PD Smith

A city is made great by its people

04 July 2012 | City, Einstein, Szilard | Post a comment

The author Mark Lamster has interviewed me about my book and about urban history for Design Observer. He liked City, describing it as "a magnificent achievement". One of his questions was: Given the opportunity to live in any of history's great cities in their respective heydays, where would you go? Here's part of my answer:

Berlin in the so-called Golden Twenties. It was a deeply troubled city that had experienced the hyperinflation of 1922-23, when newspaper presses were used to print banknotes. There were regular street battles between the Nazis and the Communists. But paradoxically it was also an incredibly dynamic city, attracting some of the era’s greatest artists, writers, scientists and filmmakers. It was a concentration of talent that has never been equaled in Europe. Albert Einstein went there, as did Leo Szilard, the scientist who first realized how to unleash the power of the atom. Bertolt Brecht was there and the opening of his and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera in 1928 became a night people remembered all their lives. The Berlin artist George Grosz used to walk the streets with a sign reading “Dada über Alles”. It was the city of Alfred Döblin, whose modernist novel Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) is one of my favorite depictions of big city life. His novel echoes with the lost sounds and sights of Berlin: faces glimpsed amongst the crowds, snatches of conversation, phrases from songs and advertising hoardings, newspaper headlines, the rattle of trams in Berlin’s streets, and the squeals of dying animals in Berlin’s vast new slaughterhouse. Berlin’s heady mix of danger and creativity encapsulates everything that makes urban life so endlessly fascinating and alluring.

Read the whole interview here.

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