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Save Berlin: Tech temples

Little-known architect Han-Heinrich Müller's astonishing red-brick Bauhaus confections now house many of Berlin's most dynamic tech and IT companies. Would he be pleased?

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Dan Borden explores the extraordinary red brick legacy of architect Hans-Heinrich Müller.

As divided cities, East and West Berlin were like spoiled kids, showered with cash and polished as showplaces for their respective ideologies. Once hitched in 1990, the money dried up and reality hit hard. It was time for deadbeat Berlin to find its own grown-up industry.

The city’s leaders declared Berlin a media Mecca, the new home of Germany’s – nay, Europe’s – TV and film industries. They tore down century-old factories and warehouses along the Spree River to create the UFO landing strip named MediaSpree, then prayed for armies of media moguls. Ten years later, they’re still waiting.

Meanwhile, Berlin’s formerly maligned slackers and geeks have turned the city into Germany’s capital of high tech start-up companies. And these young companies aren’t incubating in glass office buildings along the Spree, but in century-old flats and warehouses in Mitte, Prenzlauer Berg and Kreuzkölln.

Yes, many high-tech entrepreneurs are literally working out of their bedrooms, but even established internet players are staying away from Berlin’s official business districts in droves. One such player, the scream-inducing clothing portal Zalando, is encamped in the heart of Prenzlauer Berg. Its home, a hulking brick fortress known as the Humboldt Umspannwerk, is just one of many industrial buildings by unsung architectural genius Hans-Heinrich Müller to be given new life by cutting-edge companies.

Back in the 1920s, while Berlin’s Expressionist artists were pushing the boundaries of paint, architect Müller (1879-1951) was doing equally daring things with bricks. As in-house designer for Berlin’s electric company Bewag, he built over 40 transformer buildings around the city in an astonishing six years, 1924 to 1930. Instead of lowly industrial boxes, Müller created quirky temples to technology in his unique Cubist-Bauhaus-Gothic style.

Kreuzberg Umspannwerk (1926) With his first transformer complex, towering over Kreuzberg’s Landwehrkanal, Müller stated his thesis loud and clear: technology is the new religion. Its basilica-style generator hall and faux bell tower inspired by German cathedrals quickly earned it the nickname “Kathedrale der Elektrizität”. Fully renovated, it houses new media companies as well as star chef Matthias Gleiss’ eatery Volt.

Humboldt Umspannwerk (1926) Müller’s brooding take on a medieval monastery feels like an Expressionist film set – think Fritz Lang directing Hamlet. Massive Gothic arches lead to an inner courtyard with Müller’s futuristic addition, an oval control tower: outside it’s a dark brick fortress, inside it’s all Flash Gordon dials and lights. Renovated in the 1990s to house the Berlin branch of the (sadly departed) Vitra Design Museum, the complex now houses Zalando’s digital drones while its basilica-style generator hall is an elegant events space.

Umspannwerk Wilhelmsruh (1927) Müller’s next transformer/monastery in Pankow is his most exuberant work. Again, the machine halls surround an oval control tower, but everything’s wrapped in tall stepped-brick arches giving it an Oz-like Art Deco feel. In 2008 it was modernised as the home of Vattenfall’s in-house IT experts.

Metahaus (1929) In genteel Charlottenburg, Müller packed his machine halls and workshops into a tight brick block with punched windows, but his block has wide, curved corners and a flaring stepped-brick cornice. Inside, the ex-circuit breaker halls now contain the brainstorming minds of MetaDesign, Europe’s third largest corporate branding agency.

E-Werk/Abspannwerk Buchhändlerhof (1928) Müller rebuilt Berlin’s original 1885 power station off Friedrichstraße, adding transformer halls and a dramatic cantilevered control tower (photo). In the heady post-Wall 1990s, those halls throbbed with techno music as the legendary club E-Werk. Renovated in 2005, the complex now houses – yes – more IT companies.

Sci-fi icon Arthur C. Clarke wrote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Hans-Heinrich Müller would have agreed. His buildings celebrated his faith in technology with a sense of wonder and joy. He’d smile to see his cathedrals of electricity alive with the glow of digital devices, still generating Berlin’s future.