Berlin 1945 – The Obscene Picturesque

There has been a lot about the 60th anniversary of VE day. The History Channel has gone particularly big on it – you can skip across the channels as though they were stepping stones to keep it All WW2, All the Time: The Road to Berlin, The Second World War in Colour, The Last Days of the Second World War, Hitlers Bunker, Nazi Occult, Nazi UFOs, If the Nazis Had Won, Hitlers Favourite Recipes … It’s compelling stuff of course, in turns terrifying and absurd.

One of the stock images in all of these shows is archive footage shot from the back of trucks driving through Berlin a few days after the German surrender. Quite frankly – and I know it’s wrong – it looks incredible. Layers of busted up facades that glide past each other like stage sets, huge piles of rubble, the whole city a smoking ruin. It seems impossible to tell where one building stops and the next starts, what’s inside and what’s outside. There are shapes and big lumps of non-shape. There are un-buildings. It is an un-city.

In the 19th century, Aristocrats liked to imagine little pieces of their ill-gotten lands as fragments of Arcadia. Little picturesque ruins – ivy covered follies to be view across a lake that made them feel like the muse was descending upon them, and somewhere to feel up a serving wench. Berlin 1945 is like a mega structure picturesque, a city sized folly.

The First World War showed what explosives could do to rural landscape, the second showed that the scale of destruction had exceeded that of urbanism. Hiroshima and Nagasaki are architectural concepts as well as hideous devastation. Maybe it’s more accurate to think of it the other way around: that hideous devastation is an architectural concept. The point being that an atomic bomb dropped on a city IS the extreme end of a continuum of architectural techniques. The same continuum includes planning and detailing.

War is increasingly designed. Amongst the Generals and Strategists at the Pentagon there might well be designers. Maybe they composed the shock and awe attack on Baghdad. Imagine their maps, hatched and zoned like an urban planners. Maybe there are CG simulations, Hayes Davidson-esque illustrations visualisations of how it will look on CNN. Architects and urbanists would be GREAT at designing war.

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