[ezcol_1third]Finding old Berlin:
Photographs and notes about uncovering the lingering past in Berlin’s buildings.
From 2008–2013, I made a practice of slipping through the open doors of Berlin’s old buildings whenever I had the chance. The buildings in this project are located in the Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood, which had the dubious distinction at the time of being Berlin’s most egregiously gentrified neighborhood.[/ezcol_1third] [ezcol_2third_end]
Wherever I go, I’m always looking for places that show visible layers of time. Sometimes a few clues and a little research will reveal a more detailed story about a place, but often there is just a lingering sense of what it used to be. In these places, the past feels alive, mysterious, and human. This is one of the reasons that I like Berlin—the past and the present co-exist so visibly in so many locations. But that living history is disappearing as developers outdo themselves to turn old buildings into modern versions of their old selves.
Much has been written to help visitors find the elusive “real” Berlin, the old Berlin, the Berlin that is flickering and fading as a new era starts to take its place. But honestly, it is hard to draw a map to this version of Berlin because things change quickly here. One day you see a crumbling but dignified building and the next day it’s covered in scaffolding only to reemerge months later as an unrecognizable version of its former self.
The encounters I’ve had with the fleeting old Berlin tend to happen unexpectedly, usually on foot. I’ll walk past an open door, catch a glimpse of something interesting, and duck inside. Most of Berlin’s old buildings follow a similar floor plan: a main door opens into an area with mailboxes and a staircase to the front of the building. At the back will be a door to the courtyard where there are access points to the back apartments and sometimes a door to another courtyard.
These spaces are fascinating. Many look like they haven’t been touched in decades, yet they aren’t abandoned and maybe that is what makes them so interesting—somehow everyday use year after year hasn’t rubbed off on them. They feel stuck in another time, but they also have a presence of the people who pass through them each day.
It is a simple how-to, but I would tell any visitor to Berlin to keep an eye out for a combination of an unpainted building + open door. If you spot one, duck inside and have a peek. As long as you don’t make a big scene and are respectful, you should be fine for a quick look.
After five+ years of admiring a certain old beauty on Danziger Straße, I walked by to find its door open. What we found made me think about other open doors I’ve stolen through over the years and the spaces they led to.
The following are three case studies of old Berlin buildings that carry a hint of the past.
Corner of Danziger Straße and Senefelderstraße
September 2013 & 2008
I’ve passed this building countless times and I’m sure I’m not the only one struck by its unusual presence. The door was open when we walked by a few weeks ago, so we snuck inside. Unfortunately, significant renovations were underway—renovations that seem to threaten the building’s original details that have managed to survive so much over the years.
Evidence of “old” Berlin is usually found in the architectural details, but there is something else going on here: in the photo above, there are two people hanging out on the roof. Back before almost every single Berlin attic space was turned into luxury rooftop apartments, tenants had keys to the attic where it was possible to access the roof via a ladder and skylight. I’ve been told that before neighborhoods like Prenzlauer Berg were filled with cafes and bars, these were the regular spots for massive dinner parties and long summer nights.
In the unusual case that a building still has its attic intact, the locks have been changed and access is off limits. We live in such a building. Once, however, a friend of a friend, who had lived in his building for a very long time and still had the keys, let me up for a look. It was spectacular and I love it that these guys in the photo are still living that dream.
Original detailing in the entryway
You can see in the photos that the ornate ceiling is being replaced with plain old drywall. The walls along the stairways were decorated with breathtaking, hand-painted detailing that had to be original to the building. Based on the holes in the walls ringed with neon spray paint, the whole thing is being prepped for new paint.
Like all of the buildings profiled in this series, this building has storefronts on the ground floor and apartments above. One of these storefronts was a favorite after I first arrived. It was a live-work space for someone who took delight in creating odd narratives in the front window. The “shows” stopped a few years ago after the person moved out and the storefront went through a series of vacancies. It’s recently been gutted and painted white and is for rent again. I’ve included a couple of photos of favorite scenarios from back in the day aka 2008.
A friend of mine used to live here, so I know it well and always loved how it felt in the stairway that led up to her flat. The stairway floors and walls were severely worn and cracked, but it was cared for and clean and lit by delicate, pale light. The decor was arguably the best part with funny little items hung thoughtfully on the walls.
I’ve seen this in other buildings, too—quiet, personal touches that say how much the tenants truly think of the space as home. And I’ve never seen it done or allowed anywhere but in these old buildings.
Kietz means neighborhood in German but in a micro sense—a neighborhood within a neighborhood. Each Kietz has a personality and some are better than others depending on their mix of shops, cafes, and connection to the rest of the city.
The Winskietz is centered on the Winsstraße, where today’s building is located. I lived here (in the Kietz, not the building) for a couple of years and walked past this place many times but never snuck in for a look until last year. The thing anyone would notice is the sign out front and the crumbling facade now propped up permanently by some very unphotogenic scaffolding (see the last two photos taken in 2009 before the scaffolding went up).
Berlin circa 1990s is how this place feels to me. It is what the average Prenzlauer Berg apartment building looked like during that time. On this day it felt empty and lifeless and I couldn’t tell if it was the chilly weather keeping people indoors or if the building really is mostly unoccupied. Sometimes landlords choose to leave apartments empty after a tenant leaves, waiting it out until every last one is gone so that they can begin renovations. I wouldn’t be surprised if that is what was happening here.