Using the In-between Landscape to Escape the City (Berlin)

Marion Guichard

Le texte ci-dessous est issu d’un travail de fin d’études soutenu à l’École de la nature et du paysage. Cette page n’inclut qu’une partie des documents graphiques publiés dans la revue papier.

The story of this degree project simply began with a gap. An urban gap, a greenish area somewhat larger than others, that stands out from an aerial photo of the northern neighbourhoods of Berlin. This green area is wasteland: a large, five-hectare (twelve-acre) triangle of wasteland like many others in the city. Berlin is a sprawling, not very dense city, with a distended urban web. Its empty spaces include nature preserves such as parks and gardens yet also a series of abandoned, empty lots that have become a real urban feature of the capital. Taken collectively, they comprise the notorious ‘Berlin open space system’. Whilst some of them are the result of policy decisions (related, for example, to the development of public facilities), many of these gaps in the city are simply inherited from the past.

Reading history between the lines

Indeed, the scarred city of Berlin still bears the marks of that past. Its empty spaces document history – the history of World War Two bombardment, the history of industrial decline, the history of the Wall and separation. The ‘marshy triangle’ is precisely a record of this latter tale.

Only a few of the tall concrete panels that once marked the division remain standing in Berlin – most were rapidly pulled down after 1989 and reunification. Often, only their blank trace remains, a long crack of variable width that crosses the city, indicating the extent of no-man’s-land. Deliberately ignored for over twenty years, the ‘footprint’ left by the Wall is slowly being incorporated into the city. At some places it has been rebuilt, at others it became the basis of a new network of public spaces more or less related to commemoration of the Wall itself, such as the Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Strasse, the Park am Nordbahnhof, and the famous Mauerpark. The former no-man’s-land north of Mauerpark, derelict since 1989, became progressively covered by spontaneous flora. The plants slowly closed over the wound – this once naked, desolate zone now offers a fine variety of landscapes and atmospheres. It is a zone now conducive to a new landscaping project.

Viewing the city from ‘in-between’

Following the Wall corridor northward, one moves steadily from the centre of Berlin to the outskirts, some of which have an undeveloped, country-like appearance. On both sides of the former border the city becomes increasingly distended until it disappears completely in flat expanses of fields and marshes on the northern edge of Berlin. Today the old corridor creates a truly unique relationship to the city, which can be crossed from one end to the other in a zone that, although central, no longer seems to belong to it. This ‘in-between landscape’1 makes it possible to contemplate the city from within, yet at one remove. The project proposed here initially calls for a large pedestrian promenade that would make it possible to leave Berlin slowly, step by step, via this in-between zone. The promenade would offer an alternative to the Mauerweg (Wall Trail) that already offers a bike circuit ringing West Berlin along the path of the ancient patrol road. The new promenade, thanks to the slower pace of travel on foot, would allow people to discover the modest beauties of this area and the steady changes in urban morphology sometimes perceptible on both sides of the in-between landscape. In addition to making it possible to discover or rediscover Berlin, the promenade will above all encourage Berliners to cross a formerly inaccessible area. The blank footprint of the Wall, much of it still unreclaimed by local residents, is sometimes perceived as a division between neighbourhoods. In certain places it could host new public facilities, encouraging residents to come together to transform the old ‘death strip’ into places of lively communication.

Strolling out to the gates of the city

I feel that any work on this site – a zone created by a radical act of extreme violence, embodying a highly sensitive and still-painful chapter of history – should be done with great subtlety. Indicating the path and guiding strollers here and there with a few signposts whose shapes, sizes and materials will be inspired by history will suffice to evoke that history in light touches, in so many implicit, discreet references. Throughout this project I have attempted to remain an attentive observer, seeking to exploit the site’s existing qualities, underscoring and enhancing them via the plan, rather than advocating total upheaval. Today it has become a wonderful ecological corridor linking Mauerpark to the natural park at Barnim (which covers a north-eastern section of Berlin), so it seems essential that any development start from the spontaneous trail of flora that is now an integral part of the history of the site.
Taken together, these little touches constitute a tool box. Although discreet and often very local, once interrelated to one another, these touches will shape the future promenade and forge its identity.

Tool box
Guiding and pacing: signage and furnishings

Although the trace of the Wall can be clearly seen on aerial photographs, it is not very legible when travelling through the city on foot. The first crucial task is therefore to develop a signage that adequately marks the path. Clues and reminders scattered throughout the city will lead to the start of the promenade. Strollers will then be guided by signs posted every 500 metres. Certain thresholds will mark key points in the transformation of the surrounding city. The beginning and end of the trail will be marked by two red weather balloons – functioning as visual beacons, they will take comparative measurements (temperature, air quality) at each end of the ecological corridor created by the former Wall.

Protecting and enhancing: environmental management

As a direct way for nature to enter the heart of the city, the Wall corridor should henceforth be viewed as an extension of the nature park. The vegetation is now spreading and steadily standardizing the landscape. So we must devise an environmental management system designed to preserve both the quality of the landscape and the diversity of the ecosystems along the corridor. This means cutting down a few trees in order to sustain a meadow here, or reopening a clearing there, or reforesting a wood over there, etc. Some animals such as sheep might even be introduced to this end. Although such an idea may seem utopian, the presence of animals in Berlin is not uncommon and they have already been introduced in other public spaces of the capital.

Pathways principles

Two pathways will thus follow the trace of the Wall. First the Mauerweg bike and hiking trail, based on the former patrol road used by East German soldiers, then this pedestrian promenade, designed to be more discreet, more private, like a little path that explores the city by occasionally incorporating features taken from the surrounding neighbourhoods. By underscoring transversal connections, this linear promenade will hook up to a broader network of urban trails – already partly existing – and will encourage discovery of the city by making it possible to dive into the neighbourhoods flanking the footprint.

Bringing the in-between landscape back to life
Starting the promenade in Reunification Park

The nearly five-hectare triangle of wasteland, flanked on both sides by the tracks of the suburban railway (S-Bahn), is located at the junction of central Berlin and the outlying neighbourhoods. This is where the promenade will begin, marked by a weather balloon visible from the end of Mauerpark. The triangular wasteland is already accessible and regularly crossed, but is little used by the residents of local neighbourhoods. Located in a residential district with few public parks (compared to other sectors of Berlin), this damp land will be transformed into ‘Reunification Park’. Taking into account Berlin’s currently limited resources for creating parks, and also the ease with which Berliners reclaim land left vacant by the city, I envisage a two-stage process: the first stage would involve a simple operation, carried out quickly, designed to increase use and thereby ‘trigger’ the process of transformation into a public space. This first stage, then, might simply involve setting up a café-hut and a few chairs that would bring new life to the wasteland. The weather balloon marking the start of the promenade could be tethered to the café.

This spot would then be transformed into ‘Reunification Square,’ a large stony esplanade marked by a stack of concrete modules identical in size to the panels that once comprised the wall. This ‘monument square’ would not only symbolize reunification but over time would become the heart of the future park. Today, largely strewn with rubble from the demolition of the Wall, the ground of the triangle is covered in spontaneous, low-lying vegetation. This largely open zone, like a breath of fresh air, echoes the flat, open expanses found to the north of Berlin. The low-lying vegetation will thus be maintained and the existing microtopography will be underscored by creating a little marsh – a damp zone – playing on the toponymy even as it reveals some of Berlin’s geomorphological features.

From Reunification Square, a raised terrace among a stand of trees will provide a belvedere from which to contemplate the urban horizon marked by the Fernsehturm (TV Tower), indicating the direction of ‘downtown’.

Gaining height in mid-path

The middle of the promenade crosses a flat zone dotted with birch trees. Located in an industrial and residential neighbourhood, this passage marks a shift: up to here the Wall corridor had headed north-west, but now takes a north-eastern direction. Skirting the Pankow industrial park, the promenade steadily moves from the Spree valley toward high plateaus of Barnim. The shift from one geographic entity to another is accompanied by a change in soil type – whereas the valley has rather acid soil, the plateau tends to be chalky. This section also has a particularly marked topography compared to the rest of the linear promenade.

The first thing to be done here is to restore the stand of birch trees. After passing among the white-barked trunks, strollers will then confront an industrial zone. A belvedere, placed like a metallic sail at the bow of the industrial zone, will invite strollers to gain some temporary height, to contemplate the city before heading off again on the promenade.

The trail, following a large curve dictated by the industrial zone, will cross the tall concrete columns of a second threshold, then dive into a narrow corridor corresponding to the width of the former security zone. The slope will be marked by fine tiered steps of concrete, underscoring the topography as a geomorphic expression of the passage from valley to plateau. At the bend in the curve a few concrete panels will be aligned, the sole visible vestige of the Wall along the linear route of the promenade.

On the other side of the narrow corridor is another stand of birch. At the river’s edge an educational farm will be set up, operating in conjunction with the future park in Märkisches Viertel.

Approaching the village, hailing the city in the distance

The vegetation gets denser as the promenade heads further north. Slowly the stroller forgets the city. When the woods suddenly come to an end, the city has vanished. On the flat, distant horizon can be seen the village of Blankenfelde, set in the middle of ‘blank fields’, echoing the city even as it functions as a beacon.

Heading toward the village means finally leaving the Wall trail, which continues on around West Berlin. At the edge of the village, another weather balloon will mark the end of the promenade. A café beneath the trees will encourage strollers to linger. Designed as a meeting place, this café will also host various activities related to the riding clubs and outdoor centres already located in the village. A third and final belvedere will be built by the café: the lower terrace will look out over the vanishing trace of the Wall as underscored by the birch trees, whilst the upper platform will make it possible to hail the city, glimpsed in the distance, before heading on the path back to Berlin.

Urban wastelands and the dynamics of Berlin’s future

Today undergoing major transformations, the city of Berlin must begin to deal with the future of neglected areas. Sometimes subject to defacement, they convey a negative image of the city. And yet in certain neighbourhoods they enable residents to embark on a variety of projects. Assigned no specific use, the city’s wastelands embody the uncertainty required for constant invention and wild initiatives. They constitute an amazing network of experimental sites in which the city of tomorrow can develop.

Of Berlin’s disused spaces, the footprint of the former Wall has a special status. Having becoming a site of commemoration, it must be preserved. A formerly enclosed space synonymous with death and desolation, the zone occupied by the Wall may soon become one of the capital’s most extensive public spaces. On being given back to Berliners, it will turn into a unifying zone and be reincorporated into the capital through new use and frequentation, thanks to a dynamic triggered and sustained by the people themselves.

Originally published in 2013 in issue #11 of Les Cahiers.
Translation: Deke Dusinberre.

  1. The French term used here, entre-ville, alludes indirectly to Thomas Sieverts’ German neologism Zwischenstadt, rendered in English by Diana George as ‘in-between landscape’ in Thomas Sieverts, Where We Live Now: An Annotated Anthology, ed. Mathew Stadler (Suddenly/Lulu Press, 2009). [Translator’s note]