Monday, April 27, 2009


In class I discussed the idea of researching the multiple city centers of Berlin as a result of being two cities for 50 years. On this altar I would place objects traditionally associated with Western Europe's city centers:
  • Feet
  • Bicycles
  • Classical facades
  • Cobblestones
  • Modern shopping
  • A museum or two
Along the lines of researching these centers, I'd be interested in following these lines of inquiry:
  • The demographics of each
  • If there was a restructuring of the use between these centers after the Wall came down
  • Whether they are currently competing for dominance
  • Varying architecture between modern purposes and their relative location within the city
  • Effects of the lack of a single city center
  • Current plans for the historic city center, specifically the site of the Palace of the Republic
I am also interested in following a more specific architectural inquiry into the city as a whole. This would entail studying varying building forms and styles in the modern age, as well as tracing the history of architectural ages as the affected the feel of Berlin. There would be an obvious study of each side's reaction to post-war Berlin and what was done with historic buildings on either side as well as the varying forms buildings took between the two cities. I am most interested in how this affects a unified architectural feel of the city, or if there even is one. On this altar would go:
  • Then and now pictures
  • Blueprints
  • Wrecking ball
  • Cranes
  • Asbestos
  • Concrete
  • Steel
  • A book of zoning laws
Even more specifically, I think it would be worthwhile to study buildings that were historic or present cultural centers like concert/music halls, theaters (movie and stage), museums, parks, and monuments.

I also am interested in Michael's idea of fringe cultures in Berlin and their locations in relation to the Wall and their displacement after 1989. Read his blog for a more thorough write-up.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

On "The End of History" and "After"

Francis Fukuyama's 1989 essay "The End of History?" can be found here.

His recent (2006) response to criticism, "After the 'End of History,'" can be found here.

Francis Fukuyama's essay posits some interesting ideas about the future of international polity and relations. Writing in 1989 as the Soviet Union was failing, he argues that historical progress as we know will fall with the collapse of the USSR. This is not to say that history will not be made in the future, but "historical progress" as viewed by Fukuyama is political and economic progress. His argument is that a western or liberal democracy has been shown to be the ultimate form of government and capitalism the ultimate economic form. Even though other nations employ different political and economic structures, Fukuyama suggests that this liberal democracy and capitalism are widely recognized and objectively the pinnacle of their fields and with the fall of Communism, the end of history is thus the end of competition among political and economic systems.

This notion of the end of history is not novel to the fall of Soviet Russia though, but dates back to the end of the French revolution. A German philosopher Hegel proposed that French democracy was the highest form of governmental structure, and thus, humanity had reached its apex and the historical progression of politics would cease.

The most contentious aspect of this idea is not its obvious western-centrism, but the idea that man has limits in his capacity for development. It is perhaps not as scary as the notion of asymptotic progress, whereby we may never reach our potential; but that we actually cannot discover or invent a more equal economic or political system has significant other limiting implications as well.

Fukuyama, however, declares only politics and economies will cease to significantly evolve while culture and religions and other aspects of humanity will always be a source for development. This is in part, he contends, because there will continue to be discrepancies in heritage that will polarize peoples from one another. For Fukuyama, the end of history means the end of political wars on a grand scale between nations, but it cannot mean the end of civil, cultural, religious, or other wars that are fought on localized fields.

Still, I can't help but wonder what other limitations we have as human beings. On the one hand it is a fantastic revelation to realize we have achieved the best of something, but on the other, it means that we are done. I'm not sure which is better: constantly striving towards an unachievable goal, or reaching that goal and having nothing more to conquer.

See the Berlin Wall


Created by Tamiko Thiel + Teresa Reuter, this is a virtual reconstruction of the Berlin Wall, spatially covering both East and West Berlin, and temporally covering the 30 years of the Wall's existence.

The full-sized exhibit is currently on display through May 6 at the Boston Cyberarts Festival at the Goethe Institut Boston. In November it returns to Berlin.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Seattle Border: Ship Canal

This border is fairly easy to get across. All one has to do is follow it until they come to one of the 6 bridges that cross it, not including the top of the locks that can be walked across. It serves to separate the northern half of Seattle from it's southern half. Effectively it creates a residential/business border. North of the ship canal is dominated by housing while south of the ship canal houses Belltown, Downtown, and the businesses around Lake Union. An interesting note about this separation is that until the mid 20th century, Seattle was segregated such that people of color could not live north of the canal. This largely explain the present demography of the city where the area north of the canal is wealthier and less diverse, while neighborhoods like Capital Hill, Beacon Hill, the Central District, and the Rainier Valley are highly diverse when compared with the northern half of the city.

Another probable dichotomy between the two halves of the city is that people living north of the ship canal probably cross it more than people living south of it. Practically, the business districts of Seattle are across this divide, so it makes sense. People living south would have few reasons to come north when anything on north is also presented on the south side.

As far as imposing borders go this one is not. It is largely stagnant, dirty water with a few ducks and a lot of parks and water-front property if you are willing to live in a houseboat. Still, it's enough to make crossing without a bridge incredibly undesirable, though not impossible. Mostly though, the ship canal is something to look at on sunny days and something to mostly ignore the presence of on other days.

In terms of my own feelings of the ship canal, as a student looking for housing for next school year, it presents a huge psychological barrier to look at houses or apartments across the Montlake Bridge, even though crow-wise, they may even be closer. Similarly, I-5 has that effect. It is more interesting with I-5 though, because the distance between 5th Ave. and 4th Ave is equal to any other block, but houses bearing an address west of the line are given considerably less attention than something equally far north of campus. It's not an imposing border by car or bus because the time it takes to cross is negligible. But on foot, and especially when the majority of my activities take place on the other side of the ship canal, it presents a significant psychological barrier.

Here is a more interesting article on the Ship Canal than the previously linked Wikipedia article. This has historical pictures of the construction of the canal and of the locks as well.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Devil's Highway Completed

Political borders, like the US/Mexico border, are often times lines in the sand, or through mountains, or valleys. Rarely, it seems, are international borders marked outside of urban areas. Urban borders have been build up significantly in the recent past. For a website with "then and now" pictures click here.

Outside these settings though, the satellite view on Google Maps shows the the US/Mexico border as a faint line in the desert. Less than 10 yards from that line is a major Mexican highway, Route 2. All the bus has to do is pull over and people can get out and walk for less than 10 seconds and be in America.
The Devil's Highway described this landscape, but seeing it, even from above and on a computer screen, is such a different experience.

One similarity however, between the experience of reading Urrea and seeing this satellite image, is an insightful image into the futility of US border policy. Urrea though, is able to travel deeper into that portrayal. He even argues that the policy is inhumane, because it expects events like this to occur, and does little to prevent them. Our border policy, it seems, is not one of exclusion, but one of inclusion and deportation if living. The saddest irony of the book and of the situation is that unidentified bodies of immigrants are buried in US cemeteries.

Urrea's writing style is sarcastic at times to heighten the critique of US policy, but he can also be incredibly sincere and thoughtful in his writing. He writes that "the Yuma 14 changed nothing, and they changed everything" (211). Even though this is the experience of tens, hundereds of immigrants, and that this experience will likely remain unchanged for them, for us it exemplifies everything that is wrong with the border and by itself calls on us to make better and more effective policy.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Ghosts of Berlin through Chapter 2

Considering we’ve already had the discussion on The Ghosts of Berlin, this post is a little dated. The nice part though, is that I can reflect on both my reading of the book as well as what the class had to say about it.

After thinking about the book for the past couple weeks, perhaps the most interesting aspect of it isn’t even located within its pages. The title, The Ghosts of Berlin, is clear, simple, though perhaps not entirely direct. What are the ghosts? Are we meant to take them to be the ruined buildings on the cover? Are they persons who once inhabited Berlin, or ruled Berlin? Are they friendly or menacing? These ghosts are both German history and the Berlin landscape. In Berlin, as in all places, the landscape is linked with the history. But in Berlin, unlike other cities, the landscape is linked with the troubles of German history that manifest themselves in Berlin. Other cities in Germany have their events, but only in Berlin do all of the events of German history converge and coagulate.

Even in most recent history, Berlin was symbolized by the Berlin Wall, and as Ladd points out in many ways still is. One of the most striking passages in the book is where he discusses semiotics, where the Wall has become the signifier of Berlin. The Wall was Berlin. A question I posed in class and still wonder about is: If the Wall was the signifier of Berlin, what happened when it ceased to exist? Part of this is historical, but a large part of the answer is psychological. When the signifier loses its power, or when it disappears altogether, what does that mean for the signified? And, when the signified is a city with a population, what does it mean for that population that has lost its signification? What is now the signifier of Berlin?

The class in general seemed to really latch on to the fact that the Wall was built in a day, separating the two halves of the city over night and ramparting it in the daylight of August 16, 1961. This fact could provide a descent counter to the popular maxim, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” “No, but the Berlin Wall was.” It altered the cityscape profoundly over that 24 hour period. it established the East-West divide that still exists as the “wall in the mind” phenomena. According to Ladd, the only thing the two sides could agree on was that “the Wall was a temporal barrier, dividing past from present, and that the other side harbored the unredeemed heirs of Hitler” (23). How is a people supposed to reconcile these feelings when that barrier comes down? Can they ever be erased as long as there are memories of it?

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Classroom Walls

Last week's class was the first, and, as usually occurs in first classes, there was an icebreaker. We shared walls we have encountered in our lives so that we might personalize the topics of this program. The wall I discussed comes from growing up in Gig Harbor, Wa.

Gig Harbor is a fairly average town of about 6,000, but unincorporated Pierce County surrounding Gig Harbor is filled with upper-middle and upper class residents, many of whom live in gated communities, or themselves have gated homes. As a child of middle class origins, I lived outside these communities; thus the wall is erected. Visiting friends was an intimidating excursion through a keypad, phone call, or even security guard. The slow opening of the gate was like waiting to enter a corn maze of landscaping and winding streets with names like Bracken Fern Drive, Hunter Lane, and 131st St. Ct. NW. In contrast, I lived on 58th St. Later in school, once I was driving myself through the gates, they became less awesome and more burdensome. Gates often were left open during the day and shut only after 9 PM. There was usually a mad rush to leave my house in time to beat the closing of the gate so I wouldn't be slowed by whatever security measure the neighborhood had.

One aspect of gated communities I never considered while visiting them was whether they were designed to keep people out or in. I'm sure the designers would say for the former, so it immediately posits an outsider as someone undesirable to enter the community. On the other hand, if they are meant to keep people in, living outside could be living in the freedom not to have your comings and goings documented by a gate opener, or security guard.

The gates forced feelings of an economic separation because they were a physical structure, but even within the neighborhoods there were the same divides as outside, so in principle, the gates did little other than psychological security. Reflecting back, in practice they created a dichotomy between the sheltered and the not, and especially between the desirable real estate and the affordable real estate. Friendships were probably formed, however inadvertently, based on ease of transportation to and from homes. Parental relationships probably held in them underlying biases based on address. This phenomenon is not unique to gated communities though, but the presence of the gate and the rite of entrance is - a physical barrier that forces its designed purpose onto anybody who has to pass through it.