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9 October 1999, Saturday
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With only a little encouragement from Tomek Wolender, we made a journey to Berlin for the day. I had wanted to travel to Berlin for quite some time; an incredible amount of construction activity happening in the city and I wanted to see it firsthand. The day began early with the Deutsche Bahnhof train departing Szczecin at 6am. Because we arrived just a few minutes late for boarding, we had to wait outside the train cars until passport control cleared the passengers already inside. A Polish soldier casually kept us at bay. Our travel across the German border was slightly delayed and we missed our connection in Angermünde. The 1-1/2 hour wait allowed us to walk around the town to look at buildings and find a pastry shop.

The condition and quality of the buildings in this small town is immediately noticeable. Virtually all of the buildings are extremely well maintained. The paint is new. The materials are fresh with little weathering. The window sashes are squared and unbroken. There is color. Tomek tells me that 10 years ago, only grey paint was available. Of course, that was only useful if you had any stucco remaining on your house to paint. 10 years ago, most of these buildings were exposed rough brick. These are the improvements that can be made with money. Economically, the unified Germany is far more affluent than Poland. It wasn't made so clear to me until now.

We arrived in Berlin on the former East German side. Mr. Wolender had been here several times in the past, his first trips to the city were made before the wall fell in 1989. Looking out of the windows on both sides of the train, I search the skyline for the peaks of buildings I may recognize. We identify several and Mr. Wolender points out a few on the eastern side which were unknown to me. To him, these had clear associations. For me, studying my western architecture books, I might have never noticed.

We disembark from the intercity train and head for the U-Bahn, taking us farther into the city. We had discussed photography earlier in the day and Tomek was interested in finding a good-quality, used 35mm camera. We walked to a couple of camera shops he knew but did not find any items in the right price range. We walked to the Museum of the City of Berlin to see a painting exhibit which Mr. Wolender was very excited about. It would have been nice to go to the adjacent contemporary arts museum but our time was limited. Instead, we hopped on the U-Bahn to visit Potzdamer Platz. Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers, Arata Isozaki and several other architects have huge buildings underway in this complex. I was curious to see how the whole ensemble came together.

As was the norm for most of my journey so far, it was raining for much of the day, quite heavily during the hour at Potzdamer Platz. We spent most of our time ducking under buildings arcades (Wow, these buildings have protected arcades!), walking through the public interiors and the red InfoBox. Yes, the buildings of Potzdamer Platz are big but they do work well together as a whole. The underground mall is... well... a shopping mall. If I closed by ears to the language, I was back in the USA. Piano's building is extremely well detailed. It's amazing to see it all done with sheet glass and a few standardized terra cotta cladding units. I know the systems behind it all are much more complicated but the final assemblies come together effortlessly. Roger's building, as all of his designs appears, at first, like some kind of techno-wonder gadget which landed on a city block. Getting closer and really looking at the assemblies, it all begins to make sense and have a real beauty. The cantilevered stone entry stairs are very well executed. The rotating window washing unit and guides are very nice. I can't imagine the cost of all these customized assemblies and curved glass panels plus the tremendous continual maintenance required to keep it all clean. Isosaki's hotel has a central courtyard with an undulating pathway leading to nowhere. The people walking on it seemed to enjoy the experience.

I thought I had the best kept secret in town, Daniel Liebeskind's design for the Jewish Museum had completed construction but did not yet have any exhibits inside. The finished building did not yet exist as a true museum because it was empty. So when anyone we asked told us that the "museum" was closed, they were correct. But I didn't want to see a museum exhibit, I wanted to see a building. With some sketchy directions and a little logic, we managed to find the place. The standing seam zinc looks better than I imagined. The sunken ramp to below really works. I was beginning to believe the rhetoric I had heard over the years. "I'd like to put our name on the waiting list for tours of the building." "I am sorry, but I am afraid it is impossible for today. Perhaps tomorrow."

Mr. Wolender told me that I lost my spirits for about an hour afterwards. Maybe I should find a place for us to stay overnight? I put it out of my mind and we headed for the rededicated Reichstag. Passing Checkpoint Charlie, Tomek recalled his first journey to the west when he was a teenager. We saw Schinkel's Altes Museum along Unter den Linden and passed a Gehry building under construction. The sun set and we took the train back to Poland for a late-night meal at Mr. Wolender's house.


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