A large pool of water had appeared overnight on our kitchen floor, so silent and unexpected it seemed to be a mirage. Tap water had been dribbling from a loose pipe beneath the sink and leaking noiselessly down through the two stories below us. This scene, which we woke up to on the morning of our son’s ninth birthday, was the most dramatic but not the only incident of water damage. For several months before and after, a collection of plastic buckets and basins had become a semi- permanent, wandering feature, brought out to catch leaks in different parts of our home. One evening, a few months after the kitchen flood, our elder son noticed water dripping from the plasterwork rosette in the center of the living-room ceiling. Looking up, we saw an ominous spreading patch of brown as water leaking from upstairs traversed the terrain above our heads. Water always finds its way. My sons and I fetched the buckets and basins once more and laid out towels to soak it up. It was as if our new apartment was trying to tell us something.
The apartment we had lived in before on the east side of the city, with an Edenic plasterwork of vines, fruits and flowers twisting around the columns of its façade, exerted no such influence. We were there for ten years – husband and wife, two sons, two cats – and throughout this time, regardless of our difficulties, that apartment was consistently neutral. It did not make its presence felt or stir up any overt feelings. It was simply a container, benevolent if anything, in enabling the maintenance of the status quo. Our new apartment, closer to the boys’ school in the west, was awkward from day one. Aggravating and interfering, it kept producing warning signals that could not be ignored. It intervened and forced itself into the role of the protagonist.
There are things you can see and others you can only feel, that you sense in a different way, as a whisper in your mind, or a weight in your bones. A nugget of doubt had crystallized and been disturbing the everyday flow of my thoughts for weeks already. Like a silty clot of debris, its vague contours had gained definition when we moved east to west across the axis of the city. Its shape was of unhappiness. And now here it was, clotting up my mind as I paced between the many rooms of our extravagantly proportioned new home. A cultivated emptiness in the mind can allow for rippling, drift and snag. It can draw out things that don’t want to be seen. That early morning encounter with a glassy pool of water on the kitchen floor was an unequivocal sign of rupture. Something had broken its banks and could no longer be contained. After years of emotional repression, subconsciously practiced to maintain a functional family life, this spontaneous display, this uncalled-for outburst – this flood – was a symbol of almost hysterical clarity. It asked for an equally extreme response, which duly came in a sudden, brutal and final break. A severing of the family unit, whereby one part was broken off and the other three parts remained together. My husband went away for work and never came back to our home.
Water always finds its way. Winding through the crevices of this old building. Seeping into smoothly plastered and painted surfaces. Appearing suddenly in damp bruises of mold in high-up corners. Inducing patches of plasterwork to blister off external walls. There was always a logical explanation, a cause to put it down to. Heavy rainfall on unsealed roof tiles; pipes drilled into or fixed up faultily; blocked drains in overflowing showers. The builders at work on the penthouse upstairs were clearly a slapdash bunch. Still, the relentlessness of these various cases began to feel oppressive. It was as if the surfaces of the apartment refused to be sealed; its infrastructure would not hold tight. Whenever it rained, I was anxious. As the months progressed, I felt an urge to map out the stains and marks that had been left on the ceilings, walls and floors. If I were to plot out their topography, could I devise a map to read and make sense of these minor domestic disasters?
I had a persistent and uneasy feeling of intent behind these incidents. One that could not be seen straight on, but rather accessed sidelong through some form of divination. Like the hydromantic method of scrying, reading the ripples on a surface of water, lit by the light of the moon at best. As the boundaries of the apartment became porous, containment was no longer an option, and neither was silence. There would be no more holding things at bay. External events, emotional truths, historical incidents, all would find a way to make themselves known.
By the time the pool of water appeared on the kitchen floor, our marriage was already broken, but this occurrence induced its final rupture. In contrast to the steady drip of sadness that we had both grown accustomed to and comfortably ignored over the years, the break was violent. The flood precipitated a crisis that extended beyond the many hours spent mopping up. A crisis for which the apartment seemed to share responsibility, brought to a head through its very own plumbing. I was grateful for this sign of what seemed to me like solidarity, a compassionate act that fortunately caused no lasting physical damage. Our own wooden floorboards dried out fast and no trace on them was left behind. The apartment below us, which bore the brunt of the leakage, was in between tenants and empty. The enormous dehumidifiers, brought in to dry the walls and air, could do their noisy work without disturbing anyone. In the painter’s studio on the first floor, the flood ran down the only wall on which no canvas was hanging. Miraculously the huge paintings on the other two walls, which she had spent the last six months painstakingly composing, were spared. The glass globe lamp in the ground floor entrance hall, in which the last dregs collected, was simply unscrewed and emptied out, like a goldfish bowl no longer needed.
“Sometimes when water is flowing it means the house is mourning,” I read online. “There is an excess of emotion that needs to be expelled.” The image that formed on the surface of the pool of water did not just reflect a broken home, it also reflected the house itself. These tears of mourning were the building’s own. It would soon become my subject.
At the same time as all this water damage was troubling the apartment, I began to notice how insistently the view from my kitchen window was presenting itself. It seemed to draw me to it, away from the calamities occurring inside and towards its offer of a broad sky, treetops and buildings leading towards the horizon. This position became a recurrent refrain in the passage of working days at home. A female figure at the window, seen from the back and looking out. Motionless at this threshold, the body separate from its thoughts, as the inside is separate from the outside. In the building’s vernacular, the window is the cut.
The first ever photographic image, taken by Joseph Niépce in 1826, was the view from the window of his studio. It shows a shadowy arrangement of soft grey planes and solids, the angle of a roof. Twelve years later, in 1838, the first photograph of a human being, by Louis Daguerre, was the view outside his window. A sweeping vista down a tree-lined street, flanked with imposing buildings but otherwise deserted, save two static, ghostly figures. These early photographs were a form of basic research, an examination of material facts that started at the most obvious point: the view, from the inside looking out. A location of self within a place, a certain kind of anchoring. Christopher Isherwood in Goodbye to Berlin famously adopts the same approach. “From my window, the deep solemn massive street,” begins the chapter titled “Berlin Diary” from 1930. Isherwood himself becomes the photographic apparatus: “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.” But the female figure at my window isn’t quite so passive as she looks across at Berlin’s cityscape. She is wondering about orientation, just how did she come to end up in this place? And what is this place in any case, whose surface seems so fraught with secrets?
The building we moved into in the summer of 2014 stands on the banks of Berlin’s Landwehr Canal: with its feet in the west, it looks across the water towards the east. In Berlin, this city of extremes and interrupted histories, the simple denominations of east and west are loaded with ideological import. Location, literally, is make or break. The plot on which my building stands was peripheral in the mid-1800s when it came to first be built upon, lying just beyond the customs wall that had circled the center for a good hundred years. But in the fast-paced industrial development of the decades that followed, the city’s axes were refigured, and this plot came to occupy a ringside seat looking onto its theater of action: the center of government, journalism, transport and metropolitan life. When Berlin was divided into sectors in the second half of the twentieth century, it shifted again to the desolate outskirts. But now in the early 2000s, its position in a capital city still adjusting to unification has come to be re-centered.
Berlin’s sharply defined residential districts each possess a distinctive character, but while this building straddles several, it doesn’t fit squarely in any one. Though officially in Kreuzberg, it occupies its northern-most tip, a block from the border with the Tiergarten district, while Schöneberg spreads out behind. This area is not densely inhabited, but spacious and full of hesitant gaps, temporal jumps and wild moments of greenery. The canal banks are called the Ufer, and ours the Tempelhofer Ufer, the banks that originally lead to the village of Tempelhof. Despite the area’s comparative spaciousness, the view from my third-floor kitchen window is dense with a patchwork of city history. But beyond its visible components, something else seems to be at work. An unsettling sense of a past that snags attention but won’t let itself be clearly seen. A downward pull that seems to halt the present.
I begin searching out historical photographs, literature and archives, combing them for evidence of this place. Books about its architecture and early urban development. Literature from a century ago that took place in the streets around me. Grim online address books from the 1930s, inventories of all the houses with Jewish occupants. Eyewitness accounts from the last street battles of the Second World War. I watch Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire, which I saw as a teenager when it first came out, in Manchester’s art-house cinema in 1987. Now I scan the screen for places I recognize and views familiar from my current daily life. They are there: the train tracks that run behind my house, the swans afloat on the canal, the ruined railway station I can see from my window in the middle distance. I begin to plot my own experience onto these accumulated layers of time, words and images. This is a beginning.
In the summer of 2001, I had arrived in Berlin from New York, one more in the most recent swell of newcomers to a city formed historically by its successive waves of immigrants. Following a strong gut instinct that overrode cautions of the rational mind, I had left my job, my friends, my New York studio and moved in with my German boyfriend, to his vast Berlin apartment. All high ceilings, pale grey linoleum, barely any furniture, and the biggest bathroom I’d ever seen. Landing a good ten years after the city’s unification, I already felt belated. Artists, musicians, writers, filmmakers, actors, designers had been flocking here for years by then, inhabiting Berlin’s derelict apartments, setting up studios and turning any abandoned building into a bar, club or gallery. The sheer space was a palpable relief after the density and compression of life in New York City. There was a wildness here bordering at times on desolation. So much was empty, so much uncertainty. I had just turned thirty and was looking for change. The availability and undefined potential of this place seemed to offer an openness in which one could act. Perhaps it could help me start to write. I packed two suitcases, sublet my New York studio with everything that was in it, and left to begin a new chapter in this unknown place.
When I arrived on his doorstep, my boyfriend was living on Mauerstraße, near Checkpoint Charlie, in the dropped-pin center of the city. A strangely forlorn neighborhood, it seemed devoid of purpose or atmosphere, populated mainly by straggling bunches of tourists, and not a tree in sight. Even the buildings here appeared withdrawn, eyes downcast to their own foundations. It seemed ironic to live on a street named Wall Street, in this city bent on self-invention following the fall of the Berlin Wall, but the Mauer its street name referred to was a different wall: the eighteenth-century customs wall that once had stood nearby. The view from my boyfriend’s bedroom window was taken up entirely by an enormous brand-new office block, designed by Philip Johnson and finished in 1997 in Berlin’s post-unification boom. There was something awkward about this slick and massive building, as if it had been put down in the wrong place. I didn’t know it then, but the American Business Center, as it was called, was built on the site of the Bethlehemskirche, an eighteenth-century church – one of the city’s oldest, until it was destroyed by bombs in 1943. In 2012, a Spanish artist installed a steel framework outlining the form of the disappeared church, but when we lived there, I knew nothing of the disappeared building, this missing puzzle piece. A similar unease and silence surrounded that house and the one I live in now. Something reticent and dislocated. An uncanny weight hanging in the air.
Shortly after I arrived in Berlin, my boyfriend and I left Mauerstraße and moved to the more accommodating neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg in the city’s former East. In an area about to be reconfigured by the homogenizing forces of gentrification, we unwittingly ticked all the relevant boxes. Within six months I was pregnant, and we became one of this neighborhood’s many young families. Here we had our babies, bought our first flat, tied the knot and adopted pets. Caught up in the ongoing task of welding family and work into one seamless whole, we got distracted and lost sight of each other. We let our marriage run aground. A fact that was not yet apparent, however, when twelve years later, we moved across the city, from center east to center west.
Whoever “seeks to approach his own buried past must conduct himself like a man digging,” advises Walter Benjamin, Berlin-born and a resident on and off until his exile in the early 1930s. Is this a kind of geomancy, to read the ground of history? “It is undoubtedly useful to plan excavations methodically,” writes Benjamin. “Yet no less indispensable is the cautious probing of the spade in the dark loam.” I start digging in this medium, trawling and sifting through the past, without knowing really what to look for. Retrieving memories that aren’t your own is a messy business full of traps. But perhaps it can elucidate the porosity of a place and how its past affects its present? So I begin at the most obvious point: here alone at the kitchen window, on the inside looking out.
I set myself the task of writing a portrait of the city. An impossible task perhaps, but the house seems somehow to suggest it. What follows concerns memory, the past and its retrieval, but it does not follow a single path, or proceed step by step. The memory of a place does not lie flat on a straight line of time; it is syncretic and simultaneous, layered in thin sediments of event and passage, inhabitation and mood. It is a compound of assimilated actions bound up in the material of streets and houses, or recorded in words and images that gather over time, or else it has no tangible form and must be felt out, reimagined. When we found this house on the banks of the Landwehr Canal, I had thought of living on the water as a way to find a current. To write about the place in which I live could be a way to make an anchor and counteract the drift. Particularly if the things I write of are themselves the stuff of drift – flotsam of the past washed up on shores of consciousness. But this subject – this city – refuses neat containment. The writing has become sprawling and unruly, and so it begins to resemble the city itself, spread out wide without any discernible banks. Berlin.