The news that the Kulturbrauerei in Prenzlauer Berg is to be sold off to private investors didn’t really move crowds. As if the old brewery was so mainstream already that this final blow was of little importance. But not so long ago, its tall brick buildings were a meeting point for the intelligentsia that flourished in the semi-underground artistic salons of the surrounding neighbourhoods. Is the Kulturbrauerei about to lose what little culture it has left?
Amid decaying walls, the “17 hippies” concert is about to begin. Crowds squeeze through the six dimly lit courtyards and beer bottles crash on the cobblestones. The show will go on until daylight – there is hardly anybody around to be disturbed. The actors at the theatre next door will not be in before noon; the artists with ateliers in the nearby unheated spaces with rotting roofs and draughty windows would be mad to spend the night here. This is Berlin in 1990. And the mouldy industrial structure is the Kulturbrauerei in Prenzlauer Berg. The artist Michael Jastram recalls those days as a time of unfettered freedom: “Anything was possible. There was space; there were ideas. People were hungry for culture and change.”
But they may have gotten more change than they bargained for. In spring 2012, the German Ministry of Finance announced that it would sell off TLG Immobilien, the escrow institution that owns the Kulturbrauerei complex. Which could ultimately mean an end to the low rents guaranteed to the building’s remaining non-commercial tenants, emptying the space of its last remnants of culture. But the item was not exactly hot news: at this point, the old brewery has become a flagship of the Prenzlauer Berg mainstream, the result of 20 years of gentrification in the Kollwitzkiez. To most Berliners, it had sold out already.
The Schultheiß building’s distinctive yellow brick tower was designed by architect Franz Schwechten in the 1800s. It remained operational as a brewery through World War II, after which it was run as a GDR state-owned company. Production soon declined, however, and the last bottle of beer was brewed in 1967. For the next 23 years, the building lay dormant save for a furniture outlet and a casino.
Meanwhile, a vibrant artistic and intellectual scene began to form in the dilapidated apartments around Kollwitz- and Helmholtzplatz. Private apartments served as salons where friends discussed politics and art under the suspicious gaze of the East German state.
After the fall of the Wall, TLG took over the property. “Here was this beautiful industrial building, almost empty, and we had to put up shows in our own apartments,” says Joachim Sommermeier. In 1991 he and five other artists formed a non-profit company which, tolerated by the state, squatted a small empty space in the former brewery canteen. Kulturbrauerei gGmbH would go on to run a large portion of the complex all through the 1990s.
The non-profit extended gradually, taking over more and more space and incorporating more artists. The likes of graphic artist Sabine Herrmann, painter Klaus Killisch and sculptor Rolf Biebl moved in, completing only the repairs that were needed to stop the structure from collapsing. “It was the way it was done with all empty apartments: you moved in and pretended everything was normal. After a while, you were accepted,” says Sommermeier.
By the mid-1990s, the non-profit had expanded to include the legendary Franz youth club, which had been there since 1970 (re-launched as the more mainstream Frannz Club in 2004); the Sundial project, which worked with people with disabilities; the Russian Panda theatre and many others.
TLG had been struggling to find a buyer for the complex since taking over ownership in 1991. In 1996 the company proposed a deal: Kulturbrauerei gGmbH would be given a long-term contract guaranteeing low rents until 2011. In return, they would sublet and take care of the buildings. “They knew that without us, the brewery stood no chance of development,” says Sommermeier. “We were pioneers who gave the place its reputation.”
But it was not only TLG who saw the cultural complex as a signpost of Prenzlauer Berg’s revival. Sommermeier remembers how he and his fellow artists had to barricade themselves inside the Kulturbrauerei building during a large anti-yuppie demonstration in the mid-1990s. The movement went from Helmholtzplatz down to Kollwitzplatz as angry former East Berliners protested against rising rents and the displacement of the alternative scene. Kulturbrauerei represented the development they feared. Little did they know what was to come.
In 2012, Prenzlauer Berg is synonymous with overpriced lattes and sanitised charm. Kulturbrauerei’s current tenants include a Rewe supermarket, a Cinestar multiplex and, most recently, a Gravis Apple shop in the space previously occupied by the NBI club.
As is so often the case, the Kulturbrauerei has become a victim of its own success.
Sören Birke, manager of the Kesselhaus and Machinenhaus venues, is very uncertain about the future: “We don’t know what’s coming our way. Things may get better or worse, depending on who buys.” The contract guarantees low rents for the existing cultural institutions for a limited period of time, but nobody knows what will happen next.
The yellow and red brick complex is not only the stone witness of an industrial era, it is also the crystallised history of the dissident artistic scene in the GDR that found its expression in the years after the fall of the Wall. Yet, when the building is finally sold, the news will likely only appear as a footnote. What remains of the Kulturbrauerei’s cultural heritage will fade. Elsewhere, in another decaying building in a neglected area, another group of artists will start clearing out cobwebs and hanging up canvas. And the cycle will begin anew.