Squatting for art's sake in Berlin

 

‘HOW LONG is now” runs the mural on the side of Tacheles. Whether it’s a question or an existential sigh, it perfectly sums up the uncertain past, present and future of one of Berlin’s most remarkable initiatives.

Possessed by squatters and artists in the aftermath of the tumbling of the Berlin Wall, 20 years ago, this iconic shell of a building now houses exhibitions, performances, a cinema and three bars, one of which, Café Zapata, houses a fire-breathing dragon that frightens the wits out of unsuspecting visitors.

The building was built as a giant shopping complex, one of the first of its kind, in 1909, and promptly went bankrupt before becoming a department store. After it was taken over by the AEG electric company, it became the first to broadcast a live sporting event to the world, with the transmission of the Berlin Olympics of 1936.

The Nazis then took over, and the building became the central office of the SS. It was heavily bombed during the war, and the victors didn’t take much care of it afterwards, either: Russian soldiers used statues in the entrance for target practice.

Those headless figures are still there today. You can see them on your way to the courtyard behind, where artists and sculptors now display their engaging creations. Inside, the walls are smothered in murals and graffiti. Don’t be put off by the dark corridors or the smell of urine on the stairs: it only adds to the authentic squat experience.

Tacheles’ future is still uncertain, as its site could be worth €250 million. Legal battles pitting squatters and artists against developers and the city are part and parcel of its existence. How long is now? Maybe now is the time to go.

  • Kunsthaus Tacheles, Oranienburger Strasse 54, Berlin, 00-49-30-2826185, tacheles.de. Free tours from alternativeberlin.com
  • Do you know of a hidden gem? E-mail us at go@irishtimes.com