6 December 2011

The City As A Palimpsest: Teufelsberg

+52° 29' 49.89", +13° 14' 27.64"

Strolling around Berlin is not a journey through history it is the simultaneous experience of various histories. Ergo, many urban theorists refer to the city of Berlin as a palimpsest.
Recently, lured by a sunny autumn Sunday, I took a long walk in West Berlin’s Grunewald – The Green Forest. At 3000 hectares it is the largest green area in the capital. With its old oak trees no one would expect a rich history on this site – if it wasn’t Berlin. Out of the flat sea of trees raises the Devil’s Mountain – the Teufelsberg - 80 m above the level of the surrounding and completely flat Grunewald. The Teufelsberg is one of the highest elevations in the city. I approached the site from S-Bahn station Heerstraße, the north-eastern part of the Grunewald.
Soon after you enter the forest, the paths guide you upwards until you reach a vast plateau. You find yourself on a flat meadow. Very flat. However it’s not the Teufelsberg you ended up- it is the Drachenberg – named after the most popular activity there: kite flying. From the plateau you have a beautiful view over the city. If you look back where you came from, in immediate proximity, you experience the first evidence of the multiple histories of Berlin which will become apparent on this excursion. Within one’s reach, embedded in the forest: Corbusier’s  Unité d’Habitation (1956-1958), the monumental statement of modern living.  And right behind, quite disturbingly in scale, the Olympic stadium reminds you immediately of Berlin’s past as the imagined Welthauptstadt Germania. As my goal is the Teufelsberg I continue walking. Down the hill, back to the level of departure and upwards again to reach the peak of the Devil’s Mountain. On a clearing in the forest another monumental structure erects in front of you. Still having Corbusier in mind, I am surprised: Did the master also built a chapel in Berlin?

Coming closer it becomes clear, it’s not a forgotten Corbusier relict standing on the hillside of  Teufelsberg. The concrete structure is a 10 metres high climbing sculpture built in 1970. Fascinated by the serendipitous experience I follow the path over a small bridge which is opening the view again towards the Olympic Stadium, the Unité and a cooling tower of a close power station. Despite its presence, the stadium is only the most apparent reminder of the nazi period. The other relicts of the city’s dark past are covered under your feet. Both the Drachenberg and the Teufelsberg are not geological elevations but artificial mountains – so-called Schuttberge  or Trümmerberge. The debris of one third of Berlin’s buildings that were destroyed during World War II are buried underneath the picturesque landscape. During the period of rebuilding Berlin after the war from 1950 to 1972, up to 800 truckloads per day piled up to the artificial mountain. The reason for transporting the rubble to this particular site excavates another layer of history: The unfinished Wehrtechnische Fakultät, a massive university building designed by Albert Speer  also as part of “Welthauptstadt Germania”, lies under the debris.  The mountain is a burial ground for buildings (approximately 15,000) and history. In 1972 the debris mountain got ‘naturalised’ and trees were planted. Immediately the whole area was used as a sporting ground for many Berliners. Especially in winter the mountain has been used for sledging or skiing –  a skiing lift included. In 1985 even a skiing worldcup slalom took place. On the southern slope of the hill even a vineyard was laid out. Nowadays all of this has vanished.
But let’s continue to the highlight of our tour: The derelict listening station erected and in operation during the Cold War by the NSA (National Security Agency) and the British army.  Consisting of 4 geodesic domes (with the highest - the radar tower - being 69 metres) the NSA and the RAF were able to surveil  radiocommunication up to 600 kilometres - far beyond the Iron Curtain from the Teufelsberg. With their strategic point on the highest elevation of West Berlin, in all directions was “East”. It is rumoured that the station was part of the global ECHELON intelligence gathering network.
When you enter the site, you are impressed by its sci-fi aesthetics of the geodesic domes. The ground is overgrown by pioneer plants, the adjacent buildings are half collapsed, with broken windows and impress with an amazing variety of street art. In some buildings huge incinerators and document shredders are still reminiscent of the past, where tons and tons of sensitive information was collected – and destroyed.
If you visit the site, the highlight is most definitely climbing up the radar tower. Half way you reach a plateau with two of the geodesic domes. Apart from the impressive view over the city of Berlin, the domes are giving your visit an almost dramatic sci-fi moment.  Upon entering the partly vandalised domes you are witnessing an impressive not-of-this world acoustics  many artists have already been exploring.
With the echoes in my head I climbed up the radar tower, stopping at each floor with its textiles waving in the wind. The sound of the wind and the sun setting down behind the domes is just one of the most strong experiences you can get at this trip. When reaching the most epic spot – a ‘window’ at the highest point of the tower – you have hopefully brought your laptop to download the data from the Dead Drop that have been installed ther very recently. What a perfect spot for these containers usually hidden to transmit secret messages that were typically used by spies and now are spread all over. Unfortunately I left my laptop at home hence I could not download what is on the DD: confidential cold war material! (If anyone is ever going to find the DD, the downloaded material is NOT supposed to be spread over the internet).

It is time to leave this unique spot. The sun has already disappeared behind the horizon. While walking back through the dark forest, which is also known for the  high concentration of wild boar hanging around there, I am wondering if there is any other city in the world  where the notion of the palimpsest is more appropriate or more intense? This excursion truly has been a journey expanding far beyond the couple of hours of a sunny autumn afternoon.