Lockdown has affected people very differently. Some are having to homeschool their children. Some have less-than-supportive partners and so are picking up a greater share of the domestic burden. Some are trapped in cramped dwellings with no space to work. Others are really struggling with anxiety and isolation. All of this and more is shaping how those of us in the academic sector are able to work through the current crisis.
Unsurprisingly given our fundamentally unequal gender relations, lockdown has seen the proportion of academic journal articles being submitted by a lead female author drop significantly. As someone without children, living in a comfortable, spacious home with a dedicated study, I find myself feeling a great deal of guilt that, because of my exceptional privilege, in many ways I’ve not really noticed the lockdown. During the summer period it is not that unusual for me to work from home four or five days per week and so this has not personally felt like a particularly jarring change of circumstances. Indeed, in common with many other single male academics, this seems a lot like a period of study leave, allowing me to get on with long-put-off writing projects and grant applications, while less fortunate others contemplate the damage this is doing their careers. Beyond research it’s also a time to pause, and reflect on some of my teaching practice.
Our students have just handed in the substitute work I’d set them to replace the Berlin fieldcourse assignment. They’d been planning their field research projects for the ten weeks after Christmas leading up to our intended visit. When it became clear we would not be able to go this year, many chose to keep with the same topic but switched to a desk-based study because they couldn’t collect primary data in the field.
Having marked my share of these, it’s a real shame we didn’t get to go because the groups had developed some really fantastic projects. It would have been incredibly interesting to see how well they could have operationalised these when dealing with the messiness of real world field practice. Nonetheless, it has got me thinking about what our students can now do in terms of desk-based projects, particularly considering that it’s going to be a while before we can allow traditional field-data collection to take place.
Over the years of going to Berlin I’ve become interested in how we can find traces of previous layers of history within today’s landscape. I’ve blogged previously about Albert Speer’s plans for Germania, which was intended to completely remake the city as a kind of turbocharged fantasy of imperial Rome. On previous fieldcourses I’ve sent students off to hunt for the fragments of this scheme that remain in the landscape. Of the Neue Reichskanzlei, for example, not a trace remains except for some of the marble which was re-used to build the Soviet War Memorial at Treptower Park. Hitler’s personal palace was too badly damaged and too closely associated with the man to be preserved.
Google Earth is a tremendous resource for geographers not least because of its time slider which allows you to look back at previous aerial photographs of a site to look for changes over time. For the most part this covers the last 20 years or so, but for some cities there are older image records. Berlin currently has three sets of historic air photographs available, taken in 1943, 1945 and 1953 respectively. In 1945 the Neue Reichskanzlei is still visible on Vossstrasse, if partly obscured by an overlap between the original photosheets. By 1953 the site is a blank, with just a ghostly outline of the reflecting pond in the rear gardens visible.
More interesting in some ways is Teufelsberg, or the Devil’s Mountain. This is an artificial hill on the western edge of the city, which was a dump for demolition rubble after the war as bomb damaged buildings were cleared. An abandoned Cold War era listening station sits on top of the hill today, heavily graffitied and a popular site for alternative tourism. Less well known is the fact that this location had been prepared before the war ready for the construction of the Wehrtechnische Fakultät, a technical university which was to form part of a redevelopment cluster in the west of the city, close to the site of the 1936 Summer Olympics. Construction had started on one of the central buildings, sticking closely to Speer’s model for stripped classicism on a gigantic scale. Contemporary photos showed the shell of the building was significantly advanced before the war brought construction to an end.
The building wasn’t particularly associated with Nazism and, had it been complete, it probably would have continued to have been used, just as the contemporaneous Air Ministry and Tempelhof airport complex were. Rather than demolish or finish it, the occupying powers chose simply to bury the ruined shell under the rubble coming out of the city centre. It is left as a tantalising object for future archaeologists.
A virtual field visit using Google Earth allows us to get some sense of the building. Unfortunately, the 1940s air surveys don’t extend as far out as the nearby Teufelssee lake from which the artificial mountain would later gain its name. The 1953 survey does, however, clearly show the castle-like structure still standing and unburied. The measurement tools in Google Earth allow us to work out its size – just under 1.5 hectares (around 3.4 acres) – which makes it easier to get a sense of it scale. For those who know the University of Birmingham, it covers about the same amount of ground as the Aston Webb semi-circle at the heart of campus. Like the Aston Webb, this single building was to have been the centre of a much larger complex. Again, Google Earth allows us to easily get a sense of proximity to contemporary developments in Berlin, with the Wehrtechnische Fakultät just 1.6km away from the southern gate of the Olympic stadium with a direct axis to link them together.
Of course, it would be fun to physically go to the site with a mobile device and use GPS to work out how much of the outline of the building could be walked around in what is now a heavily wooded location. Nonetheless, one can still gain some really interesting insights into these locations even when one cannot visit them. Covid-19 is changing the way that we think about travel and going different locations meaning that even when things return to ‘normal’ our practices for fieldwork will need rethinking. In the future, more and more of the work our students do will involve this kind of gathering materials online. Such activities will allow students to think through the types of data collection that require their physical presence in a location and those where a virtual visit will suffice. This will allow for much more efficient and effective use of our limited time in the field.
For more information about the Wehrtechnische Fakultät written in English, there is an interesting blog post here: https://flowersforsocrates.com/2016/12/31/structural-substitution-and-the-logic-of-urban-modernism/
Phil Jones is a cultural geographer based at the University of Birmingham.
Phil Jones, Geographer