BERLIN, Germany — In many cities, the grimy, crumbling building known as Tacheles art house would be demolished.
Berlin is a little different. It is, as Mayor Klaus Wowereit famously put it, “poor but sexy.” In the 21 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, cheap rents and squatting opportunities have made the German capital a magnet for artists and creative types. Here, Tacheles is a celebrated icon.
The battered, graffiti-smothered former Jewish department store has since 1990 been an artists’ squat, filled with painters and sculptors from all over the world. In the last few years, though, it has become the subject of a byzantine saga pitting developers and a major bank against the artists — as well as different artist factions against one another. Somewhere along the way it also became a major tourist attraction.
That attraction is one of the last of its kind in Europe: An unrenovated, barely habitable collection of artists' lofts, where the undiscovered create and commune. Having survived World War II bombing and half a century of the Cold War, it is falling prey to the city’s 21st-century battle: gentrification.
The fashionable area around Tacheles, in the heart of the city’s Mitte district, has evolved into a prosperous commercial area with boutique shops and pricey restaurants. With the property worth an estimated 35 million euros ($50.6 million), the owner has tightened the screws on the artists in an effort to force them out, so that the property can be sold and redeveloped.
Earlier this month, about half the occupants — made up of artists and also operators of the bars and restaurants that had been set up on the ground floor — accepted a payment of 1 million euros ($1.4 million) to clear out, despite having vowed just a week earlier they would stay and fight for Berlin’s bohemian soul.
But the battle is far from over. The Tacheles occupants had divided into two warring tribes. While the “downstairs” group left, the other half — the roughly 80 individuals who constitute the “upstairs” group — are digging in.
“It’s just sad, really … that this is happening at a time when Berlin is losing a lot of credibility,” said Tony Sykes, the manager of the Dutch artist Tim Roeloffs, who is probably Tacheles’ most famous artist-in-residence. “Tacheles is one of the last remaining places of its type. Berlin is letting these places slip through its fingers and once they’ve gone, they will never come back.”
Sykes and others, including Austrian Martin Reiter, 48, the de facto head of the group, argue that Tacheles is an essential part of Berlin’s artistic, creative image and that it brings in tourists. An estimated 400,000 visitors passed through its doors last year.
Middle-aged, well-dressed tourists can usually be found climbing warily up the dank stairwell — braving the smell of urine — searching for the next big thing on the art scene. Dutchman Roeloffs was discovered here by Donatella Versace in 2008 when the fashion designer was looking for fresh inspiration. Versace ended up using some of Roeloffs’ designs on a range of handbags.
The remaining artists come from about 25 different countries. Without Tacheles, many of them will struggle to survive.
Japanese painter Kurihara, 27, said he pays the artists' collective 200 euros ($289) a month for electricity and expenses. There is no running water on his floor — that got cut off about three months ago — so he has to go downstairs to access the water from a tank on the roof to clean his brushes. But he wouldn’t want to go anywhere else.
“It’s a big thing for me, because I’m earning money here and I’m making enough to live. I feel at home … and there’s nowhere else like it,” he said.
Victor Landeta, 30, a painter from Bilbao, Spain, said it would a truly sad day for the German capital if Tacheles were forced to close.
“It’s lasted so long and now it feels like an ending, like a slow fight to the death,” he said. “It’s been an important place for me. It’s open access — it’s the first place where I’ve been able to show my work to the public and I’ve sold pieces. There is nowhere else like this. It’s not just painters — there are musicians, sculptures, jewellers — all these creative people around you.”
The strong, indeed incontestable, counterargument is that the building belongs to someone else.
A developer called the Fundus Group bought the site from the Berlin government in the mid-1990s. Because it was in no hurry to do anything with the building, it gave the artists a 10-year lease in 1998 at a nominal rent of 50 cents.
This contract was then extended but expired at the end of 2009, at which point the artists again became squatters. By this time, the Fundus Group had become insolvent, so the Hamburg-based HSH Nordbank, to which the Fundus Group owed money, decided to sell the property.
An auction of the site scheduled for earlier this month was postponed at the last minute. Then the “downstairs” group announced they had accepted the 1 million euros to leave.
Tim Africa, the downstairs group’s spokesman, said they planned to use the money to settle outstanding costs such as legal fees and, with the money left over, hopefully start a new art project. However, he refused to say which individuals had actually received the money. Furthermore, he said the money had come via a Berlin law firm from an anonymous source.
A spokeswoman for HSH Nordbank said it had not paid the 1 million euros to the downstairs group and did not know who — if anyone — was behind the money.
Artists in the upstairs group are skeptical, believing their rivals only ever traded on the Tacheles name to make a buck.
“I don’t think any of the artists are sad they’re leaving,” said their spokeswoman Linda Cerna.
Cerna said it’s business as usual for the remaining artists. But the clock is ticking. Berlin’s city-state government, led by Wowereit, strongly supports the idea of keeping Tacheles as a cultural project but, since the city is practically broke, has stopped short of offering to buy the site and keep it for the artists. HSH Nordbank insists an auction of the site will go ahead soon. If that happens, Tony Sykes said, and if the new owner turns the building into apartments and restaurants, Berlin’s “poor but sexy” reputation will be in tatters.
“It’ll be at tragedy for the city,” he said.