A well-scrubbed complex of cafés, boutiques, galleries, and nightclubs rises from a sea of scaffolding in Mitte, the historic district in what was once East Berlin. Called the Hackesche Höfe, the complex was restored in the early 1990's in the hope of resurrecting the rusted, largely abandoned core of the post–Wall East. The turn-of-the-century development now beckons many a tourist to stop by and feel arty, safely and happily.
Next door lurks its evil twin: Haus Schwarzenberg. Dingy and dilapidated, it is encrusted with posters and random Mad Max-style sculptures. Clearly, this artists' collective hasn't been sanitized for anyone's protection. A voyage into its bowels takes you from a twisted bar that screens military and porno films to a basement cabaret with scrap-metal creations that look like fire-breathing monsters. "It's ironic that the complexes are right next to each other," says Laura Kikauka, a Canadian junk archivist who keeps a studio in Haus Schwarzenberg. "But I don't know who scares who more."
Five minutes away is the Sammlung Hoffmann, the steel-and-glass residence of two German arrivistes who, on Saturdays, will let you tour their private collection of installations. Sabrina, an attractive guide with a world-weary edge, leads our group through the living quarters. I'm awed by the top-drawer examples of what money can buy in conceptual art—and by the sophistication that exists in this area, so decrepit just a decade ago. "It's the Capitalist Fantasy Berlin," I say. Sabrina corrects me with a smirk: "You mean, the New Berlin."
DIE WENDE, "THE CHANGE," WAS THE TERM USED IN 1989 TO DESCRIBE THE SOCIAL UPHEAVAL after the fall of the Wall. Berliners are now talking about a different sort of Wende. As the German parliament prepares to return to the Reichstag this year, a world capital is ending its 54-year walk in the wilderness. The planners behind the biggest construction site in Europe have recast a bombed-out Prussian relic as a sleek futuristic mecca of affairs both economic and cultural. Everyone seems to be involved in some sort of enterprise, hustling around, head glued to a Handy, a cell phone. The town's cosmopolitan sensibility is also in overdrive, with a collection of mind-blowing buildings by international architects (Jahn, Rossi, Perrault) helping to define its newly reclaimed Weltstadt, or world city, aesthetic.
I lived in Berlin in the 1980's, before the Wall fell. Back then it was a tatty, forlorn never-never land. The town had long been a culture capital, with more world-class museums than you could ever hope to see, and Romantic-Classical architectural works by Karl Friedrich Schinkel along the grandest of boulevards and in Potsdam's imperial palace of Sanssouci. I was drawn by its subcultural calling cards: squatted housing, kinky sex, anarchic punk scene, lax police force, perpetual gloom. I dyed my hair and clothes black, changed my name repeatedly, and prided myself on doing nothing—except for faking bad performance art, helping friends squander fat artistic grants, working "black" (illegally) in bars, and going out every night into the realm of such dark musicians as Nick Cave, Einstürzende Neubauten, and Nina Hagen. It was heaven.
Alas, you age, you tire of sleeping in parked cars, you get a day job. Still, I was apprehensive about returning now that Die Wende II was here. Would all this development have ruined its legendary decadence?Not to worry: Berlin 1999 revels in its ever-changing schizophrenia, one foot in a Gucci Loafer and the other in a platform Naugahyde go-go boot. Or, as American musician and longtime resident Tom Pettersen puts it: "Even though Berlin is more and more about the dollar, it will always be freaky."
The city's vitality is easy to spot in Mitte, which stretches roughly from the Brandenburg Gate over to Alexanderplatz. In the south, there are the boulevards of Unter den Linden and Karl Liebknecht Strasse, the Museum Island (housing the famed Pergamon, Altes, and Bode museums), and a bridge by Schinkel leading over the Spree. The north—the Scheunenviertel, or old working-class Jewish quarter—is the locus of trendiness, a curious mix of cerebral and kitschy. Some 30 galleries have set up shop in abandoned apartments, defunct supermarkets, even a former marmalade factory. Shoe stores with four-foot-wide disco balls and drag-queen runways (seriously) cozy up to sushi bars and glam thrift shops. Techno music blasts from hotels that have been converted into nightclubs. And all this in an area that can best be described as grimy.
"That's typical for Berlin—ugly on the outside," says designer Horst Rautenberg, a partner in Tools & Gallery. This stylish clothing store is set in an 1863 upholstery factory that at first glance looks like just another dirty Berlin building. Inside, however, Tools & Gallery rivals its crosstown competitors, the shops of the Kurfürstendamm, the elegant street of the former West Berlin. It's pure theater, with a bronzed Jugendstil spiral staircase, a crystal candelabrum, and a gold-leaf porcelain oven. Horst, who resembles a cross between game-show fixture Bert Convy and Liberace, is one of Mitte's most vocal cheerleaders. "It's very multi-culti," he says. "People with fresh ideas rebuilding the old city center. Maybe their ideas aren't always functioning, but at least they're trying."
The ideas are really clicking in contemporary art. This momentum can be traced to the autumn of 1990, when a group of squatters took over a margarine factory and created an artists' collective called Kunst-Werke. Add Tacheles, another collective in a half-destroyed department store, and a scene was on its way. Granted, it attracts a more daring culture vulture than the ones ogling Nefertiti at the Pergamon or traipsing in cashmere coats through the tasteful galleries near Savignyplatz. But patrons in search of the offbeat can visit Contemporary Fine Arts, where Jonathan Meese constructed a temple of celebrity worship with what seemed like a million vintage issues of Look magazine. An installation by Tom Burr at Neu gallery played to the unconventional: a pile of dirt.
Maybe Berlin's long, rich history is what encourages its citizens to indulge themselves in art, both highbrow and low. After its split, the city luxuriated in a dual infrastructure of cultural institutions. (Quick happy note: The works of the Dahlem Museum in the West have recently been reunited with those of the Bode Museum in the East, all under one roof in the Kulturforum.) Artist Laura Kikauka has her own theory about the prevailing cultural schizophrenia. "It could be the weather," she says. "It's so dismal from fall to mid-spring. Maybe that intensifies the social situation: everyone's feeling a lack of ultraviolet rays."
I'M STANDING WITH A GROUP OF FRIENDS in the lobby of the reconstructed Hotel Adlon on Unter den Linden, the grand boulevard of Prussian-era Berlin. Before the war, the Adlon was the city's finest hotel, the crash pad of choice for Chaplin, Dietrich, Einstein, and Garbo. It even inspired the film Grand Hotel. The hotel burned down shortly after the war, and after reunification its East Berlin site was purchased by Kempinski Hotels. Reconstructed to mimic its turn-of-the-century look, the Adlon has reclaimed its role as one of the city's top places to stay. But Berliners tend to be aesthetic snobs. "At least the design of the hallway axis is beautiful," says my friend Johannes, an architect. "You can go straight through the building and run out into the street." Ouch.