Change is underway in and around an abandoned architectural icon near Alexanderplatz in Berlin.
The disheveled facades of the Haus der Statistik contrasts with the glowing hustle and bustle of a busy traffic intersection and transit hub. However, a concentrated effort between artists, activists, urban planners, architects, politicians, and cultural organizations will repurpose the complex as “spaces for art, culture, social affairs, affordable housing, and a new town hall for the city center.”
From Offices to Intervention
The Haus der Statistik opened its doors in 1970, originally housing the statistics and planning offices for the East German government. It remained in use by the unified government until 2008 when deteriorating building conditions required the premises to be vacated. Since then, the 50000 square meter complex has sat empty, losing most of its glass windows and acquiring various artistic interventions, namely “STOP WARS” emblazoned in red across the top levels of its eleven-storey facade. In 2015, the complex attracted the attention of investors seeking to purchase and and later demolish it to make room for new development. Meanwhile, artists and activists were paying attention and planning a means of disruption to keep the complex an auspicious space rather than ruins marked for demolition.
On September 16th, 2015, members of the Alliance of Endangered Studio Buildings (AbBA) unfurled a banner over one of the most visible buildings declaring, “A center for art, culture and social projects will be created here.” At that point, AbBA members tendered more of a symbolic gesture than a concrete plan. But their refutation of under-regulated growth and gentrification invited the public to seize control of an otherwise precarious future. The banner kept fluttering in the minds of similarly aligned individuals and organisations long after its single-day appearance. Fuelled by tremendous momentum from artists, grassroots activists, and the Berlin city government, AbBA formed Initiative Haus der Statistik, shortly after their demonstration. The mission of the young organization is to create models of sustainable and democratic urban development in Berlin with the Haus der Statistik as a lab and soon-to-be usable space.
Organizing around the initiative continued into 2016 with a series of meetings open to the public. Lennart Siebert, an AbBA member spoke to the Huffington Post last year regarding the early goals of the initiative. “Part of the concept was: How do we bring all the things being demanded in the city together, and form something in a way where they all create a synergy with each other?” Participants drafted a proposal that included affordable studio spaces, public housing, refugee housing, multi-use spaces, commercial spaces for small local businesses, and a new city hall for the borough of Mitte. Despite the expectations for a monotonous and drawn out process between financial offices of the city and state, the city of Berlin was granted permission to purchase the Haus der Statistik complex in 2017. The sale closed and the project lifted from the drawing board.
I have been following the Haus der Statistik project since sometime early last year. An eye-catcher on my old commute is now a site of alternative civic planning. I find myself chewing on uncomfortable questions like many others in Berlin when I research so-called alternative models in a rapidly gentrifying environment like Berlin. To what extent can projects like Haus der Statistik implement a sustainable future for Berlin residents? Moreover, what has happen to tackle soaring rents, high rates of tenant displacement, and other consequences of gentrification in Berlin? Will organizations of power and capital permit for these changes to happen at all? Rents increased by 46% between 2009 and 2015 and property prices rose by more than 20% in 2017. Artists are also pushed out of formerly affordable workspaces. It is estimated that 8000 artists are in search of affordable work spaces in Berlin. The stories I hear about sudden studio contract terminations and entire buildings sold without warning seem to correspond with the statistics on rent madness routinely making international news. I am interested in what alternatives exist to this trajectory and what kind of work needs to be done to create sustainable living spaces for everybody in Berlin. Will Haus der Statistik offer some wisdom?
The Initiative Today
Initiative Haus der Statistik places the needs of its future residents and current participants at the heart of the planning process. Through a collaborative planning meetings with the Center for Art and Urbanistics – ZK/U, from September of last year until February, anyone interested in providing input could join in at series of planning meetings hosted in a converted bike shop (Werkstatt Haus der Statistik) adjacent to the complex.
In late February, the initiative announced a comprehensive building plan with ideas combined from the meetings and design from the Teleinternetcafe and Treibhaus, a joint initiative of architects and urban planners involved in the project. This new development creates:
around 66,000 square meters of new construction,
three courtyards for communal use and meeting,
Residential development with two 15- and 12-storey high-rise buildings,
A 16-storey office tower on Otto-Braun-Straße for the new city hall Mitte,
three “experimental houses” for changing uses,
Roof gardens and communal terraces
I look forward to following the next steps of the project, but I’m also apprehensive about the validity of what it promises for those who could benefit the most from the space. While Initiative Haus der Statistik centers the needs of its participants, I have to wonder what was missed and whose voices went unheard in the planning processes so far. Will the initiative take this into account in the future? Although a lack of affordable creative spaces represent one part of a sweeping problem in Berlin, will the new models for shared urban space explored in this project be applicable in other cases across the city? Well, Berlin residents are certainly not waiting until it’s too late to find out!