The Accidental Planners

In a former bicycle shop near Alexanderplatz, in central Berlin, a band of artists runs an unofficial annex of the city planning department. The walls are covered with architectural renderings, and maps are spread on plywood tables around the room. In a large display window, overlooking a boulevard where Soviet tanks once rolled on parade, is a scale model of the project they are working on: a mixed-use neighborhood center with art studios, offices, and apartments for thousands of people. There will be affordable housing for seniors, settlement homes for refugees, shelters for the homeless, community workshops, a new town hall. It’s the sort of project dreamed up by utopian collectives around the world. Here it might actually happen.

Passersby can look up from that styrofoam model to the empty shell it mirrors: the Haus der Statistik, built in the late 1960s for the national statistics office of the German Democratic Republic, also known as East Germany. Spread over eight downtown blocks, the complex totals half a million square feet in three connected mid-rises (up to twelve stories tall) and a few smaller buildings. After reunification, it housed one of the offices charged with opening up the surveillance archives of the Stasi, the East German secret police. But that’s all history now. The Haus der Statistik closed its doors in 2008, and for the past decade it has been abandoned, a conspicuous ruin in the center of the city.

The buildings were supposed to be torn down and replaced with private apartments and offices, following the fate of other state-owned properties. But here a handful of artists staged a remarkable intervention. What began as an effort to protest Berlin’s lack of affordable housing turned into a serious plan to save the Haus der Statistik and adapt it to community needs, backed by €140 million in state funding. Now the artists are working directly with public officials, planners, and architects to lead a participatory process that will transform the area around Alexanderplatz. “It’s a huge statement about the future of development in Berlin,” said organizer Harry Sachs. If it works, it will be a model for bottom-up city-making — and a lesson in how outsiders can claim political power.

The Keys to the Machine

On a sunny morning in September 2015, four artists in hardhats gathered outside the vacant Haus der Statistik, puzzling over the controls of the machine they had rented — a tracked spider lift with a telescoping arm, like a cherry picker, that could raise a caged platform 150 feet in the air. First they had to figure out how to operate it. The delivery man had just handed over the keys and left. “I guess he assumed we knew what we were doing,” said Boris Jöns, one of the artists present that day.

Artists protesting evictions dropped a fake construction banner: ‘Room for Art, Culture, and Social Space.’ The project did not exist, but the conditions it proposed to solve were real.

As Jöns and Sachs stepped onto the platform and haltingly maneuvered themselves upward, their conspirators broke into the building and took the stairs. They reunited at the seventh floor and draped a huge vinyl banner, ten meters tall, down the side of the building where the windows used to be. It was styled like the information boards seen at construction sites around the city, with thick hatch marks framing the bold red lettering: “Here Arises for Berlin: Room for Art, Culture, and Social Space.” 2 Below, a crowd of invited supporters and journalists gathered for a press event that spoofed an official groundbreaking ceremony. The artists facetiously thanked the authorities for converting the abandoned building into a social housing development.

The project did not actually exist, of course, but the conditions it proposed to solve were real. Teetering on the edge of bankruptcy in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Berlin’s government had sold off state-owned housing companies and estates to international investors. More than 110,000 public apartments went private. 3 In the years since, rising rents had forced artists and other vulnerable tenants out of their homes and workspaces. According to one tally, 350 artist studios were lost in 2014; another 500 were in danger. As evictions rippled through the city, artists formed the Alliance of Threatened Berlin Studio Houses, which agitated for tenant protections. 4