“The magic of ruins” at Revaler strasse 99, Friederichshain, Berlin

By: Annie Olsson, ForHim, Umeå University

“The magic of ruins persist. A near mystical fascination with sites, seemingly charged with the aura of past events, as if the molecules of the site still vibrated with the memory of their history”.# Those are the words of James E. Young in his exposé of holocaust memorials. A ruin is a trace of previous lives and deaths, of a world once existing but now gone. All we see is the scaffolding, the only remnants of the humans that once used to live there. A ruin reminds us of death in that the people building it are all gone and their lives forgotten. But it is also a reminder of life, eternal, ever changing life, in that it constantly changes. Weeds grow over the old marble floor, the wind and cold breaks down the walls and even new people might come there, leaving traces of their own, modern life. It is therefore still a place where life exists, only in different forms than originally intended.

A ruin is a place or a building left to its own fate, not being tended by anyone. The memories awoken by it are unplanned and spontaneous. It differs from a monument or memorial site in that they are created by a state or organization with the purpose to “shape memories as they seem fit, memory that best serves a national interest”.# When creating a monument you have a specific purpose, an aim to achieve, an emotion to awake or something specific to remember.

During the end of the 20th century researchers have taken on what has been called “the spatial turn” which means that they have been starting to look more carefully into the socially and politically constructed meaning of space.# To leave a space untended is a political choice that will have serious impact on the history and meaning of it. It will also have an impact on its social function. Spaces left untended in a large city will not be left alone. People will inhabit it in different ways and they will construct their own social meaning.

Bodenhamer claims that “All spaces contain embedded stories based on what has happened there” and the history of a certain place therefore is given an important role.# In some places this is more obvious than in others. In Berlin many of the old, half demolished buildings are left as they are. These ruins often live side by side with newly built or restored buildings, exposing a contrast between old and new, sometimes exposing different layers of history in the very same block of houses. Here the different layers live side by side, sometimes overlapping each other, sometimes covering each other in a way unusual for European capitals. I claim that this is a special feature for Berlin and in this assignment I am going to give you an example of a place in which the different layers are particularly obvious, a site which triggers many layers of our memory in the same way as a memorial or monument. The place that I am going to introduce to you is Revaler strasse 99, Friederichshain, in the former East Berlin.

This site is not a monument or a memorial, in fact it is an old factory site and it represents a cross section of some of the most important features of German history. It is therefore quite obvious that it has its own “embedded story” that is still there, printed in the buildings. It all starts in October 1st,  1867, when a company named “Königlich-Preußische Eisenbahnhauptwerkstatt Berlin II” started its business in the area, originally employing about 600 workers who built and mended train wagons intended for the transportation of people and goods. By 1882 the number of employees had increased to 1200.#  This is happening about at the time when Prussia, (later Germany) is about to catch up with Great Britain and the other European countries when it came to the level of industrialization and the growth of this company is an indication of its success.

World War one is of course another of the most important events in German history. The company is now working with restoring cars to be able to use in the war. In 1918 the workshops changes its name to ”Reichsbahnausbesserungswerk“ (RAW).

Of course even World War 2 sets its mark on the RAW. Many of its male employees have been sent to the front to fight and in time their places are being filled by forced labor from some of the occupied countries. In 1944 the RAW is heavily bombed and some 80% of the workshops are destroyed. After the German surrender the Soviets take over and some 1300-1400 people are soon employed at the RAW again. During the DDR-period the workshops are in use in a smaller scale. In fact it doesn’t close down until 1994, only to open again in 1995 but now with no more than 100 employees. During all this time the ruins of the old bombed workshops are still unrestored. This was a common practice in most of East Berlin where many of the bombed sites in the middle of town were just left there as a remembrance for the newly conquered Germans “that in fact the East Germans were now a subjugated nation”.# One of the most obvious examples of this is the old Gestapo headquarters that was bombed during the war and the occupying soviets just left to its own fate. In 1949 it was finally dynamited away and the ground was just made flat. Thereafter the place was left barren until the unification of Germany when the “Topography of terror” was raised in the former “Gestapo gelände”.# The reason why the bombed buildings were actually left this way in parts of east Berlin was, as I said, partly to remind the East Germans of their being subjugated, but also to send them a warning of might happen if they try something similar again.#

The RAW is far from a traditional memorial site, consciously constructed to shape our memories of the past. Rather it is more like the Gestapo gelände, only with the difference that it was never fully abandoned and never dynamited. Though the roofs of the old workshops were not restored and as the pictures show, are still not restored to this day. From the beginning you can imagine that the Soviet occupation force did it for the reasons that I already mentioned, as a statement of power, saying that this can happen again if you do not behave. But later – what happens to an abandoned place, in the middle of a large city? Well it will not be abandoned for long. People start filling it with their personal meaning and memories. And this is what happened in this place too. When the workshop closed down, artists and atrisans moved in, and now, without removing the old ruins, new companies and leisure companies are moving in. Today the area is used by an association called RAW Temple Association that runs intercultural projects here.# You can also take part in a number of cultural or sports activities here. There is wall climbing and also a skateboard hall and, not least, a vivid nightlife with lots of bars and nightclubs. The graffiti art is also very strong and many monumental graffiti-paintings are exposed on the old walls of the workshops. During the summer the area has held flee-markets but they have all been abandoned due to a conflict with the landowner and the landlord. #

In the very buildings at Revalerstrasse you see the traces of history. You can still see the workshops, built in the late 19th century, you can see the damage done to them during the bombings of World War 2, you can see the lack of restoration during the DRR-era and you can see the modern traces of graffiti, posters and advertisement for the new activities and the clubbing that is going on in the area. It is all there, not replacing – but overlapping each other. This is a place that is partly left to itself and partly being used, but the ruins of the old is still there. During this entire period this has, to a larger or smaller degree been a workshop, so there is both continuity and change, ruins and modernity.

Germany has a tradition of what Young calls “counter monuments”, monuments whose job is to make people react and bring out their own memories and emotions, rather than to just react in the way promoted by the state.# These monuments are also created, for a special purpose and to reflect certain value and, with the words of Young: are there to do the memory-work for us. The Revalerstrasse on the other hand is more of a spontaneous, natural monument, a place where people create their own memories. Someone who worked in the workshops during the 1940s might have taken her grandchildren to the flee-market or a concert during 2008, looking at the ruins at the same time as having a new experience of a living part of the city.

So, what is the future of this area? Well, as Berlin is rapidly starting to transform in the same way as other European cities, it is likely that the space will be exploited. The prices for living are likely to rise, more people will move into the city and the pressure for more places to live is most likely to be heavier. Large spaces like this, in the middle of the central city will be attractive building sites and instead of costing money, as they do when the ruins are still standing, they are likely to generate money when selling apartments. So what we see in Berlin today, with its ruins side by side with and sometimes overlapping the modern, is not likely to remain.# In Sweden this happened a long time ago. In Stockholm everything old was either swept away or renovated during the modernizing frenzy of the 1960´s and 1970´s, leaving its inhabitants with a shining new city, without ruins and, to some extent – without memory. The political decisions that made this possible were highly criticized at the time and history has condemned it, if possible, even harder. So what we see in Berlin today, with its ruins side by side with and sometimes overlapping the modern, is not likely to remain.# This could therefore be a very special situation in time, when things are stopping, preparing itself for the great changes to come; when the third millennium with its new economies and new digital society will wipe out the old and create a strange new world, of which we know nothing at the moment. Or, maybe Berlin will continue to be a city where ruins and modernity can live side by side. Only time can tell. In the mean time I can do nothing but agree with Young in that “the magic of ruins persist” and that you don´t really know you miss it until you actually face one.


Annie Olsson




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s