As I was reminded during a visit to Germany this month, Berlin is not one of those cities, like Rome, where you understand history in layers, as a process of accretion. Berlin is a city where space has been cleared out — often by force — for a new version of history to stand apart from everything that’s come before.
The longest preserved stretch of the Berlin Wall — officially overseen by the Topography of Terror, a museum exploring the history of the Third Reich — is an unmistakable case in point. You don’t turn a corner and stumble onto it. As you approach on foot you begin to sense a full quarter-mile away that more than 500 feet of it is standing in the middle of a clearing, a pockmarked monument of concrete and exposed rebar that you can view essentially in the round.
There is a historical reason for that, of course. This section of the wall, along Niederkirchnerstrasse, formerly Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse, was built next to the ruins of the buildings that housed the Gestapo and the SS during the Nazi regime. There was no need for the East German government, as it sealed off its own citizens in the summer of 1961, to shoehorn this part of the wall into a crowded neighborhood. What had been the rubble of Nazi architecture, after those buildings were bombed and later razed, was easily transformed into a tabula rasa for Cold War construction.
Walls that divide one country, or one ideology, from another are like that. We think of them as being pinned along an edge by necessity. In fact their path of least resistance is often to move into and occupy vacuums in the physical landscape. And in the political or philosophical one as well.
Consider the way President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall has been greeted by American architects. After the Department of Homeland Security announced last month that it would be soliciting fast-track bids for “several prototype wall structures in the vicinity of the United States border with Mexico,” and then start awarding commissions to build actual stretches of wall by the middle of April, a debate broke out about whether it made ethical sense for architects and engineers to take part. […]