On Tourism and Heterotopias

The Berlin Wall, now a tourist landmark, is a prime example of heterotopian architecture. As bit over a fourth of a century has passed since dismantling the Wall, significant parts of it still remain in place in the form of the wonderful Mauerpark, the restored East Side Gallery and several other sites in Berlin – and the original topology of terror has since transformed into that of a tourist attraction.

According to Michel Foucault, heterotopias are present in every culture. Whereas the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, in his essay “Imagining Nothingness”, has famously proclaimed that “emptiness of the metropolis is not empty”, Foucault, in his own work, attempted to point out that we live inside “a set of relations”. Michel Foucault’s well-known lecture “Of Other Spaces” (“Des Espaces Autres”) deals with this subject matter.

In an interview, Foucault was asked whether space was central to the analysis of power, and he answered: “Yes. Space is fundamental in any form of communal life; space is fundamental in any exercise of power. To make a parenthetical remark, I recall being invited, in 1966, by a group of architects to do a study of space, of something that I called at that time ‘heterotopias’, those singular spaces to be found in some given social spaces whose functions are different or even the opposite of others.

Rem Koolhaas visited Berlin in the summer of 1971, when the Wall faced the two sides of the divided city. Koolhaas has announced that his encounter with the Berlin Wall at that time was his first psychological confrontation with the powerful side of architecture.

Later on, this powerful encounter was turned into a well-known maxim of his: “Where there is nothing, everything is possible; where there is architecture, nothing (else) is possible”.

The Berlin Wall was erected during the Cold War, following the so-called Berlin Crisis. This crisis began to escalate when on November 10, 1958, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev delivered a speech in which he demanded that the Western powers of the United States, Great Britain and France pull their forces out of West Berlin within six months. It was this ultimatum that would spark a three year crisis over the future of the city of Berlin that culminated in 1961 with the building of the Berlin Wall.

When the Wall was in place, anyone who wished to leave East Germany was risking his or her life. According to Der Spiegel, at least 136 people died in the attempt to surmount the Berlin Wall. They were either shot by border guards, ripped to shreds by landmines or they drowned in the Spree River. As we all know, the Berlin Wall was eventually taken down on November 9, 1989, when the border between East and West Berlin was suddenly reopened.

In the year 2014, Berlin celebrated the 25th anniversary of taking down the Wall. As part of the celebration, the city inaugurated the Lichtgrenze, a light installation in remembrance of the route of the original Wall. Many other exhibits of the history of the Wall were also installed in central Berlin, when I last visited the city.

It’s now two weeks until my next trip to Berlin. I have been busy at the Uni, and busy with work at the Finnish National Gallery, so I’m really looking forward to this vacation of one week. Another CFP is soon coming up, for the Nordic Summer University, and I’ve already sent my abstract to the session “Appearances of the Political”. My paper will deal with the Berlin Wall, primarily as a tourist attraction and a heterotopian site.

I have been working on bits and pieces of my thesis on street art lately, and I certainly hope my paper and presentation will be accepted for the NSU symposium of this summer as I am eager to get some feedback on my work. Last year, when I visited Oslo to give a presentation for the NSU winter symposium, organized at the premises of the University of Oslo, I met many wonderful people. Exciting times ahead.

Author: Iiris Konttinen

I am a digital service design and digital marketing professional based in Helsinki, Finland.