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Save Berlin: FRIZZ23, the gangsta unicorn

Dan explains what’s special about that charred blue building hidden in Kreuzberg’s Besselpark.

Image for Save Berlin: FRIZZ23, the gangsta unicorn

Photo by Anastasia Chistyakova

Dan explains what’s special about that charred blue building hidden in Kreuzberg’s Besselpark.

Chances are you’ve never seen Besselpark, a forlorn patch of grass at the centre of the Kreuzberg neighbourhood known as Südliche Friedrichstraße. For decades, this collection of decaying public housing and one-euro shops south of Checkpoint Charlie has defied attempts at redevelopment. It’s been called the urban equivalent of a cosmic black hole, which is appropriate since the park was named after an astronomer, Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel.

Next to the park, where Bessel’s 19th-century observatory once stood, a strange new building is about to open. FRIZZ23 is a cultural co-ownership project containing studios, offices and a Miniloft hotel. It’s also an iconic addition to Kreuzberg’s history of urban rebellion, an architectural Molotov cocktail. With its puzzle-piece profile and facade of black-charred wood, all that’s missing from this brash intruder is a pirate flag waving above.

Buildings in major cities are supposed to be born one of two ways: a syndicate of banks and developers generates projects aimed at maximum profit, or the paternalistic government bestows buildings to woo voters and consolidate power. Starting with the 1970s squatter movement, Berliners have fought the power via dozens of innovative building projects. The most popular type is the Baugruppe, a co-operative system where hopeful residents pool their money, buy land and construct the building themselves. But for every Berlin Baugruppe success story – Mitte’s Spreefeld, Kreuzberg’s R50 or Ausbauhaus Neukölln – there’s another crushed by money problems or red tape. The powers that-be are threatened by even these tame attempts at architectural self-determination. That’s what makes FRIZZ23 such an oddball – it’s Germany’s first commercial Baugruppe.

The minds behind the Baugruppe

Berlin has a critical shortage of working spaces for artists and creative professionals. The city has belatedly woken up to the problem, appointing commissioner Dr. Martin Schwegmann to tackle the crisis. To remain a creative mecca, he says, Berlin needs another 4000 studios. FRIZZ23’s founders were wise to the problem seven years ago and took matters into their own hands.

FRIZZ23 is the brainchild of Wunder-duo Matthew Griffin and Britta Jürgens. Griffin, a Canadian, met Jürgens after arriving in newly-united Berlin in the early 1990s. They founded Deadline architects in 1992, and have since built a family (two kids) along with their business. The couple hit the jackpot when they bought a crumbling Mitte apartment block and converted it to Miniloft, a residential hotel. Its cutting edge architecture won kudos, and the innovative concept – hotel room as mini-flat with kitchen – really took off, fuelled by Berlin’s holiday apartment ban. By adding “owner” and “developer” to their job descriptions, they maintained design control and earned a steady income.

In 2011, Berlin’s Senate announced a new redevelopment plan for Südliche Friedrichstraße neighbourhood. The city was offering plots of land around the former flower market, still known to some as “Blumengroßmarkthalle”, a hulking 1960s building facing Besselpark that now contains the Jewish Museum’s archive. The catch: proposals had to include a cultural component. Most proposal swere high-priced flats with one or two cultural add-ons, so activist Florian Schmidt – now Kreuzberg’s building commissioner –urged Jürgens and Griffin to come up with something bolder.

Image for Save Berlin: FRIZZ23, the gangsta unicorn

Photo by Matthew Griffin.

A unique beast with 42 heads

Griffin had noticed that “Berlin’s small commercial spaces traditionally found in the Berliner Hinterhöfe were being cannibalised for luxury lofts”. So they proposed an office building of small, cheap, rentable studio spaces, with a new Miniloft Kreuzberg hotel on one end and the non-profit learning centre, Forum Berufsbildung, on the other.

The proposal won but their financial partner, an established developer, pulled out. Grabbing for straws, the pair decided to replace their one money partner with a collection of small investor-owners. Jürgens says she was “relieved actually; the Baugruppe felt like the right thing to do at that location and time”. The architects spread the word and corralled more than three dozen creative partners who wanted secure, affordable work spaces. At €3000 per usable square metre, the property is not exactly cheap, but caters to a certain type of creative business which would otherwise be driven out of the city by exploding property prices and high-end developments.

Advertising agency Peperoni, architecture journal Competitionline, and Bolsos, a workshop making bags from recycled plastic, are on the list of partners, and the Baugruppe structure meant that 42 financial investors had a voice in decision-making. One reason FRIZZ23 is Germany’s first and only commercial Baugruppe: creative people with a lot of money at stake have very strong opinions. The project survived five years of heated debates, explosive defections and money meltdowns, hence the charred facade. “We could have made our life a lot easier by working with a few different unit types and forcing everyone to choose one,” Jürgens says, “but then the building would not have been what it is now.”


Image for Save Berlin: FRIZZ23, the gangsta unicorn

Photo by Anastasia Chistyakova

The name FRIZZ23 comes from its address, Friedrichstraße 23 but the building actually faces Bessel Park. Next door is the just-finished headquarters of Berlin’s Tageszeitung, or TAZ. When the left-leaning newspaper decided to pull all their offices together under one new roof in 2014, Berlin’s Senate organised an architectural competition. The jury, headed by the city’s Swiss-born building director Regula Lüscher, chose – unsurprisingly – a design by Zurich-based brothers Piet and Wim Eckert. The TAZ HQ is a monumental glass block wrapped in a diamond-patterned steel exoskeleton. Praised for its transparency, the office building is a government-approved, Swiss-engineered machine for keeping journalists where we like them – out in the open, with nowhere to hide.

While the TAZ HQ is all about openness and consolidation, FRIZZ23 is about brooding individuality. It’s actually three separate buildings. The middle block has 38 custom-tailored units, from a 280sqm co-working space to seven small, live-work duplexes. Griffin and Jürgens let the occupants vote on everything, from plumbing fixtures to the materials of the facade. The charred wood siding, common in Japan, appealed to the collective’s goal of uniqueness, while the midnight blue aluminum panels refer to the planet Neptune, first glimpsed from the site’s old observatory in 1846. Seven years after Griffin and Jürgens hatched the concept for FRIZZ23 in their kitchen, their singular building is inching towards completion. Forum Berufsbildung should open in August, with the rest to follow later this year. In June they were racing to make window sills for their Miniloft Kreuzberg hotel while their daughter sewed cushions for their planned superfood café, Nullpunkt (another astronomical reference). The question now is: will FRIZZ23’s success spark a baby boom in cooperatively owned artists’ studios? Or will this rare creature remain the first of its kind, and the last?