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In Berlin, a Creative Paradise That’s Easiest to Reach by Boat


Thirty years ago, when the Berlin Wall came down, the city was left with huge swaths of empty buildings in the former East: old German Democratic Republic embassies and factory complexes, some still riddled with toxic waste. It was both a daunting and heady opportunity for Berlin to reinvent itself and start over. Artists and musicians moved into abandoned breweries, warehouses and basements and slowly brought new life to neighborhoods like Mitte, Prenzlauer Berg and Pankow, which in turn attracted people from around the world. But now, thanks to rising rents, Berlin’s gentrified areas have become too expensive for many of its creative residents, and people have begun to move to farther-flung corners of the city. Three such neighborhoods are the historically industrial areas of Treptow-Köpenick, Rummelsburg and Oberschöneweide, 10 or so miles southeast of the city center, where some of Berlin’s most pioneering artists now occupy a string of former industrial buildings along the Spree River. It is in Oberschöneweide, too, that the Berlin gallerist Johann König, who represents several artists who have moved their studios to the area, is currently negotiating to take over and revive an old cable factory that will host artist studios and residencies. Although the area’s landscape may look post-apocalyptic, with its giant weeds and empty power plants, strangely, the future here can seem positively Arcadian: Real estate is still cheap enough that artists are able to buy, rather than rent, their spaces. Here, four artists discuss how their work is shaped by the Spree.

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Before the artist Tomás Saraceno, 46, bought a two-building chemical factory complex on a brownfield site in Rummelsburg, not far from the legendary nightclubs Sisyphos and Zur Wilden Renate, in 2014, he had a company test the area for toxins. Their report suggested that while people could work on the plot, they shouldn’t grow plants because an apple tree would only bear toxic fruit. “We have a mountain of poisonous earth in the courtyard now. Should we pack it up in small glass containers like Piero Manzoni to make a comment on the link between art production and human production?” wonders Saraceno, who moved to Germany from Argentina in 2001, and has since earned acclaim for his interactive architectural installations and sculptures of floating webs, entangled spheres and geodesic plexiglass and glass domes.

But rather than dwell on the past, the artist is intent on looking ahead, toward a utopian vision of the future that inspires his otherworldly Cloud Cities sculptures — geometric constellations of various sizes composed of glass and iridescent plexiglass. In 2015, the artist launched the Aerocene Foundation, an open-source project that focuses on environmental issues and supports the development of solar-powered balloons that he hopes will one day provide a carbon-emissions-free mode of transport. Within this studio’s two four-story buildings, Saraceno, who originally trained as an architect, has created multiple spaces that correspond to his diverse interests, which range from astrophysics to arachnology to the futuristic inventions of the 20th-century visionary Buckminster Fuller. He dedicates one floor to the making of his solar-powered sculptures, another to his Cloud Cities sculptures, and an entire wing of one floor to his Arachnid Research Laboratory, where hundreds of spiders spin webs in large glass tanks. Saraceno imagines a day when humans will be able to gain knowledge from spiders and their habitats, and has created weblike sculptures using the threads of different species strung across carbon frames. Having the freedom to work and carry out research in such a sprawling space of his own design — “a universe of dust and spider webs,” as he calls it — is crucial to the vast imaginative scope of Saraceno’s work. And despite the toxic earth his studio complex is built on, Saraceno is producing bountiful and in-demand work. Last fall, he took over the Palais de Tokyo in Paris for its prestigious annual Carte Blanche exhibition, in mid-November he’ll present a solo show at the Esther Schipper gallery in Berlin and he is currently preparing for a major exhibition next year at The Shed in New York.


Though the house of the artist Anselm Reyle, 49, and the architect Tanja Lincke, 42, resembles a massive Brutalist concrete Greek cross, inside one has the sense of floating in the air: The structure is balanced 14 feet above the ground on sturdy concrete pillars that give the building views over the wide, slow-moving Spree River. Designed by Lincke, it was one of four structures that the couple built or restored on the more than two-acre compound where they live and work, a sprawling lot of riverside land in the area of Treptow-Köpenick that Reyle bought from the former German Democratic Republic Harbor Police in 2008 and planted with birches, sumac trees and clusters of long grass. The place still has a deliberately unfinished feel; not far from the water, a mountain of concrete shards sits beside the remains of an old warehouse and a disused crane. “We both think it’s so important to leave the faults and the cracks,” said Lincke. Much of Reyle’s work, from his large-scale wrinkled silver foil sculptural paintings to his new monumental, rough-surfaced Fat Lava ceramic vases, is about discarded materials and preserving mistakes. “What some people might think of as ugly, we find beautiful,” explains Linke. A two-minute walk from the house along the river are the pair of connected industrial sheds, together 265 feet long, that Lincke renovated and turned into the couples’ working spaces: two airy studios, Reyle’s office and Lincke’s architectural practice.

The couple met in 2008, the year Reyle bought the land. It was a moment that coincided with a major crisis for Reyle. He was in a middle of a divorce and reckoning with a dramatic dip in the art market that affected the value of his work. “It was a difficult and confusing time,” he says, “but also an interesting one.” He was forced to drastically scale back operations at his former studio in Kreuzberg, which at one point had employed 50 people, but eventually started experimenting with his work again and resumed production. Not long after, between 2012 and 2016, he and Lincke began slowly creating their world on the Spree. Building this complex with Lincke didn’t just transform the land, it helped to revive Reyle’s art practice. “If artists have more space to work and experiment,” said his gallerist, Johann König, “it results in a larger body of work, both in terms of size and scope.”


A 10-minute boat ride down the river from Reyle and Lincke’s complex is the industrial area of Oberschöneweide, its landscape marked by smoke stacks and empty factories. It is here that the artist Jorinde Voigt, 42, took over a former warehouse in 2018 and established her current studio complex in a two-story steel-and-brick building fronted by a towering bank of windows. Just inside an industrial-scale double door, which she often leaves open to the river, Voight makes the conceptual drawings and collages, which often resemble scientific diagrams or sound waves, for which she is known.

Voigt, who had worked in a studio not far from Tomás Saraceno in Rummelsburg until 2018, bought this 10,000-square-foot space two years ago. With the help of the architect Daniel Verhülsdonk, she created what she describes as “a huge hall which at first one feels swallowed up by” but that also contains a series of multifunctional, protected areas within it. They came up with the idea of making “houses within a house,” two distinct spaces within the cavernous main room. Massive, amphitheater-like steps lead up to a platform and then split off in opposite directions: left to the office and library; right to a series of lounges and private spaces. “We use the stairs to sit on to listen to lectures that I sometimes organize,” says Voigt. Color was also extremely important to her in the design. “We kept black as the consistent color of the floor or foundation, and then the walls of the rooms are different tones of blue and green,” she explains. “I was looking for the colors that calm me down the most.” Flashes of salmon and metallic gold appear on dividing walls or when a golden pocket door is closed. Although the Spree, which Voigt can see flowing past her windows, is not necessarily blue or green, its watery reflections and movements influence both the artist and her work. Oberschöneweidein reminds Voigt of East Berlin 20 or so years ago, she says, when one in every few buildings were still empty. “Here there are still holes and things to discover,” she says, “An empty space is a fount of possibility.”

Although her sculptures often engage with lofty concepts such as the subjectivity of time and parallel universes, the artist Alicja Kwade is herself firmly grounded. She has occupied parts of her 9,500-square-foot studio in Oberschöneweide — three large warehouses, constructed with metal siding, bricks and glass, that she connected over time — since 2017 and remains grateful that she could afford a space big enough to accommodate both her large-scale installations and a living space. And Kwade’s work is big: her site-specific installation “ParaPivot” (2019), two sculptures that range from eight to 12 feet in height, made up of spherical stones connected with steel beams to evoke solar systems, currently occupies the roof of the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Kwade, 40, moved to Berlin two decades ago from Poland, and studied at the city’s respected art institute, the Universitat der Kunste. “I came to Berlin simply because it was the biggest, most accessible and affordable city,” she said. “I had a one-bedroom apartment that cost 150 Deutsche mark a month and was running an art space with some friends in an abandoned bakery.” In the past two decades Kwade has moved her studio between neighborhoods, starting out in a tiny space of less than 200 square feet within the atelier of her boyfriend, the artist Gregor Hildebrandt, in the city’s Wedding area and eventually ending up in a large ground floor studio in Kreuzberg, which she had to leave because of a dramatic rent hike.

Owning so much space now allows for “more professional machinery, more experiments and more communal areas that add to the overall atmosphere in the studio,” she says. In the first warehouse, a large loft-like space with white walls and a small kitchen, she stores and displays an array of her work in various stages of completion: a tree trunk in which a stool has been carved by a CNC-robot (“I’m asking, ‘When is a stool a stool? Before it is made, is it already inherent in the tree?’” she says); a large mobile of dangling coins that spin gently above a wooden work table. In the middle of the atelier, strings of abacus beads stream down like a waterfall from the ceiling 20 feet above. In the last building is her office, spread across three floors: The ground level is for communal eating and meetings; she stores architectural models of her installations on the second floor; and above is a small bedroom. It was Jorinde Voigt, a friend from art school, who finally encouraged Kwade to move to this area. “I was too late to buy something in the complex she had next door,” she says, “but then I was connected to Bryan Adams, who was developing this complex.” In the last decade, the American rock musician has turned to photography and been partly based in Berlin; in 2013 he bought an empty factory which he has since transformed into a mixed-use space for artists called the Spreehalle. In 2017, Kwade bought her first warehouse space from Adams, and then gradually acquired and connected the neighboring ateliers as her studio grew. “I never thought I would be calling Bryan Adams to complain about my water,” she says, laughing.


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