When Klaus Wowereit, Berlin’s mayor from 2001 until his resignation in 2014, described his city as ‘poor, but sexy’, few could have guessed how rapidly the city would outgrow the label. For many, Wowereit’s 13 years at the helm delivered a masterclass in city branding, helping pull the city up by its bootstraps economically to turn it into the international tech- and start-up hub that it is today.
But others were left behind: large parts of the city saw gentrification that was too rapid, out-pricing long-term residents and displacing them from the neighbourhoods they knew as the demand for holiday rentals and apartments for contract workers on foreign salaries proved more lucrative for landlords. So, as the government paved the way for money to re-enter the city, it was those on the ground that ensured the city remained adventurous, people-centric and liberal. As part of our Around the World series, we take a ride around the city to discover some of their projects firsthand.
Voo Store & Companion Coffee, Kreuzberg
Vogue described Voo Store as “the Collette of Berlin”, a suggestion that it’s a slice of Paris (or New York, or London) transplanted into the German capital. But stepping off the chaos of Oranienstrasse, in the heart of Berlin’s Turkish neighbourhood, and into the sundrenched courtyard that houses Voo (and espresso and tea bar, Companion) is a quintessential Berlin experience and indicative of the melding of cultures that occurs throughout the city.
The fact that it’s not located in Mitte – Berlin’s fashion focused retail precinct – is testimony to its founders, the Ankara-born Müjdeci brothers, who don’t see why anyone living in Kreuzberg would want to cross town to go shopping. The concept store harbours designer pieces from domestic labels (Jil Sander, Mykita), Europe’s most-coveted (Gosha Rubchinskiy, Maison Margiela, Acne Studios) and international names (Y-3, Nike, Levi’s). The store is furnished by Danish architect Sigurd Larsen, which you can experience the full beauty of in the coffee and tea showroom – a concept store in its own right. Companion Coffee, whose new flagship store has just opened in neighbouring Neukölln, offer a measured but accessible coffee and tea platform where you can experience the wares of Europe’s finest roasters, express delivered weekly to the Oranienstrasse courtyard.
König Galerie, Kreuzberg
Adaptive reuse examples abound in Berlin, although most of them sit in the former East, hastily abandoned following the decline of the nation and repurposed over the next decade. But St. Agnes Church, located in the heart of Kreuzberg and just a stone’s throw from the geographic centre of the city, is cut from a different cloth. Considered one of Germany’s finest examples of brutalist architecture, the church was designed by Werner Düttman in the mid-1960s and, until decommissioned by the Catholic church is 2005, served a small but dedicated band of parishioners.
The church was saved from demolition by a heritage listing and fell into the hands of architect Arno Brandlhuber and gallerist Johan König. Brandlhuber, whose own work is characterised by the same monolithic slabs of concrete that define St. Agnes, oversaw the transformation from church to gallery, turning the cavernous former-nave into a home to Koenig’s impressive roster of artists, that include Alicja Kwade, Erwin Wurm and Andreas Mühe (pictured). The gallery has positioned itself at the centre of a neighbourhood that König felt had been forgotten by the rest of Berlin, engaging with the community centre, local residents and neighbouring apartment buildings by using art as a unifier, rather than placing it on a pedestal (or plinth, as the case may be).
Markthalle Neun, Kreuzberg
The past decade has seen Berlin’s culinary landscape slip past its reputation as a literal sausage fest and emerge as leaders in new European cuisine, finally giving food writers something to write about beyond gold flake coated currywurst and Bill Clinton’s latest meal.
At the heart of the renaissance is a century-old market hall that has remarkably escaped not only the bombings of WWII, but also the collapse of neighbourhood grocers at the hands of discount supermarket chains and the wrath of the greedy developers who nearly saw it razed. Today, Markthalle Neun is a hub for the independent food and beverage operators who have come to define Berlin’s food culture. By day it’s your local grocer, but it transforms rapidly: on the weekend, when they host a breakfast market; during the swathes of food and beverage related events they host; and, most of all, on Thursday nights, when the weekly Street Food Thursday event takes over the space and diners and drinkers spill out on to the surrounding streets.
Markthalle Neun is an opportunity for new operators to find their feet (and a market) before they move on to their own premisis, and it’s a chance for established operators to experiment and try something new. And, okay – sausage is served here, but it’s new and exciting and genuinely worth writing about.
Alternative housing models have seen a spike of interest in Australia in the wake of the affordable housing crisis and a glut of residential developments that focus more on profit than people. In Germany, a long legacy of implementing collective housing projects places its architects and city planners at the forefront of a global movement.
Just around the corner from St. Agnes Church is R50, a Baugruppen (building group) named for its location at Ritterstrasse 50. R50 is the product of architects ifau and Jesko Fezer and HEIDI & VON BECKERATH and a group of their friends and co-conspirators – together they funded the project, purchased the land, collaborated on its design and now live.
While cohousing may sound like a return to your university living arrangements or a short-term holiday rental, the reality of collectives like Germany’s Baugruppen is substantially more affordable housing, autonomy that extends far beyond a body corporate, the ability to customise and collaborate on design and the fostering of a meaningful community in which to live. It’s a model that has inspired the likes of Nightingale and Assemble’s recently-launched Assemble Model, but there’s much to be learnt here for larger developers too.
Wolf Kino, Neukölln
Few cities in the world can boast as impressive a roster of independent cinemas as Berlin. Wolf Kino, in the heart of Neukölln, is the latest addition, and it’s one that has brought together Berlin’s diverse filmmaking community, who played a significant role in its €56,000 crowd funding campaign.
When we ran our series on Social Cinemas last year, Wolf Kino had only just emerged from a two year long renovation that saw their prominent corner location converted to house two custom screening rooms, an in-house bar and café and Studio 6 – a concept space described as the “left brain” of Wolf that allows the traditional limitations of cinema to be challenged.
Everything here has been designed for the needs of the industry: both theatres accommodate private screenings, small premiers and public sessions; the bar has become an informal meeting point for writers, directors and producers; and, later this year, a Wolf-operated post-production facility will open in the adjacent building. And yet, rather than feel like a high-brow, cinephile-only clubhouse, Wolf has embraced the local neighbourhood through initiatives like Baby Wolfgang, their weekly sessions for parents and babies, where films are kept to a low volume, the lights are turned down and breastfeeding, sleeping and nappy changes aren’t just facilitated – they’re encouraged.
When Tempelhof Airport closed to air traffic in 2008, nobody seemed sure of its future. While designated a public park soon after, a referendum in 2009 failed to attract enough voters to secure its future from developers and it wasn’t until a second vote was held five years later that its status as Berlin largest open area was guaranteed.
Today, Tempelhofer Feld (Tempelhof Field) has become a lynchpin of urban activity for Berlin, home to urban sports initiatives, extensive community gardens, three dog runs, a bike co-op, a beer garden and a dedicated project space capable of hosting forums. With its runways still in tact, Tempelhof provides a unique opportunity for cyclists, roller skaters and even kite surfers to hone their skills away from vehicles, and masterplanners Raumlabor have creates a series of running, cycling and walking loops for working out.
At the north-west corner the austere, monolithic terminal building remains intact and today hosts major international events, including Berlin Fashion Week and music festivals. In 2015, it provided crucial emergency refugee accommodation during the European migrant crisis, furthering the former-airport’s legacy as a truly democratic space in the city.
About Study Tours
Study Tours are not intended to be city guides. Their purpose is to try and understand how different cities function, what kind of life they provide their inhabitants and what we might be able to learn from them. Think of them not as a comprehensive list of things to do but as a comment from a curious fly on the wall, delivered without an opinion of how the city ought to be better. All our Study Tours can be found here.
Samuel Davison is Editor at Right Angle Studio. He has written extensively on cities for a range of international publications. He also publishes This is the Same Ocean, an annual journal of photography. His photographic work has been shown around the world and he was the 2016 winner of the Independent Photography Festival’s Grand Jury Prize.
Tour photography by Luke Marshall Johnson. Additional images courtesy of ifau and Jezko Fezer / Heidi & Von Beckerath and by the author.