An Excerpt from Bicycle Diaries

An excerpt from

by David Byrne

Author, musician and longtime cyclist David Byrne offered these excerpts from Bicycle Diaries, a unique audiobook experiment that chronicles his journeys through the world's major cities.

Though an assortment of "random musings," the former Talking Head's observations home in on art, fashion, urban planning and how postmodernity is embodied by the structure and condition of our roads.

As you read, click the playback buttons to hear audio soundscapes reflecting his memory of each locale.




Excerpt 1


I'd heard that there is a Stasi museum in Berlin. I have recently read the book Stasiland, which details that life in which Big Brother encouraged everyone to spy on everyone else, so the museum sounds intriguing. It is some distance from the center of town–almost out in the suburbs–in a massive complex that served as the East German security services' headquarters.  It's not listed in most of the museum guides–and Berlin has a lot of museums–so it requires a little bit of research to locate.

I bike out, appropriately enough, along the amazing Karl-Marx-Allee, a sort of Soviet-inspired version of the Champs Élysées or Avenida 9 de Julio in Buenos Aires or maybe New York's Park Avenue. But this boulevard is even wider and grander than many of those. The vaguely Moscow-style grand apartment buildings that line this boulevard outdo those in Moscow and rival the apartments on large avenues in other cities, except these are more orderly and repetitive, echoing each other, going on and on as far as one can see.

The scale of both the street and these buildings is not quite human, and the images that come to mind and the accompanying sensations imply to me an idealistic utopian infinite heaven. Ideals and ideologies do not have boundaries, after all. This particular heaven, to me, is not like the typical ugly, bland modernist projects. That was a utopia of another sort. These have almost northern Italian detailing, and though they're frightening in their somewhat inhuman scale and surreal repetition, they are far more appealing than typical North American housing projects or even a lot of Western modernist buildings where lack of decor came to be held up as a moral virtue. Here's an infrared digital image:

Infrared photo - Karl Marx Alee

On one side of the boulevard the ground floors are sad and forlorn–former cinemas, hardware stores, and medical supply stores–most of which are either shut, decrepit, or reconfigured as DVD shops or similar fast-buck enterprises. The other side has charming outdoor cafés with tables arrayed in the shade of trees.  The stores in general in this part of town seem to have lagged behind the gentrification that is now endemic in the center of town since the Wall came down. The luxury shops and goods that flooded into the former center of East Berlin haven't gotten here yet. There is a window display in a medical supply shop that to me harks back to an earlier time:

Window - medical supplies

A thing of beauty. What kind of thing, though? The basic food groups? Not exactly the basic food groups as we know them, but maybe that was the idea.

The hard times in some of the Eastern bloc Communist countries after World War II ensured that some of the existing architecture was left alone. Yes, it's a cliché that neglect equals preservation, but there's some truth there as well. At least the buildings that weren't bombed in successive wars weren't torn down and replaced with bland new edifices, housing projects, or highway overpasses. The Easties couldn't afford it.

Instead, the buildings were often given new purposes, as it was cheaper to do a slight refurbishment than to build a whole new structure. There was little money for wholesale urban redevelopment here, unlike in many Western European and North American cities, and besides, the Allied bombing had cleared much of the city anyway. While Robert Moses had to raze whole neighborhoods in New York to make space for his highways and housing developments, here the demolition part of the job had already been accomplished. Some buildings that in the West would have been torn down were left standing as they were the few that remained, and those are now extremely desirable. One blatant exception is the former Communist Party headquarters on Alexanderplatz in the former East Berlin, a giant postwar modernist monument, copper-mirrored and toxic–both psychologically and chemically–which is being slowly and very carefully dismantled due to the amount of asbestos inside. The removal of this psychic eyesore is controversial, as it symbolically erases a prominent reminder of the former regime and of the country's recent history–just as the Nazis took over and repurposed formerly Jewish-owned offices and buildings and then the Communists later reworked and renamed the Nazi buildings to their own ends. Eliminating this eyesore is wiping away part of the collective memory.

Excerpt 2

These days many people know of the Stasi from the recent movie The Lives of Others. The combination of psychological and Orwellian horror is hellish and weirdly seductive. The agency was known for turning citizens against their neighbors by subtle pressure, implied threats, or economic incentives. It seems it's something that many national security agencies do from time to time. ("If you see something, say something.")  Turning the citizenry into rats makes the entire populace scared and docile, and after a while no one knows who's informing on whom. Anyone could be an informer or an agent. The world becomes a Philip K. Dick novel–although in his version everyone would also be informing on themselves.

The Stasi Museum is a massive compound that encloses a whole city block.
I ride my bike into the inner courtyard and lock it up. Since both the parking and the main entrances to the various buildings are located inside the compound, when it was functioning no one outside could see who was coming or going–exits and entrances from the building all took place within the large interior courtyard. I am told that the whole complex is now for sale! For one euro! Well, there are conditions. The city is actually trying to sell it to Germany, on the condition that they will turn it into a proper museum.

As it now exists, the museum is rudimentary. One floor of former offices displays clunky spy devices: cameras in logs, behind large coat buttons, and in fake rocks. Here's one in a birdhouse–a little obvious, I think:

Infrared photo of birdhouse spycam



Excerpt 1

In the morning I am driven to the combined offices and set of the HBO series Big Love,
and I get a short tour of the interior sets of this TV show–sets that represent the homes of the show's three Mormon wives. I love these artificial places. You're on the set and it's completely believable as a suburban home–there are books and magazines lying around that the characters would plausibly read, and here are some of their clothes they've apparently tossed aside. And then you look up and there is no ceiling above you and huge air-conditioning ducts loom overhead. Out- side the "window" is a massive photo backdrop of the mountains that ring suburban Salt Lake City, where the show is set.

These jarring juxtapositions are beautiful–in some ways they make our own homes, offices, and bars seem just as hollow and superficial as the sets. What we call home is just a set too. We think of the familiar intimate details in our own spaces–those magazines and books, the tossed-aside articles of clothing–as unique, integral to our lives. In a sense, though, all they are is set dressing for our own narratives. We think of our personal spaces as "real," and we feel they are filled with the stuff of our lives that's different than everyone else's. But especially out here, in Valencia, the "real" built landscape, those places I walk around, are made of structures that are no more real than this movie set. The mental dislocation is a wonderful feeling. The disconnect is somehow thrilling.

Set photo

Excerpt 2

One student quoted in the paper offered that since the local skating rink and some other activities have been closed there is nothing to do in town, so kids, bored out of their minds, will inevitably find something to do, and sometimes it might be disruptive–all that young energy has to go somewhere.

Some students, though, are all in favor of the curfew, as are the local football coaches, who seem to function as the resident wise men around here. I suspect that this proposed curfew could be an unspoken and underhanded way to facilitate and legitimize the rounding up of "loitering" Mexican kids–who are no doubt seen as the principal troublemakers here.

I ride around the older part of town. A motel that was once on the main highway reiterates the moral message: if Jesus never fails, then by implication the problem must be with you.


I wonder if this frontier Puritan fundamentalism, combined with economic pragmatism, is what makes buildings like this minimal one so common, unremarkable, and acceptable out here.

Minimal Building

They are beautifully Spartan and purely functional–in their austerity they are in perfect keeping with nineteenth- century architect Louis Sullivan's dictum "form follows function." He claimed, "It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical." The implication was that this was not just a style or aesthetic guideline. This was a moral code. This was how God, the supreme architect, works. This humble structure–and many others around here–has followed that dictum to the very end of the line! These structures take the prize: they make the twentieth-century modernists all over the world look positively baroque–and therefore less moral.

There are people selling watermelons in a shopping-center parking lot, next to a U.S. flag made of plastic cups jammed into a fence.

Down the road is an abandoned drive-in and a church in a prefab metal building with a sign urging visitors to Come Be Apart.



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