Berlin Stories: Plastering over the city's past

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The Independent Online

It might be a cliché, but they don't call Berlin "Europe's biggest building site" for nothing. Although 14 years after the fall of the wall the forest of cranes against the skyline here is slowly disappearing, continued renovation of Berlin's new centre still makes the German capital the city that is "always becoming and never becomes". But as Berlin's urban landscape gets a major make-over in expectation of a future role at the geographical heart of an expanded European Union, some people are worried that the reconstructions are going one step too far.

One argument is that, while a lot of East Berlin architecture was ugly - as even the most convinced "Ostalgic" (the term used here for East German nostalgics) would agree - not all of it is, and shouldn't be knocked down. For instance some people are pleased that the former seat of East Germany's "rubber stamp" parliament on Unter den Linden - maligned during the Nineties as an example of Communist architecture, and closed for a time in order to remove asbestos at a cost of millions - is being torn down to be replaced with a rebuilding of the old Kaiser's palace.

Others feel that re-erecting a historic Prussian palace is a massive waste of taxpayers' money and that, now stripped of its toxic innards, the steel-and-glass Palace of the Republic ought to be preserved. "It is a perfect example of Bauhaus architecture. The only building of its kind in the world," says Lieselotte Schulz, head of the association set up to preserve the building. Another anxiety is that, amid the throes of construction, Berlin is forgetting its history. The new Brandenburg Gate now bears no trace of the hand-to-hand fighting that took place here in the closing days of the 1939-45 conflict - the bullet holes have been filled in - and the Bebelplatz, where Nazis burnt un-German literature in 1933, is becoming an underground car park.

One academic commented recently: "It's all about making the new Berlin look neat and pretty, and attracting investment. It's not about really confronting and coming to terms with what the city has gone through in the past. Soon you won't be able to tell what's real and what's fake here. Or be able to tell anything about the Berlin's turbulent past from its architecture."

¿ Another great cliché is that when journalists get stuck for words, they quote taxi drivers. But Berlin's 20,000 cabbies, renowned for being on the bohemian side, are such good value it's worth it. I have had several, one might say, "interesting" experiences in the city's big yellow taxis since I moved here last year. One of the most surprising was when a cabbie (and part-time philosophy professor) refused to let me out of his S-class Mercedes until I had promised to go straight to the nearest bookshop and buy Das Kapital.

But that guy didn't have anything on the cabbie whose taxi I unwittingly jumped into one night.

The driver, Bernd Skowronnek, has found media fame in Berlin this summer after he started writing Berlin Taxi Driver Stories and selling them to his passengers for €0.80 a read.

The Berlin-born artist, whose taxi receipts are adorned with his paintings, says his tales of Berlin life seen from behind the wheel on the road are selling well, his media career is blossoming and he hopes to publish abroad, too. But he says success would never push him to give up taxi driving. "I never want to be dependent on art for my living," he says.

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