Two curved corten plates shape an eerie walkway.
with the Philharmonic on the background]. Author Unknown, undated. Source here
One year after being unveiled in 1987, in front of the Martin-Gropius-Bau – an important museum in West Berlin, nearby Potsdamer Platz –, Berlin Junction was repositioned, after a suggestion of Richard Serra (1939-), its author, to a site nearby the Berlin Philharmonic – the iconic concert hall designed by architect Hans Scharoun, that opened its doors in 1963.
Its new position was very close to the former plot of a house long gone. The number 4 of Tiergartenstrasse was the address from where Third Reich officials planned the “euthanasia” campaign that killed thousands of people with mental illnesses and physical disabilities. The former headquarters of the Aktion T4 didn’t survive the heavy bombings of the Second World War. Its debris gave place to a traceless urban space featuring a bus stop, a traffic island and a wide sidewalk in front of the philharmonic main entrance.
Due to its proximity to such a historically sensitive location, Berlin Junction unintentionally acquired a memorial meaning a posteriori.
For having not been originally thought as such, Serra’s memorial is shrouded in considerable controversy. The formal abstraction of the sculpture didn’t remind the historical background of the location in any special way; it was rather submitted to a recurrent formalism in Serra’s oeuvre that counted already, by then, with a vast curriculum of corten sculptures dealing with leaning surfaces and the spaces shaped by them. Edifying a sculpture like so many others to highlight such a sensitive chapter of German history was therefore not very well received by a significant amount of people.
[Bronze plaque with Berlin Junction
on the background]. Michael Rajzman, 2010. Source here
[Detail of the engraved text]. Janna Falkenstein, 2007. Source here
In order to answer to the critics – and to also create a space where one could pay homage and also get information about the past of the area – a bronze plaque was installed on the floor in 1989. Under the title “In honour of the forgotten victims”, the text inscribed refers to the event to remember, the profile of the 200.000 victims and the perpetrators (that included “scientists, doctors, nurses, policemen and law, health and work officials”) as well as the places of collection and extermination of those people. It finishes stating: “the number of victims is high. Low remains the number of convicted criminals.”
Even though the engraved text doesn’t specifically mention Serra’s sculpture, there is an implicit relationship between both in a material level. The dark tone of the bronze in which the three-meter sided square plaque is made of doesn’t leave much room for doubts that it is actually trying to integrate – justifying – the uncanny presence of Serra’s curves.
In a way, the silent minimalism of Berlin Junction and the discreet presence of the memorial plaque – often hidden under snow and leaves – would be responsible for a series of other memorials that eventually took place in this address: in 2007, an information panel was added to the shelter of the bus stop nearby and, from 2008 onwards, a vertical panel with documental graphical elements came to complement the available information, attracting greater attention to the spot.
[Memorial of the Gray Buses
with the Berlin Philharmonic on the background]. Tom Benz-Hauke, 2008. Source here
More recently, another sculpture “parked” in the area in memory of the Aktion T4, as part of a wider project from artists Horst Hoheisel (1944-) and Andreas Knitz (1963-), called Memorial of the Gray Buses. The project consists of an itinerary sculpture of a bus cast in concrete, similar in colour, shape and size to the vehicles that transported the thousands of patients from the hospitals to the death camps.
[Memorial of the Gray Buses
“parked” in Berlin]. Author unknown, 2008. Source here
[“Where are you taking us? 1940/1941”]. Author unknown, 2009. Source here
“Where are you taking us?” – the question of one of the patients is inscribed in the interior of the bus that, being divided in half through a passageway, invites the passerby to cross it. The bus sculpture stood there for one year, between 2008 and 2009, and is now roaming other sites involved in the Aktion T4 throughout Germany “as a way of transporting the memory – as a vehicle of history.”
Even though the Memorial of the Gray Buses doesn’t show an explicit reference to Berlin Junction, it is possible to establish a spatial analogy between both sculptures in the sense that both outline a passageway. A crossing that, despite short, spatializes the idea of an initiatory experience; something like a rebaptism raising historical awareness. But the affinity between both sculptures is also enhanced by their own materiality. Although the concrete and the corten steel are substantially different, they both imply a powerful destruction symbolism. It was out of concrete and iron that the urban landscape of post war Germany was made of. Furthermore, while the concrete calls for the memory by facing the spectator with the amnesic risk of its alienating and unifying grayness, the corten steel, due to its similarity with rusty iron, conveys feelings of resistance and temporality, hence exhibiting the aura of having witnessed history. Nevertheless the oxidation of the corten steel being the result of a chemical process performed artificially and in a short time, this material embodies suffering and objectifies pain.
Therefore, one can argue that there is an immediate dimension that allows one to correlate Berlin Junction with a solemn tribute, both in a spatial and in a material level. This fact justifies, in a way, the a posteriori allocation of a memorial meaning to the sculpture and its apparent suitability for the purpose. Despite the critical voices raised against its intention to commemorate by itself the victims of the Aktion T4, there doesn’t seem to have been the will to remove the sculpture from its place. The problem seemed to lie only in its self-absorbed offish minimalism.
[Visitors interacting with Transition – Berlin Junction
]. Georg Klein, 2001. Source here
In 2001 – maybe as an attempt to overcome this uncomfortable feeling –, Serra’s sculpture came to incorporate a sound installation by the German artist Georg Klein (1964-). Transition – Berlin Junction lasted for six months and consisted of “a composing process for four voices: one female voice, one male voice, traffic noise and computer generated sine tones”. Continuously produced, day and night, by speakers under four iron grates installed in the ground, the sound was “almost static – sometimes with a stable rhythmic pattern”. The grates included infrared motion sensors that transformed the sound in real time, whenever a visitor walked through the sculpture.
The basic sound was derived from the shape and material of the sculpture and its inherent acoustical proprieties, “specially the extraordinary echoes”. Depending on the use of the sensors, the “more or less metallic sound” composed “long sound curves […] like the different shadow lines of the curves of the sculpture”.
In a way, by adding an additional sensorial component to it, Klein’s installation can be seen as an attempt to further enhance the experience of Serra’s sculpture.
With his installation, Klein also further deepened the transitory feeling of Berlin Junction that, “with its dangerously sloping plates seems to be a special transition space with an ambivalent character just as transition times in life, with their aspects of searching, insecurity, hope and fear”.
Among the possible acoustic elements, a Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) poem could sound, also reflecting the ambivalence of transitions: “… the driver is changing the wheel. I don’t like where I come from. I don’t like where I am going. Why do I watch the changing of the wheel with impatience?” Thus, in addition to being a result of a material and spatial understanding of the sculpture, Klein’s installation also does a political interpretation of Serra’s gesture by regarding it as a “comment on the situation of Berlin in that time: divided in two parts, paralyzed in a threatening position.”
Therefore, Klein’s sound installation enhances the possibilities of transition in Serra’s sculpture, by introducing both the change by movement and by participation.
The memorial mission of the Aktion T4 events was also intensified by the sound installation. “The word ‘here’ spoken by a female voice draws attention in a simple, semantic and phonetic way. And the visitors who perceive the strange sounds at this site with their ears, they also open their eyes looking to the ground, where bodiless voices come out of the earth.”
Overall, Transition – Berlin Junction ascribed some pertinence to Serra’s sculpture. The installation proved to be sensitive to the circumstance of the monument, contributing to its acceptance as a memorial and narrowing its relationship with the surroundings – by adding a musical dimension to the sculpture, Klein also brought it closer to the Philharmonic.
[Aerial view of Serra’s public sculptures at the Kulturforum], Bing Maps. 2010.
But there’s another – more discreet – aspect that one should take into account when considering Berlin Junction. Even though it’s almost unnoticeable on site – due to the distance and to some visual obstacles – Berlin Junction is perfectly aligned with an earlier sculpture by Serra, next to the Mies van der Rohe’s New National Gallery. Berlin Block (for Charlie Chaplin) was installed in 1978 over the museum’s deck, just like some other modern sculptures. But its positioning doesn’t seem to have been accidental; there seems to have been a conceptual intention in aligning both sculptures. If, on the one hand, Berlin Junction‘s curves can be related to the organic shapes of Scharoun’s concert hall, on the other hand, the rigidity and sobriety of Berlin Block place it more justly in front of Mies’ museum.
Together, Berlin Block and Berlin Junction strengthen Serra’s minimalistic approach to public art, while disclosing some of the political humour that portrayed the moment of their installation: while in 1978 the division of the world in two blocs was a reality with no end in sight, in 1988 it was already possible to preview an imminent transition, that would actually take place one year later, with the fall of the Berlin Wall.
[Berlin Block (for Charlie Chaplin)
next to the Neue Nationalgalerie
]. Author unknown, 1978. Source here
Due to the fact it was installed one year after the death of Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977), the title of the cubic sculpture suggests that it is dedicated to his memory. But this dedication also allows one to draw some additional political parallels: the actor that directed and starred in “The Great Dictator” (1940) – a parody with the Nazi regime and the German anti-Semitic policies – was himself target of accusations of anti-American activities in 1952, and sympathy with the communist ideology, leading him to definitively abandon the United States.
While the Tilted Arc in New York City questioned the significance of public artworks – proving that it’s the public who always has the right to the last word –, Berlin Junction and Berlin Block (for Charlie Chaplin) contributed to the questioning of public memorials in several other levels. Subscribing to Serra’s minimalistic approach to sculpture – as one can see with the shy (but certainly not unintentional) alignment of the block and the junction –, his Berlin public works also denote a tacit aptness to a memorial duty due to their material or spatial properties.
One could say that Serra likes to keep a certain impenetrable aura about the symbolic content of his works as a set of his own unattainable poetry. In 1998, when asked why he created a sculpture to Charlie Chaplin, Serra answered: “The piece is a 77 ton block cube. It’s impaled into the deck of the Mies van der Rohe National Gallery and the way it’s impaled into the deck gives the block a very ungainly look. Almost as if Chaplin was turning on his shoe. It has an almost comical gesture in the fact that this massive block seems to be plunged into the surface or entailed into the surface of the deck. And I think it undercuts the seriousness of the work by allowing one to see another aspect of its ungainliness. The title is Charlie, but you know what, Mark, we’re going to have to wrap this up. Some people came and I gotta get out of here with them. Unless there’s another question you really want to do, we’ll do it.”