Patience is not my main virtue, but I had no choice but to wait for many years to complete my journey to Berlin. It's been 34 years since I've been there. At that time, the city was divided by the Berlin Wall and we, Soviet tourists, were allowed to see only the Eastern part of the city. I remember standing in front of the Brandenburg Gate in 1974 and wondering what it would be like to walk through its Neoclassical splendor and to discover the forbidden Western part of the city hidden behind the Berlin Wall. It was a time when only a few of the bravest or most desperate souls would attempt to climb over the Wall, and for most of them, the price was a bullet in the head.
When my German hosts asked me what I would like to do on the first day in Berlin, I told them my dream was to walk along the famous Unter den Linden Boulevard all the way to the Brandenburg Gate, and this time, to walk through it into what for me used to be forbidden territory. And that's exactly what I did.
I could hardly recognize the city, which I remembered as rather somber and strangely desolate, especially at night. Definitely not now. Maybe it had something to do with the unusually warm late September weather, but the streets were teeming with life and the mood was decidedly relaxed and friendly. Arriving at the Pariser Platz in front of the Brandenburg Gate, I had to pinch myself to believe what I was seeing. Most of it had been destroyed during World War II, and during my previous visit, there was nothing there but vast, empty space flanking the Gate. Now, once again, it is a glamorous plaza in heart of the city. However, the new buildings there are not supposed to be taller or wider than those which were destroyed during the war, and the rather subdued architecture of their facades reflects numerous restrictions imposed by the authorities on any new edifice in this square.
Two buildings had special interest for me: the recently completed American Embassy and right next to it, the DZ Bank. As coincidence would have it, both are designed by Southern California architectural firms – the DZ Bank by Frank Gehry and the Embassy by Moore Ruble Yudell. Because of the tight security, it took some finagling to get permission to walk through the buildings, and I felt slightly guilty to be given such privileged access. The operatic grandeur of Frank Gehry's architecture implodes the interior of the bank with a seductive, almost dangerous energy.
The American Embassy has its own surprises; the public and private spaces have an unexpectedly elegant, relaxed feel to them, and thanks to the generous display of contemporary art, I felt almost at home there. The best is at the top – the spectacular round conference room with its rooftop garden and breathtaking view of the city.
The first night, walking through the Brandenburg Gate, I came across the vast spread of the Holocaust Memorial just behind the American Embassy. Initially I found myself rather overwhelmed by its scale and less emotionally moved than I expected. But in two subsequent visits, I grew to appreciate the complexity of its references to the horrors of history and to the light at the end of the tunnel.
Nothing in Berlin today conveys to more dramatic effect its past and future than the dark and gloomy Reichstag with its new translucent glass cupola by British architect Norman Foster. In 1995, it was famously wrapped by Christo; now, a few years later, I found it bathed and pierced by sunlight, welcoming hoards of tourists eager to climb the spiraling ramp of the cupola all the way to the sky.
Banner image: Reichstag Building, Berlin