Berlin, a former mayor claimed famously in a television interview in 2004, is poor but sexy. For Berliners, long accused of possessing the Berliner Schnauze (snout) which dubs every Berliner a rude, snooty and cranky fella, this was a much nicer stereotype to live with.

The phrase became such a hit it made every junkie in punk-haven district Kreuzberg glow with renewed pride. Since enchanting or enthralling doesn’t quite sit with Berlin as it would with Paris or London, the mayor’s quote indeed gave tourist brochures a catch phrase to describe a city that’s hard to define and harder to fully comprehend.

For Berlin is a haunted, scarred city where the ghosts of the past and cranes of the future nudge each other constantly. It is not by accident that the German capital has been labelled by many as an ever-changing architectural exhibition. Uniquely for a European city, Berlin undertook massive construction in the 1990s in a feverish attempt to build a shimmery “new” capital. So you had a complete transport network constructed to connect East and West Berlin; renewal projects in the historic Museum Island, a Unesco heritage site, and snazzy steel and glass structures looking sombrely down on Checkpoint Charlie, once the most famous crossover point from west to east and now the city’s only “touristy” spectacle.

But it hasn’t worked.

Berlin, happily, does not look “new”. If anything, history has become more defiant in this city pockmarked by World War II bomb-blackened church domes, grey, square and ugly (there’s no other word for it) Communist apartment blocks from the German Democratic Republic (GDR) era, some of which have been gentrified into fashionable boutiques and art houses, abandoned spaces and memorials—some seen and some unseen. Because its past has been traumatic, not once but over and over again, knowingly and unknowingly, ironically and accidentally, the “haunted geographies of the land” are all too obvious. Like the 2ft-wide foundation of the Berlin Wall you come across every now and then in the city.

Or the dazzling Sony Centre with its uber modern Japanese-inspired steel dome at Potsdamer Platz—which was once a “death strip” no-man’s land where death routinely triumphed.

That’s another German characteristic very evident in Berlin’s startling architecture—the eager attempt to forget; the determined attempt to move on, yet still hostage to the inevitable pull of memories, horrific and compelling. Which is why Hitler’s bunker has to be searched for under the hot sun; there are no touristy directions to it, no commemoration of any sort. Just modern apartments above it with people going about their everyday business and a cursory board stuck on the ground, saying, well, if you really want to know, this is where Hitler’s bunker was.

The recently renovated “Topography of Terror” documentation centre and the still under-construction memorial to the Berlin Wall are both vast spaces that further communicate this conflicting social desire—to remind oneself as well as to forget a violent past that has fused inexorably into the present. The predominant colour is a dull grey; the mood is one of acceptance; and the effort is to present as minimalistically as possible the nation’s traumatic history. But this kind of minimalism has failed utterly to mute the guilt and horror of it all, if that was ever the intention. It has only further scratched the wounds raw.

As my German host narrated in a sidewalk café serving Spanish tapas, the city was the capital of five different Germanies—the 1871 German Empire, the Weimar Republic, Nazi Germany, East Germany, and now the reunified Germany, and it has been the space where German “supremacy” and fierce nationalism was showcased, destroyed and showcased again. Scholar Rudy Koshar wrote that Berlin represents the “unstable optic identity” of the nation. My host laughs self-consciously and calls it a collective national guilt that still colours German education and thought.Which is why it is not surprising that the Holocaust memorial designed by Peter Eisenman stirred such contrasting emotions when it was finally unveiled in 2005. Typically, before the memorial came into being, the space designated for it was an eyesore, a vast empty plot covered with a fence full of political graffiti both opposing and supporting the construction.

I know of no other city that speaks of space and constriction in the same breath as Berlin does. A 19,000 sq. m memorial in the heart of the city, with the landmark Brandenburg Gate a few paces away and the almost hidden Hitler’s bunker just beyond it, the over 2,700 unmarked grey stone slabs in varying sizes scream more poignantly than anything else in Berlin. At its unveiling, the architect had hoped that the “memorial would blend into the background of the city” and be used both as a short cut to a way home or to walk in and around and through it, in contemplation. Of course, it doesn’t blend. It is starkly visible—physically and metaphorically—but if you allow it to, it does hollow out space in your cluttered mind.But it is clutter of a different kind that the “new” hip Berlin is thriving on. Downtown Berlin has been invaded by students, artists and other “creative” types who have given this Berlin an edgy and exciting cultural ethos—from thriving punk and techno to serendipitous art galleries housed in former GDR blocks, to “guerrilla” fashion boutiques (enterprising artists stealthily taking over tenant-less places).

These independent fashion stores specialize in quirkiness really. And since they are “guerrilla” they are always now there, now gone. They are set up mostly by struggling designers in the bohemian neighbourhoods of Berlin such as Mitte and Kreuzberg. The designers sell their stuff for a few months and then disappear without a trace. Ah, the serendipity they promise! It is the quest that makes the purchase at these boutiques so special.

With cheaper rents than other European cities, Berlin has become the city to live in for such risk takers. Add to this the cultural mishmash, music and art forms of its growing immigrant population and the proud tradition of street graffiti, and there is another Berlin brewing here. In fact, Berlin is said to be the most “graffiti-ed” or, in graffiti lingo, “most bombed” city of Europe, giving its street architecture a contemporary edge that no mere odd-shaped building can.

This is not your everyday “I love Alice in Chains” graffiti—it is invariably intensely political and, as my host says, without a hint of humour. “They are artists, they are reclaiming the city.”

As with everything else in Berlin, its graffiti too has a history. Kreuzberg, everybody’s favourite neighbourhood, used to be the heart of the American sector, surrounded by the Berlin Wall on three sides and bursting with Turkish immigrants, rebellious punks and everybody else, it seems, with a can of paint. And it had loads of free unclaimed space and little policing. So it became and remains the city’s premier canvas.

But after the fall of the Wall, graffiti rapidly moved eastwards. For these street artists, it was as if a new untouched, whitewashed world had opened up. The earlier unmarked Stasi-controlled East Berlin was soon captured by celebratory brushstrokes and angry squiggles. Though officially it is still vandalism, most Berliners look at graffiti with indulgence rather than annoyance. Which explains the popularity of the “graffiti festival” that is often held in the hallway of a former Kreuzberg hospital and helps you comprehend what Berliners mean when they say their city is constantly being remodelled by somebody or the other.

Perhaps more than the city’s much loved mayor, it was author Karl Scheffler who got Berlin right. Way back in 1910, he had this to say: “Berlin is a city forever condemned to becoming and never being.”

Published in Mint-Wall Street Journal on 26.02.11

The roof of the Japanese-inspired Sony Centre
Hitler, the rockstar.
2,700 unmarked grey stone slabs that speak more loudly than anything else
Hitler's bunker