For architecture students, Berlin offers an eye-opening view of buildings and culture

Left to right, architecture students Shannon Heck, Shaili Patel, Kristen Houghton, Michelle Lee and Katarina Wabrek at Germany’s historic capitol building in Berlin, the Reichstag.

Left to right, architecture students Shannon Heck, Shaili Patel, Kristen Houghton, Michelle Lee and Katarina                Wabrek at Germany’s historic capitol building in Berlin, the Reichstag.

Temporary living in a city that has been developed and reconstructed as it has been battered and divided over time, has proven to be quite an interesting experience.

Having chosen Norwich University based on its School of Architecture + Art, a lack of urban context can be a serious downfall when studying architecture. The department has made up for this by providing juniors and seniors with the opportunity to study abroad at a satellite campus in Berlin, Germany, through CityLAB: Berlin, directed by Architect Christian Dengler. After looking forward to this experience since my freshman year, I have transitioned between various states of being since arriving to Berlin.

Start with culture shock: Berlin is not a “beautiful European city.” After getting over all the graffiti-covered facades, I found a city that has a life like no other, famous for all-weekend-long parties and the fact that beer costs less than water in most establishments, and I grew comfortable in my surroundings. As terror continues to strike in European, I began to analyze the situation I had found myself in the middle of.

This spring semester, five of us – Kristen Houghton (NU 17), Shaili Patel (NU ’16), Katarina Wabrek (NU’16), Shannon Heck (NU ’16) and myself (NU’16) – traveled to Berlin to begin our study abroad experience, joining Taylor Davidson (NU’16) as he returned for his second semester. Over the course of the semester our studies have been focused around urban and architectural transformations within Berlin that have altered the urban fabric of the city.

We take a normal credit load of classes, Monday through Friday, with the same expectations if not higher than we would have at Norwich. As part of the greater Norwich community, professors from Vermont often come over for mid and final crits. This semester we benefited from the visit of Aron Temkin, dean of the professional schools.

Living within the artistic district of Kreuzberg, we have become just another group that is furthering the gentrification within the city. Our type is facing opposition within the community as rents rise and that forces many of the “natives” out. Kreuzberg has been a primarily Turkish community that was home to many squatter communities after the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989.

As Berlin recovers from its past, it is rebuilding what was lost and pushes the ghosts of the past behind it, and the ever-continuous debate of what is “Berlin” continues.

Architecturally the city remains divided, as destroyed sections are rebuilt, the voids left from the wall’s no-man-zone are filled in with parks and construction projects. As the city rebuilds, old wounds were reopened when Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” was republished in January, raising social tension within the mending city. Socially, the city has promoted a relatively open policy to immigration; a city and country with an ugly past can’t pass judgment. Although, as the Syrian refugee crisis becomes a greater issue and borders threaten to close, Berlin’s welcoming nature could soon change.

The influx of refugees is evident in many places. Templehof Airport, famous for the Berlin Airlift after World War II, is no longer in use. It has become a historic monument and a public park. But hidden within Hanger 1, canvas tents form lines of temporary “houses” for refugees seeking asylum within Berlin. Visiting the park out of pleasure, it is a quiet place to study, a park to picnic in as a group. But we are sheltered from the situation occurring within: Hanger doors block the view of the refugee housing, tours veer away from it and the only tell-tale sign is a small tent outside of the building that handles in-processing.

As tensions rise within the Berlin community, a city that was once considered unquestionably safe is being torn by drugs and attacks. Drug-induced attacks occur more frequently, primarily around the region of Kreuzberg that we students call home, and there is a noticeable change in energy as everyone is now on high alert.

Seen as another outcry against gentrification within the area, anyone can be a target. We are beginning to avoid that area of town, and as students we have cut down on the English speaking and try to blend in.

But our travel abroad has been rewarding in many ways. With a desire to see everything possible, we started the semester strong. In one weekend, despite freezing temperatures and a blizzard, we conquered Prague in the Czech Republic and Warsaw in Poland. Making use of night trains, we saved ourselves additional lodging costs and were able to afford ourselves a day per city. Learning quickly that only a few hours was not the way to actually experience a city, our travels elsewhere were extended.

As a mid-year excursion we headed to Paris, with a focus on the artist community, we took the path less traveled. Venturing out on my own for spring break, I caught a flight from Paris into Shanghai, China, faced a 20-hour layover and then continued my journey to Okinawa, Japan. My time in Asia, contrasted with that of my experiences in Berlin. Berlin seemed slow-paced compared to Shanghai; meanwhile I felt at home in the laid-back environment of Okinawa.

Benefiting from this cross-cultural experience, we have developed a new understanding of the struggles faced within an urban landscape. During the period when the Wall divided the city, it allowed creativity to flourish within the West and discipline and rigor remained the foundation of the East. Still, overcoming the contrast between the two sides, the architecture has tried to erase the division.

We will be leaving Berlin with a more appreciative understanding of the urban setting, a constant craving for Turkish food, and an appreciation of cheap beer. We are coming back as more well-rounded architecture students, ready to give back to the school that provided us with a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

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