Berlin's Architectural Upgrade
Published: May 2009
By Bill Van Parys
Once battle-scarred and divided, Europe's ugly duckling has gone sleek and futuristic.
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.
We exit through the back onto Behrenstrasse to get our bicycles, the transport mode of choice in this flat, canal-laced city that has more bridges than Venice. We can see a new bank headquarters designed by Frank Gehry. In the near distance is the hyper-modernistic bustle of Potsdamer Platz. The silhouettes of Helmut Jahn's Sony Center and Renzo Piano's Debis Haus serve as a weird counterpoint to the nearby excavated abyss of the ill-fated Holocaust memorial (Gerhard Schröder, Germany's recently elected chancellor, seems to be driving the nail into that project's coffin). As we head east along Französische Strasse, my friends indicate the site of Goebbels's propaganda ministry (Berlin is heaven for the dark at heart). Johannes signals to stop at Markgrafen Strasse. "That's Berlin architecture for the moment," he says, pointing to an office and apartment building under construction. The bottom five floors resemble a 19th-century relic, while the top is postmodern—a status symbol of sorts when it comes to renovated buildings here. Except this one's completely new. Someone mutters, "So much for letting go of the past," and we bike off.
After an identity crisis of nearly 50 years, prolonged public debate, and perhaps a tad too much intellectualizing, Berlin adopted for its center an architectural standard that restricts the height and proportions of new buildings to those of the squat, leaden Prussian block. Whether some Berliners are yearning for an era before things went horribly wrong or are just hell-bent on removing all traces of Communism is anyone's guess. But works like Jean Nouvel's Galeries Lafayette and Philip Johnson's American Business Center have been shoved into architectural straitjackets, since it's getting harder and harder to build high-rises.
We're heading to Vau, a Mitte restaurant just off the Gendarmenmarkt. The square is stately, though architecturally predictable, with a picturesque Schinkel concert hall flanked by two handsome churches. Many Berliners consider it the loveliest spot in the city; Voltaire wrote of its beauty. Vau, meanwhile, is a sleek testament to the current freedom allowed for interiors. In Vau's stunning downstairs cigar bar, the bookshelves are filled with coal bricks, a clever Berliner take on the clubby library.
I ask my friend Martin, also along for the ride, what he's working on—hoping it's something cool like this restaurant or the Art'otel Ermelerhaus, a contemporary hotel built around a stately 18th-century mansion. But he tells me the building boom is long over. Three out of five architects are unemployed, and the penchant for the past is limiting. "I destroy East German interiors and reconstruct nineteenth-century interiors," he says.
It's not unusual for buildings erected during the Communist era to be targeted for radical plastic surgery or the wrecking ball. "It's political," Johannes says. "They always have reasons, like 'the walls are lined with asbestos.'" But the Staatsrat, or State Council Building, near the Palast der Republik (which will be demolished soon after my visit), has so far been left unscathed. It is located on the Schlossplatz, where a castle stood for 400 years. The Communists tore the castle down, renamed the area Marx-Engels-Platz, and developed a showplace of socialist architecture, with the Palast and Staatsrat the crown jewels.
The Staatsrat is holding an exhibition on Berlin redevelopment. In the rose twilight of a stained-glass window of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht is a giant model of futuristic Berlin; upstairs, in a Dr. No-style steel and wood reception area, there's a detailed model of Marx-Engels-Platz. I see no sign of the Palast; in its place, the castle has been resurrected to scale. Outside, the former Lustgarten is being reconstructed to Schinkel's design, and the Platz has already been renamed Schlossplatz. "It's very simple to erase an era," Johannes says.
"ARE THESE PEOPLE GAY OR STRAIGHT OR WHAT?" my friend Reyes is yelling in my ear at 3 a.m. in Sage, a disco in a Mitte subway station. It is a subterranean grotto from hell, steaming at about 110 degrees, and packed with raving boys in skirts and girls in orange garbage-collector coveralls. We're dancing to the electronic band Underworld at a bazillion decibels, and watching a psychedelic light show superimpose itself over a tall blond drag queen. She turns gold as a deranged dragon head mounted on the wall emits a giant blast of flame just inches from her hair-spray-stiffened wig. I think of a fire-safety presentation from my youth and say a quiet prayer. By the time we leave an hour later to go to another club (this one under the S-Bahn tracks), the line outside stretches up the block.
"One thing didn't change in Berlin over the years," Wotan Möhring tells me. "Berlin is still the place to waste your life at night." Wotan is an actor, DJ, and musician who came here in 1990, just after the Wall fell. "In the beginning, there was nothing," he says. "Mitte was very, like, desert. And that's why everything happened in Mitte." Just as the art scene began to emerge, techno music exploded and Berlin solidified its position as ground zero for youth culture. "It was really fast, it was really great," says Lillevän Pobjoy, an Irish expat in the video-art collective Rechenzentrum and the band Elektronauten.
Just as the abandoned spaces of the East provided a home for galleries, they were also a gold mine for club owners. A disco called W.M.F. started out in the basement of a silverware company (also named W.M.F.), then moved to underground public toilets in Potsdamer Platz that had been flooded for some 40 years, then moved to the Hackesches Markt before settling (for now) in an East Berlin hotel once reserved for visiting Western dignitaries. The place was crawling with bugs—of the electronic sort.
While the club culture is not as edgy as it once was (Berlin's annual Love Parade now attracts more than a million ravers each July), the most distinctive places are still generally off the map. "Berlin is real uncommercial," says Marc Wohlrabe, publisher of Flyer, the indispensable German-language weekly listings guide. "Beneath the surface, there are a lot of places experimenting." Word of mouth might lead you to a raucous Tagesfete, or one-day event, at a nondescript Biergarten behind the Museum Island, or a midnight performance in what serves as gallery space during the day. Some of the clubs are run by artists who call their places conceptual art pieces. Sounds like a grant-scam to me.
A night out can easily last all night, so a disco nap is in order. If that's not your cup of tea, an art opening in the Linienstrasse might do. At gallery Sammeln Sie Kunst, there's a stylish mix of scruffy hipster moms and chic silver-haired couples, all clutching plastic cups of wine. A Super-8 projector plays a film of children on air mattresses. Lillevän is there, as recurring video imagery from Rechenzentrum is playing on a monitor to an industrial beat. He invites me to come hear his "chaotic multimedia project," Elektronauten, at a disco the next day. He casually mentions that they should be going on by 4 a.m.
I leave to meet my friend Lindy for dinner at Schwarzenraben on Neue Schönhauser Strasse. The restaurant is inviting, in shades of tan with killer banquettes, groovy saucer lamps, and a fashionable clientele. Our old pal Erpel joins us at midnight (dinners in Berlin tend to last into the night). I'm shocked. He's wearing a suit and has brown hair—much different from the cheap dye jobs I was used to. It seems that once the Wall came down, Erpel made it big selling insurance in the East. He tells us about five times over two gin-and-tonics (consumed in one hour) that his wild days are behind him and he's way more serious now. In a sign of mutual evolution, we compare StarTac cell phones. Then he suggests we all go out.
W.M.F. IS CLOSED ON THURSDAYS, SO WE try Kalkscheune, across the street. The doorman, half our age and wearing clothes I threw away before he was born, points to Erpel's Brooks Brothers suit and snaps "Er kommt nicht 'rein" ("He's not coming in"). How the tables turn. We walk down Oranienburger Strasse and wind up at Oxymoron in the Hackesche Höfe, where we run into Tom Pettersen and Davy, his longtime Dutch girlfriend. They've come to hear tonight's band. The talk runs from the Russian and Balkan Mafia's hold on Berlin to the need to get out of town in time to avoid the million-spectator Love Parade. We finally hit upon everyone's favorite obsession: what will happen to Mitte when 30,000 workers descend upon the city to staff all the government ministries and Potsdamer Platz corporate headquarters. The concern is not office space—Berlin is woefully overbuilt—but whether the alternative crowd will be pushed out of Mitte's limited supply of desirable pre-war housing. "I think it's going to stay halfway freaky," says Tom.
AT 3 A.M., TOM AND DAVY AND A COUPLE of Jamaican friends invite us to go with them to a reggae bar. Erpel and I pass, and we all depart. I'm tired, and assume Erpel's going home, since there's work tomorrow and, as he has reminded me two more times over two more gin-and-tonics, his wild days are behind him. But just then he whips out his cell phone and arranges to meet someone an hour later at a topless bar on Stuttgarter Platz.
As we part he says, "I still like Berlin. I mean, look at this." He gestures to the chaos and commerce surrounding us. "This has changed Berlin forever. But when you go out and meet different people, you never know where the night will take you. And I love the night. I'll never give that up." He gets in a cab and waves. I guess Erpel, like Berlin, will always be at least halfway freaky. Whatever the surface.
Most people get to Berlin by connecting through London, Frankfurt, or Düsseldorf (alas, Delta dropped the only nonstop service from the United States), or by taking the high-speed ICE train from Frankfurt (under four hours) or Hamburg (two). Be warned: Berlin is cold and dark in winter. But never dull.
Art'otel Ermelerhaus 70-73 Wallstrasse, Mitte; 49-30/240-620, fax 49-30/2406-2222; doubles from $210. Like a tasteful motel, with paintings by Georg Baselitz on the walls.
Bleibtreu 31 Bleibtreustrasse, Charlottenburg; 49-30/884-740, fax 49-30/8847-4444; doubles from $208. High design off the ritzy Kurfürstendamm.
Four Seasons Hotel Berlin 49 Charlottenstrasse, Mitte; 800/332-3442 or 49-30/20338, fax 49-30/2033-6166; doubles from $267. Vegas meets Versailles: super-luxurious, but slightly garish.
Hotel Adlon 77 Unter den Linden, Mitte; 800/426-3135 or 49-30/22610, fax 49-30/2261-2222; doubles from $276.
BEST VALUE Propeller Island City Lodge 10 Paulsbornerstrasse, Charlottenburg; 49-30/893-2533, fax 49-30/891-8720; doubles from $84, no credit cards. Five rooms with wacky themes.
Borchardt 47 Französische Strasse, Mitte; 49-30/2038-7117; dinner for two $150. A temple of mosaics and columns that specializes in meat dishes.
Café am Neuen See 2 Lichtensteinallee, Tiergarten; 49-30/254-4930; lunch for two $60. A Biergarten in the Tiergarten, Berlin's main park. Limited winter hours.
Café Einstein 58 Kurfürstenstrasse, Tiergarten; 49-30/261-5096; dinner for two $90. Timeless and romantic. Split a schnitzel with a friend.
Café M 33 Goltzstrasse, Schöneberg; 49-30/215-4230. A breakfast institution.
Maxwell 22 Bergstrasse, Mitte; 49-30/280-7121; dinner for two $84. A smart spot in a restored brewery.
Paris Bar 152 Kantstrasse, Charlottenburg; 49-30/313-8052; dinner for two $120. Classic French bistro; best for the well-heeled and, given the legendary snooty service, the thick-skinned.
Sale e Tabacchi 18 Kochstrasse, Kreuzberg; 49-30/252-1155; dinner for two $120. A hip Italian café where you might see filmmaker Wim Wenders—or at least a lot of unemployed architects.
Schwarzenraben Caffè Ristorante 13 Neue Schönhauser Strasse, Mitte; 49-30/2839-1698; dinner for two $84.
Vau 54-55 Jägerstrasse, Mitte; 49-30/202-9730; dinner for two $180.
Bars and Clubs
Bar am Lützowplatz 7 Lützowplatz, Tiergarten; 49-30/262-6807. Long, stylish bar with long, stylish drinks.
Kit Kat Club 2 Glogauerstrasse, Kreuzberg; 49-30/611-3833. For the sexually adventurous.
Kumpelnest 3000 23 Lützowstrasse, Tiergarten; 49-30/261-6918. A scene from way back when (when there was a Wall), in a former brothel.
Sage Club Heinrich-Heine-Strasse U-Bahn station, 76 Köpenicker Strasse, Mitte; no phone.
W.M.F. 20-21 Johannisstrasse, Mitte; 49-30/282-7901.
Quartier 206 71 Friedrichstrasse, Mitte; 49-30/2094-6800. A stylish department store similar to Barneys.
Claudia Skoda 154 Linienstrasse, Mitte; 49-30/280-7211. Ready-to-wear from Berlin's top designer.
Orlando Schuhe 7 Oranienburger Strasse, Mitte; 49-30/281-9838. Clunky, up-to-the-minute shoes.
Schönhauser 18 Neue Schönhauser Strasse, Mitte; 49-30/281-1704. The chicest secondhand furniture.
Time Out Guide: Berlin (Penguin)—It's all here—history, sights, useful info—in one neat little package.
Flyer—Pocket-size nightlife weekly, free around town. A must, even if you can't read German.
Check It Out
Though it doesn't open until 2000, the Jewish Museum (9-14 Lindenstrasse) is worth seeing. Daniel Libeskind's steely black creation is modeled after a deconstructed Star of David.
On the Web
Berlin Info (www.berlin-info.de)—A virtual tour of all the city's top attractions.
Berlin Wall (www.dailysoft.com/berlinwall/index.html)—This site will help you find the few sections of the Wall still standing.