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Frazier Off To Study Berlin’s Urban Geography in June

Published: June 1, 2011

Geography’s Tom Frazier goes looking for layers this summer when he leads CSULB students to Berlin.

The Frazier-led group will visit the German capital from June 6 to 24 as part of a study abroad class in urban geography.

“What we’re going to do as urban geographers is to take a series of field trips and tours mostly in Berlin,” explained Frazier, who earned both his bachelor’s and master’s from CSULB, the latter in 1999. “As urban geographers, we look at the layers of a built environment over time and over landscape. The city has been affected by politics, history, governments, demographics and war. There has been division and unification at either end of the Cold War. There are all these layers on the landscape that are exhibited in a very concentrated area. We will take a series of tours that actually look at the city and its different developmental layers.”

The layer of modernity CSULB students will encounter in 21st century Berlin’s is rare. “It isn’t often when a major industrialized country rebuilds its capital city or moves to a new one,” said Frazier. “One guiding principle of Berlin architecture is the reunification of East and West Germany. Look at the changes to the Reichstag, burned at the beginning of Hitler’s reign. Famed British architect Sir Norman Foster designed a new transparent glass cupola dome for it with the purpose of looking down into the parliamentary chamber. The whole idea is transparency. The people can always keep an eye on their parliamentarians and what their government is doing. The German people can watch their parliamentarians cross a bridge from their offices to the building. A new avant-garde chancellery has been built right across from the Reichstag. The chancellor and the parliament are always watching each other.”

Another important layer of urban geography is East Berlin. “There is still Stalinist architecture including old parade routes. Far to the east are vast housing estates featuring curtains of buildings like monolithic Legos,” he explained. “They were built in the thousands using ‘plate construction’ and some have used the plate construction to remove top stories. The way they built them, it was easy.”

The layers of urban geography extend to people. “When communism collapsed in 1991, Germany found itself on the front lines again,” he said. “Germany was the first stop for Poles, Czechs and Ukrainians. There is even a Russian layer in Berlin.

“My research has been to document traces of the Berlin Wall, what’s left of it,” he added. “When Berlin became Germany’s capital again after years in Bonn, much of the wall was taken down. I try to keep track of what’s left. In political and urban geography, it is considered a ‘relict boundary’ or a boundary that once really existed and had an impact on the landscape. It may no longer function but there are still traces of it.

“Ironically, since people have been tearing down the wall and chipping away at it, there are now moves to preserve parts of it. They actually have to protect parts of the wall with fencing so people don’t chip away at it anymore. It’s a fascinating development.”

Tom Frazier

Not all of Berlin’s layers are appealing. “Of course, we can’t forget the National Socialists who changed the face of Berlin,” he said. “There will be a field trip north of Berlin to Oranienburg, which was home to the Sachenhausen concentration camp. The trip can be very upsetting. It is hard to be visually confronted by the Holocaust, which is a permanent part of German history. They face up to it. In the walled center of Berlin across from the U.S. embassy is the Holocaust Memorial, a series of steles that resemble grave markers. Part of the museum is built on Hitler’s bunker.”

He hopes to instruct the students in geographic research and field methods. “There are methods to field surveys that include recording field observations with documentation,” he said. “Students will learn how to support social research with empirical data in an urban setting. No one likes looking like a dork with a clipboard and digital camera, but it is fun and a good way to talk to locals and get interviews.”

One of his goals is to put his students in touch with Germans through Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin where he currently pursues his doctorate. “There is a whole intellectual and scientific milieu in Berlin and our students need to be exposed to it,” he said.

He visited Rome last winter to study the origin of cities. “I’ll never forget for the rest of my life sitting on a tumbled piece of marble in the actual Roman forum listening to a speaker describe what happened on that spot 2,000 years ago. This is what I want my students to get when they visit Berlin.

“This is what’s so great about geography. If you’re thinking about a major, think about geography. We love to take tours and go into the field to make our observations. The things we use are the evidence of the landscape.”