Studios made of sand

The young, creatives that shaped Berlin are losing their studio spaces, victims of their own cool cachet. But the city just purchased the empty Haus der Statistik building to alleviate this problem. Can the city's artists push victory further?

Image for Studios made of sand

The Akademie der ZUsammenKUNFT, a group that holds talks, workshops and performances in front of Haus der Statistik, launched in June 2016. Photo by raumlabor

The young, international creatives that shaped Berlin after the fall of the Wall are losing their studio spaces, victims of their own cool cachet. But the city needs its artists as much as artists need it. Just this month, the city announced it will aquire the Haus der Statistik and its future seems to be affordable studios. But can the city’s artists push the victory further?

When American artist Ryan Thayer moved here from St. Louis five years ago, he had no trouble finding a studio. A former East German office building located by the Spree river on Köpenicker Straße, taken over in 2008 by the art collective KunstRepublik, offered spaces for just €4 per square metre. He worked in peace until 2015, when he and 50 or so fellow artists were given notice that their studio building was being sold again, for the fourth time in two years, this time to Russian investors. Like every other instance the building was sold, they were given a 90-day notice, except this time, the deadline stuck. Two other studio buildings of the same scale received similar notices in a matter of weeks. So goes the good old story of gentrification in Berlin.

“The problem with studio space in Berlin is quite clear,” says Florian Schmidt, district councilor for building, planning and facility management in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg. As the city’s former studio commissioner, he knows the issue well. “The price of renting space has so increased that 80 percent of the studios that are private property are in danger… This whole city of 10,000 artists is built on sand and could blow away – not in one year, but in the coming years – if the city does not invest.” Realising as much, artists decided to organise and turn to public help.

Grassroots initiatives

“With the sale of so many studio buildings on the horizon,” Thayer says, “I and some other members of these spaces decided to take action.” With studio costs averaging over twice the rent of their old Köpenicker Straße building, they contacted the largest artists’ advocacy group in the city, Der Berufsverband Bildender Künstler Berlin (The Professional Association of Visual Artists in Berlin), or BBK, a union developed 20 years earlier to advocate for the professional interests of artists living in Berlin. At the time, Florian Schmidt was overseeing the organisation’s Studio Programme, developed in cooperation with the city government and private developers, by which artists earning under €16,000 can apply for studios subsidised to the tune of 60 percent. A valiant effort, but insufficient for meeting artists’ needs in a Berlin where each one-day viewing is attended by 10 times more people than available studios.

Schmidt’s initial meetings with Thayer and his fellow artists in 2014 and 2015 led to the formation of advocacy group Allianz bedrohter Berliner Atelierhäuser, or AbBA, an alliance of 10 studio buildings across town, including over 500 artists. The group began organising demonstrations and drafting policy proposals for 11 new studio centres in Berlin. Their main target: the long-empty, federally owned Haus der Statistik near Alexanderplatz.

Stasi to studios

Kicking off with the demo “Here Stands a Centre” during Berlin Art Week 2015, AbBA launched the Initiative Haus der Statistik, a cooperative effort to repurpose the former office complex on Otto-Braun-Straße that once served as the Stasi’s statistics-gathering HQ (it’s also where former GDR residents could come and check their Stasi files after reunification). The idea is to transform the approximately 40,000 square metres into social housing for refugees, students, and seniors, as well as 200 studio spaces. By April 2016, the group was able to begin negotiations with Berlin’s Senator for Finance, Dr. Matthias Kollatz-Ahnen, to acquire the federally owned building and, with the Green and Die Linke parties clearly on their side, the project made it into the coalition contract published by Berlin’s new red-red-green government last December. With the district and the finance senator aligned, the only hurdle for Haus der Statistik remained part of a larger negotiation to transfer the ownership of multiple Berlin buildings between the city and federal governments, which, at first, seemed to promise a long drawn-out process.

They’d already taken action in the form of Akademie der ZUsammenKUNFT (“Academy of Association”), a group that meets in front of the Haus der Statistik to host guided tours, performances, workshops, seminars and lectures focused on the needs of neighbourhood residents. Related organisation Die ZusammenKUNFT, a coalition of nonprofits involving art, culture and migration, has converted nearby empty buildings into an emergency shelter in which around 400 refugees share space with cultural and social projects. All the while, Initiative Haus der Statistik preparing for the moment when the ownership of the building will be handed over.

And on May 12, the breakthrough came: In what was a €190 million real estate exchange with the federal government, the city acquired Haus der Statistik (along with Tegel Airport and Dragonerareal in Kreuzberg) in exchange for their relinquishment of the Jewish Museum and a few other city-owned institutions. With all hurdles cleared, the initiative can now proceed unimpeded.

City to the rescue

Haus der Statistik is just one of many initiatives laid out in Schmidt’s “Masterplan Artists Studios 2020”. Published in August 2016, it declares the city’s intention to create 2000 affordable studios in Berlin by the year 2020. As the crisis of increasing studio rents has accelerated (competing now directly with the cost of housing), it is estimated that as many as 8000 artists are currently looking for affordable workspace. In order to more than triple the amount of spaces available in the Studio Programme today, the Masterplan suggests no less than seven strategies to keep studios more affordable.

Architect and urban researcher Martin Schwegmann, who replaced Schmidt as the new Studio Commissioner at the beginning of April, is now in charge of realising that plan. “In the short term, the main option is to rent more privately owned spaces, but in the long term, it is important to build new studios, as well.” The city, he explains, should not only be thinking about building flats, but about creating spaces for arts, social projects and small businesses, which are not protected to the same legal extent as residences. Of the six properties already listed in the Masterplan as potential sites (including Haus der Statistik), two 5000sqm spaces offering a total of 480 studios are scheduled to open this year; one in a former factory near Tempelhof, a second in Schöneberg near Potsdamer Straße. “One hundred thousand square meters is the aim,” Schwegmann explains. “And 10 percent of what we need is already in the works.”

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Architecture collective Raumlabor plans to convert Haus der Statistik into a combination of studio spaces and affordable housing. Photo by raumlaborberlin

Other ideas

Meanwhile, other founding organisations of the Initiative Haus der Statistik continue their own developments. An initiative of KunstRepublik and early partner with AbBA, ZK/U – Zentrum für Kunst und Urbanistik opened in 2012 in an abandoned former train station in Moabit. It’s now a space for international artists, researchers and practitioners to focus on urban issues in the district of Moabit and beyond. This month, ZK/U is launching Ständige Vertretung (“permanent representation”), a new project space and residency programme for Berliners that includes a monthly stipend and material costs. Also in May, ZK/U will launch CityToolBox (CTB), an online platform developed in partnership with five other European cities that allows users to learn more about “bottom-up” urban activities.

The architecture collective Raumlabor continues to be involved in ongoing planning for the Haus der Statistik as well as the 2020 Masterplan. Another of their current projects is on view this month: Sammlers Traum (Collector’s Dream), a massive wooden-framed sculptural building that utilises recycled materials to house workshops and other events as part of Berlin’s International Horticultural Exhibition (IGA) through mid-October.

Despite these examples, the future of cultural spaces in Berlin is not all the stuff of dreams. Thayer’s old building on Köpenicker Straße still sits empty and un-demolished, while Thayer himself is now working out of a studio space on Paul-Linke-Ufer owned by Danish real estate company Taekker. Its rent is currently at €11/sqm and rising every year. “This,” he states, “is not a sustainable situation. But all those grassroots movements have definitely helped develop new ideas, some of which are showing a promising future.” Hope remains that initiatives such as Haus der Statistik will prove that artists can use their collective strength against the tide – and it may actually break, before crushing the artistic activities that made Berlin such a cultural hub in the first place.

Celebrate the Initiative Haus der Statistik victory with them Saturday, May 20 at a reception/debate/party on location at 3pm.