During our alternative tour of Berlin today, a lot of time was devoted to discussing graffiti culture within Germany. Many of us came into the tour with generally negative feelings towards graffiti in public spaces, especially when it seems sloppy or inconsiderate. However, upon closer inspection, a lot of this street art is created with a message or goal in mind. When you start to look at it more like art and less like vandalism, graffiti can serve as a great window into the minds of the artists who create it.
We started our tour on Dircksenstraße, a street near the famous Alexanderplatz square that leads towards Hackesher Market. To be located between so many upscale areas, Dircksenstraße is littered with street art in all forms. Our guide first showed us several pieces by popular artist El Bocho. His signature piece involves reimagining an old Czech cartoon called “Little Lucy”. In this show, a young girl named Lucy embarks on adventures with her cat; however, El Bocho chooses to twist their friendship in his artwork by depicting Lucy murdering her cat in a multitude of ways. Our tour guide suggested that this may be a way to show the levels of morality that exist in every one of us. No one is entirely good, like the original Lucy, just as no one is entirely evil, like his version of Lucy.
Like El Bocho, graffiti artists try to find ways to leave their mark on the city they inhabit. The most common way they accomplish this is by leaving their tag, or their groups’ tag, in the most dangerous places possible. Different areas are dangerous for different reasons. For example, tagging a wall in a populated part of town is dangerous because of the high risk of being caught. On the other hand, tagging a sound barrier next to train tracks, or the top of a building’s wall, is dangerous due to the risk of dying. In fact, the very top of the exterior wall of any tall building is called the “heaven spot” for its desirability among artists.
Apart from graffiti, we also saw a lot of paste-ups throughout the alternative tour of Berlin. Paste-ups are a form of street are that involve printing, drawing, or painting on relatively cheap paper, and then pasting it a wall with special glue. This type of street art seemed to be more common in some of the areas we visited, likely because it is punishable by a fine of 25€, while graffiti can result in thousands in fines. Along Dircksenstraße, we mostly saw paste-ups done by SOBR, an international artist currently working in Berlin. His series titled “It’s Time to Dance” features photos of real people dancing in bars and clubs. He chooses to paint the people in black and white, and then covers them with colorful confetti after pasting them on the wall. This contrast draws attention to his artwork, which is common throughout Berlin.
In addition to these more visible forms of street art, we also discussed some strategies that groups use for temporary awareness. For example, the popular group called 1UP sometimes engages in “train bombing”, an activity which involves rushing into a train yard and covering a train wagon in graffiti in a matter of seconds. Germany, especially in its big cities, is very quick when it comes to cleaning their trains and train stations. However, train bombing will allow graffiti to travel for at least a day before it is removed, showing everyone the groups’ daring stunt.
Although all of these forms of illegal street art are common in Berlin, there is also a fair amount of commissioned, legal artwork to admire. Victor Ash’s “Cosmonaut” is one such piece. It stands at 72 feet tall and is painted in the style of a stenciled painting, although it was done freehand. At one point, the shadow of a nearby flag would land in the cosmonauts’ hand at night, however, the flag has since been removed. Ash has said that the mural was meant to represent the Cold War era space race between East and West, an important issue for Berlin since it was caught in the middle of this power struggle.
After our alternative tour, many students, myself included, came away with new ideas on graffiti and street art. Although it can certainly be disturbing and ruin certain areas, such as well-known monuments, it can also offer deep insights into current issues and even be aesthetically pleasing. In certain cities, like Berlin, street art has become a part of the culture and is likely here to stay.
The Reichstag is a building that has as much history as the country it represents. In the Heart of Berlin, Germany’s Capital, there is a massive stone building that holds Germany’s Federal Government. It was built in the late 19th century, and has laid witness to the incredible history that has taken place in Berlin since then. It was constructed at the beginning of the unification of the German States into one Federation, which would be ruled by Wilhelm of Prussia.
The federation was formed in 1871, but construction of the building didn’t start until 1882. There was an architect picked to design the building in 1872, but Wilhelm I would argue with Otto von Bismarck to the extent that all progress was halted. In 1882, another architect named Paul Wallot was chosen to design the building. His design was the one that would become a reality, and aspects of the buildings are still relevant today.
The most noticeable part of the building are the four towers. Each tower represents a kingdom of Germany, and the statues on the pillars were intended to be representations of people from each region. Another architectural `feature of the building that was done in the original construction is the carved paneling that boarder the doors. These panels represent the two rivers that border Germany, the Rhine to the west and the Neisse to the east. This was supposed to be a symbolic entrance into Germany.
Not everything on the building was originally planned to be there. On the upper façade of the building there is the phrase, “Dem Deutschen Volke”. This translates to, “for the German people”, and was a controversial addition. In the heat of the first world war, there was low moral on the battlefield, and within Germany. The Federal government had the idea to add this phrase to inspire the German people. However, Wilhelm II fought hard to keep it off the building due to its democratic implications. He eventually lost this battle, and the words were added in 1916.
After the war, Germany had a small revolution and the Weimar republic was created. Phillip Sheidemann, a German politician, actually declared Germany a republic from the balcony of the Reichstag. This building stayed the federal government during the years of the Weimar republic. After the Weimar Republic, the Nazis took control of Germany and thus the Reichstag. At the beginning of Nazi rule, the Reichstag caught fire with unknown causes. This gave the Nazis an excuse to basically decommission the building. This fit in with shutting down the German government I its current form. It was hardly used during the Nazi reign, but it still served as symbol for Germany. The soviets were keen on taking this building over as the final blow to the Nazis. The soviets actually lost rights to the building in the division of Berlin.
The Reichstag was in the West side of Berlin, but it was very close to east Berlin. West Germany had no need for a parliamentary building in West Berlin, so it was used mostly as event space. It was restored during this time to fix damages from the war. The fall of the wall saw a new future for the building.
The ceremony celebrating the reunification was held at the Reichstag, and it became the center of the city again. There was an argument of whether or not to bring the government back to Berlin from Bonn. After much deliberation, they decided to make Berlin the Capital yet again, and The Reichstag could return to its original purpose of holding the federal government. The Reichstag has witnessed an incredible amount of change, and still remains a marquee building for German culture.
The day began with a recap of the past week in The Hague to solidify the concepts we had encountered throughout the week. Our first day in The Hague was centered around a tour of Parliament; this sparked a conversation on the differences between the United States and Netherlands government and which government is a better democracy. The Netherlands has a multiparty system which encourages coalitions, compromise, and diversity with a “marketplace of ideas”, a king born into power who serves as a figure head, and greater voter power as citizens vote for parties and ideas, not people. The United States has a dual-party system that promotes polarization, a president elected by the people, and a system that forces voters to elect one candidate to represent their views. A government is meant to be for the people, so the opinions of the people should be valued. In the Netherlands, citizen opinion is not filed away as it is in America, but is instead the driver of policy. A system that values my opinion in this way definitely has my attention and respect.
On our second day, we visited Quartier Laak, a company founded to improve the social-economic strength of Laak, a neighborhood of The Hague, through bottom-up initiatives. These initiatives include Werk Fabrique, a startup incubator, a school converted to an urban garden, a local park planned with ideas from locals, and Middin, a community center for the mentally disabled. A theme throughout this day was integration and connection between people; by providing activities and spaces such as urban gardens, parks, and community centers, people interact more and communities become more diverse and cohesive. In the United States, President Trump’s racist rhetoric ostracizes immigrants and rejects diversity creating an atmosphere that requires immigrants to assimilate to American culture rather than appreciate their own. Quartier Laak and other social entrepreneurship initiatives are the future for creating social wealth and well-being in the United States.
Our third day, we visited the Urban Farmers company and Ampyx Power, a wind energy company who harvests energy using a plane. At Ampyx Power, we saw the backbone of a startup and heard their struggles and successes with developing their planes throughout the past ten years. Our visit showed us how important it is to be passionate about your product, and that if you have an idea you should pursue it! I have never felt so encouraged to pursue my passions than here; this might be because I am on this specialized trip, the numerous incubators throughout the city make it easy for startups to thrive, or maybe people just want to inspire us. The Urban Farmers site is a renovated building with a massive green roof garden and hydroponic system. Green house urban farming reduces transportation costs, grows food right where it is needed, and uses empty spaces such as rooftops efficiently. On the other hand, to maximize efficiency and space, vertical farming might be the solution. Both forms of farming can be profitable, but rooftop gardening provides many social attributes while vertical farming maximizes efficiency and space.
On the fourth day, we visited The Hague University and NEN, a standardization company. At the University, we saw the energy and money saving renovations such as solar panels, a new heating and cooling system, and passive lighting that had been implemented during the buildings construction. NEN is a company that makes standards, or an agreement made between parties. Standards can be made for anything from emissions to bolt sizes to transportation cards such as the ones in The Hague. These transport cards, OV Cards, can be used on all transportation and all throughout the Netherlands which makes public transportation that much more accessible and user friendly. Unlike the Netherlands, the United States has numerous transportation companies all competing against each other, attempting to sell their system as the best. Instead of selling a system for a particular company, one master system should be standardized across all public transportation so companies can focus their efforts in other areas such as hospitality and service. This would eliminate the initial barrier/annoyance of figuring out how to purchase the appropriate ticket in the first place. Then, there would be no need for all these extraneous companies and they could pursue a new business similar to the ideas of the German Mittelstand.
For the following three days, we biked all over the Netherlands. Our biking tour showed us that proper bike infrastructure allows for safe and easy travel from village to village, making a car obsolete for short rides. In the Netherlands, there are dedicated bike lanes on all roads, bike paths that connect the inner city and peripheral suburbs, biking highways separated from cars, and even narrow car lanes to make more space for bikes and mopeds. This infrastructure was only possible due to the idea of a virtuous cycle; as more infrastructure is put into place, more people will bike on it, and then the cycle continues.
In the coming days, we visited the United States Embassy, Amsterdam, the HTM-public transport in Haag Centraal, and Priva, a company specializing in green house technology. The United States Embassy was under construction and we learned of the efficient technologies being installed; while the embassy has a few cool features like reflective white tiles on the roof to keep heat out, the majority of their technologies were pretty standard throughout Europe. This goes to show that American architects and designers are still behind on integrating new and efficient technologies into all their work. In Amsterdam, we visited Smart City Amsterdam, an incubator connecting people to resources and bigger businesses. This visit reinforced the importance of using communal spaces to make connections with others; without these spaces, many citizen projects and ideas would go unnoticed. HTM-Public Transport of The Hague showed us the importance of using a single integrated and robust system for transportation to make public transport easier to use and navigate. In terms of urban development, HTM is also looking into ways to reduce the number of cars in the city, expand the public transportation and cycling infrastructures, and find solutions such as car sharing, park and ride, and first and last mile to ensure people have efficient transportation to their final destination. Priva is a company specializing in the technology and software used to run a greenhouse farm. With their software, a farmer can create optimal conditions for their produce, increasing efficiency, quality, and yield. Priva does not currently offer specialized settings for each farmer’s produce, but leaves those decisions to the farmer; in the future, there could be a collusion between the precision in vertical farming and the greenhouse style to create optimal produce.
After our recap meeting, we visited the Mauritshuis Museum where we saw famous paintings such as Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer and The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp by Rembrandt. I particularly enjoyed watching the progression of Rembrandt’s paintings throughout the museum with works ranging from those with large, bold brush strokes to the intricate detail found in The Anatomy Lesson. After visiting the Mauritshuis, we explored the Grand Thailand Festival right across the street from the museum. Thailand’s embassy organized a two-day celebration of Thai culture with tons of food vendors, craft stalls, massage parlors, and live Thai music and dancing. My friend, Charlie, and I began our food adventure with Som Tum (green papaya salad) and Thai beef skewers to be followed by Thai beef noodle soup. The salad was crunchy with a spicy-sweet dressing, the beef skewers were caramelized and unctuous, and the fragrant noodle soup coated each noodle in flavorful broth. We then ventured to another part of the city where we stumbled upon a Latin/Caribbean craft and dance festival with a Bob Marley cover band. These cultural festivals are common in the Netherlands, especially in the summer when a different festival is hosted each weekend. The Hague prioritizes culture, visibility, inclusivity, and diversity amongst its people. Through these events, the people of The Hague have greater interaction and connection with those around them and more events within their community to take part in. From a diversity perspective, these cultural festivals demystify unfamiliar cultures, provide the opportunity to witness and experiences new ones, and provide an area for minority populations to be included with the rest of the community. Creating spaces and events like those from The Hague in the United States would bring populations together to create a more productive and cohesive community.
Our time in The Hague has shown us the importance of integration between people, cities, infrastructures, and government. All of these cogs must mesh together to form a productive, efficient, and overall smart city. I am excited to bring the lessons we have learned in Europe back to the United States, and to put these changes into action.