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Guerilla Berlin

East Berlin’s gritty cityscape is get ting a makeover, but there’s one diamond in the rough that refuses to be polished, writes Nina Lamparski

It’s the sort of place you wouldn’t dream of taking your parents to of an evening. The building’s slightly dilapidated, grey-stone façade is scarred with bullet holes and covered in graffiti. To the left of the main entrance is an archway leading to a giant courtyard where weird metal sculptures stretch their wrought arms toward the sky. Viewed from the rear, the six-storey structure reveals partially missing walls and crumbling plaster. Here and there, glassless windows stare down on curious passers-by.

Clearly you wouldn’t want to come here alone once the sun has set – or so you’d think. But in a city like Berlin, nothing is what it seems and sticking to first impressions can mean missing out on an amazing experience. The Arthouse Tacheles, located on the hip Oranienburger Straße in the eastern district called Mitte, definitely belongs in that category.

Behind the unpolished exterior lies a 9,000m2 complex that houses exhibition halls, workshops, performance spaces, a theatre, cinema and several bars. All manner of local and international artists – actors, directors, dancers, fashion designers, sculptors, painters and videographers – regularly take up residence at this creative hub. Here they can ponder, forge and present their creative outpourings.

Internationally renowned German choreographer Sasha Waltz started her career here, while controversial Canadian musician Peaches uses it as her European recording base. UK producer Gerald Simpson, who wrote the soundtrack to Requiem for a Dream, has an in-house studio, and the list of award-winning Berlin Biennale participants exhibiting their works in the galleries is ever-growing.

Austrian-born Martin Reiter, who has been managing – or “chaos piloting” as he calls it – the Tacheles for 14 years, explains that its major draw is the absence of artificial boundaries between artists and the general public. “What you see is what you get,” he says. “It’s there for you to touch, inhale and get involved with. That’s the strength of this community.”

Little wonder, then, that this rough hulk has become one of the capital’s most famous cultural icons, attracting more than 300,000 visitors per year. Travel guides mention the site among their best-of picks, international art critics have been singing its praises for nearly two decades and the New York Times described how it “bears witness to the city’s disappearing past”.

Indeed, it’s the heavily charged history that makes the Tacheles both unique in, and yet so typical of, Berlin. The name itself stems from a Yiddish word, meaning ‘to reveal’ or ‘speak clearly’. That pretty much sums up the philosophy du jour, at least since 1990, when the building was taken over by artists trying to prevent its demolition. So it’s also one of the earliest of the arts squats that began to emerge after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Built in 1907 as a luxurious, Jewish-owned shopping arcade, the complex became a central office for Hitler’s WaffenSS storm troopers during World War II. The Nazis closed off all the skylights so that French prisoners could be held in the attic. Amazingly, the structure was only moderately damaged by bombs, and a succession of retailers, schools and technical companies settled in the huge space after the war.

But the building’s fate seemed to be sealed when local planners decided to blow up the site and build a new street. Parts had already been demolished in the 80s and the final detonation was set for April 1990. Two months before the deadline, however, an activist group called Artists’ Initiative Tacheles occupied the building and demanded it be declared an historic landmark.

In an unexpected turn of events, their request was met and the building placed under a protection order. So began the Tacheles’ new dawn as an emblematic bastion of east Berlin’s counter culture. Previously, alternative artists had fought against the censorship of the Iron Curtain. Now they were battling “the materialistic craze” of the MTV generation, according to Reiter. “In the beginning it was a wild thing,” he says. “The art wasn’t that good then. Now we have good art, but it’s not so wild any more – everything has two sides.”

Apart from turning the Tacheles into a creative seedbed, the squatters resisted repeated eviction attempts in the 90s, first from the government, then the Fundus Group, a property management firm that now owns most of Oranienburger Straße. Eventually an agreement was reached in 1998 and the artists secured a nominal annual rent of 1 DM (about €0,50).

A decade later, the Tacheles is considered the poster child for legalised arts squats. Nevertheless, you can find many more scattered across the city in areas like Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg.

According to sustainable urban planning expert Dr Daniel Dahm: “There are approximately 200,000 empty houses and flats in East Berlin as a result of German reunification.” On the one hand, buildings had to be vacated due to the demise of former state-run enterprises. On the other, waves of migrants went to seek their fortune in the wealthy West. For Dahm, the so-called artistic colonisation of these abandoned spaces is a prime example of what he has termed Berlin’s ‘urban subsistence’.

“The development of the creative industry in Prenzlauer Berg, Mitte and Friedichshain and the Arthouse Tacheles are all examples of self-motivated work by citizens who decided to proactively stand up for their ideals,” he explains. “They’ve joined co-operatives and organisations to realise their dreams individually and socially. Many of these socio-cultural developments have since managed to create a healthy link between non-commercial and commercial aspects, unpaid and renumerated work. These sustainability strategies reveal the great power of urban subsistence.”

And yet the once thriving alternative scene is increasingly under siege from creeping gentrification, and the Tacheles is no exception. Its 10-year lease ran out at the end of 2007 and the Fundus company has plans to transform the site into a New-York style entertainment strip. Already the Arthouse stands like a lone Titan surrounded by chic diners, modern offices and trendy shops that have mushroomed in Mitte.

But, as night falls, a steady stream of people begins to pour inside the building. There are teenagers dressed in the obligatory black, fathers carrying kids on their shoulders, elegant elderly couples, grungey students, intellectual types with notepads under their arms and scarves around their necks, and curious tourists. Some are here to catch a theatre performance, others to check out the painting workshops, buy an original fashion item or simply enjoy a beer on the rooftop bar overlooking the city.

Last year an exhibition entitled Museum of Broken Relationships was staged here. Visitors were asked to donate mementos from short flings or painful divorces. Seeing the building heaving with people on this balmy evening, there’s hope that Berlin’s beloved enfant terrible won’t become a heartbreak hotel just yet.

Arts squats

Berlin isn’t the only European city with a thriving alternative arts scene. Here are our top three continental squats

Villa Amalias

Corner of Acharnon and Heyden Streets,
One of Greece’s first anarchist arts squats, Villa Amalias was first occupied in 1990. Famous for promoting the European punk and hardcore movement, the place features a concert hall, record shop and book store. The police have evicted the squatters three times, but they have always returned.

Ernst Kirchweger

Haus 2-4 Wielandgasse,
Since squatters took over the building in June 1990, the Ernst-Kirchweger-Haus (EKH) in Vienna’s Favoriten district has become a multicultural centre hosting community activities and political groups including a refugee advice centre. It was named after a former concentration camp inmate who was killed in 1965 during an anti-fascist demonstration.

Centro Sociale Leoncavallo

7 Via Watteau,
Leoncavallo is Italy’s oldest cultural and social centre, established in 1975 by squatters with a manifesto. After several evictions, one of which spurred national solidarity demonstrations in 1994, today’s Leoncavallo resides in an assortment of buildings behind huge walls.

FR La Guérilla de Berlin

C’est le dernier endroit où vous imagineriez emmener vos beaux-parents. La façade du bâtiment est criblée d’impacts de balles et de graffiti. Mais derrière cet aspect extérieur brut de l’Arthouse Tacheles de Berlin, se cache un complexe de 9 000m² qui abrite des halls d’expositions, des ateliers, un théâtre, un cinéma, et des bars. La célèbre chorégraphe allemande Sasha Waltz a démarré sa carrière ici, tandis que Peaches, le label musical canadien, l’utilise comme sa base d’enregistrement en Europe. Le producteur anglais Gerald Simpson, qui a écrit la bande sonore du film Requiem for a Dream, possède son studio ici et la liste des participants à la Biennale qui y exposent leurs œuvres s’accroît constamment.

Rien d’étonnant donc à ce que ce lieu devienne l’une des plus importantes références de la capitale en matière culturelle, attirant plus de 300 000 visiteurs chaque année.

Construit en 1907 par des propriétaires juifs, ce complexe, au départ une luxueuse galerie commerçante devint plus tard une base pour les troupes d’assaut de la Waffen-SS, sous Hitler, durant la Seconde Guerre mondiale.

Etonnamment, la structure n’a été que très peu endommagée au cours des bombardements, et de ce fait, un grand nombre de sociétés s’y sont succédé. Mais le sort du bâtiment semblait jeté lorsque la commission du plan urbain décida de le raser et de construire à la place une nouvelle avenue. En février 1990, deux mois avant le coup de grâce, un groupe appelé Initiative d’Artistes Tacheles occupa le bâtiment et demanda à ce qu’il soit classé site historique. Contre toute attente, leur requête aboutit, et une nouvelle vie commença pour le Tacheles, comme bastion de la contre-culture berlinoise face au consumérisme occidental. Et comme toutes choses sous l’effet du temps qui passe, cette scène à l’origine alternative s’est embourgeoisée sous la pression de la hausse de l’immobilier. Dans ce système, le Tacheles ne fait pas figure d’exception. Son bail de 10 ans est arrivé à expiration l’année dernière, et la société Fundus prévoit la transformation du site en grande zone de loisirs, dans le style new-yorkais. L’année dernière, une exposition intitulée le ‘Musée des ruptures’ fut organisée au Tacheles. Les visiteurs firent don de leurs souvenirs depuis de courts moments de vie jusqu’à des divorces douloureux. Par cette douce soirée, en voyant l’endroit rempli, on est en droit d’espérer que le préféré des enfants terribles de Berlin ne deviendra pas un simple hôtel de charme.

NL Guerillastad Berlijn

Dit is het soort van plaats waar je je schoonouders in geen honderd jaar mee naartoe neemt. De gevel van het gebouw werd verminkt door kogelgaten en graffiti. Maar achter de woeste buitenkant van Berlijns Arthouse Tacheles schuilt een complex van 9.000 m² dat tentoonstellingsruimtes, workshops, een theater, bioscopen en bars herbergt. De vermaarde Duitse choreograaf Sasha Waltz startte hier zijn carrière, terwijl Canadees muziekexportproduct Peaches het gebruikt als haar Europese opnamestek. De Britse producer Gerald Simpson, die de muziek voor de film Requiem for a Dream schreef, heeft hier een studio, terwijl de lijst van Biënnale-deelnemers die hier hun werk tentoonstellen maar blijft groeien.

Het mag dus niet verbazen dat dit optrekje uitgroeide tot een van de meest beroemde cultuuriconen van de stad en meer dan 300.000 bezoekers per jaar weet te lokken. Het complex werd in 1907 door Joden opgetrokken als een luxueus warenhuis, maar werd later een kantoor voor Hitlers stoottroepen van de Waffen-SS tijdens Wereldoorlog II. Tot ieders verbazing bleef de structuur grotendeels gespaard door bomaanvallen. Nadien werd het door verschillende bedrijven bewoond. Maar het noodlot van het gebouw leek bezegeld toen de planningcommissie besloot het op te blazen om er een nieuwe straat aan te leggen. In februari 1990, twee maanden voor de doodsklok zou luiden, werd het gebouw bezet door een groep met de naam Artists’ Initiative Tacheles. Ze eisten dat het werd uitgeroepen tot historisch monument. Tegen alle verwachtingen in werd hun wens ingelost. En zo begon Tacheles’ geboorte als bastion van de Oost-Berlijnse tegencultuur voor de Westerse consumptiementaliteit. Maar naarmate de jaren verstreken, kreeg het eens zo welvarende wereldje te lijden onder de yuppificatie. En ook de Tacheles moest eraan geloven. Het 10-jarige huurcontract liep vorig jaar ten einde en vastgoedreus Fundus is van plan het complex om te toveren tot een entertainmentparadijs in New York-stijl. Vorig jaar bood de Tacheles plaats aan de tentoonstelling ‘Museum of Broken Relationships’. Bezoekers schonken aandenkens van korte affaires tot pijnlijke scheidingen. Wanneer je op deze zachte avond dit drukbezocht gebouw aanschouwt, leeft er toch nog een sprankeltje hoop dat Berlijns geliefde enfant terrible nog niet meteen een hotel van gebroken harten wordt …

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