Der Berliner Ampelmann and Other Highlights

Today’s themes: Public outcry and rewriting history

The Ampelmann

East Berlin received its first pedestrian traffic signals in 1969 after a traffic psychologist (what a great title!) determined that as many as 10,000 traffic-related deaths between 1955 and 1960 were caused by cars and pedestrians sharing the same traffic signals. The Ampelmann’s (‘traffic light man’) whimsical designed was intended to appeal specifically to children and the elderly and so has a stout body and a hat.

As part of greater unification efforts, Germany planned to standardize the Ampelmann by installing the Western design universally. When the plans were publicized, Berliners were outraged. They rallied behind and saved their Ampelmann, and the positive public attention turned him into an icon of the city. The design has since become so popular that the Eastern Ampelmann can be found at intersections in some parts of West Berlin and in other parts of Germany. There is even an entire souvenir store dedicated to the design, selling it on everything from key chains to pasta.

The East Side Gallery

The East Side Gallery is an open-air art gallery located on a 1.3 km remaining section of the Berlin Wall. It features 105 paintings by artists from all over the world. The paintings were applied in 1990 and have since been damaged by erosion and vandalism. Restoration began in 2000, but is slow and controversial since some art was painted over without the artists’ consent. Thirteen years later, the German Paint Makers’ Association is celebrating their 100th anniversary by sponsoring the restoration of one-third of the Wall and some of the city’s hotels are offering free accommodations for the original artists to return and do the work.

In March, plans for a luxury apartment building in the area necessitated the removal of a section of the East Side Gallery to allow truck access to the building site. When one piece was removed, residents were outraged by the disruption of the longest remaining section of the Wall. Construction was forced to halt for a month while politicians and investors tried to find an alternate solution while protesters (including David Hasselhof!) worked to save such an important and iconic part of their city. After weeks of stalled work, construction crews started at 5am, while residents were sleeping, removing the remaining pieces. Many see this as a victory of monetary concerns over heritage, though the pieces will be returned after the building construction is completed.

My favorite pieces:

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The Artists Initiative: http://www.eastsidegallery.com/
The story: Spiegel

Marx-Engels-Platz

Museum Island is a picturesque strip of land bisecting the Spree River and containing five museums, the Berliner Dome, and the Lustgarten. Just across the river to the East is Marx-Engels Square. Prior to Allied WWII bombing, the area was a densely populated old quarter.  After it sat abandoned for about twenty years, the GDR decided to dedicate the area to Marx and Engels, building a green space and erecting a statue of the two in 1986. I really like the statue because it is reminiscent of a Botero painting and makes the men seem almost cartoonish.

Back across the river on the island, is Schloßplatz, or ‘castle square,’ named for the Prussian royal palace (the Stadtschloß) it once held. The palace was built in the 15th century, but underwent several changes until it was finalized in Baroque style in the 18th century. It housed Prussian kings and German emperors until 1918 when it was turned into a museum.

After WWII bombing inflicted significant damage, the GDR opted to rid itself of the Prussian castle. Though it could have been restored, the Stadtschloß was demolished in 1950. The Palast der Republik was built in its place to house the GDR parliament. In 1990, the Palast was found to have asbestos contamination and was closed for thirteen years until deemed safe. However, the building only survived another three years until, despite strong public protestations, it was demolished to make way for the rebuilding of the original Stadtschloß.

Work on the new Stadtschloß, now called the Humboldtforum, isn’t scheduled to begin until 2014, but the placement of the new attraction has prompted conversation about the surrounding area. Is it appropriate to feature a statue of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the middle of the city? Some say no. They argue that the statue is an outdated holdover from GDR and should be moved to the outskirts of town. Others, however, argue, that you can’t banish history, and that the statue should stay prominently located in front of the site of the new palace. The statue draws many camera-wielding tourists.

For more, see Marx-Engels-Platz, SchloßplatzStadtschloßPalast der Republik, the dispute, and Save Berlin.

And just a few things that I enjoyed seeing…

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