There it was again, covering meter after meter of billboards and construction hoarding in Berlin, a repeating photographic spread showing a lush meadow. When viewed from a distance, the posters created a type of fata morgana, an illusion of verdant grassland as a refreshing contrast to the built urban fabric. It was November 2020, and Germany was entering its second lockdown, at the time dubbed a “lockdown light.” Where once there had been advertisements for cultural events — movies, concerts, exhibitions — there were now pictures of nonspecific greenery.
The posters transformed drab city surfaces into repeating swathes of a seemingly fertile, flowery landscape.
The two-dimensional meadow had first appeared in April, when social distancing and face coverings were mandated, and schools and many businesses had to close. Advertising columns in parks seemed to morph in sync with their environments, becoming quasi-invisible; a peaceful scene replaced attention-grabbing graphics. The two cycles of postering, spring and fall, were sponsored by an outdoor-advertising firm named Mihai media solutions GmbH, as part of a self-financed project to provide public uplift and also to care for the company’s otherwise unused billboard locations. The advertising industry unsentimentally calls such temporary campaigns “care posting” (Pflegeklebung). With cultural events on hold, fewer commissions were forthcoming, and ad space lay fallow. What to do? The firm had an idea, and a photograph: a color-saturated edge-to-edge image of green grass studded with red, white, and yellow wildflowers. The posters transformed drab city surfaces into repeating swathes of a seemingly fertile landscape, the sort that was then out-of-bounds for many urbanites.
Green vegetation has been thought of since antiquity as promoting health and facilitating relaxation; it connotes fertility and hope. Yet lush greenery has never been a neutral or an apolitical sign. Monarchists and republicans, dictators and democrats, conservatives and progressives have always used and misused tropes of idyllic verdure to suit their purposes. In Berlin, specifically, the symbolic values attached to grassy spaces have played an important role in urban-design history. In the first half of the 20th century, manicured lawns were turned into grass playgrounds in some parks and in others into blooming meadows, in an expression of conservative belief in “naturalistic” plantings. After World War II, on both the Eastern and the Western sides of the Wall, ideological connotations of city greenery shifted slightly, to emphasize the sheer hardy ordinariness of grass. Following reunification, grassy lots both neglected and more or less curated provided new places for community gatherings, art installations, happenings, and parties. Over the intervening decades, many of these free lots have taken on more regular uses, or been built over. Yet “wild” grass and the land it occupies are still often understood in German contexts as standing against the technocratic state and its planning apparatus, and for the beauty of literal and figurative open spaces. There have also been times, however, when “wild” grass served nativist state ideologies.
Prussian royal garden inspector Willy Lange developed his concept of the “nature garden” under the German Empire at the turn of the 20th century. 1 As Lange observed, habitats in nature are not delineated rigidly; the shifts from dry-grass biotopes, marshlands, or woodland clearings into shrubby or forested zones tend to be gradual. For Lange, therefore, clean-cut lawn edges abutting tidy groups of perennials, shrubs, and trees were unnatural. 2 Instead, “flowery lawns” were the goal in the nature garden. In the 1920s and 1930s, the nativist movement in garden design affected Berlin’s parks; in Viktoriapark southwest of the city center, for example, district garden director Leo Kloss replaced the neat grass carpet with flowering meadows — which, Kloss argued, were not only less costly and labor-intensive to maintain, but represented “the true face of German park and garden design.” 3 This “rooted” design gave expression to völkisch-nationalist beliefs, and lent itself to Nazi propaganda when landscape architects working under the Third Reich based their designs on the ideology of “blood and soil” (Blut und Boden) as expressed through the aesthetics of the nature garden.
Landscape architects working under the Third Reich expressed the ideology of ‘blood and soil’ through aesthetics of the nature garden.
In the war’s aftermath, advantages conferred by grassy spaces in Berlin were practical, as they helped to hold down summer dust in bombed-out districts. Yet the affective power of urban greenery remained central for planners charged with postwar reconstruction. They referred to findings by the pioneering environmental psychologist Willy Hellpach (1877–1955), who championed the provision of plant life, water features, and airy vistas in urban settings. 4 “Green and blue … are largely lacking in the city,” Hellpach complained. “The eye sees in the city neither expansive green spaces nor open blue sky.” 5 Writing in 1948, Georg Pniower (1896–1960), a landscape architect and professor of garden and landscape culture at East Berlin’s Humboldt University, proposed that parklands in the city center should be designed to achieve greater symbolic and recreational effect than those on the peripheries, mirroring land values and projected intensities of use. 6 This meant that city vegetation not only had to appeal aesthetically, but also to withstand air pollution and soil compaction and contamination. A key question for the centrally planned socialist economy, therefore, was how to maximize the social value of urban greenery while continuing to prioritize the lowest costs for installation and upkeep. 7
An early initiative that fit this mandate was the Wild-Grass Program, or Aktion Wildgras. In 1961, at a time when large areas in East Berlin were still awaiting reconstruction, landscape architects and planners began transforming rubble into meadow. East Berlin’s temporary greening began in the same year that the Wall was built, and the government in the new German Democratic Republic had ambitious plans for their rebuilt capital. Grass was seen as a landscape element that could appropriately metaphorize the socialist utopia while also producing a measurable hygienic benefit. Green trumped grey. One by one, areas awaiting redevelopment were sown with grass.
Grass was seen as a landscape element that could metaphorize the socialist utopia while covering the scars of war.
Aktion Wildgras sought to cover the scars of war, seeking to improve the urban landscape at a time when ordinary citizens were turning their backs on East Berlin, fed up with the state’s increasing encroachments on personal freedoms, its insistence on political indoctrination, and its economic struggles, substandard housing, and lagging reconstruction. It had been difficult to uphold the state’s confident image while increasing numbers of East Germans were fleeing. But once the Wall had closed the border and qualified labor could no longer leave the country, wild-grass greening helped to consolidate public confidence in an economic upturn — which in fact did occur, although it did not last.
In 1963, the daily Berliner Zeitung reported that new wild-grass areas would expand East Berlin’s “green lung” by 70 hectares. 8 The planned transformation of the urban core appeared as a cartographic patchwork of red and green. Red demarcated buildings. Plots marked dark green were already sown with seed; those in light green showed patches still to come. Every planned grass area was numbered. 9 Wild grass was considered ideal for fallow inner-city land because it represented a kind of vegetable compromise — robust enough to thrive with less care than ornamental lawn grass, but still intentionally cultivated, and hence more “civilized” than the weeds that colonized the rubble spontaneously. 10 The latter were typically removed by hand by city workers (the roots of common mugwort were collected as a medicinal herb) before an area was bulldozed. 11 Ruined basements were broken into, and rubble was removed or used as fill. Then the area was leveled, covered with topsoil, and sown with grass seed. 12 Herbicides were applied, and the lots were regularly mowed to prevent weeds’ return. This maintenance was not always successful; the grass at times appeared “wild” indeed, and this elicited a fair amount of incomprehension and irritation among East Berliners.
Nevertheless, Aktion Wildgras fit into East Berlin’s manifold initiatives to create a “clean street image.” 13 For years, bombed sites had been derided as “dirt smudges,” and districts that did not follow through with countermeasures had been stigmatized as “litterbugs.” Spurred in 1959 by the Berliner Zeitung, the “Clean Berlin” program and its staff in the district councils even organized a yearly cleanliness contest. 14 A purse of 10,000 GDR marks was divided between three districts declared first (5,000), second (3,000), and third (2,000) prizewinners, and the newspaper sponsored a trophy, the life-sized “cleanliness bear” (Sauberkeitsbär). Based on the city’s heraldic animal, the trophy was passed from one first-prize-winning district to the next each year — while a shaming “junk relief” (Gerümpel-Relief) moved from one losing district to its successor. 15
The daily Berliner Zeitung sponsored a yearly trophy — the life-sized ‘cleanliness bear.’
Public doubt about lots that looked unkempt was not the only problem facing wild-grass projects. By the 1960s, scientific studies of turf and grass in both the GDR and the Federal Republic of Germany were lagging behind research in countries like Great Britain and the United States, where the popularity of field sports since the 19th century (and particularly since the 1920s) had inspired hybridization of turf-grass species and extensive study of their botanical properties, applications, and management. Although individual gardeners, in the 18th and 19th centuries, had built up a body of knowledge through their own creation of lawns, pleasure grounds, and meadows, it was only after the war that systematic turf science began in Germany. 16
East Berlin’s Aktion Wildgras played an important role in this process. Several wild-grass areas were used as outdoor laboratories where different species and seed mixtures could be tested. One such area was number nine, a 1000-square-meter plot located between Märkisches Ufer and Wallstraße, where eight species and cultivars in different mixtures were tested in 42 separate beds. 17 The landscape architect and horticulturist Klaus-Dietrich Gandert (1925–2018), who had been Georg Pniower’s student, led this turf research, seeking to improve sod quality by taking advantage of plants’ natural growth rates and density of coverage, as well as perfecting management regimens for mowing and fertilizing. 18 In socialist urban planning, Gandert argued, lawns should be used not “to demonstrate horticultural capability or … express a landlord’s wealth, but … to provide the people with manifold opportunities for recreation.” 19
As experts like Gandert extended German turf research, ecologists in West Berlin, working under the botanist and pioneering urban ecologist Herbert Sukopp, were recognizing the importance of studying wild grasses that volunteered in built-up zones. How and why did they spread, and what could they tell us about urban ecosystems? Sukopp and his collaborators turned roadsides and unbuilt areas in West Berlin into another open-air laboratory. Their study of so-called ruderal flora and fauna (from the Latin rudus, rubble) brought attention to parts of the city that appeared useless, and provided a basis for West Berlin’s species-protection program, developed in the late 1970s and finally enacted in 1988. This program, part of Berlin’s Nature Conservation Act, aimed to promote the growth of wild species, both plants and animals, in urban habitats. Sukopp’s species inventories and biotope maps helped to bring urban ecological concerns into local planning debates. 20
In these minimally planned areas, urban ecologists found their objects of study, and the counterculture found space for urban farms and outdoor living.
The environmental movement of the 1970s and 1980s also renewed the popularity of naturalistic landscape design, and for some adherents this updated organic aesthetic again supported ideology. This time, however, the ideological position was more progressive. The fledgling Green Party deployed romanticized depictions of wild grass in posters (grass green is still their signature color); generally symbolic of a “return to nature,” freely growing greenery now became an “expression of a more general societal dissent,” as photographer Gerhard Ullmann stated in 1981. 21 Wild grass grew in the no-man’s-land of urban voids, in leftover zones where agricultural practices were obsolete and further development not yet profitable. In these minimally planned areas, urban ecologists could find their objects of study — but children also found opportunities for adventurous play, and members of the counterculture found space for urban farms and outdoor living. Citizen groups lobbied for protection of these places against development, substantiating their demands with expert ecological surveys. In several cases, their protests were successful: citizen initiatives prevented the construction of new infrastructures, including a section of planned motorway (the Westtangente), and thereby saved the grounds for what have since become two parks: Natur-Park Schöneberger Südgelände (opened in 2000) and Park am Gleisdreieck (opened in 2013). 22
The symbolic relevance of wild grass also attracted German artists in the 1990s and early 2000s who were again preoccupied with the authenticity and/or artificiality of “nature,” and the consequences of its commodification. In particular, Albrecht Dürer’s delicate watercolor Das große Rasenstück (Great Piece of Turf ), painted in 1503, became something of a recurring inspiration. In an installation of oversized photographic cut-outs made in 1992 and titled THE Selbst (mit großem Rasenstück) (THE Himself [with Great Piece of Turf]), for example, artist Thomas Eller includes a tiny image of himself dwarfed by weeds and flowers, including some species depicted in Dürer’s iconic statement of German renaissance naturalism. In a sculpture sarcastically titled Evolution für Fanatiker (Evolution for Fanatics, 1990) Ottmar Hörl plops a square of artificial grass onto a metal base. In 2003, to mark the 500th anniversary of Dürer’s drawing, Hörl made a piece called Das große Hasenstück (The Great Piece of Hare), an outdoor installation in central Nürnberg in which 7000 plastic hares were laid out in a grid; they were modeled on Dürer’s 1502 watercolor Feldhase (Young Hare) and were more or less life-sized, albeit cast in three subtly varied shades of grass-green plastic. 23
Construction boomed in Berlin after the Wall came down, and empty lots and wastelands began to be built up; further development in recent years has been driven by population growth. Wild-grass areas experienced a brief comeback when, from 2009 to 2013, a lawn was established on the site of the decommissioned Palace of the Republic. (The reconstructed city palace now stands there.) Still more recently, Berlin has seen a new type of wild-grass initiative that builds on the species-and-habitat-protection efforts of the 1980s. Two public-facing departments in city government (the Department of Environment, Transportation, and Climate Protection, and the Department of Justice, Consumer Protection, and Antidiscrimination) are collaborating on a project to enhance biodiversity by protecting pollinators; one part of their program, launched in 2018, has seen the transformation of selected street medians, roadsides, and park areas into pollinator habitats. Onsite information plaques explain project objectives and seek to generate popular support for the “visual disorder” of the grass. 24
A small piece of artificial paradise was for sale. ‘You want it, don’t you?’ red letters said. ‘You can buy this poster for EUR 19.95 incl. shipping.’
Today it is not Dürer’s intimate Piece of Turf but digital-photographic reproductions of a flowery meadow that confront us with questions about the nature of nature, and our relations with the nonhuman living things that surround us. Will the pollinator habitats be as short-lived as previous grassland projects in Berlin? Ostensibly, the “care posters” installed during the first two lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic promoted a sense of security and respite. Still, it’s worth noting that a few weeks after they first went up, stickers with a bit of text appeared on the green and flowery images. Instead of tickets for cultural events, a small piece of artificial paradise was for sale. “You want it, don’t you?” the red letters said. “You can buy this poster for EUR 19.95 incl. shipping.”