Why Am Tacheles is a resonant symbol of missed urban opportunities in Berlin

As the Am Tacheles project in Berlin is unveiled, so too are the city's many missed opportunities.

By Johannes Novy

On a recent summer evening, I strolled along Oranienburger Straße (street), a vibrant thoroughfare in Berlin-Mitte – I had come to see the much anticipated “Am Tacheles” project, which after a long construction and even longer planning process had begun to emerge from behind its scaffolding and tarpaulins.

Am Tacheles Berlin
Oranienburger street, a thoroughfare in Berlin. (Photo by Bloom Images)

Looking at its slick facades – with Berlin’s soaring TV tower in the distance – it was immediately clear to me that the project, as was to be expected given the involvement of Swiss star architects Herzog & de Meuron as principal architects and master planners, is indeed in a different league to most of the other major urban development schemes that for better or worse (and mostly the latter) have transformed Berlin’s cityscape in recent years. And yet it still pained me to see it. 

Why was that the case? The way we respond to architecture and the built environment is strongly influenced by our own background and biography, and in part, my reaction was certainly down to my relationship with the area.

While Oranienburger street itself has had something rather tacky about it ever since I first set foot on it in the early 1990s, the neighbourhood in which it is located, the Spandauer Vorstadt, was once as enchanting and exciting as it could get. The area had been through some hard times during the GDR era, marked by neglect and wear, but after 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down, change was swift and sweeping.

There was nightlife, lots of it, but also lots of space to experiment, to explore alternative ways of living, and for community. Sure, misgivings about the way Germany and Berlin’s reunification was playing out were anything but unheard of.  Nor did it take long for greed to descend on the neighbourhood, with property developers and wealthy West Germans seeking to exploit its rent gap, that is, the disparity between its low property prices at the time and the potential for significant profits from resale or rental income as the area developed. 

Yet, initially, this did little to dampen the upbeat buzz that enveloped the place. I recall numerous encounters with residents, many of whom had fought for the neighbourhood already during GDR times, taking it upon themselves to save its crumbling old buildings from further decay and protest against demolition plans. They were hopeful about the future of their Kiez and that they could remain a part of it. Except that, it turned out that most of them could not. An increasingly sanitised version of its former self, the area today is prohibitively expensive and Am Tacheles is bound to make it even more so.

Am Tacheles: high-end but hollow

With flats reportedly selling for an average of €15,000 per square metre, the project is so brazenly upscale that one can be forgiven for taking it as an extended middle finger to the Berlin that was and as a slab in the face of those who cherished it. Added to this was that what I saw, despite its developer’s grand claim of being “the most exciting urban planning project in the metropolis”, failed to generate much in the way of excitement in me, let alone trigger that “wow” or “guilty-pleasure” effect that “starchitecture”, whatever its ethical and political intricacies, sometimes manages to produce. 

Occupying a trapezoidal city block, Am Tacheles is a mixed-use development made up of several separate buildings and adjoining public (but mainly privately owned) spaces. The buildings – of which some stem from Herzog & de Meuron themselves and others were designed by two smaller Berlin architectural firms – undoubtedly exude urban chic and sophistication: their lavish interiors and finishes are the stuff architecture porn is made of and glossy magazines fill their pages with.

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Parts of the project are still incomplete, so it’s wise to hold off on final judgments. However, for me, its buildings’ outlandish names alone ­– Form, Joux, Frame, Scape, you get the idea – are enough to elicit an eye roll and, at present, it’s difficult to envision what could salvage the project from that eerie anywhere-and-nowhere atmosphere that all too often plagues such high-end developments.

The notion of “zombie urbanism” comes to mind: a term urban researchers use to describe urban development projects that seek to emulate the qualities of organic, thriving urban environments but, by prioritising appearance over substance and adhering to a narrow and elitist vision of what cities are about, fall short of capturing the true essence of city life, creating community and fostering a genuine sense of place.

And this is despite the indisputably iconic former Kunsthaus Tacheles that is part of the project and after which it is named. Situated in the ruins of the Friedrichstraßenpassage, a lavish early 20th-century shopping arcade damaged in the Second World War, the Kunsthaus Tacheles, or Tacheles for short, was one of, if not the symbol of Berlin’s wild post-reunification years.

As an artist collective, cultural institution and nightlife magnet, it embodied the alternative, countercultural vibe of the time, which helped shape Berlin’s image as a creative metropolis that endures to this day.

Between 1990, when artists squatted the dilapidated building to prevent its imminent demolition, and the early 2010s when the Tacheles shut its doors to the public, scores of tourists flocked to its exhibition and performance spaces, its bars and nightclub as well as its neighbouring beer and sculpture garden in search of an authentic, quintessential Berlin experience.

To what extent they found what they were looking for is debatable: the Kunsthaus quickly gained the reputation of being somewhat of a tourist trap; a place that just a few years into its existence had passed its zenith as an embodiment of Berlin’s bohemian spirit and from then on lived off its past. However, what certainly makes for a quintessential Berlin “experience” – and a sobering one at that – is what was to happen to the Tacheles site, and the way politicians went about it: first, in the 1990s, selling it for a knockdown price and subsequently giving developers almost free rein to redevelop it. 

True, the former Kunsthaus has not only been extensively and, as far as one can tell from the outside, sensibly restored. Instead, the listed building, whose wounds from the Second World War have been retained, will also be used again as a cultural venue. Fotografiska, a renowned photography gallery from Stockholm, is set to open a branch on six of its floors later this year.

The arrival of this major cultural player, which in addition to Stockholm already has branches in New York and Tallinn and will soon expand to Miami and Shanghai, may well be seen as a welcome addition to Berlin’s cultural landscape. However, its pay-to-enter programme – admission prices are still to be announced, but judging by Fotografiska’s other locations, they won’t come cheap – is not really what many Berliners had in mind when they campaigned for the preservation of the Tacheles as a cultural venue at the time development plans came to light.

Back then, with the neighbourhood’s accelerating gentrification and commercialisation increasingly biting into its once thriving alternative art scene, many had hoped – naively, as it turned out – that a reinvented Tacheles in continued cultural use could provide some remedy; for example, in the form of affordable studio and exhibition space.

What they got, however, is a project destined to complete the neighbourhood’s transformation into a posh, tourist-friendly playground for the rich. A project that takes up more than two hectares of prime real estate, that was pushed through without meaningful citizen participation, and that, offers not one iota in the way of tangible community benefits such as affordable or at least below-market-rate housing.

Talking Tacheles: from artists’ dream to real estate scheme

The fate of the Tacheles site is a sad story in itself, yet what makes it even more sobering is that it is by no means a one-off case. When the artists who occupied the ruins of the Friedrichstraßenpassage settled on Tacheles as their collective’s name, they did so as a nod to the Jewish heritage of the neighbourhood they found themselves in – Berlin’s famous ‘New Synagogue’, itself a major tourist attraction, is just a stone’s throw away from Tacheles site.

The word tacheles is of Yiddish origin and ‘tacheles reden’ is a German idiom used to express the intent to “talk straight”. Straight talk is exactly what stories like the one around the Tacheles call for, because what happened to it – and what it has become – was neither accidental nor inevitable.

It reflects the city’s more general trajectory in recent decades and is the result of a prevailing approach to urban development that is at odds with Berlin’s image, especially abroad. Said approach was, when it really mattered, more often than not many things, but not “innovative” or “progressive”.

In fact, considering the tremendous opportunities there were following the fall of the Berlin Wall to not only reimagine Berlin’s built environment but also push the boundaries of architectural design, planning, and what it means to co-inhabit and co-produce urban space, the outcomes fell disappointingly short. 

Architecturally, despite recent attempts to make up for decades of poor planning and mediocre architecture, imaginative and innovative architecture is outnumbered by generic developer fare and uninspired designs that are at odds with the city’s multi-layered heritage and soul. And socially, Berlin is hit hard by skyrocketing rents and soaring property prices, which undermines the diverse social fabric it is known and admired for and makes it harder and harder for less affluent Berliners – including many artists and other creatives – to live in the city.

Am Tacheles Berlin
The construction site of the former Tacheles arts center stands in January 2020 in Berlin, Germany. Tacheles was an abandoned building, home to artists who had created studio spaces there until they were evicted following the purchase of the complex by an investor. Berlin, long-known for its cheap housing that lured artists and other creative people from across the globe, is struggling to maintain a supply of affordable housing in the face of high demand and foreign real estate investments that have made property prices skyrocket over the last five years. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

This trend obviously cannot be blamed on Berlin’s politics alone, but it was exacerbated by it. Thousands of public housing units were privatised and vast amounts of public land sold at below-market prices and without any obligation on developers to deliver affordable housing. The problems resulting from the rampant gentrification of Berlin’s more centrally located neighbourhoods were meanwhile long overlooked and when politicians, under pressure from tenants’ organisations and activists, finally came to accept that they existed, their initial response was – be it for a lack of will or ability – too little, too late. 

So far, so normal, one might say; after all, much of the described parallels what has happened elsewhere, and observers predicted as early as the 1990s that these developments were to be expected following Berlin’s reunification and reinsertion into “normal capitalist urbanisation”. Except that there is no such thing as “normal” when it comes to urban development.

After all, there is agency and variations abound across diverse urban contexts. Berlin, notwithstanding its challenges, economically and otherwise, was given its creative energy and the opportunities the fall of the Wall afforded it a unique position to do things differently and lead the way when it comes to innovative, sustainable, and equitable urban development. It has not seized this opportunity.

Worse than that, it finds itself in many respects trudging behind other cities. Recent decades have witnessed the rise of a “new municipalism”, a new politics grounded in and informed by local activism and citizens’ movements and committed to action for social and environmental justice. Additionally, cities like Paris, Copenhagen and Amsterdam are forging ahead with innovative initiatives prioritising ecological sanity and the well-being of their residents.

Of course, one must be careful to avoid falling victim to the proverbial “grass is always greener” syndrome. Like any city, these cities too are not without their fair share of shortcomings and contradictions. However, when looking at what they have achieved or what’s happening in them, Berlin’s record on the whole fails to impress. And this is not even factoring in that the city to this day all too often garners attention for all the wrong reasons such as by sticking to the anachronistic idea of bulldozing a six-lane highway through thriving neighborhoods. 

No, Berlin is not a lost cause. Its strong tradition of “grassroots” urbanism fills other cities with envy. Urban social movements are plenty and powerful. There are good people in politics for all the right reasons, and every now and then ambitious, even radical, policies do come about. Yet despite this, there is a glaring mismatch between the spirit and image of the city and the resourcefulness of its people on the one hand, and the often disappointing or outright disheartening nature of its politics.

Not only but especially when it comes to urban development. This mismatch is poised to widen given the agenda of the city’s new government, led by the conservative CDU, which took office last spring. Its leaders will likely celebrate the “new” Tacheles and use its forthcoming opening as an opportunity for the usual politicians’ claptrap about how attractive, sought-after, and “world-class” Berlin has become.

Many Berliners, on the other hand, will be less enthusiastic and some, I suspect, will react just as I did on the said evening that I visited the project. They will do so not so much out of nostalgia for times gone by, but because what happened to and around the Tacheles – a place steeped in history and symbolism and once full of hope and aspirations – serves as a poignant and painful reminder of was not meant to be: a Berlin driven not by profit, but by community.

[Read more: The battle for Molkenmarkt: Will Berlin turn to its past, present or future?]

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