How Berlin's past shapes its present and future as an artist base.
By Roslyn Bernstein
In the two decades following the fall of the Wall, artists from all over the world have descended on Berlin, drawn to the city by inexpensive rents and abundant vacant industrial buildings. Some, like the painter Andre Butzer, 38, have broken the mold. Butzer moved to Rangsdorf, a small village of 12,000 people about 45 minutes south of Berlin, in 2006, when he bought the former Bucker Aircraft Factory and started converting it into a unique live/work environment.
It was a major decision, not only in terms of capital investment but also in terms of his psyche. Bücker-Flugzeugbau GmbH, founded in 1932, was a manufacturer of small planes, many subsequently used as trainers by the Luftwaffe during World War II. Adjacent to the factory was the Rangsdorf airfield, where Officer Claus Schenk Graf and his brother Berthold Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, conspirators in the July 1944 plot against Adolf Hitler, took off from after their failed attempt to plant a bomb at the Fuhrer’s briefing hut at the military high command in Rastenburg, East Prussia.
Hitler survived the bomb blast and the coup failed. Subsequently, Claus was executed by a firing squad; Berthold, however, and eight other conspirators were hanged in Plotzensee Prise, Berlin. According to historical accounts, Berthold was strangled and then revived multiple times and the gruesome execution and resuscitation sequence was filmed for Hitler to view at his leisure.
Far out in the former East, maybe it is still cheap, “Akulin says, “but not any longer in Berlin. There are hundreds of artists here. In fact, every second person calls himself an artist.
Butzer knows the site’s history well. The factory was designed by Herbert Rimpl, one of the most important industrial architects of the Third Reich. Rimpl was a student of Paul Klee and at one point in his career 1000 architects worked for him. Although many of his buildings were destroyed in the war, the factory was spared because it was south of Berlin and most bombs from the British army came from the northwest. By 1936, flat-roofed buildings like the Bücker factory were already outlawed by Hitler who preferred pitched roofs that echoed the architecture of German chalets.
Rangsdorf was important. When the bombing of Berlin was intense, Butzer explained, they closed the Berlin airport and Rangsdorf was the main airport to the city. There was a time when one could fly to China and Italy from Rangsdorf.
In the 1940s, there were forced labor camps at the airport, with Ukrainians, Russians, and Poles working there. Prisoner-workers were housed in wooden barracks.
The Russians used the building after the war, from 1945 until 1994. In the 12 years that followed, vandalism and the weather destroyed the buildings, which ironically had survived the war, never having been bombed.
Butzer first heard of the site through the architect Johannes Sollich. Sollich was a doctoral student whose research centered on Rimpl’s importance during the Third Reich and afterward in post-wartime Germany. “The challenge of the Butzer renovation was to revitalize a military area with important historical monuments into a very personal place for an artist family with very strong characters,” says Sollich. “The Rangsdorf buildings are unique –one of the few remainders of this era.”
For Sollich, who also renovated an old officers’ mess (built for a tank company in 1936) for the artist Thomas Zipp near Berlin, the goal is not only to restore buildings but rather “to make a modern interpretation of special buildings or sites.”
As Butzer would find out, buying the property was complicated. While the purchase price was cheap –about 200,000 euros, the contract that he had to sign required that he invest heavily, with the government overseeing the three-year long renovation.
Ultimately, he spent more than 2.5 million euros to restore two of the buildings on the property, one for his home and the other for his studio. The bank would not give him any money for the project and he had to pay for it with money earned from art sales. With a global network including dealers in Germany, Japan, France, Switzerland, Austria, Spain, Portugal, Italy, United Arab Emirates, Finland, and the United States (where he is represented by Metro Pictures in NYC), Butzer prefers to handle all of his business himself, from Rangsdorf. The wall calendar over his desk is always set one day ahead. “I started doing this when I was in school. It’s better that way,” he says.
To purchase the site, Butzer had to agree not to sell the property for a long time. “They did not want to encourage it as an investment project.” Although he can sell it legally after 16-20 years, his plan “is to keep it forever. I might live somewhere else but I will always come back to Rangsdorf.”
The 1935 factory building with its two story steel skeleton and 140 windows is now his home. After demolishing an extension, he gave serious thought to the building’s color. “The original building was white,” Butzer says, “but I could not do that here. White would have been wrong.” Instead, he chose grey—a compromise between the German white and the Russian blue. The living room has a piano, a play area for his two children, and a dining table that is 21 feet long. “We only occupy one end,” Butzer says.
Butzer transformed the officers’ canteen from 1938 into his studio. Designed by an unknown architect, its façade includes a raised relief of Maxim Gorky, who Butzer points out, “loved books and was a fountain of knowledge.” The 1,000 square meter building now houses a huge studio that is both clean and sparse, an office, and a small apartment in the back for visitors.
A third building on the property from 1942, with prominent blue columns, remains as it was when he bought the property. Once the social building where soup was served to the workers, Butzer’s plan is to eliminate a floor and turn the building into a museum.
The André Butzer studio story is not typical for German artists although Butzer is quick to point out that there is a tradition in Germany where artists find unique places—“George Baselitz, for example, found a castle!” Baselitz acquired Schloss Derneburg, a 12th-century fortified castle some 40 kilometers south of Hannover in 1974 and made it his home and studio for the next 32 years. Another German artist, Anselm Kiefer transformed a derelict silk factory in Barjac, France into a 35-hecture studio compound by creating a vast system of glass buildings, installations, and underground chambers.
More typically, artists are drawn to Berlin because studio space is relatively cheap there and the cost of living is low. Although prices are creeping up, Berlin is still seen as a haven for younger artists with its lively art scene and abundant galleries. When the Berlin Wall fell, many factory and office buildings in the former East Berlin were empty. The situation was perfect for artists like the painter, Nikolai Makarov. For the past 10 years, Makarov has lived and worked in a 400-square meter studio at Lidower Strasse 18, in a building that formerly belonged to the post office. Privately owned, the building is still quite inexpensive, with Makarov renting his space for seven euros per square meter. He expects an increase of five percent when his five year contract is up.
Originally from Moscow, Makarov came to Germany in 1975. For five years, from 1995 to 200, he lived on Sullivan Street in NYC, where he worked in a small studio, but he returned to Germany because “Berlin is better for work.” The Lidower Strasse building, which houses a mosque on the second floor, currently has several artists in the building including Dana Akulin who rents a 130 square meter space for 1000 euros per month. “In the Mitte neighborhood, which has now become fashionable,” Akulin says, “the same space would be at least 10 euros per square meter.”
Akulin, who is 34 years old and from St. Petersburg, came to Berlin twelve years ago to study at the Universität der Künste. During his years in the city, he says that the situation for artists has changed dramatically. “In the past, there were no laws at all. When East and West Berlin were joined, it was chaotic and people snapped up apartments. They paid very little then and nobody was really in control. But it is not so today. “Far out in the former East, maybe it is still cheap, “Akulin says, “but not any longer in Berlin. There are hundreds of artists here. In fact, every second person calls himself an artist.”
Hans-Henrik Grimmling has a studio in the same building, a 240 square-meter space for which he pays 1680 euros, including heat. Grimmling, who escaped from East Germany in 1986, was a rebel even there. He studied art in Leipzig where he joined a student group against the Leipzig Schule, artists sanctioned by the state. “The government was happy when I left,” he says.
Grimmling, who calls himself a left-wing internationalist (among his idols is Che Guevara), says that even in Leipzig he had good studio space. “They left me in peace,” he says, adding that, “in a dictatorship, the enemy is visible. In democracy, there is too much freedom. It’s harder to live in freedom than in dictatorship.”
Swedish artist Riccard Larrson and Israeli/Norwegian artist Yael Graetz currently live and work in a large studio that was converted from a bus repair building. They have 213 square meters and pay 1100 euros per month with heat. Best of all, they have a 25-year contract for the space. After 12 years living near Carrara, Italy, they came to Berlin, seven years ago. “We chose Berlin because it was cheap and there was an art scene,” Larsson says. “Florence is based on the Renaissance, and it’s conservative. Everything is based on the past; it is a nice place to die or retire.”
Despite the advantage of an inexpensive studio, Larsson is critical of the art world in Berlin. “Artists here Google how to paint,” he says, citing his own credentials as a graduate of the Royal Academy of Art in Stockholm. “They all think they are the next Damien Hirst. All they care about is success.”
Curator and art historian Nico Anklam describes the art scene in Berlin as “an evolving structure.” After the Mitte neighborhood was discovered, many galleries moved on to Wedding, Kreuzberg, and Neukölln. Now, they are shifting to North Neukölln and to Potsdamer Strasse. “In the 1990s, they moved into former Eastern buildings,” Anklam says. “In the early 2000s, they occupied former industrial buildings. Now, they are moving back into old West Berlin, into apartments.”
“The art world here is very Anglophone,” says Anklam who was asked to give his last three talks in English. Then, with a smile, he adds, “The reality is that American collectors fly in and buy pieces of work that were bought in Berlin but made in Brooklyn.”
Roslyn Bernstein is a professor of journalism and creative writing at Baruch College of the City University of New York.