Wandering around the city, without any particular destination or purpose in mind, has been fascinating locals since cities first came into existence. If you let your eyes, legs and thoughts roam free, you may even get to know the city – with all of its contradictions and its connection to people – a little better. What once began with Baudelaire and Benjamin is still very much alive to this day.
The flâneur has almost become a forgotten figure. He first appeared at the end of the 19th century – the dallier, who wanders the city’s streets and loses himself in his jaunt. The city – back then everything was new. You could drift so wonderfully, while everyone around you rushed about, buying, selling and providing. The flâneur looks and makes associations; gives free rein to feet and thoughts; impressions of people, architecture and the surroundings all merge together. The observations – the contradictions in the cityscape itself – that he discovers on his forays, lead to an examination of the effect of the place on the psyche.
It follows logically that the Situationists in 1950s France used similar methods to turn the investigation of the correlation between urban planning and psyche into a science. Following his strolls through the French capital, Guy Debord drew the “Guide psychogéographique de Paris” – a kind of map, which depicts the atmospheric units of the city, joined simply by an arrow. It feels a bit like taking the underground to discover different parts of the city, without ever finding out the connection between the different districts.
As the S-Bahn was no longer operating on the day of the shoot, we were forced to transcend these boundaries. We took a taxi towards the East and saw prefabricated concrete buildings fly past us on the left and right – concrete monsters, surrounded by parks. We arrived, with the prefab housing estate that had been specifically chosen in advance, in front of us and simply wandered. Everything here was built at the end of the 1970s, long after the days of the flâneur. These days it is mainly families and pensioners who live in this district, which was built entirely to house the GDR’s workers. And these current residents enjoy both the peace and quiet and the big city flair. We spend a few hours here and try to understand this place.
“You only really get to know an area when you have experienced it in as many different dimensions as possible”, wrote Walter Benjamin in his diary. Taking the time to really explore a place fundamentally contradicts the meaning of the city, which was created as a meeting point for trade and work, always with a clear purpose in mind. Yet the resistance to this fixed structure is as old as the structure itself. If the flâneur deliberately avoided the hustle and bustle, then the Situationists explored the mechanisms of power that are reflected in the cityscape.
And now? We walk through this district of Berlin and ponder life in this place. How it is designed to meet the needs of people, or not. We climb over walls, transformer substations and clothing recycling banks and find a new way to access our surroundings. We are not the only ones. Skaters, graffiti artists, breakdancers, punks – these are all people who belong to the masses as much as they are reinterpreting the purpose of the city. Urbanism is always a confrontation with the city’s landscape. Be it the renowned dancers, like Oona Doherty, who incorporate the city experience in their choreography, or the Pokémon Go players, who get in the way of those rushing about – discovering the city with no particular destination in mind is still very much worthwhile.
Text and photo by Till Wilhelm