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What makes Berlin the creative capital?

Tearing down the wall in 1989 obliterated the physical divide between East and West, engendering a new ethos of cultural diversity that makes Berlin one of the world’s most vibrant cities

  • Image Credit: Corbis
  • Gabriele StreichhahnImage Credit: Supplied
  • Chris KellerImage Credit: Supplied
  • Dimitri HegemannImage Credit: Supplied
  • Claudia SkodaImage Credit: Supplied

For most, the fall of the Berlin Wall conjures up vivid images of people, elated at their sudden freedom to travel, crossing inner-city checkpoints to embrace friends, family and complete strangers on the other side. Together, they began to scale the hitherto forbidding wall  that had been  transformed into a mere tower of toppling bricks. There was a sense of boundless excitement in those images, transmitted through TVs across the globe. The energy was palpable; the promise that now anything was possible clung to every image and every word. Visit Berlin today and you can still sense that energy. After the wall came down, it became essential to the city’s regeneration.  lthough it was soon decided to make Berlin the capital of a reunified Germany and plans to move ministries and government offices followed afoot, businesses were harder to cajole. As inhabitants headed West in search of greener pastures, companies were reluctant to settle in a city in the midst of a sea change. Double-digit unemployment figures and a sobering budget posed challenges, but also presented opportunities.

Faced with the enormous task of rebuilding the city, its politicians fostered a permissive can-do culture that benefited the creative sector.

Ideal base for industries

Although mayor Klaus Wowereit, called Berlin “poor but sexy”, it is rich in creativity — both figuratively and literally.

About 37,000 businesses, from film and music production companies to design and media firms, employ 300,000 people and generate a turnover of €30 billion (about Dh137 billion) annually. Several renowned art schools churn out home-grown talent, while non-profit arts centres and commercial projects, combined with state funding and easily accessible loans, attract international creatives. The alluring reputation of Berlin’s nightlife and its place at the confluence of East and  West make it an ideal base for industries that thrive on the unconventional.

The fall of the wall marked the beginning of a new chapter in the city’s history, setting free a tremendous amount of energy that had always been evident. West Berlin’s unique position as a liberal island moored in a sea of restrictive communist states had been the breeding ground for a rich counterculture since the 1970s, while on the other side of the wall, subversive arts had to be sought out in secret. From one day to the next, the reunited city became Berlin Wonderland. A collection of photographs published under that name  shows the derelict state of the streets, buildings and public spaces on the city’s East Side in the 1990s, but also the creativity unleashedby historic events. Publisher Chris Keller recalls creating a lot out of very little: “Being beamed out of western capitalism into meagre circumstances was mainly an advantage. We had little in the way of infrastructure, but we created it ourselves. We had freedom of creation.”

Rich nightlife scene

Techno clubs, bars and exhibition spaces sprang up in public buildings vacated by the exiting German Democratic Republic administration (not until 2001 did the reunified Federal   Republic of Germany’s government take up residence in Berlin). Keller says, “You didn’t need much money. Because people weren’t under a lot of monetary pressure, there were more possibilities to develop artistically, which was exciting.”

Traces of those wild post-reunification years have all but vanished in what was once the nightlife Bermuda triangle around Leipziger Strase, Mauerstrase and Kronenstrase. Legendary techno club Tresor once hosted some of the most famous DJs in the world in a former bank vault in Mitte and, founder Dimitri Hegemann says, “Berlin counterculture transformed the city over a 25-year period, since the fall of the wall and the reunification of the capital.” Today, a nondescript office building has taken its place.

A similar fate befell an illegal bar and an underground club nearby: their building was bulldozed the day before it was to be heritage listed. The neighbouring art deco building, which also once housed a club, has been restored. The last bastion of wild post-reunification Berlin, Kaufhaus Tacheles, was forced to close in 2012. Today, Mitte has become a hipster district of designer shops, media start-ups and PR agencies. Art galleries abound around Hackescher Markt, but they no longer have the luxury of celebrating art for art’s sake — there’s hefty rents to be paid. To find the small, quirky art galleries and unconventional art spaces that once occupied Mitte, you have to head to peripheral districts Neukolln or Wedding. The signs of the frontier years are fast disappearing, but give an image of Berlin as a creative capital. In 2006, Berlin became the first German Unesco City of Design. Countless artists, designers and musicians cut their teeth in the anarchic scene that sprang up in the  empty spaces the wall left behind. The cost of living is still low. The obstacles to setting up a studio, art gallery or performance space are fewer, attracting artists from abroad. Actress Gabriele  Streichhahn pinpoints the city’s draw: “I think it’s the new Berlin that people are attracted to. It’s lively, vivid and wild — where else would you live, once you’ve lived here?”

Personalities

Gabriele Streichhahn, 61, actress and artistic director

Gabriele Streichhahn was on stage in East Berlin when the borders were opened. After her  performance, she rushed to the Brandenburg Gate, where people were dancing and celebrating their newfound freedom. Within months she, along with a group of other creatives, had occupied a vacant city-centre palace, formerly the House of German- Soviet Friendship, and turned it into Theater im Palais, which has since become an integral part of the city’s cultural landscape. She is “celebrating the anniversary of the fall of the wall twice — once as artistic director of Theater im Palais, which wouldn’t exist without the fall of the Wall, and privately, as a person who received the gift of a life of freedom.”

http://www.theater-im-palais.de/

Chris Keller, 48, photographer

Chris Keller came to the city on a whim in 1990. The walls of West Berlin always made it claustrophobic, but once the borders were opened, he recalls: “I knew I had to be there, I wanted to  be part of it. People had come from East, West and from all over the world to make art, music and to celebrate.” In the 1990s, he lived, worked and partied in Mitte with graphic designer Anke Fese. Today they run a photo agency and have published Berlin Wonderland, a collection of photographs from the city’s wild years.

http://www.ck-berlin.com

http://www.bobsairport.de/

publisher

http://www.berlin-wonderland.de/

 

Dimitri Hegemann , 60, organiser, curator, cultural activist and self-described space pioneer

Dimitri Hegemann was a founding father of Berlin’s techno club scene at a time when the new

industrial music imported from Detroit inspired hippie-esque sentiment and boundless idealism. Having organised music festivals in West Berlin since 1978, he went East after the fall of  the wall to open legendary semi-legal underground club Tresor. He still runs several clubs, but his true passion

is exporting the frontier spirit of the 1990s to structurally weak cities such as Detroit. “The success and public reception of the techno movement in Berlin was also a door-opener for different genres from fashion to art. This alliance continues to live to this day and has extended throughout Europe, and indeed the world. The time has come to give something back to Detroit.” With Hegeman’s help, the techno revolution might just come full circle.

http://tresorberlin.com history/

http://www.kraftwerkberlin.de

http://detroitberlin.de connection/

 

Claudia Skoda, 71, fashion designer

Claudia Skoda has seen it all: the alternative 1970s in West Berlin when her studio loft was compared to Warhol’s factory and the likes of Martin Kippenberger and David Bowie frequented her fashion shows; the 1980s when she shuttled between Berlin and New York; and the 1990s when the fall of the Wall made her return to Berlin. “As a native Berliner, I felt compelled to show my colours,” she recalls.

http://www.claudiaskoda.com/

Wall of art

The fall of the Berlin Wall lent the city a new lease of creative life, and has inspired artists for years. From Keith Haring and Jonathan Borofsky to countless anonymous graffiti artists, many left their sometimes creative, sometimes political, always colourful mark on the west-facing side of the wall. Once the borders were opened, a section of the still pristine wall on the German Democratic  Republic side was appropriated for a makeover and became the East Side Gallery, the world’s  longest open-air gallery. Today, more parts of the wall are dispersed across the globe than in the city they used to divide, but a giant 360-degree panoramic representation of Berlin in the 1980s (pictured) depicts a day in the life of the divided city. Artist Yadegar Asisi has lived in Berlin since 1978 and wanted to show the normality of life in the face of inhumane conditions.

Wall of lights

When the Berlin Wall first opened, people couldn’t get rid of it fast enough. The remaining scars are barely visible in some parts of the city. To mark the 25thanniversary of its fall, a wall of light recreates 15 kilometres of the former border in a poignant light installation. The Lichtgrenze event illuminates the course of the section that once bisected Berlin’s historic centre. Beginning at Bornholmer Strasse, the first checkpoint to open in 1989, past the Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie to the East Side Gallery, 8,000 luminous balloons commemorate the division of Berlin. Today, the temporary divide will end as the balloons are released into the night sky.

Celebrations will culminate in a concert, with Peter Gabriel playing David Bowie’s Heroes and the Berlin state ensemble performing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy in front of the Brandenburg Gate.

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