THE DIFFERENCE – Sonja Hornung, Berlin 2017
“Why do you like to work with artists?”
Dirk Moritz, CEO in real estate development, “mobile finance” and leasing, leans back in the chair of his small, green-grey conference room in a narrow upper-storey on Palisadenstr, Mitte. “The real estate industry is a hotbed for the worst possible characteristics of humanity. Greed, jealousy, alpha-types, money-mongering.”
Apparently, artists, young start-up-types and musicians make far better company, and that is why Moritz prefers to surround himself with them. One current project, for example, will include a co-working space for such “creatives” – starting at 350€ per desk.
But dealing with artists has its pitfalls, Moritz tells me. For one thing, they all claim they are poor and will do anything for free stuff. In the past, Moritz has hosted group exhibitions in his assets – “for free”. He later found out that one such “poor” artist had his Porsche hidden around the corner.
Art needs space, and in Berlin, real estate has a monopoly on it. For artists, using space often means professionalising – and, in one way or another, paying.
Long-gone are the days when Berlin’s independent scene operated primarily from occupied buildings and house projects. There is no point in being nostalgic for a past few of us had the luck to experience. Whilst between 1990-2005, rent in Berlin remained largely stable, in the intervening period prices have increased by 23% between 2005 and 2013 across the board (source: Holm in Bernt, Grell & Holm, 172). The trend is escalating. In 2016 alone, in Neukölln, rents rose by 17.1% alone, and across Berlin on average by 5,6%. “Nomadic” project spaces or “pop-up” exhibitions sprouting behind the scaffolding of building sites reiterate the aesthetic of a squat, while effectively doing the reverse: they play a part in the valorisation of place. Now I am no supporter of the notion that young, English-speaking artist-types alone are responsible for gentrification. Still, it may be that rising rents have pushed the informality, spontaneity and arguably also the politics of Berlin’s independent art scene into less visible forms.
Into this fragile ecosystem, enter: the real estate agents. But as an artist myself, I want to know: what precisely does the real estate industry want from us? And what do we do about it?
Moritz, a former boxer and now real estate developer at moritz-gruppe, is currently working on two projects. ‘Square 3’ is a retail-residential development designed as a three-level Olympic victory podium in Hohenschönenhausen, and set to be the tallest building in Berlin. The project, however, is currently mired in a mysterious legal battle with its investors.
By contrast, Moritz’s ‘Secret Garden’ – a neglected Mitte cabaret theatre which he “rescued from the pigeon shit” – is well on its way to becoming a conference centre, residential space and business club in the model of luxury hip Soho House (itself well-frequented by real estate businesspeople and former partner of Berlin’s Project Space Festival).
Despite doubt Moritz expresses over the “church of capitalism” and a market liable to crash unexpectedly, he is undoubtedly keenly aware that projecting an “arty” image lends a competitive advantage. His company previously attests to having worked with both Berlin Art Week and Berlin Gallery Weekend, and has hosted exhibitions with “names” such as Mike Nelson or Erwin Wurm and curators such as HeldArt or Constanze Kleiner.
An online document detailing the company’s brand profiling drives the point home. Art events help “to seek out potential partners, commercial/ residential tenants and future members of the business club.” Visitors to moritz-gruppe’s art events include “famous faces from art, fashion, music, film and the gastronomy scene, all of whom are known at both a national and international level, exerting influence on both the economy and politics.” This ensures “future business partners and tenants come to see Secret Garden as an exciting commercial and/or residential opportunity.”
Moritz himself – who likes to paint in his spare time – is planning his first solo exhibition in London, where he intends to prove that it’s possible to make money with art.
“Alterego means your second self”, says Jasmine Maglica. “If you want to rent an apartment or a hotel room, everything always looks the same…we wanted our artists to extend themselves a bit. And you can see that happening in the work! There are some very creative results. For example, here is a rainbow apartment – if I was staying in this apartment, I would be, um…”
“Overwhelmed?” I suggest, unhelpfully.
“Not at all, I’d be happy! That I had all this colour around me! You can tell that the artists gave a lot of thought into really making something special.”
The three individuals beaming at me across a huge round table in an office near Checkpoint Charlie are Carsten Heinrich, Managing Director and Founder of Rubina Real Estate, together with Senior Advisor for Public Relations Elena Jochmann, and Project Manager Jasmine Maglica.
At the time when I interviewed them, these three were running a competition called the ALTER EGO Artbattle. They were in the process of inviting selected artists and designers from Indonesia, Vietnam, Portugal, Jordan and South Africa to Berlin realise their wildest interior design fantasies – in apartments provided by Rubina. The selected designers/artists (Rubina uses the terms interchangeably) were to spend 72 hours installing their work, with a budget provided by Rubina and flights paid by participants. The winner of the Artbattle was to receive a 10.000€ prize, with 5.000€ for second and 2.000€ for third. Though the company sells design packages to its clients for a standard price of 20,000€ apiece, it does not offer a commission to these designers.
Always looking for something new, real estate developers need to constantly turf up exciting concepts to keep clients interested. The Artbattle is a promotional event targeting the international clientele of Rubina – 85% of whom do not live in the apartments they buy. Yet with demand far higher than supply and interest rates at a historic low, real estate is doing extraordinarily well in Berlin. According to Managing Director and founder Carsten Heinrich, this situation results in lazy development – a “monotonous” urban landscape, a far cry from his smart city dreams.
Rubina wishes to assert itself as an innovative force (Heinrich also speaks with measured enthusiasm of smart cities, electric cars and new architectural trends – wooden skyscrapers, for example). In keeping with this, the ALTER EGO ArtBattle was established to create space for “something new” in the real estate field.
I asked Carsten Heinrich – who used to work in the banking sector – how he convinces international investors to buy property in Berlin, and he told me the following: “There’s no other city as international, as open as Berlin, with so many different cultures. If you’re checking out Berlin as an investor, you’re not going to find any other city like it. And this international quality, which I connect strongly to the theme of start-ups, leads to a particularly special culture among young people. And the fact that Berlin has allowed particular alternative forms of art and culture to flourish like nowhere else – I’m thinking here of galleries, but this also applies to the beach bars – all this has led to a special scene that you’re not going to find anywhere else.”
If you follow Heinrich’s understanding of things, the rainbow-themed apartment makes a type of hamstrung sense: first internationals, then start-ups, then culture, then beach bars (?), then investors flocking to Berlin. Former Berlin Cultural Senator Tim Renner responded to the same dilemma when he observed that culture makes a good investment.
But even Heinrich is asking: who wants a city that is whitewashed to look the same all over, when its major selling-point is its difference?
My third conversation partner, Frank Sippel, operates on an entirely different logic.
Sippel owns Malzfabrik GmbH – the former brewery complex near Südkreuz, which hosts initiatives including a key Berlin project space. It’s built on the “four pillars of sustainability”: culture, ecology, social responsibility and economic sustainability. Sippel says: “This here is a good place…or at least, I am trying to make a good place.”
“Everything belongs to everybody. There’s no mine and yours…this is a place of meeting. We’re doing this totally consciously, in order to inspire people.”
According to Sippel, most real estate developers think in terms of a five-year cycle, after which point it’s time to cash in on the investment because the bank demands repayment. This means that the industry is driven by short-term (five-year) profit yields. In contrast, “content-driven real estate”, Sippel attests, defines itself by clear, long-term aims. These aims attract particular types of “users” (renters, investors, visitors and so on) who will then contribute to the “energy” of the place.
Malzfabrik also encountered this issue in its early development. Sippel’s original co-investors wanted to create a lucrative retail complex out of the building. Just around the corner, IKEA was nearly complete, and although Malzfabrik is heritage-listed, its status could apparently be “renegotiated” with the Berlin Senate.
Sippel was the one to break the deal. He bought out the shares of his fellow investors and instead creating a foundation. This foundation, together with funding from public sources, also contributes to the running of the Berlin project space, which runs a generous programme hosting exhibitions, discursive formats, workshops, interventions and performances in public spaces.
Malzfabrik’s rent-paying tenants include an aquaponic business, a software company, artists’ studios and an “aesthetic dental laboratory”. The neighbouring property, which Sippel later acquired, also hosts a publicly accessible swimming pond, green space and tomato greenhouses, as well as further studios and offices.
At Malzfabrik, Frank Sippel has invested into a combination of what he calls “Herz und Kommerz” (heart and commerce). It’s by no means a commune. Decisions structuring how the site is maintained and changed are ultimately made by its owner, and not its occupants, who Sippel still terms “users”. His philosophy is instead to “plant good karma”. If you are honest, and help people, good things will come your way – perhaps also profitable things, although he insists that this is not so important.
Is this market jargon bent to accommodate public interest? A good capitalist trying to do a good thing?
Sippel encourages me to visit “his own” art exhibition Atman, organised in one of Malzfabrik’s vast halls, in which one-time business executive Bernd Kolb’s photographs of non-white faces representing the “wisdom of Asia” are displayed in huge lightboxes. It costs just 12€ for a softly orientalist spectacle.
All in all, my conversation partners in the real estate field share an intent to pursue their own paths by projecting an image of positivity and success. They do this in the knowledge that “the projection of power and the assumption of an image are ways to create a world and make it seem inevitable”, as Marina Vishmidt observes in Metahaven’s Uncorporate Identity (2010, p. 9). Along these lines, many real estate developers would not know how to articulate the difference between a project space and a start-up.
In this sense, the question is not: what are artists doing for gentrification? But rather: what is gentrification doing to art? Housing, studios, exhibiting spaces and opportunities become increasingly scarce as gentrification really begins to set in. As a result, things get tougher. Artists, curators and “creatives” become ever more keen to self-institutionalise and self-commercialise in order to compete. The result is the “nomadic” artist, permanently on residency; the “temporary” space; the “in-between” use; the sublet tour. Yet, as an artist myself, I long for a stability the current system does not, in fact, seem capable of offering us; not even (we’ve all heard them!) in those whispered rumours of sweet deals with this or that real estate developer.
Gentrification in Berlin is caused first and foremost by the financial conditions cultivated by urban planning, and the way they interact with international finance. Globally, the real estate market today represents 60% of all global assets (this includes gold, equities and bonds). Berlin is a city that has actively contributed to this market, wilfully selling off its assets and enticing international investors since the period of dodgy speculation leading to the banking scandal of the late 90s/early 2000s.
A political problem requires political and legislative solutions. Between 1995 and 2005, half of Berlin’s public housing stock was privatised and sold off to the highest bidder (Uffer in Bernt, Grell & Holm, ibid, 156). Ample social housing needs to be re-secured long-term. At the same time, rising costs of living need to be countered at very least by an increase in the minimum wage (as of 1.1.2017 at a bare 8,84€/hr), and in the best-case scenario should be held at bay entirely by a basic income that is paired with a reliable, inclusive social welfare system. Subsidies for building and renovating, also cut in the early 2000s, need to be re-introduced. The Berlin Senate urgently needs to stop the rampant speculation that is emptying out living space and pushing out the most vulnerable.
KUNST MUSS RAUS” was the favoured slogan for the anti-gentrification campaign of students recently occupying the Humboldt University. Although “KUNST” referred to university president Sabine Kunst, the double meaning was not lost on anybody. Since when did student protestors see artists as their potential foes? While artists are not solely responsible for gentrification, there is a perception that we have milked its advantages without a thought for the consequences, creating added value (“for free!”) in already gentrifying neighbourhoods. This may be a one-sided way of looking at things, however – unfortunately – it cannot be denied that the private sector, encouraged by low interest rates and a market that is more than welcoming to non-local investors – will co-opt the public presence of artists regardless.
A small example perfectly serves to describe this dynamic: Zusammenkunft is a proposal put together by twelve Berlin groups to develop Haus der Statistk, a large, long-empty building complex across from Alexanderplatz, into living space for refugees and working spaces for artists. This is a project that is impeccably careful about positioning itself against gentrification. Despite this, Rubina’s sister firm EichenGlobal perversely made a social media post commending Zusammenkunft, accompanied by the commentary: “a positive step towards preventing [Berlin’s] drift into normalcy”. Rubina/Eichenglobal last year advertised Berlin’s most expensive penthouse apartment for a starting price of over 16 million USD.
In a city that is polarising, becoming unbearably expensive for many, it is clear that the independent, strong, and deliciously international art scene in Berlin is no longer an untouchable bubble. Real estate calls upon art to upscale value, to bring in the elite, to entertain, and to advertise: to clean things up. But if we want to continue to live in a city with affordable living and studio space, then we are pushed to articulate the difference between real estate and art: to find ways of side-stepping the valorisation cycle.
What to do? To haggle with interests in the private sector, and out of this to build a permanent autonomous zone from which independent ways of making art – and of living – are nurtured and sustained? To support initiatives such as the artists’ union (the bbk), anti-gentrification activist groups, or renter’s rights groups – who are already watching out for us? To go undercover: seal the real estate deal, but refuse excessive visibility? To play the game and cheat, to try have the last laugh? Or to be loud and proud: to refuse complicity, claim volatility, occupy, move about, make art in places without permission, flashmob, politicise, and above all, as the anti-gentrification movement puts it: “stay unbearable”?
Whichever way, it’s important to be capable, if need be, of biting off the hand that feeds. Don’t you think?
Text: Sonja Hornung
CBRE/Berlin Hyp, Wohnmarktreport Berlin 2017: Mieten, Kaufpreise und Neubau steigen rasant, Pressemitteilung, 25th Jan, 2017, available online at:
Saskia Sassen, “Investment in urban land is on the rise – we need to know who owns our cities”, The Conversation, 6th August, 2016, available online at:
Bernt, Grell, Holm eds., The Berlin Reader, 2013, transcript Verlag, Bielefeld
Metahaven & Vischmidt (eds.), Uncorporate Identity, 2010, Lars Müller Publishers, Zurich
Tim Renner, “Kaufen Sie sich mal wieder eine Hose, lieber Claus Peymann’, Die Zeit, Nr. 16, 17th April, 2017, available online at: