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Gucci, Luxury Apartments and Bombed-Out Ruins

April 13, 2011

When the Wall fell in Berlin in 1989, what many now consider the “heart of Berlin” was a mess of abandoned buildings, empty lots and prefabricated Eastern Block monstrosities. Hackescher Markt was less lively street cafes than bullet strafed facades, Friedrichstrasse more border blockades than Gucci. What unfolded in the chaotic years following the reunification of Germany is still very much occurring, albeit in a very different form, in very different places. As the second decade of Berlin again being a whole city comes to a close, the first phase of sewing the two sides together is coming to an end and new ones are just beginning.

Friedrichstrasse and the most central areas of the city are largely rebuilt and beautified, providing Berlin for the first time in generations with boulevards and squares to rival London or Paris. The last of the largest lots in and around Potsdammer Platz and Unter den Linden are just now beginning construction, with a 90,000 sqm shopping/hotel/residential center and dozens of luxury apartment buildings being completed in the next several years.

As “critical reconstruction” winds down in central Mitte, attention is starting to turn towards new parts of the city, bringing with it a plethora of new opportunities and more than a few controversies. With the very center of the city more or less whole again, development is spilling into areas both north and south, but much more pronounced to the north.

The area around Invalidenstrasse and Chausseestrasse (Nordbahnhof) is changing fast, with hundreds of thousands of square meters of office space being completed over the next several years. Most is being built to purpose, including a massive new complex for the German Federal Intelligence Agency, Bundesnachrichtendienst, as well as offices for the Deutsche Bahn, the national rail service. Just to the south though, between this heavy development and the already established areas near Friedrichstrasse Bahnhof and Unter den Linden lies a hold out in the race to change Berlin, one that is proving to be more than just a localized issue and is forcing many to step back and debate “progress” in this rising capital city.

When the wall did fall, more than developers and politicians came flooding in to the East. Many artists, writers, and those looking for adventure came as well… taking advantage of the cheap grit of the once forbidden and relishing in the underground, underrated “scene” of the time. Berlin was (and still is) hip and counter culture, and this was expressed in squats, nightclubs, communes and rioting.

In February of 1990, two months shy of a planned demolition of a large complex or war ruins on northern Friedrichstrasse, a group of artists occupied the former Jewish department store, proclaiming it the Kunsthaus Tacheles (Art House “straight talking” in German and Yiddish). Since this “occupation”, the simple band of artists came to number nearly 200 and clubs, bars and galleries moved in and set up shop. Representing a romanticized, alternative side of Berlin the complex thrived and has garnered international recognition for works produced and its free spirited existence in the center of a world metropolis.

By 2011 however, pressure from developers and a cash strapped city became too much and years of legal maneuvering overwhelmed the rag tag artists group. At the end of March 2011 half the artists took a buy out package worth a million Euro and are now making plans for a new complex somewhere else in Berlin. The clubs and bars are gone, and the last holdouts are stubbornly digging in their heels and itching for a fight. Plans for a large retail/hotel/residential complex are circulating and it appears that this once mighty landmark of the wild frontier between East and West is entering its final chapter.

Regardless of how the Tacheles saga is ultimately resolved, the beat of Berlins drum continues to keep us all marching forward, whether we like it or not. I have no doubt that in five years from now this complex will be a high end addition to the rest of Mitte, and I also have no doubt that in 2 years a new and even more exciting Tacheles will rise in another part of Berlin, perhaps Wedding or Friedrichshain, Neukölln or Köpenick. As a popular and unrelated ad campaign ironically proclaims in the subway stations around Mitte, “Berlin bleibt nie Berlin”… Berlin never stays Berlin.

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