Counterculture Vs. Capitalism: Iconic Berlin Squat Fights Its Last Battle

By , Sebastian Erb and Wiebke Hollersen

Twenty years after it was squatted by a group of artists, Berlin's legendary Tacheles arts center faces the threat of closure. The building, which became famous as part of the city's heady 1990s counterculture, has become the symbol of a new struggle against gentrification in Berlin.

Martin Reiter is thinking about locking himself into a cage and having it suspended in front of Tacheles, the way criminals were treated in the Middle Ages. It's not a bad idea, he says. Reiter is 47, his curly hair is slowing turning gray, but it's still shoulder-length and his eyes sparkle.

The Berlin arts center Kunsthaus Tacheles, which has been an iconic symbol of the city's rebellious, post-reunification counter-culture for two decades, is on its last legs. The artists are about to be evicted, and bankruptcy proceedings have begun against Reiter's association, Tacheles e.V. The evictions could start at any moment.

Reiter is an artist, and the situation puts him in a creative mood. He snaps shut the knife he's been using to clean his fingernails and jumps up from the sofa in the association office. A demonstration is about to begin. "At some point you head into your last battle," he says.

Ludwig Eben, 46, is standing in front of Café Zapata, next to a table with coffee and open-faced sandwiches. The café, which is on the ground floor of the Tacheles building, also has to go. On this morning, his weapon in the fight against an eviction attempt is a breakfast buffet. It's 7:45 a.m., and a group of his friends and an attorney with an attack dog have come together to greet the bailiff.

The bailiff is standing in front of the café, looking at the mail box, which says "Zapata UG." But the letter he has come to deliver is addressed to "Zapata GbR." The names don't match -- "GbR" and "UG" represent different company forms -- so the bailiff leaves.

Eben leans against the buffet, a soft drink in his hand. He has been in the building for 20 years. For much of that time he didn't pay any rent. He knows plenty of tricks to avoid eviction. "After everything we've experienced, we're entitled to stay here," he says.

Common Enemy

Reiter and Eben were once friends, and then they became enemies. But now they face a powerful common adversary. The Hamburg-based bank HSH Nordbank wants to throw them and all of the other artists out of the building. The bank plans to auction off Tacheles, together with the large undeveloped lot where the building stands on the corner of Oranienburger Strasse and Friedrichstrasse in Berlin's historic Mitte district.

The controversy over the future of Tacheles has reignited a long-running debate in Berlin about the future of the city and who has the right to shape the urban environment. It's a conflict which pits the city's vibrant cultural scene against the interests of capital and which influences the public debate in Berlin. And Tacheles is one of the focal points of the discussion.

Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit, a prominent member of the center-left Social Democrats who is known for his sympathy toward the city's alternative scene, says that Tacheles should not be "flattened." The senate, Berlin's executive body, wants to save Tacheles and its artists. "It's a huge icon," says André Schmitz, the city-state's culture secretary, who describes the arts center as "a symbol of the developments of the last 20 years." Schmitz is talking about the growing number of tourists in his city, not the art scene.

Part of Berlin's Wild Image

Tacheles began life as a department store in 1906. Later, it played host to Nazi administrators and was bombed during World War II. Much of the building was destroyed, but East German officials never demolished or fixed up the parts that remained standing, resulting in the structure's decrepit appearance.

In 1990, artists from both East and West Germany occupied the building. They held parties and set up workshops and studios. Tacheles -- the name means "straight talk" in Yiddish -- helped create Berlin's image as a wild city where everything was possible.

Then the property was sold to Anno August Jagdfeld, a real estate developer from the Rhineland, who had restored Berlin's iconic Hotel Adlon. Jagdfeld also wanted to put his stamp on the new Berlin and develop a new neighborhood around Tacheles. But his vision was more sedate than wild.

When Jagdfeld's plans failed, HSH Nordbank, which had made a loan to Jagdfeld's company so it could buy the property, took Tacheles into receivership. The bank, which faces financial difficulties of its own, could use the millions the building and land are likely to fetch. There are 10 potential buyers, says a bank spokesman. All of them want to keep the Tacheles building -- but no one wants the artists.

Many counter-culture projects in Berlin are about to fold because new investors have purchased the buildings or land, or the existing owners are finally ready to develop the properties. This has given rise to a new protest movement against the investors.

For both sides, it is a time of radical change. Tacheles has become a symbol of the struggle for the soul of the city, one with seemingly clear divisions between artists and investors, between good and evil.

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1. Tourism
esperonto 09/05/2010
I used to live around there in Mitte in a squat on Brunnenstrasse. I used to go to cafe Zapata, because it had free internet computers. That was back before I had a computer. The squat I lived in was rather backwards. There were no showers in it. I used to shower illegally at the Humboldt University Gymnasium. There was not even good heat in there. Froze to death in that old building. I stayed it out for a year, then some German police caught me stealing wood from a construction site, and told me I had to leave. So I bought a ticket to Italy and rode the train down. Just to escape cold suffering. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1EEfZ4g6d0c Its true what they say about Tourism. You almost feel like you are no longer a human being if you are a foreigner. As a foreigner, even other German squatters did not like me and would snidely say "why don't you stay in a youth hostel." At one point I paid for their electric bill! They had an outstanding electric bill and I got the money together and paid it, even though I wasnt using electricity except communally. My room was without electricity. A bunch of Nick Cave/Lou Reed fakers, and pseudo-modern artistes, with the usual score of anarchist elitists. Its the year 2010, no one wants a next Nick Cave or Lou Reed. That is historical. People may listen to Lou Reed, but its academic. They are so influenced by USA. All their art is pop-art like Andy Warhol. They are such boring people that basically all these squats were essentially Andy Warhol's factory reproduced over and over in pastels. I can barely stand to listen to any USA influenced music these days. Even punk from UK has too much USA in it. Though at one time I was quite a fan of UK punk, these days from UK I can only tolerate old Gothic music like Sex Gang children. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nMFWyCjfWnY Or more seriously Wolfgang Press, some good song like making fun of Niel Young's "heart of gold" song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sIDb9_Bs-E8 It is not very intelligent though. It seems like intelligent English art pop music. But I find it is sleep music. Peasant music is awake music and more intelligent. Like this music: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e0S2svdVaI8&feature=related This is for some Russian music, Auktyon. It is a great band that nobody listens to, because they are doing Nick Cave or Johnny Cash covers instead of listening to actual art music. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b-e7Tn8vHpY The punks sometimes even went in for American country western music. I hate it. To hell with that! And the Nick Cave fetish. Nick Cave was australian, but he faked Southern Accent and wrote about "southern" crap like the affair of Tom Waits these jerks have. Johnny Cash is another big squat favorite. I like to listen to Romanian folk music. Elvis was really popular in the squat I lived in. I was surprised to hear "Cold and Grey Chicago". I prefer to hear actually Romanian music seems better and anything subcultural is a bit of a drag on intelligence. Generally speaking, like Toni Iordache or this kid Alexandru Sura is better for reflecting life. The West produces only crap that is an imitation of Eastern European folk music. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RI5TXdF_DbQ It seems to me Europe is for extremely rich people. Their whole thing with tourism is too weird. Like I didn't go there to see the sights really! I wasn't there to see the Berlin wall or anything. I was genuinely just interested in leaving the USA. Of all the time I spent over seas, nearly two years, I have no photos. I did not take one photograph or send even one postcard when I was in Europe or Asia. Looking back, Europe seems like a wasp's nest of arrogant and angry people.
2. Forget about Germany
esperonto 09/06/2010
In Italy, I had a better time in one day than a whole year in Germany. Germany is monotonous and boring. They close all of the squats there. I went to Italy and bought a sandwich in a small little shop, and the owner gave me a free glass of red wine, gratis. Germans would never do anything like that. The only comparable thing in a German nation was in Austria, when a shopkeeper gave me a free slice of chocolate cake with my coffee. I traveled poor, but I remember these small gestures quite well and, I will only remember Italy or Austria or Turkey with favor. Turkey especially, for they gave me employment and clean clothes. You do well to forget about Germany and Northern Europe in general. Turkey is good in for summer work, but during the winter you have to teach English, and I read many Turks are not fond of English teachers from the USA. And I am not a qualified teacher of that language. Though I do have an Esperanto certificate!
3. Northern Europe's Belt
esperonto 09/06/2010
Thinking of this squat, I made this little map of Europe. I hope you will pardon the slang. After all Gilbert and George do it all the time: http://pooresperanto.files.wordpress.com/2010/09/europe.jpg Its like in the USA there is the "Bible Belt". In northern Europe there is the "Cunt Belt".
4.
BTraven 09/09/2010
Zitat von esperontoI used to live around there in Mitte in a squat on Brunnenstrasse. I used to go to cafe Zapata, because it had free internet computers. That was back before I had a computer. The squat I lived in was rather backwards. There were no showers in it. I used to shower illegally at the Humboldt University Gymnasium. There was not even good heat in there. Froze to death in that old building. I stayed it out for a year, then some German police caught me stealing wood from a construction site, and told me I had to leave. So I bought a ticket to Italy and rode the train down. Just to escape cold suffering. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1EEfZ4g6d0c Its true what they say about Tourism. You almost feel like you are no longer a human being if you are a foreigner. As a foreigner, even other German squatters did not like me and would snidely say "why don't you stay in a youth hostel." At one point I paid for their electric bill! They had an outstanding electric bill and I got the money together and paid it, even though I wasnt using electricity except communally. My room was without electricity. A bunch of Nick Cave/Lou Reed fakers, and pseudo-modern artistes, with the usual score of anarchist elitists. Its the year 2010, no one wants a next Nick Cave or Lou Reed. That is historical. People may listen to Lou Reed, but its academic. They are so influenced by USA. All their art is pop-art like Andy Warhol. They are such boring people that basically all these squats were essentially Andy Warhol's factory reproduced over and over in pastels. I can barely stand to listen to any USA influenced music these days. Even punk from UK has too much USA in it. Though at one time I was quite a fan of UK punk, these days from UK I can only tolerate old Gothic music like Sex Gang children. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nMFWyCjfWnY Or more seriously Wolfgang Press, some good song like making fun of Niel Young's "heart of gold" song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sIDb9_Bs-E8 It is not very intelligent though. It seems like intelligent English art pop music. But I find it is sleep music. Peasant music is awake music and more intelligent. Like this music: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e0S2svdVaI8&feature=related This is for some Russian music, Auktyon. It is a great band that nobody listens to, because they are doing Nick Cave or Johnny Cash covers instead of listening to actual art music. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b-e7Tn8vHpY The punks sometimes even went in for American country western music. I hate it. To hell with that! And the Nick Cave fetish. Nick Cave was australian, but he faked Southern Accent and wrote about "southern" crap like the affair of Tom Waits these jerks have. Johnny Cash is another big squat favorite. I like to listen to Romanian folk music. Elvis was really popular in the squat I lived in. I was surprised to hear "Cold and Grey Chicago". I prefer to hear actually Romanian music seems better and anything subcultural is a bit of a drag on intelligence. Generally speaking, like Toni Iordache or this kid Alexandru Sura is better for reflecting life. The West produces only crap that is an imitation of Eastern European folk music. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RI5TXdF_DbQ It seems to me Europe is for extremely rich people. Their whole thing with tourism is too weird. Like I didn't go there to see the sights really! I wasn't there to see the Berlin wall or anything. I was genuinely just interested in leaving the USA. Of all the time I spent over seas, nearly two years, I have no photos. I did not take one photograph or send even one postcard when I was in Europe or Asia. Looking back, Europe seems like a wasp's nest of arrogant and angry people.
An opinion I have never heard before reading your article. I have never been to that place so I cannot write about my impression but from what I have seen on picture and on television it seems to me that I would not feel quite comfortable there, not because the stuff artists produce but the outlook of the building which is too colourful for my taste. As I said I am not able to evaluate the art which is made there. I think graffiti is appropriated in dark and gloomy places like tunnels, however, the “Tachales” building is too beautiful to be covered entirely by paint.
5. Art and Minimalism
esperonto 09/09/2010
Zitat von BTravenAn opinion I have never heard before reading your article. I have never been to that place so I cannot write about my impression but from what I have seen on picture and on television it seems to me that I would not feel quite comfortable there, not because the stuff artists produce but the outlook of the building which is too colourful for my taste. As I said I am not able to evaluate the art which is made there. I think graffiti is appropriated in dark and gloomy places like tunnels, however, the “Tachales” building is too beautiful to be covered entirely by paint.
Well, the art they make is not that bad. I am being hyper-critical, because I am used to backlashings from Northern Europeans in general, so I figure its better not to be open minded to them at all, as they are so arrogant. Even if I saw some interesting stuff, I would not admit to it, because of how nasty and elitist some of those people in Berlin really are. Also, I have a strong ethic for living in "the real world". I was perfectly happy in the communal setting, though in the end it was very "American" even for me. I really like living in Turkey and places that are more "real". But the squat was definitely part of my ethics and world view. Even now I am still living the anti-materialist life. Like in the squat there was no fridge. Eggs sat out in a communal kitchen. In the USA, a fridge is supplied in every apartment. I am getting rid of mine and keeping things in a cupboard. Its still tough, but I think with a small cooler and some ice, I can hold cheese and tofu. I have lived without a fridge in the Squat, but never in the USA. I am sort of like this woman: http://ditchyourfridge.blogspot.com/ She lived without a fridge in France, then went back to Canada, where everyone has fridge. But she missed the minimal life. I feel the same.
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Photo Gallery
Photo Gallery: Tacheles on the Brink

Berlin's Squat Scene
Tacheles is the most famous of Berlin's former squat houses. Squatting reached its height in West Germany in the 1970s and 1980s. In Berlin, though, the movement took off after the Berlin Wall fell, resulting in a large number of people flooding out of former East Berlin to look for work, leaving a number of buildings empty. Ownership disputes were also common, making it easier for squatters to move in.

Nearly two decades later, only a handful of squats remain, most of them operating as activist meeting houses. Some squatters have become legitimate rent-paying tenants, while others continue to battle with their owners.

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