One day at Brandenburg Tor

Originally featured in Guardian Cities.

N 52° 30′ 58.5864″, E 13° 22′ 39.7308″

On March 14th 2012 I spent seventeen hours alone in a public space no bigger than an easily overlooked, scantily demarked, patch of North-London grass with a few benches. I was in Berlin’s Parisier Platz, the platform for the Brandenburg Gate. A human geographer “out in the [eponymous] field”, I wanted to use walking as a technique to interrogate the quiet rhythms of monumental spaces. I was interested in the things we miss. I cared about how something so simple as walking might reveal them.

For no other reason was the day special; it was everyday – the anybody before the somebody.

From Napoleon, through Hitler, to Reagan, Brandenburg Gate is a palimpsest. It is monumental not only in its physical size and aesthetic beauty, but in its anthropomorphic wisdom too. It has been site of, witness to, and protagonist in some of the most significant inflection points in recent human history. But, Brandenburg Gate has more nothing days than it does something days. The art of ordinary life is hidden by misplaced attention. Now, every day, people just walk on by.

But, walking doesn’t have to simply be the force that transforms A into B. Through walking we develop a sense of, and for, places. Walking occupies the parts of a city and of our lives that escapes recognition – too often we wish its wanton laboriousness away. Here, walking is the black depths between the stars. But, it is these very crevices that deserve attention. They are, to Professor Brian Cox, “the fizzing, shifting soup of all possible quantum fields”. The same for our wandered cities, as for our universe. They are the stuff of life.

Even in a monumental space, there is ordinariness. Walking is an ordinary practice, embracing it, and not its destination, demands attention to ordinary time. That day, as walking rhythms – those of the tourist, the local dog, the fly, the businesswoman, the Polizei, the lurking researcher – mixed with other rhythmical events – clocks chiming, underground trains passing, diurnal shadows moving – the perception of space and time changed. It went fast, slow, and without recognition. Dwelling in the space between A and B is to be curious. In doing this we are ready to be led, pulled, and pushed to a new place. We are ready to go somewhere we hadn’t intended.

That day in Berlin there was no eureka. That day, my world narrowed to the bricks, breeze, sun, clouds, grass, litter, and strangers of the square. And that’s it. A simple equation: city + wanderer = an experiment without refrain. A poly-rhythmic dance of mundane accidents. Beautiful, ordinary, boringness! This is neither failure nor parochialism. Walking not to B, but walking, recalibrates our focus. Our task, then, is simple: try it, and pay attention.

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