Winter 2004

The frozen past

For a time, traces of Berlin’s prewar past could be glimpsed in fragments of shop signs

Marx-Engels Station, in the centre of East Berlin 1990, could have been a scene from a Cold War propaganda film: bullet-ridden, crumbling buildings, shops closed down apparently forever, the occasional Trabant bumping along the cobbles. However, the attentive observer could recognise surface fragments of another history, a world of all kinds of shops and businesses. Not just remains from the planned economy, but from an earlier intense, and what was to become highly charged, period shortly before the Third Reich. More than any monument or history book, the public art of the graphic signwriter was history’s witness. In letterforms ranging from Fraktur and Schwabacher, the German handwriting Sütterlin and Jugendstil to sans serif, there remained material traces of lives and businesses long since extinguished.

The effective freezing over of the urban environment in this eastern quarter during the GDR years, where old buildings were left untouched in favour of investment in new estates on the edge of the city, and where economic policy meant that it was a struggle keeping any shops stocked at all, had the result of leaving an ad hoc visual vernacular of remnants of life before the convulsions of Nazism and Communism.

Today, these ‘szene’ areas of the former East, from the Scheunenviertel and north to Prenzlauerberg, are thriving. But the level of activity and density of the population is just a shadow of Berlin’s real boom in the latter nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Boom town
The turn of the century saw an explosion of development in Berlin. Industrialisation and huge levels of immigration – Eastern Jews fleeing persecution in Russia and Poland, and other refugees from around Europe – meant that Berlin expanded well beyond the speed at which new housing could be built. There were problems of overcrowding in these poorer eastern districts. For example: 700,000 people lived in an area of merely 10km2; the population today is ten times smaller. Alexander Granach’s celebrated Da geht ein Mensch gives a flavour of the time: ‘Small narrow dark alleyways with fruit and vegetable stands on the corners. Women with painted faces, with big keys in their hands hung around like they did in Zosina Wolja Lane in Stanislau or Spitalna in Lemberg. Many shops, restaurants, egg, butter and milk shops, bakers bearing the sign ‘kosher’. Jews went around dressed as they would in Galicia, Rumania or Russia. Those with no shops dealt in pictures and furniture on credit… The devouts had various prayer houses according to their sects, named after their rabbis. There was every shade of Zionist. There were social revolutionaries, socialists, the ‘alliance’ and

Granach portrays a quarter teeming with humanity and the quest for survival, a way of life pulverised by the Nazis and the second World War.

The division of East and West Berlin was not invented at Potsdam: the eastern / northern part has always been home to industry and the working classes, while the wealthier classes preferred the west / south. Turn-of-the-century speculators tried to capitalise on the business potential of the East by constructing business complexes [Gewerbehöfe], some of which still stand. For example, the Jugendstil Hackescher Höfe, 1906-07, now meticulously restored, and Passagekaufhaus Oranienburger Strasse, 1908, now ‘Tacheles’ arts centre are absolute must-sees for tourists. Many of the investors were Jews, whose properties and businesses fell victim to the Nazi policy of Aryanisation, and who escaped or perished, involuntarily bequeathing only their names to German commerce (e.g. the department stores Hertie [Hermann + Tietz] and Wertheim).

Notwithstanding the final blows dealt by the onset of the Nazi period and all that followed, many of the businesses housed in these complexes struggled in the era of hyperinflation in the 1920s: the remnants of these painted sign fragments, with visible layerings of names and products, are testimony to fluctuating fortunes.

Creative Space
What has happened to this piece of visual heritage frozen in time? In the early 1990s the administrative procedures necessary to return every building to its prewar owners (effective privatisation of the entire housing stock in the East), created a brief space where both Communism and Capitalism were on hold: this was the perfect territory for squatters and every kind of creative to make their mark. Change occurred from the bottom up, with the authorities turning a blind eye to unregistered bars and clubs, and even facilitating short-term occupation of buildings. There was a trend throughout Eastern Bezirke to retain the names of both gdr and prewar shops, as well as those shop signs for the new businesses, almost always cafés and bars. One of the first post-Wende [i.e. after reunification] cafés is called Obst und Gemüse (fruit and vegetables). There is still an artists’ atelier space called the Milk Yard, a bar called Soap House, another called the Chocolate Factory, and even one called the Chalk Barn; there is a gallery called Wash House, and a culture complex called the Bread Factory.

All this creativity attracted serious investors. Today, fifteen years on from the fall of the Wall, Marx and Engels, who gave their names to the station for 41 years (the earlier name ‘Hackescher Markt’ was a priority on the list of name reinstatements) are long forgotten. As one estate agent prospectus states unflinchingly, ‘only the artists who know how to transform their creativity into money remain.’ The Hackescher Markt area not only boasts exclusive designer chic and small creative businesses, but has also become a ‘must have’ address for top media enterprises and flagship institutions such as the Goethe Institute and The British Council.

Nearly all those pock-marked buildings have been transformed into immaculately renovated residences to attract newcomers – for 50 per cent of the pre-1989 residents have moved away – as well as the ‘Wendegewinners’, as Easterners who have managed to profit from the latest turn in Berlin’s fortunes are known.

In the drive to modernise and renovate, most of those evocative shop signs have now disappeared under another layer of paint. Some investors
have painted around them, transforming them into commemorative plaques rather than chance fragments. The attempt to preserve these last scraps of life, in this context, has something kitsch about it, but perhaps in the wheel of Berlin’s fortune it is the best that can be hoped for.

First published in Eye no. 54 vol. 14 2004

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.