City Focus Berlin, Potsdamer Strasse

By Kimberly Bradley

Potsdamer Strasse at the intersection of Kurfürstenstrasse. Photo Andrea Stappert Courtyard in front of artist Douglas Gordon's studio. Photo Andrea Stappert Fashion shop Andreas Murkudis. Photo Andrea Stappert

Must art-driven gentrification always follow the same trajectory? The one in which artists colonise cheap spaces in an industrial area, gallerists follow, restaurants and bars arrive to keep everyone fed and happy, then people with more money ‘discover’ the place, chasing prices up and the artworld out – only to repeat the cycle elsewhere?

In unified Berlin, it has long seemed so. I arrived too late to experience the first post-Wall art hub on Auguststrasse, but watched gallery migration occur under bridges (Jannowitzbrücke), behind landmarks (Checkpoint Charlie), in an old department store (Lindenstrasse), on a grotty side street (Brunnenstrasse) and in industrial halls along smelly canals (Heidestrasse). For the past 20 years, gallery districts have cropped up and disappeared like fairy rings in the forest.

The most recent cluster, however, looks different – slower, more eclectic. Perhaps more sustainable. The migration first became visible in 2009, when several of Berlin’s prominent galleries – like Isabella Bortolozzi and Klosterfelde – rather quietly moved not east, as had previously been the trend, but west, to a nondescript neighbourhood incorporating parts of the Tiergarten and Schöneberg districts, south of Mies van der Rohe’s glass-box Neue Nationalgalerie and traversed by the broad Potsdamer Strasse. Interestingly, some were leaving white cubes for more residential spaces, most tucked into back courtyards or on upper floors, ie, nearly invisible from the street.

“We came here because it was completely different,” says Martin Klosterfelde, whose gallery occupies a grand beletage apartment at Potsdamer Strasse 93 with ornate wood mouldings and French doors – a dramatic departure from the white cubes he had on Zimmerstrasse. Matthias Arndt moved into a similar space across the street, upstairs from the Wintergarten theatre. Along the nearby Schöneberger Ufer canal, Bortolozzi began showing her edgy program (including artists like Danh Vo) in a noirish apartment lined with dark wood panelling.

It wasn’t long before other galleries began settling into small storefront or courtyard spaces on the side streets of Kurfürstenstrasse and Pohlstrasse: newer dealers like Tanya Leighton, Sassa Trülzsch, editions and multiples specialist Helga Maria Klosterfelde and veteran Giti Nourbakhsch (who’d actually been the very first to arrive here, in 2006, but closed amid unclear circumstances in early 2012). It was as if Berlin’s go-go mid-2000s art scene had had the same reality check as the global financial markets, and gallerists were perhaps looking for more intimate spaces to downshift, to contemplate or, as Klosterfelde says, to “make the artists work with a different kind of space”.

These days not all of the spaces are so intimate. In mid-2009, the Berlin daily newspaper Der Tagesspiegel moved out of its Potsdamer Strasse complex, including halls where the printing presses (ta-da! – instant industrial chic) ran. Juerg Judin, a Swiss gallerist who scouted the original Haunch of Venison space on Heidestrasse (which opened in 2007 and closed in 2010) and later launched Nolan Judin there in 2008, secured a long-term lease on the vast spaces with impossibly high ceilings.

“I came across these buildings long before they were for rent”

“I came across these buildings long before they were for rent,” says Judin, whose artist roster highlights lots of meticulously made two-dimensional work by artists such as Dexter Dalwood, Adrian Ghenie, Peter Saul and Danica Phelps (Judin lives nearby, in a revamped 1950s petrol station). “I couldn’t resist the natural light and the proportions of the rooms. It’s like a kunsthalle. Though Berlin is full of good spaces, to have such a central location on this scale was irresistible.”

Blain/Southern, a familiar neighbour with a new venture, took the next-door space and christened it (in a still-rough state) with a Tim Noble and Sue Webster show in April 2011 (alongside a launch party for Frieze d/e in Judin’s space). After an extended renovation, it reopened in April 2012 with a Jonas Burgert show, kicking off a series of blockbuster exhibitions like the museum-quality show featuring Arte Povera legend Jannis Kounellis in autumn 2012. The more traditional buildings in the courtyard are now, predictably, packed with smaller galleries as well, including Side by Side, 401 Contemporary and the art consultancy GoArt!, run by curator Miriam Bers and Stefano Gualdi.

The fashion world’s arrival into artsy territory is usually the first sign of the latter’s end. But the third space in the former printing press is avant-fashion purveyor Andreas Murkudis’s 1,000m2 store, which opened about the same time as Judin’s gallery. It’s a place where those who can’t afford Lawrence Weiner can buy a Dries Van Noten jumper or Mykita sunglasses so as to at least look the part.

***

This district’s transformation wasn’t driven by artists settling into studios or project spaces, even if a few, like Albert Oehlen and critic/salonista Ingeborg Wiensowski, are longtime residents, and the roughshod Freies Museum(Free Museum) courtyard at Potsdamer Strasse 91 is a nonprofit art centre run by a group of lawyers. In fact, historically this area has been more a musician’s lair. David Bowie and Iggy Pop lived nearby during their time in Berlin; Blixa Bargeld had his office in what is now Klosterfelde. British music critic Dave Rimmer still lives in a courtyard apartment just off the corner of Kurfürstenstrasse and Potsdamer.

The intersection remains a microcosm of what goes on here. On one corner is a 1970s building occupied by the sex shop LSD (Love Sex Dreams), which sits across from a bustling Woolworths; on the other side of the street is a Turkish vegetable market. The streets display a heady architectural, economic and racial mix. Most storefronts are utilitarian, downmarket or both (car-glass repair, anyone?), except those more recently occupied by Krome Gallery or the arts bookstore Do You Read Me?! Starting at dusk, prostitutes still walk the western end of Kurfürstenstrasse. There’s just one high-end cocktail bar (Victoria Bar) and a sketchy, legendary dive bar (Kumpelnest 3000). Otherwise, mostly residential houses from all eras line the district’s streets, especially along the more patrician canal where Bortolozzi, Esther Schipper and Wien Lukatsch are now located; Wentrup gallery, too, sits around the corner.

Among it all is a smattering of industrial buildings where a few artists – established, big-name artists – have settled in after all. Matt Mullican took a studio in the Maggi-Haus, a 1911 factory on Lützowstrasse, a year ago. On one wall are his trademark prints in a riot of colour; at a table, a bespectacled assistant named Albrecht is helping make an edition of charcoal rubbings. “It’s rare that I really sit in the studio, but I’ve done it here,” says Mullican. “I’m really doing the drawings and cutting and rubbing. I think it’s because of the space. Not just physical space, but emotional space. The pressures here are much lighter. You come to Berlin and you expel the air.”

Downstairs, Bethan Huws (who got Mullican into the building) works in a studio literally lined with research notes and images; in the rear is a storage room filled with crated work. Huws moved from Paris to Berlin two years ago for the space and, she claims, the German openness to contemporary art. “I love this neighbourhood since it’s not developed,” she says. “You see real Berliners, and it’s kind of grotty. The only thing that’s not so good is the lack of food culture.” (She’s right: there’s nary a restaurant, except for Joseph Roth Diele, a book-lined boîte serving German comfort food. Judin claims that two new restaurants are soon to move in.)

Willem de Rooij has had a large studio directly on Potsdamer Strasse for the past few years. More recently, Douglas Gordon purchased two buildings on Kurfüstenstrasse. He moved his studio into an L-shaped space in the courtyard building in late November 2012. His relationship to Berlin goes back to his DAAD (German academic exchange service) fellowship in 1998 (Mullican and Huws were also DAAD fellows). “I have to be fully committed to try to make something happen here,” says Gordon. “Not only to have a great setup for myself and the people who work with me, but I also want to create something where I’m surrounded by people I love and admire. Like the galleries here. And other artists with space in this building.”

Even if scaffolding still wraps the front building, he’s already got a cosy enclave: downstairs are the galleries Supportico Lopez and Sommer + Kohl, both friends, and a showroom/storage space for Tanya Leighton (they’re buddies from Glasgow). There’s space for Gordon’s archive and a screening room/event area where brunches and concerts will take place. “Oh, and Kaspar König has his office on the ground floor,” says Gordon, looking down. “He’s an old friend.” Gordon originally wanted all operations in the front building, but realised the advantages of having a courtyard corner studio. “From this vantage point I can see – everything,” he says.

“I hope that too many people don’t move away from here. It does feel kind of nice that there is a community thing here,” he says, picking up a huge butcher knife from a table in the studio. The film he’ll show at an exhibition at Blain/Southern (just metres away) in early February shows people in Tangier sharpening knives, without the knives. Their movements thus become a subtle dance, a display of muscle memory. Brandishing his knife, Gordon looks pleased as punch in his new HQ.

***

This isn’t the area’s first time as an arts hub. In the 1920s – before the Second World War ravaged Potsdamer Platz and long before the wall was erected nearby – this was home to more than 200 dealers of art, antiques and Asiatica. Legendary dealers included Karl Nierendorf and Alfred Flechtheim, Paul Cassirer and Justin K. Thannhauser. The notable galleries to have settled here in the interim were lone wolves: Galerie Raab in the 1980s, and Barbara Weiss, whose gallery was at Potsdamer Strasse 93 from 1992 to 2001.

Much has happened since then, but Potsdamer’s evolution is far from over. There’s no sign of the art crowd moving on. Upcoming developments, in fact, see more galleries arriving (Aurel Scheibler recently moved onto Schöneberger Ufer) and an intriguing building project involving a group of arts- and architecture-minded people who have collectively purchased a plot of land on Kurfürstenstrasse, where the hookers still are, a block from LSD. According to curator Carson Chan, one of the project’s organisers, the group includes museum directors, architects, magazine editors and artists joining forces to construct a mixed-use residential-studio building designed by June 14 Meyer-Grohbrügge & Chermayeff (architects Sam Chermayeff and Johanna Meyer-Grohbrügge, both art-savvy SANAA alumni).

Such projects make it clear that artworlders here are, this time, making more meaningful, perhaps permanent investments. As the usual gentrification cycle continues, it could very well be that the art won’t be chased out at all, but rather integrated into the district’s landscape, because many of those settling here have matured and become established galleries after several moves around the city. “This is a place where the art can stay somehow,” says Judin. “We used to rent cheaply and not do much to the space but hang art, and then move somewhere else. Now it’s an investment – and a long-term one. It’s a paradigm shift for Berlin.”

This article was first published in the Jan-Feb 2013 issue