This week’s guest article comes from Alexandra Chiriac, who is a third year PhD candidate at the University of St Andrews, funded through the SGSAH AHRC Doctoral Training Partnership. She is researching the impact of modernism on stage design and interior design in Romania in the 1920s and 30s. She holds an MA in Art History from the Courtauld Institute of Art and has previously worked for Sotheby’s and for GRAD, a non-profit cultural platform for Russian and Eastern European arts. You can find out more about her work at www.alexandrachiriac.wordpress.com.
Thanks to the SGSAH’s Student Development Fund and a DAAD grant from the German History Society, I found myself boarding a plane to Berlin one sunny August morning.
My month in the city got off to a good start when the language placement test indicated I was to be in a B1 level class. I was officially no longer a rookie, stringing together basic sentences, but a budding conversationalist. On top of that, I was to enjoy the opportunity to be taught and to have course books, school mates, and timetables, a welcome return to structure after the nebulousness of PhD life. I had worried about the quality of a summer course in a popular location like Berlin, but I need not have done so. Our teachers were young and fun, but also well-prepared and thorough. The pace, although intense, was never overwhelming and I came away with a much firmer grasp of grammar and a new confidence in communicating. I spoke to my colleagues and teachers and then, feeling increasingly brave, I took my German for a spin in shops, restaurants, dance classes and chance encounters on public transport.
After class, I had the difficulty of picking which of the city’s many amazing museums to visit. I had been to Museum Island on a previous short visit, so instead I indulged in less obvious choices. The Brücke Museum in leafy Grunewald is dedicated to the eponymous group of expressionist artists and their eye-poppingly vibrant works.
The Berliner Galerie showcases the city’s cosmopolitan avant-gardes, with paintings by Hannah Hoch and a reconstruction of El Lissitzky’s famous Proun Room. Nearby is the dazzling zig-zag architecture of the Daniel Libeskind-designed Jewish Museum, where dark hollow spaces peppered around the building function as silent memorials. As a design historian, I could not miss the Kunstgewerbe Museum, the Brohan Museum and the Museum der Dinge, where everyday objects from the DDR mingle with art nouveau posters or art deco furniture and where you can step inside the famously functional Frankfurt Kitchen designed in 1926 by Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky.
But the cherry on the cake was my trip to Dessau to visit the Bauhaus and marvel at Gropius’s architectural dexterity first hand. The iconic building, familiar from so many black and white photographs, took on a whole new dimension in full technicolour. This is not just a figure of speech, as colour was important at the Bauhaus and the Masters’s Houses have recently been restored to the colour schemes chosen by their illustrious residents. Kandinsky preferred dusky pink and gold for his living room, while Klee favoured pastels in the kitchen. I ended the day with a walking tour (my first one in German!) of the Törten housing estate, designed by Gropius in the late 1920s and still inhabited by happy residents today.
In-between classes and the many distractions the city has to offer (a Spree cruise among its leafy canals was also a highlight), I braved the logistical challenges of the city’s libraries in search of research materials. At the Staatsbibliothek I poured over the lively magazines of the Reimann Schule, a contemporary and competitor of the Bauhaus. At the Humboldt library, charmingly named after the brothers Grimm, I delved into the art history and design stacks, testing my newly improved reading skills.
Berlin has so much to offer that a month is not nearly enough. As well as gaining a better level of German, new friends and new research opportunities, I ate Korean in hip Kreutzberg, strolled by the murals on the last stretch of the Berlin wall and danced on the banks of the Spree at Standbar Mitte. Best of all, Berlin’s many charms made verb conjugations and adjective declinations suddenly turn into opportunities rather than challenges.
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