October 10, 2008

Berlin: Where the Funk Lives on Makeovers Turn Places Abandoned Since 1989 into Quirky Apartments

By Liza Foreman

Finding a commercial or cultural use for quirky properties abandoned after reunification has long been a feature of the German capital. Think of the East German post office, in use as a museum, or the Wertheim department store, which became the techno club Tresor.

Now, two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, adventurous residents have been following suit, creating unusual residences from some of the city's most mundane buildings.

One of the most recent additions to Berlin's real estate scene is a home created inside a waterside warehouse building with a crane on its roof; another is a penthouse stuck on top of a World War II bunker.

In 2003, Christian Boros, the owner of an advertising agency with offices in Berlin and Wuppertal, Germany, acquired the five-story bunker in the former East Berlin neighborhood of Mitte.

In a process that Boros says took a year of planning and four years of construction, he built a private penthouse on the 1,000- square-meter, or 10,800-square-foot, roof and converted the bunker's 120 rooms into an 80-room contemporary art gallery. It houses his private collection of more than 500 works by artists like Damien Hirst, Olafur Eliasson and Wolfgang Tillmans, and opened to the public in June.

During the renovations, diamond-cutting technology was used to remove some of the intermediate floors, which had to be broken up inside the bunker and removed by hand.

Designed in 1942 for the State Railway Company by Albert Speer, the bunker was used after the war as a Red Army prison, storage space for the East German National Fruit and Vegetable Conglomerate, and then as a techno nightclub that held its last party in 1996.

On the banks of Berlin's Spree river, meanwhile, an old crane stands atop a four-story building that is now a private home. Built in the 1960s, the building was a storage site for goods that were loaded into passing container ships with the crane. It stood empty after the fall of the Wall as much of East German industry sank, until an entrepreneur from Hamburg, Sven Thomsen, discovered it during a bike ride. He bought the property for an undisclosed sum in 2002 and moved here in 2006.

In the space of four years, Thomsen renovated the building beneath the crane into a private home, with panoramic glass windows on both sides of the building and prominent black steel framing.

The apartment features a loft space, office and atelier. Thomsen also restored the crane and left it on the roof.

Although the upper floors of the house are private, the ground floor is a public cafe with a sand-pit terrace on the water that features weekly barbecues. Thomsen also rents out the crane house for film shoots.

The city's oldest water tower, built in 1877, which once served briefly as a World War II concentration camp, now is home to Melanie Kretschmann, an actress, and her husband, Stefan Bachmann, a director.

The couple and their three children, Finn, Bela and Robin Bachmann, moved into a fourth-floor apartment in the water tower - officially called Wasserturm am Prenzlauer Berg - four years ago upon returning from an around-the-world tour in a Volkswagen camper.

Until 1952, when the water tower ceased operation, the tower's operators lived in apartments inside the structure. They were renovated and turned into private apartments in the 1950s.

"Lots of people here are curious about the tower and have never been inside," Kretschmann explained. "We have had lots of parties and invited in as many people as possible."

The family enjoys the unusual interior space of the building, whose apartments follow the round curve of the tower, with each room resembling a somewhat uneven slice of cake. "You know the head is round so it allows the thinking to change direction," Kretschmann said.

Their white-washed, 140-square-meter apartment offers 180-degree views of the city. From the bath, for example, it's possible to see the glittering silver disco-ball top of the television tower on Alexander Platz.

"It is totally quiet, you can't hear a thing," Kretschmann said over a glass of wine in her exposed-brick kitchen. "It is, as such, also the perfect party apartment."

Inside an erstwhile transformer factory in Oberschneweide, the view from Hannes Heiner's sliver of a balcony is a vast warehouse full of metallic monsters and other frightening creations.

Heiner has lived in the former offices of the factory since 2005, when he completed a yearlong tour through France with the metallic monsters, which he describes as "kinetic art." The monsters, and his other creations, come in all shapes and sizes and have mechanical engines that allow them to perform certain actions, like play music.

Heiner belongs to the "dead chickens" art cooperative, which uses the 900-square-meter factory floor to store and create their creations, which have been displayed around the world.

Heiner uses a ladder and a steep fire escape, or the stairs from an adjoining office block next door, to enter his 40-square-meter apartment. His bathroom is an operational shower room in the office's corridor.

"In the middle of this historical industrial park, in this light- filled monster workshop, I am able to project my inner thoughts onto the outside world and produce urban life, far away from the hectic life and restrictions of the city," Heiner wrote in an e-mail message.

Brian O'Connor of AdHoc Immobilien, a Berlin-based real estate agency, said, "It is hard to give an average price on these kinds of properties."

"But Oberschneweide is going to take a long time to develop in my opinion," he said, referring to the area around Heiner's atelier. "There was recently a veto by local residents further along the Spree, which blocked some pricey developments there."

"The Kollwitzplatz next to the Wasserturm is now extraordinarily expensive," O'Connor said about the water tower's neighborhood. And, he added about the area around the bunker, the apartments in "Potsdamer Platz are currently around euro 5,000 to euro 6,000 per square meter," or about $643 to $772 per square foot.

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.

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