When it comes to creativity, the sky’s the limit in Berlin, which is one of Europe’s big start-up capitals. In the last 20 years, the city has become a giant lab of cultural experimentation thanks to a spirit that nurtures and encourages new ideas as well as to an abundance of space and cheap rent. Although the latter two are definitely a thing of the past, top international performers still grace Berlin’s theatre, concert and opera stages; international art-world stars like Olafur Eliasson and Jonathan Meese make their home here; and Clooney and Hanks shoot blockbusters in the German capital…
From an eclectic after-hours to a creative art and gastronomical scene, Berlin is notoriously a diverse city – one that often pays tributes to the once declining buildings of its past. And whilst its charming and unrefined character has come to form a strong part of the city’s identity, there’s also a whole host of local hotpots that unearth its more unexpected side. Check out the places in Berlin that get you living like a local, but one that knows the city inside out.
1. König Gallery/ ST. AGNESS : The eponymous gallery—which boasts a formidable roster including the likes of Elmgreen & Dragset, Helen Marten, Erwin Wurm, and Katharina Grosse—has established itself as a key player in the Berlin scene. Since opening in 2002, it has run two spaces in the city, one located in a former industrial building on Dessauerstraße and a second in the 1960s Brutalist-style church of St. Agnes.
A Brutalist building is easy to spot but often hard to embrace. An offshoot of postwar modernism and a socialist desire for more uniform, functional urban planning, these brooding bunkerlike structures often cast an impenetrable shadow on the landscape, seemingly at odds with the well-meaning ideologies.
The windowless structure is designed to mislead, with slits in the façade and skylights. “The building is top lit, and created to be very rough and raw on the outside but soft and bright on the inside—ideal for showing art,” says König. The restored space also houses a variety of commercial tenants (a magazine, an architecture firm, and New York University’s Berlin office to name a few), private apartments (König and his family occupy a three-bedroom flat), and a new restaurant; temporary artists’ residences, set in the former bell tower, and a sculpture garden.
2. Sammlung Boros: The Bunker in Berlin-Mitte is a listed air-raid shelter. Originally based on plans of the architect Karl Bonatz, it was constructed in 1943 by Nazi Germany to shelter up to 3,000 Reichsbahn train passengers. The converted bunker stands like a gloomy block on the corner of Reinhardtstrasse and Albrechtstrasse, not far from the Deutsches Theater. Inside, it hides an incredible treasure trove of contemporary art – sculpture, spatial installations, light and performance-based work of international standing.
3. Camera Work: Named after the artists’ magazine of 1903, this gallery displays photographs of numerous well-known artists. Camera Work was founded in 1997 in Berlin, and has since then become one of the worldwide leading galleries for photography. With its historically coined gallery name, the company has always followed the philosophy to represent, next to world famous classic photographers such as Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, Patrick Demarchelier, Helmut Newton, Irving Penn, Man Ray and Herb Ritts, young and contemporary artists to manifest the position of photography as an independent genre within visual art and to give room to new positions
Contrary to what the name might suggest, the Camera Work Contemporary Gallery not only presents contemporary works from the area of photography, but from painting and sculpture as well.
4. C/O Berlin: Pictures say more than a thousand words – this is the motto at C/O Berlin, an innovative, modern and international exhibition space devoted to photography. Up to three alternating group and solo exhibitions run simultaneously, featuring both famous artists and emerging talent. C/O Berlin is a non-profit organisation, founded in 2000 by three passionate photography experts – photographer Stephan Erfurt, designer Marc Naroska and architect Ingo Pott. An important part of their concept is to create a forum for visual education, going beyond the exhibition of photography to discuss, explain and disseminate it.
It is now located at America House, the culture and information centre for America during the Interbau building exhibition in the late 1950s. Its rooms are flooded with light, thanks to its large windows. Notice that the structure of the original building is only partially visible, a quirk that creates a fittingly rough charm. The exhibition rooms are mostly kept in the minimalist style of the 1950s. The focus is instead on the photographs themselves: artistic renderings of film stars, supermodels and politicians. Besides evocative portraits, you’ll find snapshots of political events, some of social significance, some entertaining. Unique motifs and creative compositions grab your attention. But the exhibitions are not the whole picture. A thrilling array of lectures, panel discussions and artists’ seminars let you delve deeper into the detail. You can also meet other photographers at the café in C/O Berlin, which is purposefully designed to promote collaboration.
5. KINDL – Centre for Contemporary Art: A former brewery in Berlin-Neukölln that offers installations, performances, paintings and other art forms. The monumental brick facades of the former Kindl brewery are the backdrop for an innovative art project. The expressionist industrial construction evolved into an exciting encounter between everyday culture and the art scene. With large production halls and a huge exhibition space, the present KINDL – Centre for Contemporary Art is ideal for large installations. The rugged, breathtakingly primitive and futuristic-looking rooms showcase modern paintings and performances in the perfect space.
6. me Collectors Room: Here you can now see the most extensive private collection in Europe with works from the beginning of the 16th century to recent contemporary art in changing exhibitions. In the midst of all this Olbricht would like to offer a “world of discovery” in his house as well: subject-specific tours through the collection, specially developed collections for the Me Collectors shop plus a café round off the visit to the exhibition. 7. Passage Kino: Tucked away in a Hinterhof just off of Karl-Marx-Straße in the Neukölln neighbourhood is Passage Kino. It’s positioned in such a way that no matter the season, you can’t help but look up at its bright film showings displayed in their primary colours. And it’s a cinema with character, featuring arthouse films which you can watch in their original version and rows of plush red velvet seats and red curtains. Most notably, however, Passage Kino mixes deluxe with the historical eerily well. You wouldn’t expect to find this distinctive movie theatre hidden away in the back alleyways of this side of Neukölln – and that makes it all the more special.
8: Urban Nation: Urban contemporary art on every corner – Bülowstraße in Schöneberg. On building walls and lamp posts, in U-Bahn stations and building sites – urban contemporary art greets the attentive observer at every turn in Berlin. And Bülowstraße particularly catches the eye: the passer-by quickly becomes a gallery visitor.
The sprayed and glued artworks can be seen so densely in this lively part of Schöneberg that you hardly believe you are standing in the middle of an exhibition in the open air. There is something to discover everywhere. At regular intervals URBAN NATION, a young Berlin Street art network, brings national and international icons to the city. Street art greats like Handiedan, Jeff Soto and Dan Witz have all shaken their cans here. Their artworks can be seen all over this street and in the neighbouring streets, sometimes as meter-high murals, sometimes very small, almost hidden on posts and shutters. The four-storey residential and commercial building at number 7 particularly catches the eye. You can see it from the overground U-Bahn. At regular intervals a street artist transforms the whole facade into a gigantic mural. EINE has sprayed the word “Revolution” on the façade in colourful, metre-high letters. DALeast has had a golden eagle fly over the building. And the brothers IcyAndSot from Iran have created a fall-of-the-wall scene on the building, based on an original photo.
9. Bauhaus Archive: The city is the spiritual home of the Bauhaus, the most influential school of architecture, design and art in the 20th century. Its Archive – or Museum of Design – houses a sensational collection of sculptures, ceramics, furniture and architectural models by Walter Gropius, Moholy-Nagy, Klee, Kandinsky and the many others who – with the Nazis’ rise to power – fled Germany and carried modernism to the New World.
10. Topography of Terror: A place of remembrance on the site of the SS central command. Remembering terror and persecution – the documentation center Topographie des Terrors is one of the most-visited places of remembrance in Berlin. A place where terror is tangible, a place of remembrance and a warning from history, the “Topography of Terror” exhibition is located on the site where between 1933 and 1945 the principal instruments of Nazi persecution and terror were located: the headquarters of the Gestapo, the high command and security service of the SS, and from 1939 the Reich Security Main Office.
Germany is open and dynamic today is a consequence of taking responsibility for its history. In a courageous, humane and moving manner, the country is subjecting itself to a national psychoanalysis. This Freudian idea, that the repressed (or at least unspoken) will fester like a canker unless it is brought to the light, can be seen in Daniel Libeskind’s tortured Jewish Museum, at the Holocaust Memorial and, above all, at the Topography of Terror. Be aware that this outdoor museum, built on the site of the former headquarters of the SS and Gestapo, is not for the fainthearted.