Schöneberger Südgelände: In Search of the Sun

Artwork by ODIOUS collective in Südgelände park (Credit: Liza Ostrovska)

Google weather confirms: It’s been there for the past three days. Im-pos-sib-le. But look, it’s there, caught in the roof tiles of the Treskowstrasse 25 front building: There. Now do you believe me? It’s been there all along:

The February sun.

Have you noticed? As our studies resume, the world around us takes on a peculiar character. Our world starts to suffer from mysterious distortions. The difference between Platanen- and Eichenstrasse appears to be in the number of minutes it takes to transport oneself from Cafeteria to Lecture Hall, from Lecture Hall to the Iderfenngraben tram stop. The world around us suffers from puzzling distortions so that the only voices we begin to pay any heed to are those of Gospels, Critiques, Confessions, beckoning from the reading room and all agreeing on the same point: set the alarm for 6:45, latest. Well, I do. But in the morning, the M1 takes me away from academics, in the direction opposite the Reading room: time to reclaim the world and hit the (rail)road.

On the S2-nach-Lichtenrade, I resist the urge to pull out the latest reading assignment and resolve to count stations instead. Fumes of cars vibrating in the frosty air, Garten-Kolonies, bare branches of Humboldthain — and that’s it, the S2-nach-Lichtenrade, way too loud for the city center, is swallowed by the dark tunnel of Nordbahnhof. A few (fives of) minutes in the underground limbo, and I find myself facing the gate of the world far beyond the Reading room, more commonly known as Naturpark Schöneberger Südgelände.

At the end of the 19th century, Berlin is growing into a metropolis. The Schöneberg district, once a modest village populated by Bohemian weavers [*1], is developing as a part of the city’s Wilhelmine ring [*2]. The Industrial era paves dry heathland with gravel so that Anhaltinischer and Dresdener interregional lines can run to the South; in 1889, next to Südgelände territory, the marshalling and repair station Rangierbahnhof Tempelhof is built.

After the Second World War, the rattle of train carriages gradually grows quieter: part of Rangierbahnhof’s train shed is destroyed by a bomb; the Berlin Blockade [*3] temporarily paralyses freight transportation, which ceases altogether in the station’s Western operational area after the city is split by the Wall. Minor freight transportation continues in Rangierbahnhof’s Eastern area until the 1990s while the decommissioned trackage becomes obsolete.  And so, nature takes hold.

In Südgelände, design follows the rhythms of nature (Credit: Liza Ostrovska)

When nobody cares, when nobody is looking, the first to come will be the birches. They are later followed by locust trees and poplars, oaks and maples in whose shade nightingales and grasshoppers (hear Chorthippus apricarius, upland field grasshopper, whose chirping resembles a slowly passing steam engine) will find shelter. Yet birch trees are the pioneers. In Südgelände they have claimed most of the space both outside and within the railroad tracks — careful! Their branches sometimes crawl from the side of the path, plotting to catch a flaneuring boot. Branches — fallen or cut? Who can tell? Südgelände blurs the line between intention and chance. A human hand is present in the steel path I am following — but the metal is made to conform, adjust itself to the forms and rhythms of natural growth. As the caption on the entrance gate proclaims, die Kunst ist der nächste Nachbar der Wildnis [*4].

Zoom-in: beads of red and green — wild rose berries, promise of life in the bud still unbroken, three days until the end of winter. Zoom-out: industrial wall marks the horizon. I see steaming pipes, Opel, rows of toned glass; further ahead — Südkreuz Ikea, strangled by a web of highways. And a few hundreds of meters away — a place where no traffic lights or cyclists condition your pace, where there is no danger in (Socratically) halting in the middle of the road to devote full attention to a strange and important thought, one that tends to enter the mind when least expected. A place where birdsong is more distinct that the noise of train carri…  careful! There: Look: a squirrel, tiny paws solemnly placed on the path’s border, contemplates the approaching S-26-nach-Waidmannslust.

Steam engine, turntables, semaphores — all surrendered to plants and animals brought by as “stowaways” from all corners of Europe populate the park.  As an apple core, tossed out of a compartment window, might find home in the soil, so did hawkweeds and scaffold web spiders who managed to escape from cereal and animal feed wagons come to the area. Colonised by many endangered species, Schöneberger Südgelände is a designated nature and landscape conservation area.

Every now and then, I am reminded why Südgelande is referred to as “sculpture park”. My guiding path leads up the steps of a trapezoid-like construction — only to descend into wilderness: take a turn, take the bridge to your left, no passage here. Fragments of railway tracks stand arranged into a cluster of “doors”, one opening onto another, irrational, intertwined as a möbius strip. Südgelände celebrates dysfunctionality: “useless” things, remnants from Rangierbahnhof’s heyday, stripped of their original meanings, are there to puzzle, to challenge conventional routes of thought.

 At Südgelände’s Priesterweg entrance you will find a local Giardino Segreto — a “private” garden built after a 15th/16th century Italian tradition. In place of a Renaissance villa stands a former engine shed with “Ordnung Disziplin u. Sauberkeit” announced on its brown bricks; attached to the shed — enclosed within concrete walls, invisible from the outside, is a “sculpture yard” housing artwork from ODIOUS collective. Playful, saturated colours, trimmed bushes and plants placed into Rangierbahnhof’s relics, geometrical harmony of forms and a sense of balance that makes stone and steel appear weightless — brushstrokes of suburban Bologna.

Towards the end of my journey (I know the end is coming because I can no longer feel the toes of my left foot) I encounter a lookout point. Climbing up, I brace myself for the moment I will have to pull the mitten off my hand for the sake of a photograph-worthy view. But it turns out there is no need for such heroism: the view from above is almost identical to that from below. More birches, railway tracks stretch into a longer line. This is not what I expected. What did I expect? The sculpture’s “doors” to work as doors, the road to continue on the other side of the rusty trapezoid, now — to see what I have not seen before, something magnificent and unique, underlooked down there in the course of the road.

More birches, railway tracks, Südgelände’s water tower blurred into a greenish spider by sunlight. Sun is in my eyes, in my face, warm on my forehead — I feel it in spite of February chilling my bones.

What exactly have I been looking for? An echo of Schiller’s words, carved out of steel in the sculpture yard:

Was ist das schwerste?

Vor allem was dir das leichteste dünket

Mit den Augen zu sehen

Was vor den Augen dir liegt [*5]

Look, it’s there. That thing right in front of you, looked-at but unseen. Now do you believe me? It’s been there all along.

Afterword: Practice

Come, regardless of the season. In February, Südgelände is crisp and clear, open from 10am until dusk; in summer, meadows shimmer with evening primroses, violet knapweed and wild carrots; Virginia creepers paint the landscape in crimson each fall.

At your disposal stands a territory of about twenty football fields. Choose a shorter (1 km) or longer (2.7 km) route, or Tälchenweg, a “valley path” leading along the elevated railway lane. It is important to stay on the path within the nature and landscape conservation areas: spots for picnicking, benches and panorama points are all marked on the park’s map.

On a warm Sunday, a longer journey is made possible through various walking and cycling routes that connect Schöneberger Südgelände to Kreuzberg´s Flaschenhalspark, Viktoriapark and another “industrial wonder”, Park am Gleisdreieck.

 

Notes:

  1. Bohemian weavers — in 1750, Prussian king Frederick II let newcomers from Bohemia (present-day Czech Republic) settle in the area of today’s Hauptstraße and Grunewaldstraße. So Neu-Schöneberg emerged next to Alt-Schöneberg, which was formed in the 13th century around today’s Dominicus- and Akazienstraße.
  2. Wilhelmine Ring (Wilhelminischer Ring) — encompasses the districts between Berlin´s Customs Wall and Ring (intercity railway circle). It was developed under Prussian kings Wilhelm I and Wilhelm II in the second half of 19th century. A building typical of the Wilhelmine Ring is what we nowadays consider the  “Altbau”: a four- or five-story rental housing block with an inner courtyard, constructed to provide accommodation for the outrageous influx of factory workers during the industrial era.
  3. Berlin Blockade (24 June 1948 – 12 May 1949) — a major international crisis that unfolded in Berlin during the Cold War. The Soviet Union blocked the Western Allies’ railway, road and canal access to the city’s “Western” sectors, which stood as an enclave in Germany’s Soviet occupation zone.
  4. “Art is the closest neighbour to wilderness”
  5. What is the hardest? That which to you seems easiest.

    To see with your eyes

    What is right in front of your eyes” — Friedrich von Schiller, “Ärzte” from “Die Xenien