Passionate about art? Click here to get our newsletter and follow your favorite artists
Last week’s closing of Kunsthaus Tacheles - Berlin’s derelict artists’ squat - marked the end of an era for the city’s alternative art scene. After 22 years, authorities shut down the iconic albeit graffiti-covered, debt-ridden, and bombed-out building in the Mitte district which housed an independent artists collective since the fall of the Berlin Wall. While the famed building became a major tourist attraction in recent years, its illustrious history from department store to Nazi headquarters to artist free-for-all is representative of Berlin’s transformation.
The funeral march played for the small crowd gathered on September 4th, 2012 as the last artists handed over the building keys to the court martial. The keys unlock a historic site, which was constructed from 1907 to 1908 as an ambitious new shopping arcade in a five-story, 9,000 square meter building. Consuming half a city block the entrances connected two major thoroughfares, making the building the only remaining example of large passage architecture in Europe.
Despite visions of grandeur (pictured left), the lofty building expenses - approximately 7 million German marks - forced the group of shareholders to file bankruptcy only six months after opening the doors. The building was rented and used as a different department store until 1914, when it was auctioned off just before the start of World War I.
In 1928, it was renamed the Haus der Technik, becoming the new showroom for the Allgemeine Elektrizitäts-Gesellschaft (General Electric Company). During the 1930s one of the first German television transmissions took place on this site.
Later the building was converted to administrative offices for the Nazi party, becoming a central office for the SS by the early 1940s. It was assumed that during this time French war prisoners were housed in the attic with the skylights sealed for this purpose. The building suffered heavy damage during WWII.
Following the war, the building sat in half-ruins throughout the communist era, slated for demolition in the 1980s. The dome was torn down, with a major demolition scheduled for April 1990 (pictured right). As soon as the Berlin Wall opened, an artists activist group reclaimed the site as a cultural hub in the newly reunified city, taking it over. They chose the name Tacheles for its location in the former Jewish quarter, after a Yiddish word meaning “to reveal” or “to bring to a close”.
This project by the group, Künstlerinitative Tacheles (Artists’ Initiative Tacheles), spread so quickly that the city government adopted a policy of leniency and delayed demolition by declaring the site a historic landmark. Artists signed a ten year lease in 1998 with owner Johannishof GmBH, but by the time it expired, ownership had been transferred to HSH Nordbank, extremely eager to remove the artists altogether.
Meanwhile, the building was painted in bright colors and held several sculptures using found objects (pictured left, 1995). Artists, if they were not concerned with modern comforts such as running water, could rent a studio space on the cheap. Tacheles held a cinema, performance space, workshops, and exhibition spaces. About 400,000 tourists visited the site last year for a taste of the carefree past of Berlin, when artists flocked to former East Berlin for cheap rents and anything felt possible in the reunified city.
Twenty years ago, no one envisioned Mitte as it appears today, after its transition into a fashionable neighborhood of trendy restaurants and designer stores, with apartments selling for as much as 10,000 euros per square meter. Bloomberg Business Week reports that the property stands on a site about three times the size of the one occupied by New York’s Empire State Building.” Now that HSH Nordbank succeeded in its struggle of evicting the remaining 50 or 60 artist squatters left on the site, the eviction of Tacheles represents (present day interior pictured below right) the final piece of the gentrification of Mitte.
For years the artists protested with the bank owners, appealed to the city mayor and signed petitions in vain. Finally, the funeral march bade farewell to the institution last week while the police and sympathizers watched the last of the artists hand over the keys and clear the premises. Though Tacheles long ago transitioned into a tourist attraction, closing the doors on such remarkable history make the glory days of Berlin's bohemia seem even more distant. This legendary hub of creative experimentation is gone for good - R.I.P Kunsthaus Tacheles