Dear fellow travellers
Wandering through the middle of Berlin last week, we were struck by the large number of professional photographers and film crews busily working away, each claiming a stretch of pavement to use classic Berlin scenes as the backdrop for their work. The Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag and the modern Potsdamer Platz development are Berlin icons, all enduringly popular with those who trade in visual images. These past days have perhaps been unusually busy in this respect, for Berlin is presently hosting its annual film festival (the Berlinale). And no doubt film festivals attract many budding film-makers.
It made us think of the Victorian passion for sketching. English visitors who took their easels and palettes to the continent generally had no commercial intent. They sketched for themselves and for their friends and families, recording as best as they could classic vistas from the Rhine and the Alps. They also lingered in great galleries copying classic works of art. The Sempergalerie introduced restrictions on the number of English visitors, fearing that the English propensity for sketching would intrude on the pleasure of other visitors less intent on recording the moment for posterity.
And our Berlin wander, weaving around film crews and tripods, set us thinking about the way in which the imperative to capture the scene, coupled with the demands of commerce, intrude on public spaces. Cast back many years, and we recall that negotiating London's Trafalgar Square was often quite an adventure, with commercial photographers zealously touting their Polaroid services. And if you were not up for a pic of yourself against a backdrop of Nelson's column, there was always a phalanx of cartoonists and artists keen to draw quick sketches of visitors.
Many of Europe's town squares and iconic city centre spaces have happily been rescued from the car. From Paris to Perugia, lovely central squares were for too long used as car parks. Now they have been reclaimed for pedestrians. The taming of traffic has massively improved Trafalgar Square in London and the Brandenburg Gate area in Berlin.
Areas nowadays reserved for pedestrians have become key assets in many European cities. They are valued by visitors, and they are important amenities for the communities who live and work in those cities. Yet the intrusion of commerce (and sometimes too many photographers) into these spaces undermines their amenity value. We are not certain that Berlin life is enhanced by having professional photographers and film crews jostling for space by the Brandenburg Gate. Nor is it improved by the hustlers who offer for a fee of two euros to stamp visitors' passports with a fake East German passport stamp.
Nurturing and cherishing a few non-commercial spaces in our cities is surely a mark of a civilised society. Limiting the souvenir stalls, putting restraints on restaurants that rope off reserved seating which intrudes too aggressively on public space and curtailing impertinent photographers would surely make our city squares much happier spaces.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)