In a former bicycle shop near Alexanderplatz, in central Berlin, a band of artists runs an unofficial annex of the city planning department. The walls are covered with architectural renderings, and maps are spread on plywood tables around the room. In a large display window, overlooking a boulevard where Soviet tanks once rolled on parade, is a scale model of the project they are working on: a mixed-use neighborhood center with art studios, offices, and apartments for thousands of people. There will be affordable housing for seniors, settlement homes for refugees, shelters for the homeless, community workshops, a new town hall. It’s the sort of project dreamed up by utopian collectives around the world. Here it might actually happen.
Passersby can look up from that styrofoam model to the empty shell it mirrors: the Haus der Statistik, built in the late 1960s for the national statistics office of the German Democratic Republic, also known as East Germany. Spread over eight downtown blocks, the complex totals half a million square feet in three connected mid-rises (up to twelve stories tall) and a few smaller buildings. After reunification, it housed one of the offices charged with opening up the surveillance archives of the Stasi, the East German secret police. But that’s all history now. The Haus der Statistik closed its doors in 2008, and for the past decade it has been abandoned, a conspicuous ruin in the center of the city. 1
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The buildings were supposed to be torn down and replaced with private apartments and offices, following the fate of other state-owned properties. But here a handful of artists staged a remarkable intervention. What began as an effort to protest Berlin’s lack of affordable housing turned into a serious plan to save the Haus der Statistik and adapt it to community needs, backed by €140 million in state funding. Now the artists are working directly with public officials, planners, and architects to lead a participatory process that will transform the area around Alexanderplatz. “It’s a huge statement about the future of development in Berlin,” said organizer Harry Sachs. If it works, it will be a model for bottom-up city-making — and a lesson in how outsiders can claim political power.
The Keys to the Machine
On a sunny morning in September 2015, four artists in hardhats gathered outside the vacant Haus der Statistik, puzzling over the controls of the machine they had rented — a tracked spider lift with a telescoping arm, like a cherry picker, that could raise a caged platform 150 feet in the air. First they had to figure out how to operate it. The delivery man had just handed over the keys and left. “I guess he assumed we knew what we were doing,” said Boris Jöns, one of the artists present that day.
Artists protesting evictions dropped a fake construction banner: ‘Room for Art, Culture, and Social Space.’ The project did not exist, but the conditions it proposed to solve were real.
As Jöns and Sachs stepped onto the platform and haltingly maneuvered themselves upward, their conspirators broke into the building and took the stairs. They reunited at the seventh floor and draped a huge vinyl banner, ten meters tall, down the side of the building where the windows used to be. It was styled like the information boards seen at construction sites around the city, with thick hatch marks framing the bold red lettering: “Here Arises for Berlin: Room for Art, Culture, and Social Space.” 2 Below, a crowd of invited supporters and journalists gathered for a press event that spoofed an official groundbreaking ceremony. The artists facetiously thanked the authorities for converting the abandoned building into a social housing development.
The project did not actually exist, of course, but the conditions it proposed to solve were real. Teetering on the edge of bankruptcy in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Berlin’s government had sold off state-owned housing companies and estates to international investors. More than 110,000 public apartments went private. 3 In the years since, rising rents had forced artists and other vulnerable tenants out of their homes and workspaces. According to one tally, 350 artist studios were lost in 2014; another 500 were in danger. As evictions rippled through the city, artists formed the Alliance of Threatened Berlin Studio Houses, which agitated for tenant protections. 4
They found a symbol of public decline in the abandoned Haus der Statistik, which was covered in graffiti, stripped of valuable materials, and colonized by birds, after the government removed the windows to deter squatting. A 2009 design competition had produced a scheme to raze the site and build market-rate housing in trapezoidal blocks, but the project stalled as the city legislature never issued final approval. 5 The state and national governments couldn’t agree on what to do next: ditch the winning design and renovate the buildings, solicit new proposals for redevelopment, or simply sell the property to the highest bidder. A demolition date was set, then repeatedly pushed back. The artists’ alliance decided to put forth their own vision. “We had no idea that this would actually lead to something,” Jöns said.
The banner drop lasted only a day, but it drew enough media attention that the artists earned a meeting with the mayor of Mitte, Berlin’s central borough. The mayor was predictably skeptical, but supportive enough that the artists left his office and immediately reached out to professional designers about turning their prank into a reality. They connected with the Berlin-based architecture collaborative Raumlabor, and by early November a small group of artists and designers was meeting regularly to develop the concept.
They talked with a finance officer of the Berlin Senate to explore the possibility of purchasing the buildings from the German Federal Agency for Real Estate. They were told it would take about €50 million to convince the government to cancel redevelopment plans and sell the building, and neither Berlin nor Mitte officials were willing to put up the cash, but the Senate agreed to push for the sale if the artists found another buyer. So Sachs and his partners got a bank’s assurance that a loan could be secured, given the size of the property and its redevelopment potential. Rather than taking out a loan themselves, the activists worked that fact into their proposal and sent it back to the Mitte mayor. With his tacit support, they planned another press event, which the mayor attended, signaling that the concept of adapting the Haus der Statistik for the people’s use had political support and development potential, even as the buildings were still slated for demolition. All this happened in a matter of weeks.
More than 300 people showed up to the next public meeting — among them architects, urban planners, land-use activists, arts educators, members of housing cooperatives, and advocates for the homeless and refugees. “We were asking for ideas about how this could be realized,” Sachs said. “What things should we look for? Who would be the partners? What would be the ethical code? What would be the economic model?” Several of the groups represented there joined forces with the Alliance of Threatened Berlin Studio Houses to create a formal cooperative, ZUsammenKUNFT — a play on the words for together and future. They launched the Initiative Haus der Statistik and began drawing up plans for the site. 6
We were shaping it in such a way that it was difficult for a politician to say no. You would be saying no to public housing, no to administration, no to education, no to social infrastructure.
About half of the square footage would be set aside for housing — for seniors, refugees, young families, and students. A quarter would be converted to live-work and studio spaces for artists. The rest would be dedicated to education and other cultural uses, including a new town hall for the district government. This all played out against a backdrop of social change and political turmoil, as Berliners fought to define the soul of the city. Germany was on pace to take in more than one million refugees in 2015. Activists argued that luxury real estate development was incompatible with a free and independent city that welcomed people of all generations, classes, and ethnicities. Meanwhile, rents continued to rise, and longtime residents kept getting evicted. 7 ZUsammenKUNFT spoke to a wide range of social concerns. “We were shaping it in such a way that it was difficult for a politician to say no, basically,” Sachs said. “Almost impossible. You would be saying no to public housing, no to administration, no to education, no to social infrastructure.”
The strategy worked. At a public meeting in December, only three months after the initial protest, the district mayor called for the Haus der Statistik to become a “gentrification-proof island,” and he pledged to work with the Berlin Senate to convince the federal government to cancel demolition and transfer ownership of the property. After negotiating a real estate swap, Berlin became the official owner seventeen months later, in May 2017. 8 The €140 million redevelopment project would be led by a consortium of state-owned real estate companies and state and local government agencies. But instead of those professionals running things by themselves, they made the Initiative Haus der Statistik an official partner. The activists whose stunt was intended to spur debate would be directly involved in shaping one of the most significant real estate developments in Berlin.
The Self-Representation of the State
As if the stakes were not already high enough, organizers have had to contend with the political legacies of one of the country’s most symbolic sites. In the 1960s, Alexanderplatz was imagined as a stage for architecture and urban design that would establish Berlin as a modernist world capital. “It was a program for the whole of East Germany,” said architectural historian Thomas Flierl. Showpiece buildings like the disco-ball-topped Berlin television tower, the mosaic-wrapped Haus des Lehrers, and the metallic domed Kongresshalle projected an image of the young socialist nation to the world.
In the socialist 1960s, Alexanderplatz was imagined as a stage for architecture and urban design that would establish East Berlin as a modernist world capital.
“Alexanderplatz was in many ways the hub of East Berlin,” said Brian Ladd, author of Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape. 9 The buildings were “new and gleaming to show that the proletarian state, the workers’ state, could be modern and forward-looking.” They represented a turn away from neo-classicism and the so-called “Stalinist” style. The symbolism was aimed at a world audience, but was also for domestic consumption. “It was important for creating a frame for self-representation of the state,” said Andreas Butter, of the Liebniz Institute for Research on Society and Space.
The Haus der Statistik, one of the last showpieces built on Alexanderplatz, was notably less flashy than its neighbors. There was a café, a fishing-and-hunting supply store, and a shop carrying products from the USSR, but most of the complex was utilitarian office space used for organizing the country’s statistical information and producing an annual yearbook of figures on population, labor, and economic activity. Even so, Butter said, the buildings were designed to impress, with strong horizontality and modernist flourishes, like the folded red metal sculptures that broke up the wide facades.
Down the wide parade street of Karl-Marx-Allee, the buildings that arose after the 1950s were in the international style, with straight lines of concrete and steel. Pre-fabricated “plattenbau,” uniform apartment blocks, were laid out in clean rows. Around Alexanderplatz, in contrast, the buildings were individually distinct. “They were saying, ‘We have this openness,’” Butter said. “Not everything has the same height. They’re standing freely.”
After the reunification of Germany, a 1993 plan envisioned thirteen towers in and around the square. None were built.
Yet this ostentatious show of modernism couldn’t obscure the city’s defining geographical fact — the 27-mile wall that divided East and West Berlin. That “anti-modernist idea,” Butter said, was almost completely absent from the East’s architectural self-perception. For an exhibition at the Berlinische Galerie art museum, he sifted through 37,000 photographs from the archive of the East Berlin Municipal Administration for Urban Development, Housing, and Traffic, a voluminous record of the city’s development dating back to 1945. The wall was only visible in photos taken after 1989. 10
In 1993, a design competition to remake Alexanderplatz in the image of reunified Germany was won by architects Hans Kollhoff and Helga Timmermann, who envisioned thirteen towers in and around the square. None have been built to date. Reconciling the cultural identity of modern Germany was a generation-long process, and development around Alexanderplatz has been slowed by historic designations for East German architectural landmarks and a lack of viable investment. There have been only a handful of new low-rise buildings, including a shopping mall and movie theater. Plans for a luxury apartment-hotel by Frank Gehry are stalled, too. 11
On the edge of this imagined renewal, the Haus der Statistik has been in a prolonged limbo. The upper floors got a makeover in 2000, when the government set up a reading room where citizens could exercise their legal right to review any files collected about them by the Stasi. 12 Rows of tables and chairs were placed in an empty room, and a desk was positioned near the door. “It almost looked like a classroom,” said Dagmar Hovestädt, spokesperson for the Federal Commissioner for the Records of the State Security Service of the former German Democratic Republic. In the first year of the transparency program, nearly one million people applied to review their files at reading rooms across the country. The room at the Haus der Statistik closed in 2008 when the entire complex was vacated, but for many people, the site remains affectively charged by that dark chapter in East German history when everyone was subject to Stasi surveillance and friends and neighbors secretly reported on one another.
In 2000, the government set up a reading room where citizens could exercise their legal right to review any files collected about them by the Stasi.
That era seems distant now, and many neighbors just want the site to be something other than a ruin. In a handheld video shot in August 2017, shortly after the property was transferred to Berlin, an urban explorer walks quickly through one of the mid-rise buildings in the late afternoon. He aims his camera down at the carcass of a bird, then up to show the bent metal of a door violently pried open. We see an abandoned shopping cart in the hallway and vegetation climbing through the windows. Then he finds a man sitting in front of the elevators, alone, with a grocery bag and a juice bottle. They exchange pleasantries, and the cameraman tries to explain that he’s making an “urbex” film, a term that does not register with the other man, who is lucid and polite. The cameraman asks how he got in the building, a standard greeting among urban explorers. “Keine ahnung,” comes the reply. “No idea.” The cameraman pans around the small elevator bay and says goodbye. Climbing the stairs to the next floor, he laughs quietly and whispers, “Crackhead.”
“Now We’re Partners”
At a town hall meeting this past winter, plans for renovating and redeveloping the Haus der Statistik were presented to a standing-room-only crowd. Proposals from the three finalist design teams showed a rooftop garden with kids, a bike parking shed, a small forest. The projector shot out keywords like urban, diverse, mixed use, lively, active, small scale. One team proclaimed the site “a new city building block.” Commenters lined up at the microphone, and their concerns were recorded on index cards. They wanted inclusiveness, green space, accommodations for older people, a kindergarten, a supermarket. One speaker suggested preserving the large red letters painted across the top three floors of one building: “STOP WARS.”
During public workshops, designers were on hand to make adjustments: ‘They were sitting there cutting up the models based on the ideas people were giving them.’
In another place or era, a project like this might be presented to the community as a done deal, a complete design with little room for modification. But the Initiative Haus der Statistik is coordinating a multi-track planning process among the five partner organizations and engaging constantly with the public at the showroom in the former bike store. There are weekly design workshops, and the space is open daily as a hub for information and input. A public “ambassador,” Leona Lynen, acts as liaison between the community and the developers. She said that since opening last fall, the showroom has been flooded with neighbors who offer suggestions about how to use the buildings and open spaces, even where to put the access lanes for garbage trucks. During five months of design charettes and presentations, designers were on hand to make adjustments in real time. “They were sitting there cutting up the models based on the ideas people were giving them,” Lynen said. “It was really on an eye-to-eye level.”
In February, a jury selected the winning design, by Teleinternetcafe and Treibhaus, based in Berlin and Hamburg. Their plan envisions a porous cluster of buildings and courtyards, opened at key points to create more public space and fluid connections along the arterial road that borders the long edge of the site. The three connected mid-rises will be renovated and reused as artist studios and offices for the city’s finance department. The other buildings will be demolished and replaced with a 16-story tower that will be the new Mitte town hall, as well as two residential towers, and four smaller buildings dedicated to “experimental uses” — which could include co-living and live-work spaces or community meeting rooms. Three interior courtyards will face ground-floor retail, art exhibition and project space, bicycle storage, and a kindergarten. 13
To the designers, the amount of public participation in the design process was impressive, even a bit overwhelming. “It was much more intense than other projects,” said Urs Kumberger, an architect with Teleinternetcafe. “There was a workshop with the people from the initiative and people who just came by. And then two weeks later there was an intermediate presentation with the jury. And then then two weeks later there was another workshop. … We had to be very open with our ideas from the beginning.”
The entire process has been unusual, according to Angela Deppe, head of portfolio management at BIM, the state-owned development company that is one of the project’s five partners. “The key difference is that citizen participation happened at a very early stage of development,” she said, through an interpreter. Typically, “it happens at a much later point … so the opinions or the ideas of the citizenry have a smaller impact.”
Yet for all the openness of the planning process and the flexibility of the spaces, there is now an urgency to more tightly define the design and program. The Initiative is working to determine interim “pioneer” uses for some spaces, letting in tenants even before major renovations, to put life back into buildings that have been empty for more than a decade.
More than 60 groups have expressed interest in renting ground floor spaces in the main complex for a nominal fee. They range from theater troupes, to a group that upcycles waste into new products, to advocacy organizations working on homelessness and refugee rights. Like the public design charrettes, the idea is to bring in a mix of communities as a test-run for this new neighborhood center. The first users will move in this summer, pending city inspections.
“It’s exciting,” Sachs said. “What’s happening now in the workshop will extend throughout the ground floors of the buildings.” An exhibition about the design process opened in early June. The Initiative is also hoping to host monthly social events and barbecues to start reintegrating the site and the neighborhood.
Prospective tenants range from theater troupes, to a group that upcycles waste, to homelessness and refugee rights organizations.
Opening up these spaces while planning is ongoing might seem premature, but there’s a political motivation. The project has gotten as far as it is has with the backing of the Berlin Senate, which is controlled by a coalition of the Social Democrats, Greens, and the Left Party. The next government might not be so sympathetic to this model of “co-produced city development,” Sachs said. Construction of the new buildings is expected to start in 2022, but there are elections in fall 2021, and if they go the other way, Sachs said, “It could all collapse.”
On the other hand, if the project succeeds it may signal a generational turn away from bombastic master planning. Gisa Weszkalnys embedded herself in the city planning office for an ethnographic study in the early 2000s, when plans for Alexanderplatz were still shaped by the 1993 design competition. 14 She said the change in the city’s design culture since that time has been remarkable. Planners and developers are now less burdened by the binary choice between hard-headed preservation and blank-slate modernization. The Haus der Statistik reuse project, she said, “isn’t oblivious to the past and to history, but is also not obsessed with it in ways that a slightly older generation is.”
Although construction is still years away, the project has already succeeded in the minds of some observers. “Never had I heard any voices for protecting the Haus der Statistik until the moment these young guys went there,” said Wolfgang Kil, an eminent architecture critic born in East Berlin just after the war. He told me their activism reminds him of the kind of people-led city-making that flourished in the chaotic years surrounding reunification, when squatters took over empty buildings and artist cooperatives seeded diverse cultural movements. “What made Berlin interesting for people all over the world was this sense of improvisation, that you can do it yourself there.” In Kil’s view, the Haus der Statistik reuse project is a strong countermove against the forces that are now turning the city into what he calls a “stupid Western business capital,” with gleaming office towers, corporate coffee chains, and high-end condos. “It’s one of the last signs of hope for the Berlin I would like to live in.”
What made Berlin interesting for people all over the world was this sense of improvisation… It’s one of the last signs of hope for the Berlin I would like to live in.
The context of this site is unique, but it has spotlighted conflicting values and attitudes toward historic preservation that have stymied Berlin urbanists for decades. Sachs is hopeful that the public planning workshops at Alexanderplatz can be a model for people directly shaping their urban environment, rather than ceding control to international developers or getting caught in historical traps. While participatory planning is new at this scale, there are signs it may be catching on across the city. In the district of Kreuzberg, the proposed redevelopment of Dragoner Areal is being shaped by a similar community-led process. 15
Sachs said he’s working now to get more young people involved in the Initiative and its programs. Exposing them early on, he said, will normalize participatory design and ease mainstream acceptance. He’s now four years into a project that will likely take another four, at least. The key to making it work, he said, has been the gradual building of trust — with the public, the design community, and especially with government authorities accustomed to doing things differently. “In the beginning we were just activists,” he said, “but now we’re partners.”