Borderless Borders and the Architectural Corporeality of Berlin


In our current climate of hyper-securitization, popular discourse around the world seems to suggest that the nation sits upon a fragile anxiety around immigrants. Because of these anxieties, the nation has focused on bolstering security, surveillance and the policing of national borders, in efforts to protect its sovereignty. Although there is this pervasive intensity at the border, in some places as we will explore with Germany, a post-migrant discourse has gained traction. While the post-migrant discourse assumes that Berlin should be seen as a city with people who have already migrated and have been a part of society for some time, the misnomer—echoing Germany’s refusal to collect migration histories in the naturalization processes of new citizens in prevention of the targeting of marginalized groups like Jewish populations during WWII—unfortunately connotes that these individuals have been integrated, assimilated, and welcomed into the city’s community. Furthermore, the term post-migrant tends to suggest that migration has ended, rather than being a powerful continuous global force. Rather as the digital inflection of globalization accelerates and intensifies the public imaginary, borders certainly exist on the fringes of the nation’s historically-drawn topographies, but also can be ideologically and materially imposed upon the migrant in more ways than just through the exterior physical walls of the fortress. While this is the case in many other ways—the lethargic bureaucracy of legality, racist and xenophobic sentiments that fueled the temporal topographies of terror during WWII and the Cold War, more recent paroxysmal rightwing violence, and the omission of historical narratives for the sake of a national coherence—this paper critiques the post-migrant society by narrowing its scope on how through the architectural body of the city of Berlin, borders can be reproduced in ways that persist within and travel beyond the nation’s material borders.

By observing architecture of Berlin as an exemplary case study, this paper divulges on four major themes. Firstly, the design of buildings in Berlin will be considered as nostalgic channels through which imaginations—whether xenophobic ideologies, refugee speculations or migrant aspirations—are mapped on to. Secondly, this paper looks at local spaces like stills of the moving film of global flows and considers how even though histories produce our understandings of geography and space, architecture is an integral component to the fastening of globalized histories to material space. Thirdly, a closer look at the history of Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood will help shed light on the arbitrary, yet intentional ways that bordering occurs within the nation and across corporeality of both the city and the migrant body. Lastly, in tying these ideas together, a denationalization perspective will illustrate how the process of localization and memorialization can reformat the imagined borders within Berlin. As the architectural corporeality of Berlin instantiates the divisive bordering across bodies of people and bodies of territory, architecture can thus be seen as media where competing meanings interact with other multi-scalar flows throughout the city. While global temporalities continuously remap and overwrite the existing architectural geographies, the bodily composition of the city exemplifies the production of new localities, but also a complex metamorphosis of borders that travel beyond its original boundaries—based on neoliberal, capitalist and socialist logics and affective sentiments of fear, anxiety and solidarity.

Architecture as a canvas for imagined temporalities

In the case of Berlin, it is important to understand the larger context in which Germany finds itself. Considering the mass immigration of refugees to Europe, Nikunen astutely notes that there are two dominant imaginations of Europe as a region. “On one hand, Europe is imagined as an open and cosmopolitan space that is founded on humanitarian principles. On the other hand, it is imagined as a closed fortress that protects its population from the potential threat from outside of its borders” (Nikunen 2019: 64). Even though Nikunen’s explorative aim for solidarities emerging on the European borders focuses more on the technologically-mediated imaginations of refugee, migrant and local experiences in Italy, this paper adopts her theoretical perspective in which media imaginations are sites of struggle over value and ideas. From this insight, the architectural corporeality of the city can be seen as a medium through which Berlin’s history is told in the public imaginary. “As social imaginaries produce and capture the sense and sentiments of particular historical periods and transitions,” the city’s topographic skeleton reproduces and sustains the divisive bordering creating by the tragic historical infractions committed in Berlin both during WWII and the Cold War (Nikunen 2019: 65).

While the digital intensification of mediated flows invite the imagining of publics and thus an imagined network of solidarities across temporal and spatial boundaries, Nikunen argues that these imaginations may not manifest or transform into social change without the connection to lived experience. Through this argument, Nikunen intertwines her research with Harvey’s concept of geographical imagination—a term used to emphasize the ways in which spaces could define and influence social activity and experience—to understand the way “in which places are imagined through media” (Nikunen 2019). If we consider both Nikunen and Harvey insights, architecture could provide an example for their theoretical underpinnings as a medium through which the circulation of imagined temporalities can create new social relations (like Nikunen’s forging of media solidarities), but also can sustain hegemonic practices and create divisions across the body of the city, within the nation. Thus, in the case of architecture—a material, more concrete medium—might suggest a twist Nikunen’s argument in a slight way because the mapping of imaginations through the architectural conception of space, like in the case of Berlin, we see that geographies are in fact shaped by their histories. For instance, while former West Berlin’s streets are filled with juxtaposing facades of both contemporary and retro modernities alongside old-fashioned edifices of elegance, former East Berlin’s buildings display a certain austerity and simplicity. As former West Berlin’s fragmented bricolage of buildings seemingly represent a liberal ideology of property privatization, former East Berlin connotes a palimpsest reflection mirroring the past—in what the art world might call the style of socialism realism—governance of the German Democratic Republic. Through an analysis of the histories behind German architecture, one might find that imaginations—whether migrant aspirations or bordering ideologies—can be traced and mapped on to the corporeal canvas of Berlin and globally reproduced through media.

Architecture as global iconic events

The global reproduction of these aspirations and borders can be illustrated through the fall of the Berlin Wall. In thinking about what Sonnevend terms as global iconic events—which she defines as “news events that international media cover extensively and remember ritually” like the fall of the Berlin Wall for instance—her argument for why the “fall of the Berlin Wall” became a vividly mystic metaphor crossing national and temporal boundaries demonstrates how architecture is a pivotal medium for concretizing and supporting the histories, narratives and temporalities etched into the global imaginary (Sonnevend 2016: 20). In creating a framework for understanding the concept of global iconic events, she illustrates through varying dimensions of storytelling (foundation, mythologization, condensation, counter-narration, and remediation) how the fall of the Berlin Wall was constructed as a global iconic event, a produced result of the performative efforts entwined with the meaning-making processes of transnational narration. Like Josue David Cisneros critically shows through the entwined efforts to restrict and expand notions of U.S. citizenship in the context of U.S-Mexico border and Latino/a identity, the global iconic event of the fall of the Berlin Wall exemplifies how Berlin embodies a border that has crossed us through the temporal dynamics of global imaginations.

While Sonnevend argues that global iconic events like the fall of the Berlin Wall is not bound to a particular nation or social group, but travels through temporal and spatial boundaries and circulate through different forms, the remaining fragments of the Berlin Wall also exemplify the power of architecture in tethering space to histories. Even though the collapse of the Berlin Wall has been globally imagined—certainly through mediated circuits—as the fall of socialism and the Soviet Union and the victorious rise of capitalism and late modernity, the wall is visually engrained into the locale of the German city and nation. However, more importantly, Sonnevend’s conceptual framework shows how global and transnational narratives shape and produce new local geographies, but further that the corporeal canvas of the city is characterized by a networked boundlessness that opens avenues for new imaginations, but also what I call the formation of borderless borders—the state in which borders transcend its own divisions and borderings through ideologies, imaginations and images. Walking along the row of East Side Gallery murals, one could see the diverse spread of artwork, created by artists from around the world—from neighboring European countries to artists coming from distant Latin American and East Asian countriess. Driven through images and stories of trauma and suffering that were considered “better vehicles for the message of freedom and humanity” (Sonnevend 2016: 51), this space and its architectural remnants in Berlin were aesthetically mediated and reimagined by the fragmented “frames of mind” around the Cold War and the Berlin Wall that continue to circulate around the world (Sonnevend 2016: 141). Thus, this example shows how as histories compete in narrating our cultural dimensions of globalization, architecture has become a medium for embodying the global iconic events that inscribe predictive pictures for imagining our futures. Because architecture acts as a conduit that invites new imagined spatialities, the flow of capital, ideas and people are inevitably drawn  upon the urban landscape—made possible by advancing media and technologies—making it nearly impossible for Berlin to be in its current state, or possibly ever, “post” migration.

Architecture as division

Diving into the one of the many hearts of Berlin as locals might say, Kreuzberg has become one of the geographical and cultural centers of the city. Geographically, Kreuzberg is a neighborhood situated along the former divisions between West and East Berlin. During the Cold War, this neighborhood sat along the periphery of West Berlin and like many peripheral neighborhoods, Kreuzberg was no exception to the higher concentration of poverty and immigrant populations. Problematically termed as “ghetto,” Kreuzberg in this light, as Çagler argues, becomes restricted to a German political trope that situates minorities in stigmatized ethno-cultural sites in the city and is reduced to the inscription of difference and belonging in urban space to a simple model of seclusion based on ethnic ties by confining the frameworks and the terminology of immigration debates and the representation of immigrants in the social imaginary of Germany (Çagler 2001). While the characteristics of spaces labeled as ghettos are problematically mapped onto migrant bodies, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the space of Kreuzberg, as shown by Mandel, was reimagined in the public consciousness.

Housing a population of people who are predominantly refugees or had been a migrant to Berlin, the neighborhood of Kreuzberg after the Cold War as Mandel notes became marked by a double status of which it epitomizes the cool and much-desired epicenter of counterculture, while also being “the socioeconomic out-of-bounds, the back-of-beyond” (Mandel 2008: 141). As we can see in this example, the narrative of a city centre—a cornerstone of Western civilization—was used to revised the settled topographies of Germany in the political aftermath of the Cold War. In this temporal revision of space, the capitalist gentrification in pursuit of a hip counterculture crosses the migrant body, and displaces the migrants and the poorer communities once to new peripheries in the outskirts of the more recent topographic fabrication of Berlin. Through both Çagler and Mandel’s insights, in the case of Kreuzberg, the architectural design of the city has become a historically-mediated canvas—a geography produced by histories—which reflects an ontological hierarchy of structural racism and socioeconomic inequalities. Further, Berlin’s internal borders that construct this ontological hierarchy exemplifies the problem with defining the city as a post-migrant society.

Architecture as denationalization

In the past few sections, this paper has divulged on the role of architecture in sustaining the border imaginations, but also how the histories of bordering produce the geographies and architectural design of spaces within or beyond the national boundaries. Through Nikunen’s insights on media solidarities, this paper shows how she emphasizes the need to connect mediated imaginations of solidarity and altruistic idealism to locality and everyday practices. By looking at the case of the Berlin Wall and its collapse, Sonnevend’s work on global iconic events reveal how transnational storytelling produces new imaginings of space instantiated through the international memorialization of the Cold War. And in the example of Berlin’s Kreuzberg, Mandel and Çagler’s work in tandem illustrate how a space that was historically-determined as “ghetto” to relegate minorities to the periphery of a city can be transformed through the historical Cold War politics and capitalist-induced processes of gentrification.

Therefore, these instances in which social, economic and politically-charged histories redesign and reimagine the architectural habitus of Berlin are exemplary of the embodiment of borders. In an essay titled, Nomadic Territories and Times, Sassen elaborates on the tensions between the nation and the flows of globalization through a concept she coins as de-nationalization, a fourth category beyond globalization, post-nationalism and transnationalism which perceives that today’s major transformations occur within the nation-state. As “territory and time, subjectivity and identity” seep out of these imagined cages of national community and sovereignty, the architectural materiality of subnational spaces and localities are the building blocks for rewriting and remapping new global geographies. In noting how globalization unbundles the exclusive authority over territory, people and identity that are ensconced within national institutional frames, Sassen argues that the local—like the instance of the global city, a space experiencing multi-scalar flows—can now transact directly with the global as “the global installs itself in locals and the global itself constituted through a multiplicity of locals” (Sassen 2014: 5). While Sassen’s theorizations accord with the notion that histories produce, design and imagine the canvas of our territorial geographies, she points to the difficult, yet necessary questioning of disassembling the national as the hegemonic encasement for membership, security, subjectivity, legitimacy, and politics. As an example of this disassembling, Berlin demonstrates how Sassen’s push for a denationalization perspective offers a new direction in forging new assemblages and solidarities beyond the nation. While Germany has been notably recognized for having higher refugee admission caps in compared to other Western European countries, the emergence of rightwing populist violence and scrutinizing surveillance on the migrant refugee throughout the nation has been unsurprisingly evident of the clashing anxieties of the nation and the global. Thus, Berlin in particular is exemplary of how the cultural dimensions of globalization are transforming the space of the city. Even while architecture in our case sustains the historical, social, economic, and political divisions of the nation within the city, the uncanny amount of Turkish and Vietnamese restaurants, the mural paintings on East Side Gallery, and the overwhelming abundance of museums dedicated to memorializing Berlin’s role in the German nation show how the circulation of money and capital, ideas and information, images, media and people are intensifying and heightening the stakes for reshaping the city’s landscape. Nevertheless, these material shifts of culturally diverse co-habitation is fragmentarily separated and siloed like Kreuzberg. Thus, while these shifts cannot be evidence of a homogenized, post-migrant society—especially as global cultural flows of people are still migrating through urban spaces like Berlin—it depicts a manifestation of the borderless circulation of borders.


Conclusively, this paper has traveled through various circuits of research to emphasize that the city of Berlin is a sort of a corporeal machine, with arms of borderless borders and legs of boundless imaginations stretching through circulations of the global. Because the city relies on these global circulations of money, information and people to provide a reproductive structure of support, the architectural design of the city is an integral organ that keeps the corporeality of the city running and functioning, enabling a synesthesia through a blending of our sensory experiences and historical sensibilities of space and place. By showing how the city relies on global circulations of money, imaginations, information and people, this paper demonstrated that the architectural design of Berlin is like an integral organ that permits histories to perpetually map global imaginations on to the canvas of the city. This was shown through four major themes: architecture as media for imagined temporalities, as sites for disseminating borders within and beyond the nation, as material divisions, and as a medium through which localities can compete and interact with the multi-scalar flows throughout the city.

Therefore, while the architectural medium absorbs the rich complexities of Berlin’s palimpsest histories running through the city’s veins, inequalities and territorial ideologies can be resuscitated, reinvigorated and sustained even through the desire of atonement attached to historical guilt weighing down on the space. In conjunction with the vertiginous accelerations of capital, images, information and bodies, the fragmented coexistence of different buildings, designs and communities reveal that diverse imaginations, speculations and aspirations have seeped into the splintered space of coexistence. Further, in this intensified climate of pervasive securitization at the border, even within urban spaces like Berlin, this brief architectural analysis shows that we are far from living in a post-migrant society. As the digital inflection of globalization accelerates and intensifies the public imaginary, borders certainly exist on the fringes of the nation’s historically-drawn topographies, but also can be ideologically and materially imposed upon the migrant in more ways than just through the exterior physical walls of the fortress. However, this paper has illustrated through the architectural body of the city of Berlin, how borders can be reproduced in ways that persist within and beyond the nation’s material borders. Nevertheless, as borders still persist within national boundaries, migration is and will continue to be a perpetual global flow as people aspire to better their lives, especially as the global forces of the economy, technology and flows of culture circulate throughout our world. Because of these dynamics, this paper also has pointed toward Sassen’s call for the building of a denationalization perspective—a framework that shows the crumbling of the institutions of the nation from within. As seen in the various aforementioned cases from the different building designs across time to the Berlin Wall and neighborhood transformations, architecture as the painting of the urban canvas reminds us that borders are not simply at the fringes of the nation. Rather, as the national encasement breaks down, we can exhume the divisive border zones that form within and beyond cities; where the disintegrating spatialities and temporalities of the nation and the unfamiliar ones of the global digital age are intermeshed in a multiplicity of locals convoluted in the crossing of levels and scales. Once we recognize this boundlessness of borders and the centrality of the body as a medium of transforming meaning in the flows of globalization, we might be able to break away from oppressive ordering of our bodies.


Çagler, A. S. (2001). Constraining metaphors and the transnationalization of spaces in Berlin. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. Retrieved from:

Cisneros, J. D. (2013). The borders crossed us: Rhetorics of borders, citizenship, and Latino/a identity. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.

Mandel, R. (2008). Berlin’s Kreuzberg: Topographies of infraction. In Cosmopolitan anxieties: Turkish challenges to citizenship and belonging in Germany. Durham: Duke University Press.

Nikunen, K. (2018). Media solidarities: Emotions, power and justice in the digital age. London: Sage Publications.

Sassen, S. (2014). Nomadic territories and times. Retrieved from:

Sonnevend, J. (2016). Stories without borders: The Berlin Wall and the making of a global iconic event. Oxford: Oxford University Press Scholarship Online.

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