Home > Uncategorized > Simulated Restorations: The Angel of History Closes His Wings

Simulated Restorations: The Angel of History Closes His Wings

HyperCities turns urban space into a palimpsest, making its layers of history readable and convertible at the same time. The introductory video reveals that HyperCities allows for both ‘accurate’ and anachronistic reconstructions of urban history. It enables us to explore an intact Berliner Stadtschloss in 1905 or erect the Berliner Mauer in the eighteenth century. In how far do these digital technologies change our notion of the past? Is Walter Benjamin’s angel of history finally able to close his wings? Let me quote at length from his Über den Begriff der Geschichte (1939):

“A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”

The angel reflects our desire to rebuild what has been valued and forcefully ruined. But can and should we choose to conceal the destructive face of progress? I would like to reflect on this question by referring to an example of actual time travel that is currently taking place in Berlin. In 1993 and 1994, a ‘real’ simulation of the Berliner Stadtschloss, an original-size façade construction, which came to be known as the world’s largest space installation, was crucial in convincing the public and the Bundestag that the Berliner Stadtschloss should be reconstructed (http://einestages.spiegel.de/static/entry/wie_ich_lernte_das_stadtschloss_zu_lieben/3449/berliner_stadtschloss.html?o=position-ASCENDING&s=4&r=1&a=701&c=1). The castle had been destroyed in the bombing of 1945 and later on been replaced by a completely different building, the Palast der Republik, the former seat of the Eastern German Volkskammer. Despite national and international protest by people who insisted that the Palast der Republik was an integral part of Berlin’s history and culture, its demolition was decided upon in 2003 in order to clear the ground for the rebuilding of the Stadtschloss.

I am not against the reconstruction of the Berliner Stadtschloss; in fact, I can perfectly understand the German desire to close the wounds of the past and to admit some pride in German cultural history. But even though Berlin as a whole is certainly not interested in erasing its problematic history, I share in the protesters’ concern that an unreflective remodeling of the past can do more harm than good. On its website, the private pro-castle fundraising organization Förderverein Berliner Schloss e.V. (http://berliner-schloss.de/) attracts potential donors with the motto “Mach Geschichte!” Should we actually “make history” by toying with the places of the past?

Given that HyperCities provides us with a malleable map of the past, a direct comparison to the Berlin castle project might be flawed. Nevertheless, the platform engenders a new vision of history in which historical places can be easily moved back and forth the timeline. In my view, we must be careful not to lose sight of the historical processes and forces which led to the erection and extinction of some of these places. I hope that HyperCities will not only allow us to exchange the present for the (new) past but also help us to get a better understanding of those known yet unknown narratives which are worth grappling with.

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