Road trips

Future city Berlin: Saving the world

Among European capitals, Berlin is perhaps the youngest in outlook – international, innovative and lacking any false respect for authority. On a BMW R nineT, the author visited entrepreneurs of Karma, a gallery on consecrated ground, and plant-based startups. On his travels, he encountered business ideas that combine sustainability and wit.

Christian Werner
Oliver Gehrs

Of course it’s an understatement to call Berlin a city, because it’s actually a composite of many cities – each one with its own center, scene, theaters, and very good (as well as very bad) restaurants. These cities-within-a-city include Charlottenburg, with its Kurfürstendamm, where the best shopping can still be found; Kreuzberg, with its Turkish flavor; Neukölln, which has become ever hipper in recent years; Prenzlauer Berg, brimming with beautifully renovated old buildings; and Mitte, which is overflowing with politicians and tourists, and will doubtless soon declare English its official language. All of them are cities with hundreds of thousands of inhabitants – and, when taken together, they do not add up to a whole. That’s Berlin.

Two world wars, the GDR in the east, the subsidy mentality in the west, the extremely invigorating reunification – all of these factors have left their traces behind and created leeway for further interpretations of the city’s physical and social space. Berlin 3.0 has replaced its former industries with culture and science. The capital city is becoming increasingly significant as a research location and, as a cultural hotspot, it’s attracting more visitors every year. And, of course, “culture” refers not only to the gratifyingly large concert, theater and art scene, but also to popular culture. Berlin’s bar and club operators always manage to give international youth a good time and then send them home, fatigued but happy, after a long weekend of nonstop partying.

The BMW Motorrad plant in Spandau is where the entire BMW Motorrad portfolio is built, and where our R nineT was born. Our route planner calculates that the 15.5 miles from here to the Volkspark in Treptow will take an estimated journey time of an hour. En route you pass examples of Prussian architecture, derelict vacant lots, countless construction sites, wonderful modern architecture, incredibly tasteless modern architecture and, at some point, a fairly long board fence running parallel to the River Spree. After a few miles, at the so-called Eastside Gallery, the fence ends at the last piece of the Berlin Wall that is still standing. And if you don’t drive too fast and have a good eye, shortly after the Jannowitzbrücke you’ll see a door in the fence with the word “restaurant” written very faintly above it. This is one of the typical Berlin doors that open up into a parallel universe.

Improvised charm and a dash of recklessness

This used to be the location of the legendary club Bar 25 on the banks of the Spree between Mitte and Friedrichshain. It was a kind of saloon constructed of boards nailed together directly on the riverbank. Many of the parties that were held there lasted from Friday evening until noon on Monday. The owners, Juval Dieziger and Christoph Klenzendorf, had created a place that reliably maintained Berlin’s reputation as a party town. However, this rented site belonged to Berlin’s refuse disposal company, which eventually wanted to sell it. The creators of Bar 25 were driven out of their paradise, but they simply moved into an abandoned factory on the other side of the river and, in no time at all, turned it into their next nightclub: Kater Holzig. In addition to the crude charm of improvisation, the new club offered exquisite cuisine and expensive wines. Soon, businesspeople from Hamburg and Munich were arriving in throngs in the hope of losing some of their starchiness in the edgy ambience and rough-edged décor. The constant contact with the business class must have given the club’s operators a shot of professionalism, pleasantly combined with a touch of audacity. What would happen if they simply thought big?

They’ve designed an entire neighborhood: the Eckwerk will be a complex of buildings for students and startup companies. Another section of the property has been reserved for artists’ halls, whose roofs will offer space for studios.

For many years, Juval Dieziger and his partner Christoph Klenzendorf ran Bar 25, which helped establish Berlin’s reputation as the world’s party capital. With the help of a Swiss pension fund, the two men are now building a project that offers plenty of space for living, working and partying, and that will be almost as big as an urban district.

They decided to do just that: founded a cooperative society, and persuaded a Swiss pension fund to lend them $10.5 million to buy the property. Then they quickly did what they do best: they cobbled together a village of huts – including a club, a pizza parlor and a restaurant – in order to earn the money to pay back the loan in installments. But this time, the huts were only the beginning. Together with a group of architects, they designed an entire urban neighborhood. The project’s first phase, called the Eckwerk, will be a complex of buildings for students and startup companies, while another section of the property has been reserved for a number of artists’ halls, whose roofs will be the foundation for art studios. The plans also include a daycare center, shop-lined alleys, a movie theater and a hairdresser; this last establishment may be located in a tree house.

The route to building a new Holzmarkt district will be a long and challenging one. Dieziger and Klenzendorf have to rely on further support for their cooperative society, and on local politicians who have understood that venues such as these are the reason why people under 30 are magically attracted to Berlin. So far, the outcome is fairly open-ended, but that uncertainty is also typical of Berlin.

Startup boom

In addition to culture and research, the IT sector is booming in Berlin. International startups have established themselves here, and all over the city there are new co-working spaces and IT campuses, such as the Factory, located along the remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall. This is a group of buildings where companies like online music services supplier Soundcloud, 3D printing company LimeMakers, and electric scooter manufacturer Unu have established their headquarters. Last year, more venture capital was invested in Berlin than ever before, accompanied by a never-ending stream of young, well-educated people from all over the world, happy to move to a city where they can work and party with equal intensity.

The Israeli Erez Galonska is yet another entrepreneur who has found in Berlin the ideal venue for implementing an extraordinary business idea. The InFarm company, which was founded in 2014 by Galonska, his brother Guy, and the latter’s wife Osnat Michaeli, cultivates plants – not horizontally in fields, but vertically on shelves. At InFarm, carrots, leeks and rocket all grow without soil or sunlight, thanks to coconut and hemp fibers as nutrient media, agar as a substitute for fertilizer, and an irrigation system that uses far less water than conventional agriculture.

This method will not suffice to produce basic foodstuffs in large quantities; but in view of the rapid growth of cities, even the scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology believe that indoor farming has good growth prospects. It already has tremendous potential in megacities. “Indoor farming is the future of the urban food supply,” says Galonska, as he hands us a few tasty leaves of Thai basil from a shelf full of green plants growing in small plastic pots under LED light. Earthbound and visionary components lie very close to one another here. One of humanity’s oldest occupations – the cultivation of plants – has become a modern startup where a 3D printer constantly spits out small pots in which new crops of herbs will soon be growing.

Sustainability and a comfortable lifestyle

A chair that can be put together with very little money and craftsmanship, yet looks rather attractive: that was the idea that made designer Van Bo Le-Mentzel a darling of the post-materialists, who are concerned about sustainability but don’t want to give up a comfortable lifestyle. Le-Mentzel, who fled from Laos with his parents as a young child, has also designed a do-it-yourself suite of furniture consisting of a bed, a sofa bed and a table. Marketing genius that he is, he called the ensemble “Hartz IV furniture,” after Germany’s social welfare program. The plans for building this furniture can be downloaded free of charge from the web.

The story of Hartz IV furniture is now five years old; since then, Le-Mentzel has been fueling the lively public debate about the limits of growth by generating further playful – yet ultimately serious – ideas. For example, he created a “one-square-meter house” as an easily built response to the widespread housing shortage in cities. He also began producing hundreds of pairs of Karma Chakhs sports shoes under fair conditions in Pakistan and India, because he felt that the sources of the original Converse “Chucks” were too hazy.

His venture is a “prosumer” (producer + consumer) business idea in which consumers are involved in the design and production of an item. Le-Mentzel says he doesn’t need a lot of money, because he considers other things more important. He wants his ideas to enrich people’s lives positively. If one of his many ideas doesn’t work – and a good many of them are, indeed, impracticable – he simply calls it “beta-working.” And that, too, sounds very positive.

“Disability mainstreaming”

For Raul Krauthausen, the issue of disabled-friendly facilities is a double-edged one. On the one hand, he sometimes can’t believe how unaccommodating Germany can be toward the disabled, even though its politicians love to make speeches about inclusion. On the other hand, for an entrepreneurial-minded person like himself, it’s not all bad – it certainly gives him a lot to do. For a start, whereas a third of the taxis in New York, London and Beijing are disabled-accessible, in Berlin only three taxis out of thousands can transport Krauthausen and his wheelchair. Berlin’s taxis can easily accommodate cages for small animals, but not wheelchairs for people.

Krauthausen, who suffers from brittle-bone disease, is one of the founders of Sozialhelden (Social Heroes) – an association that is a kind of Greenpeace for social projects that takes the process of inclusion much more seriously than many politicians do. For example, the group has been working for about five years on Wheelmap, an app that enables wheelchair users to find out which restaurants and public buildings are easily accessible. Like Wikipedia, it’s an ongoing crowdsourcing project that is expanding by the day. Another typical Sozialhelden invention is the Broken Lifts app, which shows which elevators at underground and aboveground train stations are out of order at any given time – and needless to say, there are always some that aren’t working, even in Germany. The elevators in this scheme are fitted with microchips that transmit data about their usability in real time.

Krauthausen’s aim is to use existing technology to include people with mobility disabilities in the city’s daily life; he calls his mission “disability mainstreaming.” He also advises journalists to take a more critical view of current verbal stereotypes. For example, people often talk about “handicapped people who are wheelchair-bound” but who have “found a new lease on life” through sports or other activities. “That makes it sound as though they had given up on life,” Krauthausen says. “And I’m not ‘bound’ either!”

As a young child, Van Bo Le-Mentzel fled from Laos with his parents. Today, he’s a designer who engages in subtle criticism of consumerism and daily culture. He describes his target audience as “prosumers.”

Free spirit: architect Arno Brandlhuber transformed a former East German lingerie factory in the state of Brandenburg into what he calls an “anti-villa” by tearing down the interior walls of the gray concrete block and blasting huge holes in the outer walls.

Free spirit: architect Arno Brandlhuber transformed a former East German lingerie factory in the state of Brandenburg into what he calls an “anti-villa” by tearing down the interior walls of the gray concrete block and blasting huge holes in the outer walls.

A desire for reinvention

Berlin, on the other hand, can legitimately be said to have found a new lease on life. Not all that long ago, its unemployment figures were horrendous compared to the rest of Germany, and a large proportion of its population was dependent on social benefits. By the time of German reunification, not much of Berlin’s industry was left. But there were plenty of adventurous entrepreneurs among the ruins of East Berlin. The city was driven by a desire to reinvent itself - a desire that has remained undimmed to the present day. The German capital is still a place for discoverers and designers – people like the architect Arno Brandlhuber. In places where others see only an industrial wasteland, he sees opportunities to create urban monuments. Two years ago, he transformed a former East German lingerie factory in the state of Brandenburg into what he calls an “anti-villa” by tearing down the interior walls of the gray concrete block and blasting huge holes in the outer walls. He transformed another house on Torstrasse in the Mitte district into essential viewing for architects by endowing it with a translucent plastic façade and a delicate outdoor stairway in the rear courtyard. His current project involves two old industrial towers in the rather dreary Lichtenberg district. He has named it “San Gimignano Lichtenberg” after the Tuscan hill town with its distinctive towers.

With infectious enthusiasm, the architect tells us about the many properties that are being offered for sale or rent on church websites – for example, the Catholic church of St. Agnes in the Kreuzberg district, complete with a parish hall. It’s a complex of concrete cubes that was built by architect and urban planner Werner Düttmann in the 1960s. Several years ago, Brandlhuber persuaded the gallery owner Johann König to lease this secularized church for 99 years and have it remodeled at a cost of around $3 million. One could say that König has resurrected this little gem of neglected post-war architecture. Meanwhile, the König Galerie in St. Agnes has become a venue the likes of which Berlin has never seen before. The 8,600-square-foot exhibition hall Brandlhuber created by putting in a suspended concrete ceiling is reminiscent of Tate Modern in London. It’s a building whose history has been left in place, while at the same time pointing towards the future: the architect has taken the structure’s physical characteristics into account, rather than simply making them disappear. As Brandlhuber himself puts it, he has taken the old and the new concrete and made them “simply brutyful.”

Achieving the impossible

At the moment, however, there’s a very ugly red wine stain on Brandlhuber’s brand-new concrete floor. The stain is being examined by König and two construction workers, who are telling him with typical Berlin brashness that removing it will be “veeery difficult” and that there’s no guarantee the undertaking will have a positive outcome. “It might be impossible to get it out,” says one of these naysayers. But König is used to achieving the impossible.

When he was a young boy, fate dealt him a heavy blow. He was playing around with some starter-pistol caps when they detonated and left him almost completely blind. Several unsuccessful operations were followed a few years ago by a corneal transplant that only partially restored his sight.

König’s father was the director of the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne, his uncle Walter is a dealer in art books, and his older brother Leo has an art gallery in New York. Young Johann was not interested in the art business as a child; in fact, for obvious reasons, he somewhat resented it. But at the boarding school for blind students that he attended, his art teacher inspired him to give it a try nevertheless. It was the right decision, even though it didn’t seem that way at first: at his first art exhibition, he didn’t sell a single work. After that, it was clear that he could only show works of art that he himself was completely enthusiastic about – rather than works where the primary consideration was their chances on the art market.

Of course, König can’t operate totally outside the overheated art market, where the art fairs and previews are fixed points in the capital’s social calendar, and many people are much less interested in the art than in the art-related festivities. Even the location of his gallery in a run-down neighborhood poses a challenge to visitors. König likes the fact that people have to make a deliberate decision to come to his gallery, rather than simply stumbling upon it while passing by, as with the galleries of the much-traversed Mitte district. He wants his visitors to really focus on art.

Perhaps surprisingly, today’s art business is sometimes hermetically sealed and not very open to interdisciplinary exploration. By contrast, König aims to open up his gallery space to other cultural forms, such as theater, concerts and readings. Even during the renovation phase, fashion designer Yamamoto presented a multimedia fashion show here. Johann König is more than just a gallery owner: he is now the director of an extremely interesting community-oriented cultural center.

Mechanics turn into artists

Peter Dannenberg’s life can be divided into two parts. During the first part, which ended in 2009, he was a marketing executive in the music industry. He promoted records and went to the kinds of parties where musicians are lionized and executives and journalists feel important. In time, however, he realized this was not the right life for him and decided to end his career as a “professional youth.” His decision to change jobs was encouraged by his wife, who had noticed that he was coming home from work increasingly frustrated.

In 2008 Dannenberg established Urban Motor, a workshop specializing in custom motorcycles. As he explains, many clients simply tell the mechanics, “Do whatever you like to my bike – surprise me!”

Dannenberg likes old motorcycles because they offer him bigger challenges than new ones. He loves to hear the rumble of the engine and feel the vibrations. He can often be seen standing around with his mechanics in front of a jacked-up bike and discussing what to do next. A different exhaust system, a new headlight or a shorter seat is often the beginning of the transformation. Of course, he sometimes works with sketches, but it’s actually a lot more fun to stand around the bike and follow up on spontaneous ideas.

Customizing mass-produced items in line to a client’s wishes is a booming business. It’s the flipside of a world of standardized products and digitized workplaces wherein throngs of workers sit at identical gleaming computers and spend their evenings shoveling data into a virtual (or circular) filing cabinet. Under these circumstances, it’s natural for people to develop a need for authentic products and to fuel the revival of fine craftsmanship. And it’s clear that most men aged 30 to 50 won’t find this kind of satisfaction just by making homemade jam: they still remember the time when there were no smartphones, but people were still living a full life –sometimes even a better one. They remember that there used to be wonderful motorcycles – icons of Japanese, Italian and German design – that they sadly couldn’t afford back then because they were still in school. But now, they realize, they can afford them.

These are the typical customers of Urban Motor. Like the company’s managers, they love motorcycles that are unique, that shimmy and rumble, that challenge their riders and transform mechanics into artists and sculptors. Two years ago, a BMW R nineT was brought into Urban Motor, and the mechanics were asked to modify the bike as they saw fit. Fortunately, the R nineT is ideal for customizing: it doesn’t have an excessive amount of electronics and is equipped with simple and powerful technology. Unfortunately, the mechanics were given only six weeks to complete the job. But they produced a bike that thrilled the technicians at BMW and has been granted a place of honor in the Urban Motor workshop, where legendary motorcycles are displayed almost like museum exhibits. Dannenberg owns four of them, each bearing a “for sale” sign. Does he really mean it? Dannenberg smiles... which probably means no.

Through urban landscapes past, present and future on the BMW R nineT: on Leipziger Straße near the Berlin Wall, the East German authorities built high-rises for particularly loyal party members. In the foreground, a project by architect Jürgen Mayer H., who uses biomorphic shapes and futuristic materials.