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Ghost city: The empty buildings of Berlin

Berlin's abandoned buildings are the stuff of legend. We explore 10 of the city's architectural icons that remain empty to this day.

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Fit for a nightmare: the former children’s hospital in Weißensee is one of Berlin’s creepiest empty buildings. Photo: Imago/Jürgen Ritter

While it’s notoriously hard to find a vacant habitable apartment in Berlin – particularly after a year of lockdown and the Mietendeckel rent cap – the city still harbours plenty of empty (and entirely uninhabitable) buildings steeped in the kind of morbid history that Berlin does best.

Some are the result of greed and speculation, others of tangled inheritance disputes and political squabbles, while the rest have simply slipped through the cracks to stand as forlorn husks. Some belong to ghosts, others to investors. 

We explore the stories of 10 empty buildings in Berlin, from abandoned children’s hospitals to modernist masterpieces – and more than one eerie embassy. 

Haus der Statistik 

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Haus der Statistik at Alexanderplatz is one of Berlin’s most prominent empty buildings. Photo: Imago/Stefan Zeitz

Built in the late 1960s as a Soviet showpiece, Haus der Statistik was home to the GDR’s office of – you guessed it – statistics. After reunification, the building was used by public authorities and then abandoned in 2008, remaining utterly empty until 2019.

With investors keen to demolish the block and repurpose the sought-after plot, a collective of architects, artists and other activists stepped in. The building was renamed ‘Allesandersplatz’ (‘everything different place’) and became a space for community projects, with several floors used for performances since 2019.

The federal government was impressed: as part of the programme “National Urban Development Projects”, Haus der Statistik was awarded €3.27 million in addition to state funding. For now, it remains largely empty, but plans have been made to relocate Rathaus Mitte there.

Haus der Statistik | Otto-Braun-Straße 70-72, Mitte

Wohnhaus Stubenrauchstraße 

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Wohnhaus Stubenrauchstraße, October 2019. Photo: Imago/Joko. 

Rumour has it that the apartment building at Odenwaldstraße 1, Friedenau, belongs to an elderly lady no longer able to manage the crumbling property. Despite its prime location on a busy corner, all 16 flats have remained uninhabited for the past 24 years.

Since 2014, the ‘misappropriation rule’ has prohibited the use of private apartments as holiday flats in Berlin, seeking to prevent unscrupulous commercial use and keep housing available for residents. Accordingly, the Bezirksamt has taken the matter into its own hands. Despite the building’s rather noble facade, the whole house will have to be demolished if the internal decay isn’t addressed.

Wohnhaus Stubenrauchstraße | Ecke Odenwaldstraße, Friedenau

Former Embassy of Zambia

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The former Embassy of Zambia, untouched since 2002. Photo: Imago/Jürgen Ritter

Despite the imposing iron gates and wild undergrowth, the mansion in Schönholz is hard to miss. Repurposed as a retirement home after WWII, historic postcards show the edifice in all its former glory; a long path lined with cast iron lamp posts leading to the grand stairway at the entrance. 

Pankow’s older residents are familiar with its gristly former incarnation as “Leichenvilla” (‘corpse villa’) – a reference to the period when exhumed corpses from a nearby cemetery were stored in its rooms.

When Germany was divided, the building’s windows were bricked up and it was left to the elements, before being snapped up by the Zambian Embassy in 1999. Over 1 million DM was invested in the property’s guest suites and boardrooms, before the project was scrapped: the newly-appointed ambassador favoured the other Zambian Embassy residence in Mitte. The villa at Schönholz was once again left to rot, and remains empty to this day.

Botschaftsvilla von Sambia  | Straße vor Schönholz 23, Pankow

Residence of US officers

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Wohnhäuser der US-Offiziere (Residence of US officers), untouched since 2002. Photo: Imago/Jürgen Ritter

The Allies left their share of architectural relics. Between Goldfink and Luchsweg, west of Clayallee, US military officers once lived in a divided city. The estate has lain empty in recent years, but remains a popular destination for urban explorers on the lookout for abandoned buildings. The complex will soon be demolished and new buildings erected on the site.

Häuser von US-Offizieren | Luchsweg, Schmargendorf

Former Children’s Hospital Weißensee

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The abandoned children’s hospital in Weißensee. Photo: IMAGO / Jürgen Ritter

There are many empty buildings in Berlin, but the ruins of this former children’s hospital inspire more macabre fascination than most. At the start of the 20th century, Weißensee’s Kinderkrankenhaus was one of the most cutting-edge facilities of its kind in the entire country. It was the first municipally-run infant and children’s hospital in Prussia.

In 1997, the Senat decided to close the Weißensee institution on Hansastraße. The whole area was rotting, the buildings were damaged and, even with a new buyer, the situation didn’t improve. In fact, it worsened. These days, the interior resembles a run-down Berlin club with graffiti-covered walls and endless corridors leading from room to room. 

The property was bought by MWZ Bio-Resonanz GmbH and much investment was planned – until they went bankrupt. Insolvency proceedings remain underway and the matter has stalled. In September 2020, the roof was damaged by fire, leaving the building even more dilapidated than before. The district office envisions a community school and a youth centre as part of its next incarnation, but for now, the future remains uncertain. 

Ehemaliges Kinderkrankenhaus Weißensee | Hansastraße 178/180, Pankow

The International Congress Centre Berlin (ICC) 

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The International Congress Centre (ICC Berlin) in October 2020. Photo: Imago/Stefan Zeitz.

A spaceship landed directly on the S-Bahn in the late 1970s: The International Congress Centre, or ICC for short. At 313 metres long and almost 40 metres high, the building designed by Ralf Schüler and Ursulina Schüler-Witte was listed as the most expensive building in West Berlin, with construction costs reaching more than 900 million DM.  

A striking example of high-tech architecture – with an entire façade made from aluminium – the complex was highly controversial at the time. It was used extensively, nonetheless, and the 80 rooms and halls became the prototype modern conference centre. 

The futuristic icon with its love-it-or-loathe-it aesthetic closed in 2014 while asbestos was removed. There have been many debates about how the metallic structure could be repurposed, with the Berlin Senat keen to preserve the building as a cultural centre. In 2019, talks began to finalise renovation and future use plans with investors. With its future written in the stars, we can rest easy knowing that at least the ICC won’t be demolished: it gained listed building status in September 2019. 

ICC Berlin | Messedamm 22, Westend

Kathreiner House

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The abandoned house on Hindenburgdamm, September 2020. Photo: Imago/Joko.

Bruno Paul was one of Berlin’s most important modernist architects. Built in New Objectivity style, Schöneberg’s Kathreiner-Haus officially opened in 1930 with its distinctive ‘H’ shape and multiple wings. Switching from Nazi control to Allied use after the war, the building was then home to the BVG and the Berlin Senat. 

With Potsdamer Straße the heart of the rebellious 1980s squatter scene, the famous alternative youth clubs Potse and Drugstore were almost relocated to Kathreiner-Haus. But it wasn’t to be. The building lies quiet and will remain that way until Berlin’s administrative judges relocate their offices there in 2025. 

Kathreiner-Haus | Potsdamer Straße 186, Schöneberg

Former Embassy of Iraq

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Former Embassy of Iraq, January 2020. Photo: Imago/Jürgen Ritter. 

Iraq was the first non-socialist state to recognise the GDR under international law in 1969. Five years later, a team of architects had an embassy base built. Conveniently, it was constructed in the prefabricated concrete block style popular in the GDR. The not-so-beautiful concrete box was abandoned by its users during the first Iraq war in 1991.

Since 2010, the new Iraqi embassy can be found in Dahlem, while the former headquarters in Tschaikowskistraße, Pankow, have fallen into disrepair. With the exception of vandals, graffiti artists, and eccentric tourists, the building is no longer a point of interest to anyone. Even its owner – the Iraqi state – doesn’t seem to care about this piece of architectural heritage. Clearly, Berlin is the place to leave embassies behind. 

Ehemalige Botschaft des Irak | Tschaikowskistraße 51, Pankow

Hotel Kubrat 

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Permanently closed: Hotel Kubrat in March 2020. Photo: Imago/Jürgen Ritter.

The mysteries of Hotel Kubrat remain unanswered. It’s difficult to find any information on the vacant building that sits at Leipziger Straße 21, just a five minute walk from Checkpoint Charlie. A cursory Google reveals nothing more than an unlikely 3.5-star review on Tripadvisor. 

The outside resembles a Soviet office block, with a limp Bulgarian flag out front. It seems to be connected in some way with the Bulgarian boxer Kubrat Pulev – a photo of the former European heavyweight champ can be seen on the facade of the building. Images on Tripadvisor show 1980s TV sets, grubby tiles and sheets that look like they haven’t been washed since it opened. 

On the still-active website of the Hotel Kubrat in Mitte, a certain Mr Kubrat Panev is listed as the manager. It’s impossible to book a room online and, if you try to call, the line is always busy. If you manage to get in touch with Kubrat, let him know we have some serious questions to ask – like what are outdoor plastic table and chairs doing inside the bedrooms? 

Hotel Kubrat | Leipziger Straße 21, Mitte

Abandoned house on Hindenburgdamm

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Abandoned house on Hindenburgdamm, September 2020. Photo: Imago/Joko.

Another empty house can be found in Lichterfelde. The residential building on the corner of Hindenburgdamm and Gardeschützenweg has been decaying for a good 20 years, its perimeter boxed in by a wooden fence. In a recent hearing at the Berlin Administrative Court, the owner of a similar building was instructed that he cannot let his property fall into disrepair given the city’s housing shortage. The judges ruled that renovation was reasonable. Will the forgotten house on Hindenburgdamm have a similar fate?

Wohnhaus Hindenburgdamm | Ecke Gardeschützenweg, Lichterfelde