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Editor's column

Is Berlin losing the plot? How art world evictions leave us all poorer

Berlin used to be seen as a creative utopia. Are a new wave of artist evictions stealing the soul of the city?

The idea of Berlin as an art world metropolis was reborn in those febrile first years after reunification, when artists, musicians and professional non-conformists poured into the vacant apartments of Prenzlauer Berg, Mitte and Friedrichshain.

We’ve all heard the stories many times, how they took advantage of cheap rents to enjoy endless raves and endless studio space within the crumbling stucco of their Altbau apartments. Even today, Berlin is still living off that 1990s anti-allure, a riotous countercultural haven teeming with studios, project spaces and galleries.

Being an artist is one of the most unstable careers you can have.

But in the last 10 years, the turbo-charged property market has priced many artists out of their studios. Those who remain struggle against the relentless force of real estate speculation as they scramble to keep a foothold in a city that seems to want to actively discourage them from living here. In an ongoing struggle, the artists and tradespeople in the complex of studios that make up Neukölln’s H48 are being put under tremendous pressure to leave. Over in Wedding, the owner of the 80 Uferhallen studios is threatening to rip up their long-term lease agreement and leave the 150 artists who live and work there in a crippling state of limbo.

Berlin isn’t a financial hub like London or Paris. The streets aren’t paved with gold (maybe with dog shit), but at least it’s always been able to attract artists – pulling them in from around the globe with the promise of affordable space, so they can dream up wonderfully weird ideas without hustling for every euro. Thousands of professional artists call this city their home.

Photo: Ulf Saupe’s Studio

Is the city so desperate for funds that it finds itself unable to stand up to the property developers? It was a Berlin court that signed off on the forced evictions of the Tacheles artists in 2012. Or is it on a mission to erase its recent history and, driven by some bizarre impulse of anachronism, return to its 19th century zenith? After all, this is the city that tore down the Palast Der Republik to pump €680 million into rebuilding a forgotten Baroque palace to house the Humboldt Forum.

Berlin isn’t a financial hub like London or Paris. The streets aren’t paved with gold

Does Berlin believe that by liberating itself from the complicated critique of a load of messy, free-thinking artists, it will be a step closer to regaining its prestige as an imperial Prussian capital? Rising up once more to become a marvel of civic administration and order. Oh Berlin, du bist so wunderbar und ordentlich.

The enduring reality is that the German capital’s astonishing emergence as a creative Mecca was born out of the availability of affordable artist studios. These small, often paint-splattered spaces, where by some strange alchemy, ideas turn into compelling works of art. Not all of it is good – some definitely isn’t – but they are places for experimentation, crucial in the art making process. Their safeguarding is paramount, because being an artist is one of the most unstable careers you can have. No one goes into it to make money. But what they give back to the city is extraordinary: shaping its identity, infusing the city with a diverse, progressive population and hugely burnishing its international credentials.

The worry, of course, is where Berlin ultimately ends up. Despite the work of the BBK (Berufsverband Bildender Künstler*innen) and other artist-focused organisations, we’re seeing a pattern emerge in the art and culture sector as artists, forced out of the city centre, move their studios out into the periphery and into places like the Reinbeckhallen in Oberschöneweide and Wilhelm Hallen in Reinickendorf.

Leaving the hallowed ground inside the Ringbahn to set up shop in Berlin’s marshy suburbs might make the city a little less “poor” but also a lot less “sexy”. But then, this has always been a bigger question than simply preserving inner city studios – it’s about making sure artists don’t desert us and move on to a new creative utopia, abandoning the city to its misjudged monuments and a deeply impoverished cultural scene.