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Uferhallen under threat: Can this artists’ space survive?

Rising real estate prices threaten both Wedding’s famed artistic studios and the sense of community in which artists thrive. Today, Uferhallen residents are up against new plans for luxury condos by the site’s new owners.

Photo: IMAGO / tagesspiegel

Walking through Uferhallen, past the squat brick buildings and along the cement ground that sprouts wildflowers through its cracks, it’s not immediately obvious that the place is home to 80 studios and more than 100 artists. Beyond the bustling Café Pförtner at the complex entrance, there’s a secluded tranquillity to this former-transport-station-turned-vast-artists-space. The site’s industrial roots allow for extensive studio spaces tucked behind the remains of train tracks or housed in large, light-filled conversions. Look up, and you’ll see rooftops peppered with gardens and more artistic areas. Across the street, at the separately owned Ufer Studios dance conservatory, a towering smoke stack rises. Nearby, the Panke river flows past peacefully. Artists have lived and worked in harmony here for the past fifteen years. Now, however, Uferhallen, like many similar spaces, has come under threat.

From stables to studios…

The original transport hub was founded in 1873 and owned by the city of Berlin for 134 years. Converted stables that still exist here today testify to early horse-drawn trams. Horsepower was replaced by electric trams, and trams by buses. The big hall, now home to expansive studios and event spaces, was a bus depot until 2007, when the city sold the complex to private buyers and the Uferhallen was born. Today, the original structure and landscape remain entirely intact, symbiotically fusing architecture with the artistic space that Uferhallen (roughly translated to river bank halls) has become.

Uferhallen, like many similar spaces, has come under threat.

In Wedding, the Uferhallen is one of several abandoned complexes-turned-artists’-havens: when it comes to studio space and creative pursuits, the district has always been a favoured sanctuary for West Berlin’s artists. Rent was cheap in the historically working-class neighbourhood, and its proximity to the Wall meant that the area’s factories and yards were often deserted, long remaining derelict. Nearby, Gerichtshöfe has been home to 70 artists’ studios since 1983, prior to which the former chemicals manufacturing complex had been abandoned. Wiesenburg, originally a 13,000 m2 homeless shelter, took on its current aspect as a studio and residency space from the 1990s onwards and has since become a pillar of cultural life in Wedding.

At Uferhallen, the artists came in 2007, when the city of Berlin sold the site to private buyers. For the city, this sale was a simple commercial transaction, but by luck and happenstance, the complex caught the eye of two buyers intent on creating a cultural space. They purchased Uferhallen as the two main shareholders.

… to luxury condos?

Rents rose in the decade that followed however – matched by increasing tensions between the two owners. In 2011, one of the shareholders sold out. Shortly thereafter, the Kunstaktien-Projekt was launched. Every artist received one share as a loan. The idea was to spread the shares among as many individual shareholders as possible in order to prevent the whole area from being bought by investors, but this plan was unsuccessful. In 2017, 95 percent of the shares were taken over by August Capital Management, co-founded by Alexander Samwer. From the beginning, the new owners expressed their determination to develop the Uferhallen area and to create as much additional new space as they would be allowed to. They presented their luxury housing plan to the public on June 9th, 2022.

It’s hard to overstate the consequences: destroying Uferhallen’s architecture means suppressing its history and literally pulling the rug from under the feet of the artists working there. Augustus Capital Management group has assured Uferhallen artists that they will not be forced out, but they are doubtful that their spirit and mission can survive the rent increases, new construction and the massive shift in cultural tone created by commercial development. Uferhallen’s situation might be independent from that of other art studios in Wedding, but all such spaces exist in a creative continuum. The loss of one place is significant for all.

Photo: Lena Ganssmann

Uncertain futures

Elsewhere in Wedding? Despite having been left alone for decades, in 2014 Wiesenburg was officially labelled a property in need of renovation and transferred from the city of Berlin to the housing company Degewo. The latter immediately closed most of the Wiesenburg areas and made it impossible for creatives to live and work there. In 2016, an association of artists was able to garner enough public and political support to stave off the development plans, but they still don’t have a heritage lease to guarantee them future security and freedom.

The artists of Gerichtshöfe took over the complex when the area was still uncool, and while they’ve maintained a relatively good relationship with their owner company Gesobau, they have no official protection. If the company decided to create more commercial housing at any point, the artists could be pushed out. The preservation of both studio spaces is a result of project approval by the former government commissioner for culture and media Monika Grütters, but their future is still very dependent on political support: shifting politics in Berlin at large could be detrimental to their fate.

This place will not be the same… but we want to keep its spirit intact.

Across the street from Uferhallen, Ufer Studios, anticipating the coming speculation, worked to acquire credit from a Swiss foundation in order to gain a 196-year heritage lease that left their status somewhere between that of renters and buyers and protected them from development. For now, the dance side of the complex remains safe.

Today, the artists of Uferhallen have created a union to resist development. They have received much public and some governmental support, but resistance – and negotiations – remain ongoing. As of now, development is scheduled to begin next year. For Hansjörg Schneider, Uferhallen artist and chairman of the Uferhallen Union, the goal is simple: “The people, the artists that work here, we want them to stay under affordable conditions,” he explains. “This place will not be the same, of course, but we want to keep its spirit intact as much as we can.”