A space is a place: or how to deal with the rooms of absence

Ulrika Boström

”Space has its own authentic capacity.”1
Daniel Libeskind

It looks deserted, abandoned. A space of minor significance is actually a place of great significance. As a stranger walking through Berlin there’s one thing that quite soon attracts your attention and that’s the industrial places, like abandoned warehouses on large open spaces. They are often kept seperate with fences and seems to lead a secluded life of its own. A life of slow decay. It’s like they’re representing a gap in the context an interrupted reading or a ”werfremdungseffect”.2 They are abruptly making one aware of a past history not in touch with the other surroundings. They are abandoned holes in a larger narrative, a pause in the drama where history speaks direcly towards the beholder.3
We didn’t have the right words for it then, that early cold morning in Berlin, but what we did was that we actually set off to find a ”counter monument.” But then, we just called it the search for the ”real” Berlin. We got off the S-Bahn at Warshauer strasse and between Revaler strasse and Warschauer strasse an area of warehouses appeared. During the summer there’s a flea market here and it’s literally buzzing with life, but now it was empty. Old artefacts of the past are being sold here, (see picture 2.) So, how does this site create or induce a specific relationship with time past, present or future? This is an examination of the constructed, the semi – constructed and the non – constructed void or a space, the so called gap.

James E. Young describes in the preface of The texture of memory, who gives siginificance to a memory? the artifacts as wholly on some Holocaust museums compared to the ones of no significance sold on a flea market. In the Jüdisches museum in Berlin there are letters, photographs and candlesticks, memorabilia of an ”ordinary” life, on display giving life to the past. Making the past as real as it ever was.
The dirty wrinkled objects are so full of life and within a breath, the Holocaust becomes brutally real, touchable, almost, Hadn’t it been for the glass. But as Young writes it’s still in the hands of the curators. Does it then make it more constructed a memory than the pieces of history I find on the streets of Berlin? The signs of past that randomly becomes visible depending on the path.

bild 1_Ulrika

Picture 1. Industrial area choose? The everyday life of the citizen of Berlin is
constructing history but is it on another level than the
ones on display behind glass in a


Picture 2. The official website of Raw flea market.( http://raw-flohmarkt.de)

Young discusses memory; that both its form and reasons are ”socially mandated”. It’s in the interest of societies to create a common memory with shared values as a foundation for the national identity.6How is urban policy linked to the politics of memory?
Nietzsche called any version of history ”calling itself permanent and ever-lasting a petrified history that buried the living” for monumental.4 According to this, a monument is history put in a box: signed and sealed, leaving everything up to the beholder. Young also discusses monuments as mediated history and with ready made signs some of the interpretation and remembrence is lost because someone, (society, the Nations,) has already done all that for you. A monument doesn’t stand on its own, there’s always the beholder. But what about the concept of monuments being ”the reality of ends” as Young puts it.5 This concept started me thinking of open spaces and closed spaces: the air and the emptiness in either a planned and very constructed form and on the other side the
unplanned and unstructured form.

bild 3_UlrikaPicture 3

The politics of memory at least according to the official
view of Berlin, the designer of the map, decided that my
place of interest was just in a perifer place and of no
interest, not at least compared to the ”Greatest Panorama
view at Potsdamer Platz”, which they decided to cover up
my urban place with.

The Jüdisches museum is constructed around six pillars of emptiness going through all the floors of the museum. These are all constructed spaces containing natural dayligt seeping in through openings in the wall. The walls are rugged concrete, grey and cold and the space is enormous, it’s like a void. The feeling is physical, very real, created by a big empty room, the form, and the huge emptyness is though playing with the visitors’ minds. Alongside the main museum building there’s also the Holocaust tower, another huge empty space and the Garden of Exile. Both ends in a dead end in two of the underground museum’s long corridors named axis. The Garden of Exile, is a structured desorientation, creating a nausea. The garden consists of pillars seemingly straight but the ground is tilted and it is playing tricks on the sense of balance. These kinds of physical reactions have more or less been, so to speak, bypassed the brain. Without intellectual interpretation, the reaction or feeling is instantaneous and very private.

Mediated memory
”For once we assign monumental form to memory, we have to some degree divested ourselves of the obligation to remember.”7
Can we remember that which we have never experienced. Isn’t history allways mediated? I learn about history through representations… Is that the definition of collective memory, the use of history within different cultures? I watched some teenage boys, on a field trip from school to the Jüdisches museum, walk into the Holocaust tower. It was for them a somewhat strange experience, I guess. They in fact, came out laughing, not fully understanding and reacting to insecurity in that, typical teenage way,: laughing nervously. I assume it’s better to be disturbed in some way than feel nothing at all. The way the tower works is such a good way of creating the illusion of historical understanding, I think. The boys aren’t aware of it yet, but in time the intellect will catch up with the emotional experience. It’s like with the different memorabilia, the artefacts, the little things from real victims of the Holocaust and exile, on display in the museum. The fact of knowing their destiny makes these belongings almost surreal. Suddenly a door into the past opens up. Just then and there, in that moment you can either step through it or stay on the other side of the glass. The tower and the Garden of exile is also working with the emotional effect but more directly, more physical. You feel something whether you want it or not. It’s not directly connected to a certain time of the past it’s more the effect of feeling disorientated. Having worked as a history teacher for some years now, it’s that goal you’re sort of hoping to achieve in the pupils. It’s a sort of gut feeling of what it was like for people in the past, it’s that difficult thing of historical empathy or understanding.

The use of abstraction is thus bravely used in the Jüdisches museum. When interviewed the architect explained how he had to argue for his idea of using six voids in the museum. Six large empty rooms of no practical use was a difficult thing to grasp and understand for the people responsible for the financing of the building. One can also understand the complicated use of abstraction when it comes to monuments because it leaves to much of the the interpretation open to private visions. This will clash with the idea of creating a collective memory and common ideals and ideas of the past.8

The counter monument.
In our search for the somewhat diffuse idea of the ”real” Berlin I wonder whether or not we actually was looking for the aura of history itself. When history, and the people talk, what do they actually say? What I’m trying to exemplify here is also found in Young’s debate about what a true German memorial of the fascist era and its victims would actually be. He concludes that maybe the best memorial is the political debate over which memory to preserve.9 Linking my discussion back to my initial questions about history and memory: How are the new generations supposed to deal with a memory that is not their own authentic memory, like the teenagers in the Holocaust tower. Both Libeskind and Young relates the question of a new counter movement or a new interpretation of the past… Libeskind defines the six pillars of emptiness as a refusion to give in to nostalgia and a refusion of the idea of a museum. He meant that a museum like this just can’t surrender to the fact of being finished; signed and sealed. The construction is filled with symbolism, the angles, the rooms, the light speaks by itself.10 It made me think of a parable, Gaston Bachelard writes in The Poetics of space: the classic look at how we experience intimate places: ”the corner denies the palace, dust denies marble and worn objects denies splendor and luxury.”11 There’s always the voids to keep the rigid monumental out of the museum. Young disusses a debate among the new generation of artists in Germany whether a monument is: ”more an impediment than an incitement to public memory.”12 He explains the importance of memory but at the same time the inability to recall events from past history which you never experienced. Therefore, he says: ”they remember only their own relationship to events, the great gulf of time between themselves and the Holocaust.”13 The slowly vanishing of the memorial indicates the floating of time and memory, as Nietzsche also reflected that history is not fixed eternally and never changing. These evolving or decaying monuments show the problematic in a fixed mediated memory. Or as Young questions: ”How does one remember an absence?”14 Maybe we have to create memorials and monuments with all senses involved, not just the visual and the intellectual?

It was also the mission of that day, to go look for the perifer authentic history away from the constructed mediated history. Berlin is full of the non-constructed but authentic places that are revived by the needs and interests of the inhabitants of Berlin.
There’s a freedom about the open spaces or the places that are being left alone to sort of organize themselves. The open spaces the emptyness the left over signs of former life, the visible forms of decay that are being kept strictly guarded by fences shows a memorial to abscence and time, the floating of time as mentioned and it’s created by circumstances generated from partly no human control. With every return to Berlin, it still stands there being taken care of by time alone, time’s not so gentle but rough hand. As it’s slowly decaying it will also become part of the future. So therefore: mind the gap.

1 A documentary about the Jüdisches museum by Stan Neumann and Richard Copans. The architect Daniel Libeskind, comments on the building: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SUTkt0z_NTU 2013-02-13.

2 Aron Aspenström, a Swedish architect wrote an article on the meaning of architecture in constructed public places. He talks especially on an area in Copenhagen, ”Superkilen” in Norrebro, that was desigend around the concept of recognition among many different cultures. ”Offentliga rum i samtal med invånarna” Svenska Dagbladet, 2013-01-20.

3 A small paraphrase to Brecht that I couldn’t help…

4 James Edward Young, The texture of memory: Holocaust memorials and meaning, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1993, p 4.

5 Young p. 3-4

6 Young p 6

7 Young, p 4.

8 Young p 10.

9 Young, p 21

10 Stan Neumann and Richard Copans. The architect Daniel Libeskind, comments on the building: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SUTkt0z_NTU 2013-02-13.

11 Gaston Bachelard writes in The Poetics of space: the classic look at how we experience intimate places (Beacon Press: Boston,1994,) 143.

12 Young p 27.

13 Young p 27.

14 Young p 45. The Gertz and Esther Shalev Gertz monument, the vanishing monument.