Earlier this year, I made an important discovery: Kaiser Wilhelm I had really bad taste, I mean, really bad taste. Schloss Babelsberg, his grotesque summer residence just outside Berlin, is a perfect example of why you won’t find a Wilhelm I chair or ottoman or whatever in any fine antiques store, there’s Louis XV and XVI, there’s even Louis XIII if you don’t care for clichés, there’s Queen Anne, Empire, which is basically Napoleon, everything Victorian, there’s been a lot done in Victorian style, she reigned so very long, then there’s Louis Philippe, George III, the Swedes have their Gustaf, the Austrians have Joseph II and the Americans got their colonial style, I think the colonies belonged mostly to these Georges on the British throne, so it’s safe to say it’s Georgian style, but Wilhelm I? Forgotten with an effort. As if he had never lived. One must know, however, that this particular catastrophy’s architect was none other than Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Biedermeier’s Norman Foster, one of the best Germany has ever had, at least at the beginning, in the early 1830s, when they started construction. Later, after Prince Wilhelm was declared Crown Prince and to inherit Prussia’s throne, his brother’s marriage had remained childless, the budget was increased, allowing them to put more effort in it, demanded especially by Wilhelm’s wife Augusta, she needed even more Gothic bling, for some strange reason everything Gothic was fashionable at the time, an effort that Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s health did not agree with, he died during the planning of the extensions in 1841. Just take a look at it, you’ll understand.
Blend out what you dislike, that would be my general advice in life, and in particular when visiting Potsdam. The city is over a thousand years old, but mostly known for its glorious ornaments ever since it became a royal seat, the palaces and follies of the Prussian kings, prestigious buildings, carefully designed for entertainment, pleasure and recreation, to praise God, too, of course, the Protestant way, a little less pompous than Roman Catholics, but really just a little, Luther’s influence stopped when architecture was concerned, and guys like Karl Friedrich Schinkel took over, and there are plenty more of fine buildings to house soldiers, horses and plants. It’s all still there, at least most of it, but something else survived, too: the architectural crimes of the GDR, some newly invented iconoclasm, instead of destructing the monuments of Germany’s royal past, they just surrounded them with their derefined vision of socialist housing, let’s get rid of that stylish nonsense, let’s disparage all architectural styles, let’s baste Potsdam with concrete and glass and show them what it means to be equal, pardon my temper, but this is what you have to blend out when visiting Potsdam – unless you care for historically correct polar opposites, of course.
Stalin, like any other dictator, had a thing for grandeur, and it spread, every satellite state wanted to contribute to his glory, and so, in the 1950s, Berlin, the capital of the GDR, had its Stalin-Allee constructed, a magnificent architectural endeavour, let’s no longer praise God or anybody in power by His grace, let’s praise Stalin, our real saviour, and let’s do it in style, midcentury neo-classicism with a touch of gingerbread, somehow reminiscent of Karl-Friedrich Schinkel, a reflection of proletarian power, adorned post-revolutionary self-importance rather than self-confidence, miles of praise of somebody who soon would be politically incorrect, even in Russia, but let’s not worry about that, there’s still Karl Marx to be proud of, philosopher, economist and saint to the communists, a saint who stated religion was the opium of the people, let’s honour him and have the boulevard renamed. Today, long after the Berlin wall has come down, long after communism has failed entirely, it’s still called Karl-Marx-Allee, the magnificent bookshop on it bears his name as well, it made it even into a favourite movie of mine, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s “The Life of Others”, which won an Oscar for best foreign language film in 2007, but I seem to digress, anyway, Stalin’s persona non grata for all eternity, but Karl Marx is still among us, as he has never killed anyone, let alone millions, and so the communist era still hasn’t lost its splendour, at least not on Berlin’s Karl-Marx-Allee.
Berlin’s Gendarmenmarkt covers me with confusion. It’s well known for its architectural ensemble, but it is strangely small a spot – and in Berlin, almost everything is big. When I last visited Gendarmenmarkt, it reminded me of a little town’s square, maybe a pompous little town’s one, but still, a place rather situated in the provinces than in the very middle of Berlin. It didn’t feel urban at all. Maybe it was the missing traffic, I love traffic in a town, it delivers pace and movement and life, maybe it was because of all those people walking so very slowly and if they weren’t walking, they were having coffee and cake, taking an afternoon off, calmly, stress free, no one was in a hurry, everybody was at ease, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with being at ease and having coffee and walking slowly, but I love being the only who’s at ease, who’s having lots of time on his hands while enjoying a cup of coffee some place nice while everybody else is coping with time frames, traffic and stress, the hustle and bustle of a metropolis like Paris, New York, London or, well, Berlin. Anyway, this little place called Gendarmenmarkt offers two domes, a French and a German, and a concert hall in the middle, the latter being constructed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel. All of it speaks of old Prussian splendour. Classicism of the purest sort. It offers everything one could possibly wish for. Except pace.