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June 2nd, 2006
Fri, Jun. 2nd, 2006 11:30 am

Yesterday I really fell in love with Berlin again. I saw the Berlin Biennial, an event I thought I'd missed (it's been extended until June 5th). The art was pretty good, but in a sense it was upstaged by the city itself, and by patina. Curators Cattelan, Gioni and Subotnick found all sorts of spaces up and down Mitte's Auguststrasse; a cargo container, a gilded ballroom, several private apartments, some galleries, some post office stables... and a former Jewish School for Girls.



Here the patina was amazing. The art was arranged alongside communist-era didactic displays of notable Jews, peppy 70s and 80s graffiti, peeling paint and uneven plaster work, tiles and a vast range of fake brick, fake wood and floral wallpapers. Oh, and murals featuring Bertolt Brecht.

After seeing the biennial I went flathunting, ending up in Neukoln -- the only area where I could find decor shabby enough to satisfy my craving for patina, which is, finally, character, personality, history, texture. It's a familiar Berlin battle: how can you reach an area before the developers do, and how can you cling to a friendly bit of texture before some anally clean Germans define it as "dirt" and reduce it to a series of utterly bland, clean, neutral surfaces? "Sanierte", they call this in the lingo; re-organized, sanitized. Given Germany's history, the phrase has a sinister ring to it.

Berlin seems riven between the people who want historical monuments like the Volkspalast preserved, patina intact, and those who want them sanitized or razed. In the case of the former socialist "people's palace", the battle has been lost. It strikes me that this is also a battle between people who want expansion and economic development, and people who want characterful decay, decline, and a "slow life" somewhat protected from market forces. In other words, it relates to yesterday's question about demographics and the management of population decline.



In my last days in New York I visited the Parsons design department degree show. There was lots of excellent work, stuff about recycling and community-oriented design (a portable stoop people could sit on, for instance). The worst piece I saw, though, was a Communication Design piece by Hector Diaz called "The Effects of Spatial Design in New York Public High Schools".

"For the past 5 to 10 years," Diaz explained, "there has been a concern for students attending some New York City High Schools due to small graduation classes, low attendance and a lack of educational interest. My thesis conveys how through environmental design, combined with architecture, color and typography, students can unconsciously change the way their education is pursued."

Showing before-and-after pictures of a place very like the Former Jewish Girls' School, Diaz proposed changing a lovely, fusty building predominantly coloured in earth tones into a zingy electric blue-tinted educational freeway service station, complete with coffee franchise-style "motivational" graphics. I found his whole design-for-growth schtick dismal, sad and aesthetically offensive; a war on patina. He'll probably do very well.

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