The Men Keeping Berlin Cool
Seven locals give us the insider’s view on what’s next for the creative capital
If you can picture New York without Wall Street or London without the Square Mile, then you’re on your way to understanding what makes Berlin so unique. This sprawling metropolis is the capital of the world’s fourth largest economy and by far its most populous city, but it has no major finance district – and not a single one of the country’s top 10 companies is headquartered here. In a world increasingly ruled by the ebb and flow of capital, Berlin still feels like a place that marches to the beat of its own drum. It may not have the glamour of Paris or the financial clout of London or New York, but ever since the Berlin Wall fell in the late 1980s, there have been few cities able to rival the German capital for that most intangible of assets: cool.
The thing about cool, though, is that it tends to dissolve on contact with air, and as news has filtered out about this city – its cheap living costs, its non-stop party atmosphere, its thriving art scene – the zeitgeist chasers and self-hating hipsters of the internet have been falling over each other to declare that “Berlin is over”. It goes without saying that the vast majority of those predicting the city’s descent into dullness are not locals, and they’re judging the city by impossibly narrow parameters. But they are right about one thing: Berlin is changing.
Tourism has approximately doubled in the past decade, driven by the city’s reputation as the party capital of Europe. The start-up sector is booming, too, with entrepreneurs drawn here by the low rent and abundance of young talent. This is having an effect on the city not unlike that seen in San Francisco, with property prices skyrocketing and trendy neighbourhoods such as Kreuzberg and Neukölln changing almost by the day. What might have been a rotten tenement building hosting a video art installation last month, might now be a concept store serving up new-season Rick Owens and a killer flat white.
But such is life in any major city – and Berlin has long existed in a state of constant reinvention. In the interwar Weimar period, it was a hedonist’s paradise. In the 1970s, it inspired some of Mr David Bowie’s best work. Over the course of the last century, it has been torn apart by war, divided in two by the Berlin Wall and then stitched back together again. Reminders of the city’s dark past are everywhere you look: this is a place where you can tour a private collection of contemporary art in a pockmarked World War II bomb shelter, party to techno in a converted Soviet-era power station or visit a music festival in an abandoned amusement park. Berlin is a city that’s forever shedding its skin.
Which raises the question: where does the so-called former “coolest city in the world” go from here? What does it become when the hipsters and techno tourists move on to pastures new? To get a snapshot of what Berlin’s really like in 2015, we spoke to seven men – artists, architects, actors and businessmen – who have chosen to make this city their home.
MR MAXIMILIAN MAGNUS
Mr Maximilian Magnus, 31, grew up in the Bavarian countryside and comes from a family of artists. He trained to be a set painter in Baden-Baden, before working with the American theatre director Mr Robert Wilson at his Watermill Center in Long Island, New York. Here, he caught the artistic eye of Ms Lisa de Kooning, daughter of the abstract impressionist Mr Willem de Kooning, and eventually secured a residency at the family’s studio. He moved to Berlin in 2011, and lives in Prenzlauer Berg.
What’s your neighbourhood like?
The local name for Prenzlauer Berg is “Pregnancy Hill”. It’s a relaxed, family-friendly area… the kind of place that Berliners come when they want to start a family. The busier streets are quite vibrant but, to tell you the truth, it’s a little boring. That suits me, though.
It’s a calm place to be. When I’m in my studio, I’m not calm at all, so I appreciate having somewhere relaxing to escape.
What inspires your art?
It’s quite intuitive. I wouldn’t say that I’m influenced by other artists, but by life in general – people, nature, architecture. There’s also a lot of dance involved. I did ballet for six years, and I try to replicate the graceful movements of ballet when I’m working on larger canvases.
How is the Berlin art market?
It’s strange, because there are a lot of artists – more than 8,000 in Berlin – but not that many buyers. The market for art is actually quite small. Had I known that, I probably wouldn’t have moved here… but, funnily enough, I think the fact that I was ignorant about this actually allowed me to work with more freedom, more confidence, and helped me to get my career off the ground.
Do you try to give back?
Absolutely. I have a ritual that I do every time I sell a piece. Before I touch the money, I go out and buy a piece of work from another young artist. It’s my way of acknowledging just how lucky I am to be able to earn a living from what I do.
MR SIGURD LARSEN
Architect and designer
Danish-born Mr Sigurd Larsen studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, before moving to Berlin to work with Topotek 1, a German architecture firm. He set up his own company in 2010. He lives in Kreuzberg with his husband, Mr Herbert Hofmann, the creative director of the local fashion boutique Voo Store.
You graduated in 2008, in the wake of the financial crisis. As an architect, were you worried about how this was going to affect your career?
God, yes! For the first four or five years, I only had the intention of staying in Berlin for as long as I could. I was so convinced that I’d have to go back that I even left my furniture in my old flat in Copenhagen. But then one thing led to another. I started teaching at the University of the Arts, then I founded my company, and then the flat that I was renting went up for sale and I decided to buy it.
How has Berlin changed in the time you’ve been living here?
Well, it’s not as cheap as it once was… I’m currently looking for a new office space, and since I arrived in 2008, the price per square metre has approximately tripled from three to around 10 Euros.
Have you felt the effects of tourism?
Because it’s such a popular city, people have been buying properties with the intention of renting them out to tourists, which means they’re not living there and they’re not contributing to the community at all. That’s a problem. Overall, though, tourism is very important to the city.
What would you recommend for a culture-hungry tourist?
The thing about Berlin is that it’s not pretty like Paris, but it has really interesting people. So the best thing to do is just to walk around and see what you can find. There’s something interesting on every street corner – and it’s huge, too. Even after seven years, this city still has the power to surprise me.
Any favourite hangouts?
I’m not good at shopping, it stresses me out. But Voo Store is full of my own furniture, so it feels a bit like home!
MR CLEMENS SCHICK
Mr Schick, 43, is a familiar face on German stage and screen. As a young boy growing up in Stuttgart, he dreamed of joining the circus, but his parents were able to talk him out of it, and in 1993 he moved to Berlin to pursue an acting career instead. His home is in Kreuzberg, but he admits to spending less than half the year there. He recently returned from filming on Mr Luc Besson’s upcoming movie, The Lake.
How does it feel coming home to Berlin?
I still enjoy coming back here. It’s a great place – a very open, creative city. But I feel as if it’s my “base” rather than my home. I was on the road for eight months last year; already this year I’ve been away for five.
So you’re saying that if you lived here full-time, you’d think differently?
I’m not sure I’d enjoy it as much. Would I still live here? Maybe not. Berlin is interesting because it’s one of the last large cities where life doesn’t revolve around money. On the one hand, I like living in a place where you don’t have to be rich to live comfortably. On the other, though, it can feel as if there’s a lack of ambition. It’s very easy for people to get trapped here.
A lot of people come to Berlin looking for something, for a lifestyle that allows them to express their creativity, so they end up working Tuesday to Thursday at a magazine that nobody reads and partying all weekend. Then three, four, five years go by and all of a sudden it doesn’t seem quite so glamorous any more. Like it or not, creativity needs money to thrive, and there just isn’t a lot of it around in Berlin. That’s changing, though, with the start-up scene.
How have the changes affected your neighbourhood?
It’s typical gentrification, the same as you’ll see in New York’s East Village or London’s Shoreditch. There are good sides and bad sides to it, of course. But this is an area that has always been changing. I live just around the corner from here, and at the end of the street was the Berlin Wall. For the people that lived here in the 1980s, that wall was the end of the world. It makes the changes we’re seeing today seem quite superficial by comparison
MR DAVID FISCHER
Magazine editor and businessman
Mr David Fischer is German by nationality, but spent his high school and college years in Switzerland. In the final semester of a business degree at the University of Zurich, he set up Highsnobiety, a streetwear blog that has evolved over the years into an online and print magazine. He also runs Selectism, a luxury fashion online magazine. He lived in East Berlin for years, but has recently relocated to Charlottenburg in the west of the city with his wife, Lia, and their six-month-old son, Ben.
When Highsnobiety started growing in popularity, did you feel limited by the fact that you were still living in Switzerland?
Yes, totally. You can say a lot of good things about Switzerland, but it definitely doesn’t have a reputation for being fashion-forward. And being the owner of a fashion publication, I began to feel that I was just too far away from the market.
How did you decide on Berlin?
I could have gone anywhere – to Paris, London or New York. Certainly, people already assumed that Highsnobiety was based in New York. But Berlin just made sense – from the perspective of me being German, and from a cost perspective, but also because the market seemed less saturated.
How do you mean?
I mean, think of London and you might think of i-D and Dazed. New York, you might think of Vogue and GQ. These cities already had big players in that field, whereas Berlin didn’t have a go-to fashion media brand, and I thought that maybe we could be that guy.
In terms of lifestyle, how does it compare to other large cities?
It’s good and bad. The low cost of living means that artists can just be artists without having to do a million other things to support themselves. At the same time, though, you miss the hustle of a city like London or New York. It’s not so easy to get by, but that leads to more motivated young people. And, quite frankly, we don’t have that in Berlin. There’s no reason to push yourself here. Like, why should I make €2,000 a month when I can live comfortably on €1,000?
How about from the perspective of a new parent?
In that sense it’s fantastic. It’s the stupid little things, such as the fact that you can take your car and park right outside of a restaurant. Every time I come back here, it feels like… you can breathe again.
Mr LUDWIG CRAMER-KLETT 38
Restaurateur and entrepreneur
Mr Ludwig Cramer-Klett was born in the southern German region of Bavaria to a family with a long history of agriculture. He opened his first restaurant, Katz Orange, in 2012, and the adjoining Contemporary Food Lab a couple of years later. The 38-year-old restauranteur, who spent his twenties working in finance and real estate, sees his current business as the culmination of a life-long dream.
What made you want to run a restaurant?
My ambition was never just to create a restaurant, but to create a creative hub – a space that allows people to flourish and to fulfil their potential. It was never just about food, although food is an essential thing that defines our relationship to other people.
If you’ve always had this vision, what prevented you from following it earlier?
I saw the early stages of my career as a kind of preparation – a time to learn about life, about business, and also to establish the necessary funds. Then, when I was 30, I spent a few years out of work just mentally preparing myself. I spent a lot of time cooking and meditating, and finally I went travelling to South America and spent some time with Peruvian shamans. It was there that I had this clear vision, an inner voice telling me that it was time to start my company.
Katz Orange and the Contemporary Food Lab are housed in a beautiful old brewery. How did you find this building?
I actually came across it when I was in my twenties. At the time, it was a restaurant called Maxwell’s. I was amazed when I saw the place – this beautiful courtyard and cathedral building, full of artworks by Damien Hirst, who was a friend of the owner. This experience was a huge factor in me deciding to set up my business in Berlin. Then, 15 years later, when I came back from Peru, I phoned a friend in real estate and asked him if he knew of any available spaces. The first place he offered me was the old Maxwell’s place. I took it as a sign.
How has Berlin helped you in setting up your business?
The fact that it’s less expensive than other big cities makes it much easier to get things off the ground. And because it takes less time to establish the financial freedom, you can be more experimental. A lot of what we do here loses us money, but we’re able to cover it.
Has the “cool factor” helped?
Yes, that, too. If I’d opened this restaurant in London, I wouldn’t have gotten anything close to the attention that I’ve had in Berlin. Within a few months, I had two New York Times articles. I had the kind of press that, as an entrepreneur, you can only dream of, and a large part of it was because we were in Berlin. The name opens doors all around the world.
MR MARTIN BACHMANN
CEO, Sony Pictures Germany
Mr Martin Bachmann is originally from Munich, but relocated to Berlin when Sony bought the area around Potsdamer Platz and moved the European headquarters of its film and music subsidiaries there in 2000. As head of Sony Pictures Germany, he presides over one of its biggest and most important international markets.
The new James Bond film, Spectre, is launching later this month. You must be a busy man.
I am, quite. Spectre’s definitely the hot ticket at the moment. On 28 October we’ve got our German premiere at the Sony Center in Potsdamer Platz, and we’ll be welcoming Barbara Broccoli, Daniel Craig, Naomie Harris… even our very own Christoph Waltz is going to be there. He’s actually Austrian, but we Germans like to take some of the credit.
How long have you been holding large premieres here in Berlin?
It all started for us when the Sony Center moved here in 2000. Before that, premieres typically took place in Munich or Hamburg, where the publishing houses were originally based. But we’re seeing more and more of those companies relocating here.
How has the city changed in the 15 years since you’ve been here?
It has become a much more multifaceted city. As well as it being the hub for Germany’s creative industries, the politicians have also moved back here from Bonn. We’re finally seeing all sorts of different industries coming together, and that’s something that Berlin didn’t have for a long time.
In terms of your industry, does it feel like a smarter city than it once was?
It still feels really relaxed here. Look at the Berlin Film Festival and compare it to Cannes, for instance. In Cannes, you can’t get on to the red carpet without black tie. They just won’t let you in. At the opening night of the Berlin Film Festival, there are a few people wearing black tie, but most guys wear suits, and some just disregard the dress code altogether.
The Berlin Wall once ran straight through Potsdamer Platz, right where the Sony Center now sits. Does Berlin still ever feel like a city of two halves?
There is a difference between east and west, but don’t you get that in any big city? Take a taxi ride across London and you’ll see the same thing. Berlin is like a collection of little villages. There are local differences, sure – you just can’t draw a straight line between them any more.
MR ROLAND MARY
Mr Roland Mary was born in Saarland, a small state on the border between Germany and France, and moved to Berlin in the mid-1980s. His first venture into East Berlin came on the same night that the Wall fell. Three years later, in 1992, he opened a restaurant there called Borchardt. It has gone on to become one of the city’s most famous dining establishments. We met Mr Mary in 1OG, a private dining room on the first floor, which opened in January this year.
So, what brought you to Berlin?
I’d like to say it’s a long story, but it’s not. I was following a beautiful woman.
You opened Borchardt in Mitte, which originally was on the east of the Wall. What was it like back then?
It was very different. The locals were still very committed to the east German government, and it was also just a very dead area and so quiet. When we were building the restaurant, I had this idea to use a video camera to film the crossing outside and project it real-time on to the wall in front of the toilets. It’s a pity we never did it, as you wouldn’t believe what it was like if you saw it today. In 24 hours there might have been maybe five people crossing the road, and two cars. You could hear those cars a long time before you saw them.
That sounds like a great idea. Why did you never do it?
You know how these things are. You have the idea and then you say, “Oh, it’s too much work.”
What inspired you to open Borchardt?
I’m from Saarland, which is an area close to the French border, and I’ve always loved French food. My mother was an excellent cook. Also, this part of Berlin was a French area – the name of the street, Französische Strasse, translates to French Street. So when we found this place, a French building with a belle époque French interior, it made sense to open a French-style brasserie here.
So, has the spirit of the city stayed the same?
It still feels the same to me. It’s independent, relaxed and nobody is interested in what you earn or what car you drive. It was like that 30 years ago, and it’s still the same now.