence and continuity, Our myths, aren’t they at least as real as the conditions of our ‘real’ existence? Plato’s Cave has a concrete substance to us, how else could we be in a position to deal with a fictional world obviously under the rules of relativity, immateriality and virtuality.
9. The fall of the Berlin Wall and Iron Curtain has made us realize the mental borderline that we are referring to as “time wall”. Decades of confrontation with the myths of the European East and of the West are responsible for mental deviations even within individuals of the same nation which are resulting – within the period of maybe several generations – in another rhythm, in a different colour of their memories, moods and emotions.
10. Another most relevant example is “Mythos Berlin”, the very mythology of modernist Berlin focusing on the climax of its urban culture in the ’20s whose essence has been that unique and irretrievable German-Jewish symbiosis. lt is the myth of the city-machine, yet seen by the expressionist poets and painters as a jungle – Moloch Berlin. Destroyed and lost forever, the myth of those splendid years on the brink of disaster is still haunting our imagination and our desire. lt haunts the imagination and desire of many of those who are, in one way or another, involved in reshaping the new capital city as if just its scattered elements would have to be put together again to restore Berlin’s erstwhile urbanity and modernity. lt is the myth of the centre.
11. Berlin’s myth of the ’20s corresponds to that dream of a complex metropolis – not deprived, though, of the coherence and unity of the holy polis – whose paramount qualities are the excellency of its ruling class and its intelligentsia, the wealth of its business class, the perfection of its industry and craft, the diverse of its cultures, the attraction of its institutions, the magnetism and glamour of its nightlife and world of pleasures, the superiority of its criminals and forces of order, the boldness and pertness of its common men and women, the charm of its cityscape and the grandeur of its skyline, in a word – the beauty and intensity of life it promises. This vision of a metropolis is nothing else but the dated myth of the center in opposition to its peripheral (or provincial) counterparts. The cliché, believe me or not, cannot be simple-minded enough to sneak its way into collective mythology.
12. The notion of the ‘center’ has its natural origin in the theo-geo-centric cosmologies since long done away with by natural sciences and even by theology. Yet, this ideal continues to resist its cancellation since it seems to correspond with an inveterate nostalgia of mankind. The myth identifies Center and Significance, Center and Value.
13. From the ‘roi soleil’ to his many followers, from Inquisition to Stalinism, from the bourgeois ‘milieu’ and ‘juste milieu’ to Euro-centrism and to the fascist Millenium – there are endless attempts of reestablishing the bygone theocracy – attempts to set one binding measure, one truth for all, exiling or annihilating all that does not fit into that biased view of a world. We have to do with the ideology of the Either – Or. Primeval dualities show themselves in a fresh disguise: center or periphery, metropolis or province, First or Third World, mainstream or fringe, the medium or the excentric, the scene or the obscene, etc.;
14. The philosopher Gilles Deleuze gave us a colourful illustration of what the Western code identifies as the “measure” – “human being, white, occidental, male, adult, reasonable, heterosexual, inhabitant of a city and speaking a standard language” – opposing this ‘central’ position to the peripheral one of “mosquitos, children, women, black people, peasants, homosexuals,etc.“5. Beyond this irony, Jean Baudrillard states the end of obscenity, there being no ‘scene’ anymore allowing the “ob-scene” to exist6. There is indeed ample evidence of the final, if slow decline of that world of the Either – Or, of those opposites conditioning each other.
15. Let me remind you of one of its more elaborate swan-songs.
The well-known study by Hans Sedlmayr, “Verlust der Mitte” (“The Center Lost“7), first published some 45 years ago, lays out the scenario of a “gigantic inner catastrophy” in Europe since approximately 1760, making use of the “symbolic” character of the art of 200 years of modernity to unveil the “sickness” of those times, its symptoms being to the author modern “purism”, its “polarizations” its “tendency for the anorganic”, its “separation from the soil”, and, mainly, its trend toward “dehumanization”. No doubt, the book is a prophetic anticipation of that endgame-stage of transcendental modernism and its mise-en-scène, its projection of a new Golden Age: the artificial paradise of modern mankind, a world transformed into an allround artifact by Western man’s rational power and superiority, where history and art would come to an end and Nature – following the Hegelian vision – be finally and entirely integrated into the Spirit. An apotheosis of the idolized Western progress whose purest interpretation can be found within the realm of Euro-American Modernist Art – conditioned by Kant’s philosophy of the Sublime and the Genius, by Hegel’s eschatological vision of a goal and final stage of history, by Schiller’s deification of the artist, escorted by their many successors down to classical American art-criticism (Clement Greenberg’s “formalist theology”, to quote Thomas McEvilley) – Western art was bound to become a metaphysical manifestation on the way to the final integration of Matter into Spirit, naturally claiming universal hegemony, as Thomas McEvilley convincingly deduces in his essay of 1987 “Art History or Sacred History?“8 The thriving for immaterial purity in the works of Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, Yves Klein is a perfect example. Yet, the innermost circle of the Sublime and the Sacred is touched by a number of outstanding examples of American Land Art: think of the “Earthworks” of Robert Morris, of his “Observatory”, and of Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Hill” or “Spiral Jetty”, of Nancy Holt’s “Sun Tunnels”, of Walter de Maria’s “Lightning Field” or of James Turrell’s “Spaces of the Light”…… Art as a revelation of the Eternal and the Cosmic, Art entering the order of the Divine, no Ionger being entirely here below. Looking back to Kandinsky’s famous manifesto “Über das Geistige in der Kunst” (“On the Spiritual in Art”, published 1912) and his reference to “the cosmic laws” in art: a circle is closing. Modernism culminates and ends in a transcendental manifestation of the ‘Center’. The myth of the center, withdrawn into the parochial district of the Euro-American mainstream, had finally mutated into an etherial condition – according, maybe, to the second axiom of thermo-dynamics stating the transformation of energy into an uncondensed, useless form.
16. Returning to our urban borderlands we are back on earth in the material sphere of the here and now. Yet, our myth still haunts the imagination. lt lingers in the minds of the Berlin city planners dealing with nothing less than the reconstruction of the city’s old center.
17. Now, it is hard for us Europeans to imagine a city without a centre. Since the 13th century when our cities slowly took the shape in which they still inhabit our minds, they most naturally grew around centres dominated by the church – a dome, a minster or a cathedral – neighboured soon by the city-hall and surrounded by the market place, the city’s open forum. lt is an image resisting the ravages of time. Let me refer to the example of Amos Oz, an author born in Israel of parents immigrated from Central Europe, who told the boy of their hope Jerusalem might one day become a ‘genuine city’, meaning a city with its cathedral situated next to a river with bridges and surrounded by dense forests9.
18. Aren’t we obliged, though, to become aware of the highly symbolic meaning contained in the systematic destructions of Berlin, capital city of the Third Reich, by Albert Speer’s planned new super-centre “Germania”; in the systematic bombing of German cities’ historical centers by allied forces: conveyed by Ulbricht’s blowing-up of Berlin’s City Palace of the Hohenzollern; sensible in the fact that the remaining historical centers of European cities are maintained mainly as museums to exploit swelling tourist crowds? Definitely, the centre is lost.
19. Here we have to remind of the particular situation of Berlin. In his critical distance to the booming city, the writer and historian Wilhelm Hausenstein said in the ’20s “Paris is a garden, Brussels blooms, Antwerp thrives – but Berlin is construed- The city was not born, it manufactured itself”. He designates Berlin as the “exempt” city – indeed, unlike its European sisters Berlin has not grown under the influence of the church or in the shadow of a cathedral. The formation of “Großberlin”, the greater Berlin area, out of a scattered flock of small independent communities (7 townships and 59 rural communities) not earlier than 1920, has been a secular act creating 20 administrations under the responsibility of a local mayor and parliament each: a multi-centred agglomeration.
20. Berlin has kept its exceptional feature, city of many particular roles: melting pot and multicultural Prussian capital, Kaiser-city and “Red Berlin”, biggest German workers’ and industrial city, city under the Four Power Status and “front city”, divided city of the Wall and showcase of the West, capital of the GDR and of the student movement etc; And, again, the capital city of Germany, contested and even sabotaged by large groups of the Bonn Federal Administration.
21. Its open, tolerant, multilayered, prospective, more: progressive character predestinated the city to become one of the centres of Modernism, calling strong conservative forces into reacting. An outstanding example is the elevation of the Berlin Dome from 1894 on by Kaiser Wilhelm, this identification of the Prussian Crown with Heaven, being immediately censored by modernist Berlin as a declaration of war, as “evil architecture, triumph of the bygone”, in the words of Alfred Lichtwark (Hamburg art historian and museum man). The meanwhile restored dome is obviously a fatal prefiguration of Albert Speer’s Big Hall (Große Halle) as the culmination of the projected massive transformation of Berlin into the fascist center of the world.
22. We had to enter the post- and post-post-modernist areas to become finally aware of a radically changing mental landscape, In the early ’70s already Octavio Paz had announced, with the death of the avantgarde, the end of modernist Utopia10. Let me quote from a text written 20 years later by the American art critic Thomas McEvilley: “…the globalism of the ’90s… is based on the recognition that art history as hitherto promulgated no longer coincides with the world we live in. To correct the fit, a fundamental shift in Western modes of cognition seems to be called for. … Western culture, taking its paradigm from its sciences was to be the universal Self: non-Western culture was to be entirely Other. The idea of taking an anthropological approach to one’s own culture – treating one’s own culture as another – would have seemed subversive. Now, however, many Western anthropologists have come to see their goal as to shed light on their own culture as much as on others, light that must come, at least in part, from outside. … The point of this exercise is the relativization of any one culture, the perception that it is not an absolute but just one approach among many to the shared human project of civilization.“11
23. (Recently, Ronne Heartfield has exposed similar views on the changing canon in relation to publication and public education).
The funeral bells of the late myth of the Centre are now heard more frequently, as are the welcome songs of those new codes of openness and difference, greeting the rediscovering of a diversified world of cultures, centres, truths. The production of meaning seems to have definitely shifted to peripheral authorities, creative individuals and marginal groups.
24. “Never before” observes the French anthropologist Marc Augé, “has individual history to such an extent been influenced by collective history, yet never before have the means of orientation for the collective identity been as fluid as today. Hence, the individual producing of significance is indispensable as never before.“12
And the British philosopher Michael Dummet is even doubting the philosophical assumption of a centre, describing his procedure by the image of the Labyrinth with its many dead-ends and the chance to maybe discover new unexpected ways.13 The secular chances and challenges of the Berlin city planners are menaced by a profound disorientation between the centre void of significance, its inexhaustible mythology and the obscure image of the future of the big city. We live what is expressed by the Nahuatl, the Mexican-Indian word “Nepantla”, a state of having left behind one world and not yet having entered another – creative transitional borderlands.
25. Are there ways to still seize the unique opportunities of the open Berlin situation?
We are witnesses of a rather sad and disturbing panorama. Not being in the position to go into details for this brief talk, I will offer here a condensed catalogue of some of the facts:
- Next to a new urban development plan of the greater Berlin area (Flächennutzungsplan), done in a hurry after the fall of the Wall, there is no overall concept or philosophy for the reshaping of the city on the side of the many involved in Berlin.
- Since nobody believed in German reunification during our lifetimes and since the old-new German capital city has only been lip-service in Western political Sunday speeches, there are no concepts in Bonn of how to transfer the political functions to Berlin. Worse: a large Bonn minority still continues to sabotage Berlin. Of the ups and downs of that interminable debate only two decisions are coming out clear. A good number of ministries and their employees will stay in Bonn to comfort that city although everyone knows that this can only be a heavily cost-increasing provisional measure.
The moving ministries will occupy the historical centre of Berlin, transforming it most probably into a heavily guarded security area.
Will the democratic sovereign, excluded of all co-decision in the process, welcome the new hierarchy of its ruling class? All is more likely than this.
- Berlin’s historical center is the general object of desire. A nucleus of some powerful architects, assisted by the one responsible director of public city building (Stadtbaudirektor) sets about to restore the “historical ground-plan” by a method of “critical reconstruction”. Avoiding any conceptual prospective, this power-team of “Berlin’s second Gründerzeit” relates openly to the first one, the years of Berlins’s rapid expansion between 1874 and 1914. The news of the plannings feed all our apprehensions of a prevailing uniformity and monotony of the city’s general aspect. All the more since other more inventive architectural concepts are excluded from competition and participation, particularly those which correspond to the openness and freedom of expression, to pluralism and decentralisation suitable for Berlin and its future urban development.
- These planners’ manoeuvres – baptised as a movement “back into the future” – are a sort of concerted action with the new self-confidence of the greater Germany’s political class, with its desire for order and national representation, with its lack of imagination and its need for security. This is the most alarming aspect of the alliance: an architecture for the new European superpower.
- A more burlesque character has the debate around a definition of the city’s very core: the site of the former City Palace built by Andreas Schlüter from 1699 on, damaged during the war and destroyed by the communist authorities in 1950, replaced by the GDR “Palace of the Republic” which awaits, unbeloved, its turn to be broke up. At one time the minister of Foreign Affairs had a flirt with the privileged site – too much Mister X, after all…
Some chances, apparently, has the lobby for the reconstruction of the Schlüter Palace – “a gigantic deception package… Outside baroque, inside big business” commented the press.
There are plans for a “Stadthaus”, a City house, without defining its contents – for whom and for what purpose shall it be there?
26. The helpless conflict around this innermost centre of the city reveals more clearly than any other aspect of the city planning the impossibility to define a meaningful Centre of our complex communities and their diffuse identities.
City-planning directed by the worn-out paradigms of hierarchy and hegemonial significance will only result in creating ensembles of solitary blocks and buildings void of genuine life and meaning and surrounded by empty, inhospitable spaces, “espaces courant d’air” as the French architect Gagès once complained, thinking of La Defense in Paris. Why should Berlin not grasp the chance to reinvent ‘espaces de flanerie’, spaces for the flaneur we mentioned yesterday. Why should Berlin repeat the mistakes made by American, French, Japanese architects and city planners?
27. Are there any easy ways out of the dilemma?
Hardly, if we consider human nature, its infiltration with ‘mythology’, its trend of powergames, its voluntary blindness in front of the future.
Hardly, considering the muddle of competences on the building sector, the obstacle-race through the building bureaucracy and its inflated legislation, considering the lack of networking among the interested agents and administrations on the municipal and federal sides, the political, social and aesthetic areas.
Hardly, if we think of the shrinking German population, and the lack of a genuine law relating to immigration, granting to the majority of the 7 million non-German inhabitants (whereof 382 800 live in Berlin) the status of second-class citizens, and if we think of a persistant xenophobia in my country: Are those the elements to rebuild a cosmopolitan metropolis?
Well, the challenge is enormous our societies are facing following the collapse of the systems, of the East-West-, Right-Left- Order of the World, of the commodity of confrontation suspending any doubts about one’s own position.
28. To conclude, I would like to make you aware of an author I have quoted already, the sociologist Ulrich Beck, whose analysis of our present situation I find particularly enlightening.
To introduce his recent book, “The Invention of the Political“14, he refers to Vassily Kandinsky who has published in 1927 an article with the simple title of “und” – “and”. Herein, Kandinsky explains that – while the 19th century had been dominated by The Either – Or – the 20th century shall work at and elaborate the “and”.
29. Division, specialization, striving for order, evidence, control, and a linear, calculable image of the world there – here: the global and the multiple, uncertainty, the experiment of exchange, of the included third, of synthesis and ambivalence. “… the world of the Either – Or”, Ulrich Beck states, “in which we think, act and live (I am underlining, still think, act and live) becomes wrong”- However our attitude is – receptive of or rejecting the globality, diffuseness and openness of the “and” – we are already engaged in the conflicts and experiments of a world beyond the Either – Or… What Kandinsky had seen as the task of the 20th century, will thus be handed over to the next one: the question of the “and”.
30. In an article for Süddeutsche Zeitung in July, titled “The Open City“15, Ulrich Beck is applying this view to the actual state and development of our urban agglomerations. Let me give you some elements from this article:
The author is pleading for an alternative architecture of the ‘public domain’, of the in-between-spaces, to create a new identity of the social. The issue is to renew the idea of ‘community’ within the public space and its breakdown. In order to revitalize the dead centres of our cities, the city of the “and” will have to create “hospitable spaces” (Renate Schütz) making possible what is now excluded: intimacy and anonymity, community and freedom. The city of the “and” sets out to develop radical modernism, meaning a new definition of the social in a world being at the same time globalized and individualized. The city of the “and” will have to offer the means for creating ‘community’ in a ‘city of individuals’, for creating urban democracy, lt will have to provide “open-minded spaces”, as the American scholar Michael Walzer has proposed to say. And, last not least, the task is the reconciliation of technological modernism and ecology in order to develop future urbanity.
31. lf Berlin and its open-minded potentials would have the upper hand against the fatal tendencies of exclusion and national pomp, of a mentality of apartheid, of an architecture of high-security and emergency etc. – the city would indeed, by its very traditions, be predestinated to become a workshop for the renewal of urbanity, for discovering the elements of a future mythology of our cities we may be eager to identify with. lt is my deep desire that Berlin shall surprise us all in a most positive way.
- Ulrich Beck, "Die offene Stadt", Süddeutsche Zeitung, July 2/3, 1994
- Modris Ecksteins "Der Große Krieg", in the catalogue "Die letzten Tage der Menschheit", Berlin 1994
- Leslie Fiedler, "Cross the Border, Close the Gap"
- Peter Handke, "Versuch über die Jukebox", 1990
- Gilles Deleuze, "Philosophie et minorité", in "Critique" 369, 1978
- Jean Baudrillard, "La scène et l’ob-scène"
- Hans Sedlmayer, "Verlust der Mitte - Die bildende Kunst des 19 und 20. Jahrhunderts als Symptom und Symbol der Zeit", Salzburg 1948, 17th edition 1991
- Thomas McEvilley, in "Art and Discontent - Theory at the Millenium", New York 1991
- Amos Oz, "Brief aus Arad", in "Bericht zur Lage des Staates Israel", Frankfurt/Main 1992
- Octavio Paz, "The Death of the Avantgarde" 1972 - "Der Tod der Avantgarde", in "Die andere Zeit der Dichtung", Frankfurt/Main 1992
- Thomas McEvilley, "Art & Otherness - Crisis in Cultural Identity", New York 1992
- Marc Augé, "Orte und Nicht-Orte - Vorüberlegungen zu einer Ethnologie der Einsamkeit", Frankfurt/Main 1994
- "Un entretien avec Michael Dummet" by Roger-Pol Droit, "Le Monde", October 11, 1994
- Ulrich Beck, "Die Erfindung des Politischen", Frankfurt/Main 1993
- U.B., "Die offene Stadt", see there
Dr. Michael Haerdter is a freelance writer and curator and the first president of Res Artis