Berlin on the edge
There is nothing boring about Berlin
I AM in Berlin, climbing over a wall into an abandoned ice factory under cover of darkness.
The last time I was in Berlin, I spent my afternoons in the elegant galleries of the Pergamon Museum, admiring the antiquities. This time I feel I should make more of an effort to get with the zeitgeist, to explore modern Berlin. And so, dressed in black and clutching a torch, I am with Cathy, a young American performance artist with a bolt through her tongue.
We are urban explorers, discovering street art and the pleasure of decaying urban spaces.
Berlin’s zeitgeist has always been out of whack with the rest of Germany.
In the 1920s, when Dusseldorf was busy mining coal, Berliners were dancing the shimmy, probably in a club run by a couple of lesbian poets.
In the first years of this century, when Cologne was busy organising trade fairs in its new exhibition halls, Berliners were queuing for the most cutting-edge music club in Europe, set in an abandoned power station.
Adolf Hitler never liked Berlin. He believed it was laughing at him behind his back. He was probably right. When the Berlin Wall came down, what shaped the new united city was not the disaffected easterners driving to the shopping precincts of the west in their battered Trabants.
It was the disaffected young westerners moving into the endless possibilities of the east.
It was all about cheap rents and empty buildings.
Anyone who dreamed of setting up a club, opening a cafe, founding an art collective, painting a masterpiece, shooting a music video, dabbling in conceptual art or just expressing their angst in experimental butoh dance performances headed for the splendid properties being vacated by the old East German state and the communist industries.
Berlin became the European capital of alternative lifestyles, of counterculture and of artistic experimentation.
As the focus of the city shifted east, to Mitte, Prenzlauer Berg and Friedrichshain, dour neighbourhoods came to life with galleries, boutiques, studios, craft workshops, trendy cafes and bars, and an avalanche of cutting- edge music clubs.
And the best of it was a DIY scene, young people creating spaces and activities out of a passion, or just a sense of fun.
Gentrification has followed them, of course, but Berlin still has one of the most exciting alternative scenes in Europe.
Cathy is just one of the hordes of young people who come here to plug into its astonishing creative energy. Down at the ice factory, Cathy and I are climbing through the empty windows.
Inside, our torches reveal galleries of street art. In another direction, vast pieces of ancient machinery loom like the colossi of a lost industrial age, as strange and fascinating as the antiquities in the Pergamon Museum.
Treading carefully, we make our way upstairs to emerge on the roof overlooking the River Spree.
‘ ‘ I feel at home here,’’ Cathy says. ‘‘I may not be German, but I am a Berliner.’’
Raw Tempel at 99 Revaler Strasse (raw-tempel.de) is emblematic of the city’s alternative scene — a series of DIY exhibition, entertainment, performance and play spaces in the reclaimed train sheds of an old railway maintenance yard. There is an indoor skate park, climbing wall, Sunday flea market and several cafes and bars as well as Cassiopeia (cassiopeiaberlin.de), a former squat and one of Berlin’s hippest clubs; Suicide Circus (suicide-berlin.com), a bastion of old-school techno with some tasty outside spaces on the river; and Theatre Majak (theater-majak.de), an experimental dance, video and theatrical space.
Hackescher Markt, where Oranienburger Strasse meets Rosenthaler Strasse, is a complex of buildings built in the early 20th century and revived after the fall of the wall. The nine inner courtyards have been gentrified with smart restaurants and bars, save the one that is accessed from 39 Rosenthaler Strasse. Formerly headquarters for the East German government film company, it was occupied by an art collective (hausschwarzenberg.org) in the early 90s. Follow the graffiti-adorned walls to the studios of designers, artists and illustrators as well as an independent cinema, Kino Central (kino-central.de), Neurotitan Shop & Gallery, (neurotitan.de), the wonderful Eschschloraque bar and the underground Monster Kabinett (monsterkabinett.de), in the dungeons of which the collective has created a robotic nightmare.
Kunsthaus Tacheles (super.tacheles.de) is the original Berlin artists’ squat, occupying what was once a large department store in Oranienburger Strasse. Up to 80 artists from 30 countries work here in four floors of studios, most with pieces for sale, and there’s a performance space for everything from video installations to improvised dance.
Mauerpark Flea Market is a cross between London’s Portobello Road and The X Factor. A sprawling Sunday market in a park that used to be the Berlin Wall’s ‘‘death strip’’, it attracts everyone from pink-haired punks to young families. The stalls provide everything you need for an alternative lifestyle, from vintage frocks and killer vinyl to communist paraphernalia and suspicious-looking pipes. Cafes offer a range of world foods while busker bands perform to the milling crowds. But the best fun is at Bearpit Karaoke (bearpitkaraoke.com) in an old amphitheatre.
Eschschloraque (eschschloraque.de) is a funky, trashy-chic bar in the graffiti-littered courtyard in Hackescher Markt. Killer cocktails, comfy sofas and bags of street cred.
For the latest on films, fashion, art, bars and clubs, check these sites: iheartberlin.de; exberliner.com; bangbangberlin.com; abandonedberlin.com.
East Side Gallerie, a painted portion of the former Berlin Wall, reflects the city’s reputation for artistic experimentation
Prenzlauer Berg became trendy after German reunification
Checkpoint Charlie restaurant