Loving the mess

Here's the evolution of Kottbusser Tor, its monstrous Neues Kreuzberger Zentrum and its characteristic Kreuzberger Melange.

Image for Loving the mess
Photo by Maria Runarsdottir

The evolution of Kottbusser Tor, its monstrous Neues Kreuzberger Zentrum and its characteristic Kreuzberger Melange. 

Walk north from the Kottbusser Tor U-Bahn station and you’re in a chaotic jumble of shouting fruit sellers and neon-lit shisha bars where drug-addled youths cross paths with shuffling refugees. It’s what most people think of when they say “Kotti”. It’s the ultimate expression of the Kreuzberger Melange, the district’s notorious mix of cultures, people and architecture. But that vaguely menacing shopping zone and the 12-story wall of apartments looming over it, collectively titled the Neues Kreuzberger Zentrum (NKZ), was a 1970s attempt to bring Germanic order to chaotic Kreuzberg and stamp out its messy “melange” once and for all.

The NKZ has 40 years of enemies. At street level, it’s a rabbit’s warren of dark hallways, alcoves and hidden stairs as if designed by a committee of drug dealers and illicit urinators. The too-tall apartment block hangs over Adalbertstraße, an intimidating gateway to Kreuzberg’s SO36 district and an ironic echo of the original Kottbusser Tor, a gate in Berlin’s long-gone city wall on that site that led south toward Cottbus. The complex has been called an eyesore, a monster and a “profit worm” for its snake-like plan. One of its nicknames is the “Neues KZ” – German shorthand for concentration camp. Just 10 years ago, during the NKZ’s darkest days of neglect and crime, Kreuzberg’s then-Mayor Franz Schulz asked incredulously, “How could such a construction be approved?”

The complex has been called an eyesore, a monster and a “profit worm” for its snake-like plan. One of its nicknames is the “Neues KZ” — German shorthand for concentration camp. 

To answer that question, walk north from the NKZ to Oranienstraße and up three floors to the Museum der Dinge. Here you can peruse the archives of the Deutscher Werkbund, a group of designers who, in the early 20th century, invented modern design. Glass cases show off Gustav E. Pazaurek’s curated collection of kitsch that illustrates everything these minimalists hoped to eliminate: complex shapes, decoration and nostalgic sentiment. The Werkbund inspired the Bauhaus, which led to Germany’s post-war boom in boxy, flat-roofed apartment blocks. The Neues Kreuzberger Zentrum was basically this train of thought driven to its logical destination: a blocky concrete megastructure that wiped away dozens of ‘primitive’ 19th-century buildings. Urban planners in the 1960s issued a drawing illustrating all the features of the dreaded Kreuzberger Melange the NKZ would stamp out: the jumble of architectural styles; apartments and shops coexisting in the same buildings; the lack of parking.

Those planners couldn’t acknowledge one of the NKZ’s primary targets: the district’s growing Turkish population. When the Berlin Wall went up in 1961, 10,000 workers who had commuted to West Berlin were suddenly trapped behind the Iron Curtain. The West German government invited thousands of Turkish ‘guest workers’ to take their place. These guests – mostly young men – sent for their families and made Kreuzberg their new home. A 1960s newspaper compared multicultural Kreuzberg to the slums of Harlem: “Young Germans are deserting the district, leaving only the old, weak, outsiders, freaks and especially foreigners.” Today, Berlin’s Turks are part of the city’s social fabric, but as late as 1982, Chancellor Helmut Kohl drew up a radical four-year plan to reduce Germany’s Turkish population by 50 percent. The construction of the NKZ was a deliberately hostile gesture, like an alien craft dropped in an urban swamp, radiating the sanitising glow of German orderliness. Its message: it’s time to go home!

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Photo by Maria Runarsdottir

Allied bombing in World War II left 40 percent of Kreuzberg in ruins. Twenty years later, little had changed and the area was ripe for urban renewal. Thanks to a kickstart from the US government, West Berlin was in the midst of a building boom – projects like the Europa Center were both symbols of Western freedom and surprisingly profitable cash cows. In this context, the NKZ was touted as the “Europa Center for Kreuzberg”, a beacon of chic meant to draw prosperous Germans back to the district. Key to this renewal was an elevated motorway linking isolated Kreuzberg with the rest of Berlin, running along Oranienstraße. The NKZ’s extreme height was justified as a noise buffer between the cars and apartments to the south. A brochure proudly promised that all this construction would leave Kreuzberg unrecognisable.

The concept for the Zentrum was hatched in the late 1960s by aspiring real estate mogul Günter Schmidt. Then in his mid-twenties, Schmidt was late to the Berlin building boom but eager to cash in quick. He pitched his idea to Heinz Mosch, West Germany’s most successful building contractor, who joined as a partner. Cash for the project poured in via a shady investment scheme called the Berlin Assistance Act in which everyday West Germans were encouraged to pool their personal savings to fund new construction in the troubled ex-Hauptstadt. Investors in the 110 million-deutschmark NKZ included dentists, housewives and secretaries who reaped tax benefits for decades after.

The NKZ’s design, by architects Wolfgang Jokisch and Johannes Uhl, was inspired by the radical megastructure schemes of British designers Archigram. Now in his eighties, Uhl recently complained to the Berliner Zeitung that time and financial pressures undermined the designers’ utopian plans: a street-level “reading courtyard” became shops, and light-filled luxury flats became low-end public housing. Window flower boxes and a second story “street in the sky” (supported by columns painted dark green to match the adjoining U-Bahn station) vanished altogether.

To make way for the NKZ and the nearby highway, thousands of people were evicted from their homes. Zealous developer Schmidt famously had windows and doors ripped out of buildings before their residents had even left. He became Public Enemy #1 in a grassroots campaign to stop the projects and save Kreuzberg’s historic urban fabric. When the highway project stalled, protesters renovated the vacated buildings and moved in – Berlin’s famous squatter movement was born.

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A scale model of the NKZ from Berlin artist Larissa Fassler’s 2008 Kotti exhibition. Photo by Larissa Fassler

Despite setbacks, the NKZ opened in 1974. Most residents were thrilled to trade their Altbau flats for homes with modern conveniences like central heating and indoor toilets, but the project suffered from classic problems of low-income housing blocks: broken elevators, garbage piled in hallways, piss in the stairs. The roof leaked. Cracks appeared in the bridge over Adalbertstraße. Less than 10 years after opening, the NKZ needed a 2.5 million-deutschmark makeover. It became a magnet for drugs and crime. Only half of the spaces were rented, and residents, unhappy with conditions, stopped paying rent. The project was on the brink of bankruptcy for decades.

By 1998, leading Berlin politicians were calling for the demolition of the NKZ along with Schöneberg’s “Social Palace” housing block. CDU boss Klaus-Rüdiger Landowski declared, “They must go away. They are crime centres that we cannot get control of. Otherwise Kreuzberg will be lost.” That same year, the NKZ gained a new managing director, Peter Ackermann. As a young lawyer in 1976, Ackermann had saved the centre from bankruptcy. Two decades later, he was a millionaire software developer come back to turn the NKZ around. He refinanced the mortgage, then pumped money into critical improvements like new mailboxes and trash bins, a playground, better lighting and securely locked stairwells.

In 2016, the NKZ, now renamed Zentrum Kreuzberg Merkezi, is financially secure and fully leased. Instead of driving away Kreuzberg’s freaks, outsiders and foreigners, the project capitalises on diversity. Seventy percent of its apartment residents are foreign-born. Iconic gay bar Möbel Olfe, in a former furniture store, coexists with restaurants and clubs catering to the city’s Muslims, and new cafés and bars patronised by a young, mostly English-speaking clientele. In the sweetest twist, the north end of the project is capped by the recently completed dome of Mevlana Moschee, the city’s largest mosque. The Kreuzberger Melange is alive and thriving.

Originally published in issue #148, April 2016.