Grit and Green, Dirty and Clean
by Rachel Marks
A city is at its best when its built environment shapes the experience and when the structures are simultaneously animated beyond their simple intended functions. The Europa-Sportpark Berlin (the Velodrom and Schwimm- und Sprunghalle built in hopes of hosting the 2000 Olympics) at Landsberger Allee manages this task with grace and creativity. The unique architectural design by Dominique Perrault augments the somewhat triste area, which until recently was characterized by the infamous Bauruine Rossi, a half-built and then abandoned tower. Simultaneously the sports arenas have become more than straightforward buildings. While cyclists and swimmers perfect their sport inside the halls sunken into the hillside, a spontaneous culture has formed on the building's exterior.
With the help of the James Bond film Casino Royal, the art of parkour has found a worldwide audience, and on a gray Sunday afternoon, the boys practicing their parkour steps, leaps, and dives here are immediately recognizable among the more sedate dog walkers, surreptitious teenage couples, and lonely widowers. In their small cohorts they practice nothing more or less than the art of movement, the art of honing space, mind, and body. The urban environment and environmental awareness are essentially inseparable from parkour, or the art of movement, which finds its both its training grounds and stage in the city's empty lots, abandoned buildings, built structures. Drawing traceurs to the ramps, roofs, hillsides, stairs of the sport center – embracing this activity that straddles concepts of mainstream and underground, legality and illegality, body and space, made and found – imbues this small parcel of Berlin with a critical energy.
And yet if one exits the Ringbahn station and turns instead not toward the city (and this does seem the natural way to turn) but outward – toward the neon blue lights of an out-of-place hotel, whose amputated lounge glows at night like a small, glassy space pod, toward the ramshackle, graffitied shed that may be abandoned or may be a discount grocer – and cross the wide, nondescript street, the city comes to an abrupt end. It is as though in a vacuum. The jagged edges of rundown brick, the trains' grating of metal on metal intensified by a sense of ubiquitous rust, the essential grays and browns of urban ambivalence round, fade, and blossom into a quiet suburb of green foliage, tiny houses, winding roads, even the hackneyed chirping birds. Only a faint hum (perhaps imagined) betrays the energy plant tucked among the slanted-roof abodes; in one corner of the neighborhood, a few cars zipping by suggest closing time at the discount supermarket. The traceurs on the other side of the tracks probably don't know that only a few steps away another world, a drastic antipode to their urban scene, opens up in the quietude of Prenzlauer Berg Volkspark, whose circular paths wind and crisscross as they ascend the incline. (The top of the hill affords an incredible view over large-scale Plattenbau settlements; reflective strips on the endless rows of garbage trucks on the Berlin sanitation department grounds glimmer under the setting sun.) Further beyond, to the northeast, lies the Weißensee cemetery, Europe's second largest Jewish cemetery. There the lull of the periphery reaches its apogee.