Since the Wall came down, Berlin has been a magnet for a breed of artists more interested in partying than art. But in past years it has fostered a larger swathe of creatives.
BY GISELA WILLIAMS
The summer after my junior year in college, just a few years after the Wall came down, I spent a month in Berlin studying German. I remember peering through a crack in the high fence surrounding what is now Potsdamer Platz, then a massive no man’s land of broken asphalt, packed earth, and weeds. Now, more than two decades later, I live here with my family, and Potsdamer Platz is a shiny new center of gleaming high-rises built by the likes of Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers.
Personally, I think it’s a little too shiny; it doesn’t assimilate very well into the city’s architectural context. But this sprawling capital, hands down one of the most dynamic cities in Europe, can afford to experiment. More than 25 years after the unification of East and West, Berlin still has many empty buildings and spaces to repurpose. The evolving landscape continues to be actively considered, discussed, and argued over. I live near the former Tempelhof Airport, closed in 2008 to be turned into a public park. When the city announced that it was breaking ground on the next step of its master plan, which included uninspired blocks of housing, thousands of residents protested. Enough signatures stopped the development and now it is perhaps one of Europe’s most unusual urban spaces—a Bladerunner kind of setting filled with giant kites, yoga classes, and gardens. The host site of previous DMY Berlin design fairs, it’s so enormous you barely notice that Germany’s largest refugee camp is located in the former aircraft hangars.
The latest controversial project (following the failed attempt to complete a new international airport) is perhaps the rebuilding of the Berlin City Palace, which many have been contesting for years. In this case, the former grand headquarters of the Kings of Prussia and German Emperors is in the midst of being rebuilt and renamed the Humboldt Forum. When it’s completed in 2019, it will be a space for the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation and the ethnological and non-European collections from the Dahlem Museums. Meanwhile, some of the world’s top architects are entering the competition to build an art museum that will join the city’s prestigious Kulturforum, a grouping of cultural institutions near Potsdamer Platz that includes the Mies van der Rohe-designed National Gallery and the Berlin Philharmonic.
Fashion, experimental art, and underground dance music may have propelled Berlin’s image as the European model of urban reinvention, but now it’s the culinary landscape that’s in the midst of a metamorphosis. Led by chefs and restaurateurs embracing the religion of genre mashups, and in some cases updating classic German cuisine for a more adventurous generation of food-obsessed locals, they’ve also integrated interdisciplinary artistic fields into the dining room in a way that amplifies the city’s patina.
While new-build concepts continue to garner excitement, the most successful ones are those that improve on the past, such as David Chipperfield’s master plan of five world-class museums on the historic Museum Island, the revival of the city’s Jewish Girls’ School in Mitte (shut down by the Nazis in 1942, repurposed as a deportation center, and now a hub of galleries and restaurants), and the Boros Collection, a private museum in a World War II air raid bunker. In typical Berlin style, these places don’t try to erase or gloss over what came before, no matter how painful or dark it might have been. Instead the layers of history are often exposed on surfaces, rather than removed. The ghosts and stories remain, but they live alongside a vibrant and optimistic creative energy hurling Berlin steadfastly into the future.
Over the last couple decades, Berlin has established itself as the European capital of contemporary art. Beyond its museums and dozens of experimental galleries, the city is filled with artists and thinkers—from Thomas Struth to Hella Jongerius—whose influence is felt on the global stage. Most interesting is how many of Berlin’s industrial spaces have been appropriated for art. Mitte’s Boros Collection (sammlung-boros.de), in a 32,000-square-foot Nazi-era bunker, doubles as the home of Christian Boros, a collector of artists such as Olafur Eliasson and Alicja Kwade. Architects Jens Casper and Petra Petersson renovated the five-floor building (the exterior still displays the bullet-hole scars of WWII), which now houses installations from big names like Ai Weiwei and Wolfgang Tillmans throughout 80 rooms. Since opening in 2008, a much-anticipated show has debuted every four years; the third is expected by early 2017. In the burgeoning creative enclave of Kreuzberg, gallerist Johann König, a member of a renowned art family, commissioned architect Arno Brandlhuber to reimagine the stark Brutalist St. Agnes church into the König Galerie. Brandlhuber, known for forward-thinking exhibition venues like the nearby gallery KOW, plays with scale and negative space inside the soaring central hall; the rest of the complex is home to a sculpture garden, artist’s residence, and the offices of the culture magazine 032c. The octagon-shaped Schinkel Pavillon, built in 1969 by revered GDR architect Richard Paulick on the grounds of the former Crown Prince Palace, is now an unorthodox space for site-specific exhibitions. Diverse programming overseen by curator Nina Pohl incorporates everything from works by Isa Genzken to electronic ballets. Perhaps most symbolic of Berlin’s bright transformation is Silent Green, a one-time crematorium turned performing arts center that shows moving image art and hosts underground DJs in a retrofitted cupola. Some of the city’s most interesting discoveries are hidden from plain sight. That’s true of the Berlinische Galerie, surrounded by high-rise East German-esque housing blocks not far from the Jewish Museum. It’s worth searching out for the sake of well-respected director Thomas Köhler’s smart mix of Dada and avant-garde European works.
RESTAURANTS & BARS
Berlin has long been a city that celebrates nightlife; no one really cared much about the food. That’s now changing—and fast. It might not yet measure up to New York or London, but a handful of new-wave spots are shaking things up. The latest project from restaurateur Ludwig Cramer-Klett, Panama (oh-panama.com), is sequestered in a back courtyard off Potsdamer Strasse, a shabby street that has become the unexpected address for some of Berlin’s most distinguished galleries, like Blain/Southern. The light-flooded dining room designed by up-and-comers Karoline Butzert and Nora Witzigmann displays modern art, including a remarkable chandelier made of vintage lights by the artist Björn Dahlem, and Kerim Seiler’s bone-shaped neon wall hanging. No other restaurant in recent years has received the fanfare of the Michelin-starred Nobelhart & Schmutzig, in Kreuzberg, where sommelier and founder Billy Wagner teamed up with chef Micha Schäfer to bring the high-end Nordic cuisine trend to the German capital. With the curtains closed and Wagner’s vinyl providing the soundtrack, diners are seated at a large U-shaped bar and served a regionally sourced 10-course menu. Longtime chef Duc Ngo, who opened up Berlin’s first respectable sushi restaurant, seems to be plotting a takeover of Kantstrasse, a stretch in the Old West notorious for MSG-happy Chinese kitchens. 893 Ryotei is his newest venture, a graffiti-windowed Nikkei (Japanese-Peruvian) concept across the street from Madame Ngo, his Vietnamese family-style brasserie. Here, Ngo’s talented right-hand man, Masao Watari, turns out small plates like grilled yakitori and anticuchos as well as South American-inspired sashimi. After the success of the Grill Royal, restaurateurs Stephan Landwehr and Boris Radczun opened the ambitious Pauly Saal, a modern German brasserie with a Michelin star located in the Jewish Girls’ School building. Patrons enter through the clubby front bar decorated with emerald green walls and leather banquettes, and proceed to the stunning dining room, where exposed brick walls and Murano chandeliers are the backdrop for a monumental rocket sculpture by artist Cosima von Bonin. For lunch in Mitte, search out Kantine, a sleek two-story cafeteria in architect David Chipperfield’s office complex that serves five simple homemade dishes each day. Just steps away, if the weather is warm, grab a table and order a fresh salad in the secret garden behind Laden, an atelier-café collaboration between Kantine and the furniture brand Buchholz, owned by former Chipperfield prodigy Katja Buchholz. Everything from the tables and stools to the cutting boards is custom-made, and the interior features original 18th-century murals uncovered during the renovation. Another one of Berlin’s noteworthy urban projects is the Holzmarkt, an artists’ village along the Spree in Friedrichshain that houses the anything-goes-club Kater Blau, inside a disused factory, and sister restaurant Fame, where the fashion crowd fuels up before a late night out.
While hostels seem to outnumber boutique hotels, especially in the energetic East, some stylish new arrivals are breaking the mold. (An added benefit is the value: A suite in a five-star property can equal the cost of a standard room in other European cities.) One of Berlin’s most grown-up properties is the 78-room Das Stue, a 1930s landmark on the leafy Tiergarten with a new modernist wing by local firm Axthelm Architekten. The public spaces in the former Danish embassy building were tastefully designed by Patricia Urquiola. A life-size crocodile sculpture, a reference to the adjacent zoo, by Quentin Garel sits beneath a wavy lighting fixture by Christian Schneider-Moll in the lobby; the Michelin-starred 5-Cinco restaurant, where former El Bulli chef Paco Pérez creates a risk-taking Mediterranean tasting menu, is outfitted with a copper cookware installation that camouflages Tom Dixon lighting fixtures. In the western residential Charlottenburg area, the 87-room Hotel am Steinplatz is a discreet property originally designed by art nouveau architect August Endell, who also built the Hackesche Höfe complex in Mitte. In its midcentury heyday it was a hotbed for Russian aristocrats, literary greats, and Hollywood stars like Brigitte Bardot. Recently, architect Claudia Dressler breathed new life into it, adding an art deco flavor and modern comforts like bathroom amenities by the Italian fashion brand Etro. Picking up on the elevated hostel trend, local designer Werner Aisslinger overhauled a factory near the Oberbaumbrücke, a bridge connecting the districts of Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg, giving it a second act as the Michelberger Hotel. The lively social spaces, including a beer garden courtyard, are a seamless fit with the popular nightlife venues on the busy stretch of Warschauer Strasse. The dorm-style rooms are a study in egalitarian design, with flea market-sourced furniture and patterned wallpaper by the creative director Azar Kazimir.
Architect Kim Wang and respected interior designer Sandra Pauquet joined forces for the Gorki Apartments, located in the heart of Mitte. The 35 suites are well cast: Rustic wooden tables and vintage clawfoot tubs might be offset by modern pieces from Dixon or Knoll. Be sure to reserve a Finnish-crafted Pelago bike from the staff in uniforms by Danish label Wood Wood. An insider secret among visiting creatives is the Freunde von Freunden apartment, part event space for the wildly successful indie design blog, occasionally available as an affordable pied-à-terre on one of the city’s preeminent shopping streets. This year it unveiled a refresh by designer Maximiliane Hermes of Magis, who appointed the space with custom furniture to celebrate the Italian brand’s 40th anniversary. The scene at Soho House Berlin can be overpowering for some, but this is one of the few hotels with an authentic life of its own. The ground floor has recently been adapted as a concept shop called The Store, with an outpost of the British salon Barber and Parlour, and the busy Cecconi’s restaurant, a sleek dining room done up in red leather banquettes and wood-burning ovens. This year’s most anticipated opening is the sultry Provocateur in City West. With a Indochine-French restaurant and bordello-styled interiors, it’s exactly what you’d expect from the hoteliers behind the provocative Roomers properties.
Andreas Murkudis, the store and the man, is a fashion institution in Berlin. Still the style emporium of choice for successful artists and gallerists, the boutique features a beautifully selected mix of Dries Van Noten, Margiela, and Marni ready-to-wear. For one-of a-kind 20th-century and midcentury design, Jochum Rodgers is a longstanding gallery and vintage furniture store overseen by tastemakers Hans Peter Jochum and Jett Rodgers, who also rep emerging designers. Berlin's fledgling design scene is growing, and at the forefront is the multi-disciplinary New Tendency, in Kreuzberg, one of the most interesting collectives around. Its chaste office doubles as a showroom and shop, which stocks the colorful, modular Cake table, a major hit in home décor circles. The most talented hat-maker in the city is hands down Rike Feurstein, whose chapeaus, sold at her Mitte atelier, have been worn by everyone from Rihanna to Reese Witherspoon.
Germany's most cultish department store is Manufactum, thanks to a wide-ranging assortment of artisanal objects and heritage brands from all over Europe: Look for everything from handcrafted gardening tools to old-school wooden toys to handmade soap from an obscure Italian monastery. Bikini Berlin, a midcentury architectural landmark near the Berlin Zoo, was reinvented as a fashion-forward mall in 2015. It features several local brands such as the eyeglass designers Mykita.