A Comedy of Errors

The seesaws at Potsdamer Platz

Gather round, because I’m going to tell you a story. This story is exceptionally delicious; it has so many different layers to enjoy. It is a story that intrinsically tells so many other stories, stories of man’s folly and of art and of human behaviour and of municipal decision-making. Bear with me.

From where I work it is a short walk to Potsdamer Platz, a strange, lifeless arena of enormous and heavily-architected office buildings and shopping centers. It was intended as a gleaming modern hub for the city where locals and tourists could come to work, eat, shop, and enjoy an opulent nightlife scene. But something is not right about it, and so most people stay away. It is a space that is deep in the uncanny valley of city planning.

For one thing, all the buildings are too huge and too far apart – the blocky architecture forms walls around enormous gaping ‘squares’ where there are no trees or benches or buskers or things of interest, simply desolate empty voids where people only gather to check their map and figure out how to get to somewhere more pleasant. Being in one of these ‘squares’ is like standing in the middle of a room in an abandoned, unfurnished apartment. It is uncomfortable.

The eateries at Potsdamer Platz are strange and discordant, a mixture of Starbucksy chains selling mass-produced things featuring avocado, unnerving themed restaurants for tourists where the entire menu revolves around some kind of non-cuisine like ‘beef’ or ‘the outback’, and extremely high-end restaurants where the prices make your sinuses hurt. Most people gravitate towards the shopping malls by sheer biological instinct, but these are hidden in faceless tower blocks, so the place feels disconcertingly empty; the only people on the street are stragglers drifting vaguely to or from a cappuccino. Lost people.

And me. There on my lunch break. In the middle of a desert, sometimes you have to chew on a cactus to survive, you know?

In the centre of Potsdamer Platz is a ‘park’, which is not really a park, but rather slabs of scratchy turf raised up from ground level in colossal undulating rectangles. And in between two of these slabs, there is a rift, a flat paved area with nothing on it but five giant seesaws.

(A brief sidebar here to mention that the German word for ‘seesaw’ is ‘Wippe’, which I love because that is exactly the noise a cartoon seesaw makes in my mind: “Wipp, wipp, wipp, wipp, wipp…”)

At first I didn’t even realise that these funny metal constructions are even seesaws, partly because they are made of thick steel pipes over twice as long as my entire apartment, and partly because the seesaws cannot actually be used as seesaws: heavy-duty steel cables tether each end of each seesaw to the ground. This is where things get really goofy.

The seesaws were included in the architectural plans for the park, built in 2003, and at 21 metres long would be the largest seesaws (or similar plaything) in Europe; this must be the most ‘weird flex, but okay’ moment in European history. But wait! The longest seesaw record was broken in 2019 by a single dude in Illinois called Jim Bolin, who built a 25-metre seesaw. I am delighted that I had the honour to google that fact today. His 2019 seesaw achievement was just 4 metres longer than the Potsdamer Platz ones, which presumably suggests that they may even have had the world record at the time they were built. So I guess it was worth it? It had better be, because each individual one cost TWENTY-SEVEN THOUSAND EUROS. Let’s move on from that quickly before I start to cry.

The thing was, a 21 metre seesaw is an extremely tempting object, particularly for large groups of fun-loving people who, giddy on aperol spritz, would be ecstatic to see a playground ride big enough to accommodate 50 people on each end. People went on the seesaws together with their pals, their brothers, sisters, mums and dads, aunts and uncles, and all their colleagues, often at the same time. And OF COURSE they would because that’s exactly what they looked like they were designed for! COME ON!

But alas, the seesaws were designed for a maximum capacity of two people per side. What an odd error in judgement: this is like building a swimming pool and saying that people can only use it if they don’t get anything wet; like creating a delicious breakfast cereal and then saying that the serving suggestion is as much as can fit in the palm of a toddler’s hand. The people who made these seesaws had to have known that entire clans of drunk adult children would want to go on the seesaws all together? Surely?

So the seesaws kept breaking. In quite a scary way – the gargantuan pipe (weighing 3 tonnes) would pop out of its fulcrum and who knows what could have been crushed on its descent to earth. Repairs were effortful and expensive, and so after a few rounds of ‘put the goddamn seesaw back together, boys’ the district council were too fucked off by the whole thing and just decided to bolt the seesaws to the ground forever.

They haven’t taken them out and replaced them with something the people can use or enjoy. They haven’t sold the metal to recoup some of their losses. They have left them there for over a decade, for people to glumly stare at as they wonder how they ended up in Potsdamer Platz.

This accidental art piece is an incredible allegory. A municipal body, wanting to show off and look flashy, built a ruinously expensive giant toy in the middle of a horrible place. But because they did a bad job, and the toy was too flashy, it didn’t work, and now no one can play with it. And because they’re stingy and don’t give a damn about the optics of SEESAWS YOU ARE PROHIBITED FROM PLAYING ON, they are now left there forever, a reminder that your local council couldn’t give two tosses about joy or the outdoors or creating human-friendly spaces. No factor of the project was more important than to create a dramatic tribute to their own genitalia.

Now Potsdamer Platz is graced with a dystopian image of a playground shackled unusably forever to the cold concrete underneath. No one knows the history, so all that is left is this image. It says so much while doing absolutely nothing.

Also, it is hilarious and stupid. In summer I shall sit on the non-seesaw to eat my sandwich.

Rose T