The city of Rakish Charms and anything-is-possible artistic energy has lately taken on a new gloss–without losing its cool. Alexandra Marshall visits Europe’s bourgeois bohemian utopia.
It was back in the mid 1990s when I first started to hear what a cool place Berlin was. “Cool,” meaning that, among the members of my social circle in New York City, the ones with the most interesting tattoos and grants from prestigious arts institutions were running off to live in massive apartments for months in rundown Kreuzberg, in the former West Berlin. They’d come back with stories of creating utopian early-Internet communities or composing blatantly uncommercial music, of spending warm, humid summers bicycling through parks that were more like forests and enjoying extremely low overhead. The all-night techno parties in bombed-out buildings were said to be epic, as if Mom and Dad left town after the Berlin Wall came down and never came back.
Today, Berlin is starting to seem downright grown-up. Having lost most of its city center during World War II, the city will never have the preserved-in-amber beauty of Paris or Amsterdam, but in the last 15 years it’s seen a steady upscaling. Districts in the former East, like Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg, still have lovely pastel row houses and brick Bauhaus-style buildings, but their leafy squares, once home to squatters, are now destined for starchitects. In 2013, Daniel Libeskind unveiled plans for an apartment building shaped like a metallic cube, in Mitte, and on nearby Alexanderplatz, Frank Gehry will build Germany’s tallest residential complex next to the iconic 1960s TV Tower. And though there are still plenty of pockets littered with graffiti, the “tagging” inside the lobby of Berlin’s Soho House is by Damien Hirst.
Related: Berlin Travel Guide
That’s a lot of change in a short time. Many of the older guard had warned me that the city had become impossibly bourgeois. But improvisation, kookily high concepts, and earnestness still typify the creative output here, which imbues its restaurants, hotels, and shops with a freshness that defies been-there-done-that cynicism and an energy that helps drown out the naysayers. Berlin has one of the most youthful populations in Europe and offers a solid argument that risk-taking and originality are as important to a city’s well-being as the quaintness of its historic quarter. And Berliners, as I discovered, are embracing change while holding onto their individuality.
“As everything in the world morphs into the same, many question whether there’s even a place for a local identity anymore,” interior designer Werner Aisslinger told me. With the opening of his 25hours Hotel Bikini Berlin in the former West’s erstwhile conservative Charlottenburg neighborhood, Aisslinger is defying this notion. Housed in a remodeled white 1957 Modernist landmark building, the space has eccentricity in every corner, starting with the greenhouse theme of the rooftop restaurant, Neni, which looks out over the vast, bushy expanse of the Tiergarten park and the Berlin Zoo. Many of the plants surrounding the restaurant’s tables could end up on your plate, as they’re part of a hydroponic micro-garden dreamed up by an urban farming collective. The rooms feature a mix of vintage industrial furniture and rough-hewn copper walls, with stuffed animals on the beds, window- side hammocks, and Do Not Disturb signs with 25 variations on the message. (If THERE’S A MONSTER BEHIND THIS DOOR doesn’t suit your mood, then how about ACCESS DENIED?)
Aisslinger commissioned local artists to realize most of these capsule narratives and make visitors and Berliners alike feel welcome. And they do, if the lines out the door waiting for the elevator to take them to the upstairs Monkey Bar are any indication. Many of them will have headed over from Bikini Berlin next door, which, in typical Berlin style, combines a high-design shopping space with rotating pop-ups and slick offices. The small, box-size stores there are available for three- to six-month leases, and longer-term residents include the cutting-edge boutique Andreas Murkudis and Gestalten, an art-book publisher and shop. The next great hybrid shop that will open is the Store, on the ground floor of Soho House in Mitte, with clothing by designers like Junya Watanabe and Jil Sander, contemporary furniture, an organic café, a co-working space, and a barber shop. Why be just one thing?
One way to know when a city feels poised to enter the big leagues is when it sets up a Fashion Week. Berlin’s first, in 2007, wasn’t ready for prime time, but now the event, held every January and July, draws global fashion media fascinated as much by Berlin’s scene as by what walks down the runways. German designer Svenja Specht, who has participated in the shows, puts out two beautifully constructed collections a year under the name Reality Studio. “There are a lot of international influences in the city now, which makes the creative scene and the shopping much more interesting,” she told me. “But Berliners are still under a lot of pressure to keep prices low. I can understand the nostalgia for things not to be so polished, but do we want to be stuck in it forever?” Inspired by her years studying art and working in Beijing, Specht designs clothes that are minimalist and sculptural, using high-quality fabrics. At Baerck, a boutique with a stylish mix of Berliner, French, and Scandinavian designers, her Asian-inspired bomber jackets in Japanese silk and paper-bag-waisted trousers pop off the racks. If polish is a problem, there’s no evidence of that here.
In cities like New York or London, derelict spaces do not remain so for long, but given the sheer number of them in Berlin and the turbulent history they reflect, there is a movement among local developers to work with them rather than knock them down and start over. Nowhere is this approach more clearly expressed than at the Neues Museum, where David Chipperfield Architects put the contemporary into direct conversation with history. They took the existing 19th-century Neoclassical structure, which had been sitting empty, half-destroyed during the war, and restored its original volume and layout, while adding understated galleries and a modular inner concrete shell. (The firm has won the commission to restore the existing Mies van der Rohe–designed New National Gallery, too, which is scheduled to reopen in 2019.)
Architect Arno Brandlhuber is another believer in minimal intervention, best known for his firm’s translucent-polycarbonate-fronted office in Mitte, which also houses the fashion magazine 032c and KOW contemporary art gallery. When Brandlhuber began building the concrete structure on top of existing foundations in 2007, the neighborhood had none of the artisanal cafés and boutiques it does today. When I visited his studio, which is lorded over by a striped house cat, his associate Tobias Hönig told me how a couple of years ago, at the same time that land values in Mitte were skyrocketing, Brandlhuber was asked to create an art installation for KOW. He simply filled up the basement with water to mimic the state of the site when he first began construction, a wistful reminder of the past.
Berlin’s idealism extends to its burgeoning food scene, too. Anywhere else, the gastropub Katz Orange, which serves local wild game, might be content to remain a casual-glamorous hangout for upscale locals and traveling off-duty movie stars. (Zachary Quinto sat one table over from mine, and Lou Reed used to frequent it, too.) But here, the young owner, Ludwig Cramer-Klett, wanted to express his commitment to sustainable agriculture, and so he added the Contemporary Food Lab, an event space for workshops by farmers, scientists, and artists.
At Bö 13ef tzow Brewery, a 250,000-square-foot behemoth that dates back to 1885, there is now a cavernous art gallery, a blue-lit craft-cocktail bar, and a bistro by Tim Raue, La Soupe Populaire, which serves German comfort food and is decorated in the city’s omnipresent flea-market-industrial mix. “I’m not doing foam sausages here,” Raue said to me. “My dishes are pure Berlin,” albeit rendered with sophistication. That means a luscious version of Königsberger Klopse, the famous veal meatballs in cream sauce, alongside mashed potatoes and beets—the same dish Raue served to the Obamas on their most recent visit to Germany.
At Reinstoff, Daniel Achilles divides his menu between “far away” concoctions of Asian and international inspiration and “quite near” dishes, including grilled pike with thickened watercress juice and apples, and catfish with a quail egg and Jerusalem artichokes. The restaurant’s exposed brick and contemporary light sculptures are clubby and informal, much like the ceramic tiles and leather banquettes at Pauly Saal, the other very buzzed-about restaurant right now, with its cleaned-up interpretations of hearty German fare and more than 800 wines in the cellar.
Seasoned travelers recognize this highly-thought-out, produce-conscious approach to native cuisine in urban centers around the world, but it’s still relatively new in Berlin, as are those other objects of culinary fascination, food trucks and fairs. Street Food Thursday at Markthalle Neun, in Kreuzberg, is the brainchild of Kavita Meelu, a London transplant who arrived five years ago with a marketing background and a desire to break into food. She had planned on staying only a couple of months, but saw an opening: “The creative and rebellious personality of Berlin wasn’t being reflected in the culinary scene,” she said, “and there were so many immigrants with ideas and stories.” We met on the last night of her monthlong pop-up, Bar Market, where she had been hosting close to a thousand people a night for craft cocktails and small-batch wines. But it’s her work developing Street Food Thursday that has given the city somewhere to be one night a week. Within an hour of opening, the space was flooded with hungry visitors sampling ramen by the Californian-Korean duo Mr. Susan, barbecue from the German-Italian Big Stuff Smoked Barbecue, and beers from local brewery Heidenpeters. The smiles were broad as they immersed themselves in the new tastes of home.
Lufthansa and United offer nonstop flights to Berlin from New York City.
Berlin’s public transit system, which includes the U-Bahn and S-Bahn, is fast and convenient. Taxis are also plentiful and easy to hail.
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