The stained glass in the grand foyer of the building where I work depicts factories and space travel, alongside striking workers and their families. On the wall in the second grandest conference room is a vast hammer and sickle mosaic. Next door, in the grandest room of all, there is another mosaic circling the room with yet more astronauts, strapping, tool-wielding men and women, and squat chimneys belching smoke. Here’s the surprise: I work at GTEC, a centre for entrepreneurship, based at ESMT European School for Management and Technology, Berlin’s leading private business school set up by some of Germany’s biggest businesses. Arguably the epitome of capitalism: so what’s with all the socialist symbolism? The clue is in what this spectacular building at Schlossplatz 1 used to be before it was renovated: the former Staatsratsgebäude (National Council Building) for the East German government. But this is just one example of what could be considered a Berlin leitmotif: transformed buildings, defying their former purpose.
The Bunker in Mitte has also known other lives. Originally the Reichsbahnbunker, it was built by the architect Karl Bonatz in 1943 to shelter 3,000 Reichsbahn train passengers. The square colourless concrete block, set between residential, commercial and university buildings in an expensive part of town, has an area of 1000 m2 and is 18 meters high; its walls are up to two metres thick. In May 1945 the Red Army transformed it into a prisoner of war camp. From 1949, it was used to store textiles, and, from 1957, as storage for dry and tropical fruit. Then came two subsequent transformations: from 1992, as a hardcore techno club before being forced to close in 1996 due to building restrictions; and in 2001, bought from the government by a real estate investor to be used as the venue for the Berlin art festival “Insideout”. Most recently, since 2003, it has been the private property of Christian Boros, serving as a home for his private collection of contemporary art. He has had the space converted into a 3,000m2 exhibition space and built a 450m2 glass-walled penthouse on the roof. Though welcomed by some, the most recent incarnation has been contentious. Should a former prisoner of war camp really become a private collector’s exhibition space? Impressive to look at and be in, uniquely representative of Berlin’s twentieth century history, but the jury on tastefulness is still out.
If you’re looking for iconic, take Tempelhof. Built in 1923, massively reconstructed by the Nazi government in the mid-1930s, and the lifeline for West Berlin during the Cold War, Tempelhof was officially closed as an airport in 2008. Since then, its complex of buildings have been leased to a disparate range of organisations, including the Berlin police, the central lost property office, the Berlin traffic control authority, a kindergarten, a dancing school, and one of the city’s oldest revue theatres. The most recent residents, as of September 2015, are over 1,000 refugees – housed temporarily in tents set up in two aircraft hangars. The airfield was given over to the people of Berlin as a park for jogging, rollerblading, kite-flying, wind-karting, urban gardening, barbecuing and general lounging. In 2011 Berlin’s voters threw out council plans for another potential transformation involving commercial areas, a public library and affordable housing: they wanted to keep the park they loved. Who knows how long this status quo will last.
Other examples are many and plentiful. There’s rave club Tresor, which first set up in 1992 in the basement of a disused department store, only to move into an abandoned heating plant in 2005. Stattbad in Wedding is a former public swimming baths, built in 1907, converted into a cultural center in 2001. The Umspannwerk (electrical substation) in Kreuzberg was a red-brick gothic jewel in Berlin’s industrial history, put up in 1925 to supply electricity to the local neighbourhood, decommissioned in 1989, and transformed into an event location in 2001; the history of the Umspannwerk-Ost (the oldest electrical substation in Berlin) – now part theatre, part restaurant, part party venue – is not dissimilar.
Klaus Wowereit, mayor of Berlin from 2001 – 2014, is famous for his 2001 description of Berlin as “arm aber sexy” (“poor but sexy”). This trend for repurposing iconic old buildings, caught up, for better or for worse, in Berlin’s tumultuous history, fits with that. Whether you like all the instances or not, Berlin, like much of Germany, has spent the last 20 years (and more) confronting the history of the twentieth century head on, re-inventing itself, and making the best of even the hardest parts of their history – and this process with the buildings is surely part of it.