Monday, September 6, 2010

Take My Breath Away

After about a seven hour multi-train journey from Amsterdam, we arrived Thursday in Berlin to meet up with the travel program. The arrival went a lot smoother than that of the one in Amsterdam as we took a cheap cab to our hotel. The hotel is an older building and the luxuries many of us have grown accustomed to are nowhere to be found. The internet is hard to find around here and it makes keeping things updated hard and contact even harder. The sink and shower is also open in our three-bed room so it makes taking a shower a little difficult having only a curtain between us.

The actual travel program has been very interesting so far. Berlin is a city rich in history, not the best, but a lot to learn from. It is still painfully obvious when you cross the border from West to East Berlin. The Western half is a huge city environment full of famous buildings and emerging technology. The Eastern half is not nearly as grand and still shows signs of yester-year. Buildings hear are more plain brick facades and tan colors, very dull and lifeless. There are still some good buildings there but are harder to find than in the west. One to note would be the Dutch Embassy by Rem Koolhaas which is located on the harbor and stands in contrast to the building around it which were once occupied by Nazis. This building attempts to separate the cube and use geometry to create space and help define its identity of being a part of Berlin. He uses views of the East Berlin Sphere to locate the positioning of the building while inside and embrace the history that it surrounds, something this side of the city could use more of.
Dutch Embassy
Again we have found that much like Amsterdam, Berlin has a heavy American influence. It doesn't seem to have as many people who speak English, but all the music and movies they watch are from the States. No matter if it’s a car driving down the street or in a restaurant, you hear popular American music. It's no wonder so many people have picked up English. We have found our first experience with the beggars in Europe who basically stay in plazas looking for tourist and asking for money. It can quickly ruin a nice moment when trying to take in the view.

Our first full day here was brutal; we were up at seven in the morning and walked around until about ten at night. Walking on all the stone here really kills your feet. The highlight of the day came at the end when we went to the Berlin capitol building, the Reichstag, to see our first Norman Foster construction. As one of my favorite architects, I was not disappointed. He designed the all glass dome on top of the building and the mirrored centerpiece on the inside. A coiled ramp leads visitors to the top for an unmatched view of the city. We were not lucky enough to see it at night, but we were able to get some photos of it as the sun set and these have to be my favorite so far. The wait for this seems to usually be long and we waited for about forty-five minutes in a cold drizzle to see it, but it was well worth it.

In Germany, the cuisine bears on the heavy side but Berlin offers a lot of food from different places. When we first got here we ate at a small cafe where I found a bottle of lemon sweet tea, so I was excited. We also got to try the local food although I don't really know how to pronounce or spell it. Luckily, we have someone in our group that speaks German, so that’s been nice. I haven’t eaten anything gross yet, but I don’t think I’m a big German food fan. On both the group dinner nights, they have taken us to an Italian restaurant down the street. I find it a little ironic taking American students to an Italian restaurant in Germany, but hey, it’s already paid for.

We have moved at a very steady pace while here and it’s hard to believe we are already leaving. Along the way we have seen buildings from such famous architects like Foster, Koolhaas, Gehry, Van der Rohe, Libeskind, Eisenman, Rossi and even a few Virginia Tech graduates, which is always nice to see. It helps to show just how far architecture can reach and how many opportunities there are out there.
Jewish Museum
Two of the more humbling visits were to the Jewish museum and Holocaust memorial. The Jewish Museum is a snake like structure that bends to create voids in the structure, symbolic of the missing Jewish people. Outside is a garden of olive trees that are planted in a grid and elevated in concrete planers so visitors can walk under them. The final where you really feel the darkness is in the tower of the museum. Inside this small concrete room, the only light comes from a small opening about forty feet up and makes the air cold, making for an eerie experience. I’m not a big fan of the building, but the attached aspects are worth visiting. The Holocaust memorial is a few train rides away, on an open sloped surface in the middle of the city. Rectangular concrete blocks rise from the ground and vary in different heights, with the tallest ones near the middle and about twelve-feet high. The spacing between these creates paths you can walk through and does a good job showing the impact of what happened just by passing through these huge blocks and seeing seemingly endless paths. It has become a very visited site where you can walk on top, sit and relax in the memorial…just don’t try to lay down.
Holocaust Memorial
Next on the agenda is a day trip to the Bauhaus, followed by a stay in Nuremburg for a couple of nights. It’s a smaller city than Berlin, so it will be interesting just to see how things are different even when they are not that far apart.

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