How the GDR’s vast broadcasting house has been restored as a thriving arts hub.
Just a few years ago, the sprawling Funkhaus, or broadcasting house, was falling into disrepair. Like many Berlin buildings listed under Denkmalschutzgesetze (the German law for the protection of historical monuments), the centre that once housed 3,500 broadcasters, technicians and administrators – split between two distinct blocks – remained provisionally protected from demolition. Yet it lacked the funds for serious redevelopment.
“When I first came here, Block A was so dark, everything was dirty and unfinished. You would be scared to walk around here at night,” says Liam Muraleva, a music producer and studio tenant of Funkhaus for four years.
These days the centre is a hive of creative exchange. When monocle drops by, artists of almost every musical genre are perfecting their sound in Funkhaus’s world-renowned studios and recording halls. By night Berliners flock to concerts in one of its event spaces. At Milchbar, Funkhaus’s riverside restaurant, musicians and producers chat over schnitzels. Nearby, about 350 students learn, create and collaborate together in the newly renovated campus of dbs Berlin. “It reminds me of the Chelsea Hotel: you don’t know who you’re going to run into, it’s just artists everywhere,” says Sofianna Alexandra, one of the second-year music students here.
Creating this buzz has been an impressive accomplishment, considering the former state of the complex. It’s also an achievement that hasn’t received the recognition it deserves. The German pair who now own the building have remained quiet since the revived Funkhaus launched in 2015 (continual renovations across this monster site also keep them busy). One member of the duo has even been nicknamed Berlin’s Immobilien-Phantom, – or property ghost – for his role in buying up and renovating some of the city’s most sensitive monuments with little resistance from locals and authorities. This is no mean feat considering the gentrification debates that have raged in the city since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The reason for this public approval is the developer’s passion for safeguarding architectural and cultural legacy. In addition to Funkhaus, their portfolio includes Postbahnhof – the Prussian Empire’s central postal station, which is now an entertainment venue.
Funkhaus is located on the north bank of the River Spree in the eastern district of Oberschöneweide and began its life as a veneer factory. Following the Second World War, and the carving up of Berlin into four Allied zones, the East German administration built a broadcasting centre to act as a mouthpiece for the new socialist state. By 1951 the government had employed architect Franz Ehrlich, a former student of the Bauhaus school who, when the Nazis came to power, had been imprisoned for his Communist sympathies. He survived the Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar, where he was forced to design the interior for the residence of the camp commander.
After the war, with the creation of the new East German state came the rejection of the “bourgeois” Bauhaus style and a return to more traditional design, though the Funkhaus still shows signs of Ehrlich’s background. “The style harks back to classicism and it’s a mixture of styles: a bit modern, a bit classic, a bit art deco,” says Johannes Sollich, of Berlin-based firm Sollich Architekten, which advises on the renovation of the complex alongside in-house architect Ola Baldys.
Beyond the building’s severe exterior there is a spectacular greeting inside Block B. Here a sweeping red-carpeted staircase guides the sightline up towards a textured dark wood-panelled ceiling. On the ground, the heavy black and red marble floor was looted by the Russians from Hitler’s Reich Chancellery after the German defeat in 1945.
“This place was organised like a small city,” says Funkhaus building manager Christian Block as he leads us from Block B, with its staggering array of studios and concert halls, to Block A, where broadcasting was co-ordinated from 1952 until soon after the collapse of the GDR in 1989.
“The broadcasters had everything they needed. There were doctors, a dentist, a bank, saunas, a kindergarten and a hairdresser. Until 2008, when the hairdresser retired, a lot of the former journalists still came here to get their hair cut.”
The developers’ long-term view is to recreate this village-like community that made Funkhaus so unique in its heyday. Due to the sheer scale of the operation as the renovation continues, all design decisions are made in-house by a 35-strong design and construction team. Cutting out the middle man by not working with an external party means that the renovations can be carried out quickly, while plans can rapidly evolve in accordance with changing requirements.
“It’s a discussion,” says Sollich. “It’s not one master design created by one person, but more a moderation process. I believe this is the future of architecture generally – to make decisions as a group.”
The largest architectural denominator here lies in the difference between the stylings of these two massive blocks. Walking through Block B, with its renovation emphasis rooted in the past, feels like journeying back to the days of the old East Germany, with its exuberant rust and purple furnishings. Block A’s stripped-down aesthetic feels hyper-current and this resonates across an open-plan co-working space with a view of the Spree and dbs Music and Film School with its stripped-back aesthetic. Shedhalle, the complex’s biggest event space is large enough to house a music festival and features a retro-futuristic circular bar called Sputnik, which used to reside in the former Berlin Palace of the Republic. Along The Funkhaus’s exterior runs a series of salvaged 1950s street lamps.
The juxtaposition of these heritage elements with the raw industrial surroundings reflects the Funkhaus team’s ambition to maintain the building’s cultural legacy while also updating its facilities. Under its new ownership, the Funkhaus doors have been thrown open not only to paying concert-goers and musicians but to everyone. And the complex’s long-term tenants, such as Liam Muraleva (that same musician who used to dread the walk to his studio in the during the dank, pre-renovation days), are all the happier for it.
“The developer wanted to open up the cultural spirit to everyone. And this is what I love about the Funkhaus – it’s so supportive of the creative community,” says Muraleva.