Save Berlin: Desperate measures

From subway tunnels to supermarkets, how far will Berlin go to house its residents? Dan Borden investigates.

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Aldi Immobilien’s planned apartment block above their Lichtenberg store. Photo courtesy of Aldi Nord

From subway tunnels to supermarkets, how far will Berlin go to house its residents? Dan Borden investigates.

In January 2016, BVG workers searching an unused subway tunnel found a secret bedroom – not a pile of stinky sleeping bags, but a lovingly composed tableau with an IKEA bed, lamps and plaid wallpaper. The world’s press seized on the mysterious installation, posting photos and debating its message.

Though the art collective Rocco und seine Brüder eventually took credit, their motives remain murky. Many saw an arty critique of Berlin’s real-life housing crisis. As landlords rake in skyrocketing rents, tenants and planners are left scrounging for ways to cope. Options once unthinkable seem suddenly okay. If a Plattenbau flat in dowdy Marzahn can become hip, then a cosy subway tunnel niche can’t be far behind.

Rocco’s underground bedroom was installed just north of the Rathaus Steglitz station on the U9. Directly upstairs, 300 swanky bedrooms are being carved out of a building seen for decades as the architectural equivalent of doggy doo. The 120m Steglitzer Kreisel is Berlin’s third tallest building after the Park Inn Hotel and Treptow’s Allianz complex – and the second-most hated, after the Alexa shopping mall. During its prolonged construction from 1968 to 1980, the tower bankrupted its first developer, disgraced its architect Sigrid Kressman-Zschach and brought down several Berlin officials who’d approved the project’s funding. Unable to find paying tenants for its 30 floors of office space, the Steglitz government was forced to move in, making it their de facto city hall. Even those bureaucrats jumped ship in 2007, leaving the mouldering pile of steel, glass and asbestos empty and despised, awaiting its date with the wrecking ball. Enter white knight Christopher Gröner. Stepping from the nearby Schlosspark Theater one evening, the real estate mogul caught a glimpse of the Kreisel and found his calling. He agreed to buy the tower – if the city got rid of the asbestos. That process was completed in January, setting the stage for Gröner’s €330 million redo. The tower gets a shiny white facade dotted with balconies and a new name: ÜBerlin. Sale prices for the 300 apartments start at a Berlin-average price of €4000/sqm, while the top two floors shoot up to €10,000.

At the other end of the home-building spectrum, Aldi is putting apartment blocks on top of their Berlin supermarkets (photo), a total of 2000 flats with rents ranging from €6-10 per square metre. It’s a win-win deal: the stores get (literally) built-in customers who pay low rents subsidised by the shop downstairs. Two projects are already underway: in Neukölln just south of the Ringbahn, and next to Lichtenberg’s Tierpark.

Critics savoured the irony that a profit-driven corporation is doing what our left-wing city government can’t: put Berliners in affordable flats. The city’s high-minded planners are saddled with an arduous process of buying property, then tailoring buildings to each site, holding design competitions and responding to neighbours’ endless griping. Aldi avoids these obstacles by tearing down their own ageing gable-roofed stores, then putting up a standardised building design, the same on every site. In a few years, Berlin will be dotted with 30 identical 60-flat blocks with an Aldi store wedged underneath – a 21st-century Plattenbau. To be fair, Berlin’s Senat has wanted more mixed-use development and may have inspired Aldi’s scheme, but it’s a much-needed shot in the housing arm and a potential game changer.

In our desperate search for a home, how far would Berliners go? A pied-à-terre in a former Nazi torture facility? We’ve already got a luxury condo tower in the former East German death strip, plus high-end flats in Prenzlauer Berg’s Wasserturm, the site of Nazi Germany’s first concentration camp. Hamburg has gone a step further: its new Stadthof complex includes condominiums in the city’s former Gestapo headquarters. Despite protests from victims’ relatives, it’s scheduled to open in May. Hamburg is only a few years ahead of Berlin on the skyrocketing-rent curve. As our own real estate values rise, expect to see more Berlin history trampled to put roofs over our heads.