Bringing together its publishing, television, digital and marketing divisions under one spectacular OMA-designed roof, German media and technology giant Axel Springer is flying the flag for the physical workplace. We drop by its Berlin new build to meet newspaper editors, TV presenters, make-up artists and kitchen staff working towards their deadlines.
The ground on which Axel Springer’s new headquarters stands was once part of the world’s densest newspaper district – Berlin’s answer to London’s Fleet Street. Publishing giants including Ullstein (then behind the Berliner Morgenpost) and Mosse (Berliner Tageblatt) were based there, flourishing in a thriving media metropolis. But by the 1930s liberties faded and the free press with them. After the Second World War, the neighbourhood was split by the border that divided Berlin into East and West. So in 1966, when the formerly Hamburg-based publisher Axel Springer decided to erect a gleaming golden high-rise right by the Berlin Wall, it sent a signal. The skyscraper symbolised an effort to revitalise Berlin’s historic newspaper district and become a beacon of democracy – in Springer’s words “an unmistakable bulwark of freedom” – that could be seen from the East, towering over the guarded concrete wall.
Now a new expansion of Axel Springer’s headquarters, opposite the old golden skyscraper, also feels like a statement. This massive, striking box of a building stands proudly as a physical representation of the media brand’s commitment to Berlin, renewing its pride in its civic role and making the case that offices and newsrooms are here to stay. Designed by Rotterdam-based Office for Metropolitan Architecture (oma), the novel addition to the Axel Springer Kiez (“neighbourhood”) expresses a vision for the future. “We wanted the new building to be a symbol and an accelerator of our own transformation,” said Axel Springer’s ceo, Mathias Döpfner, at the opening ceremony in the autumn of 2020. “Long before coronavirus, the mission was to find a new answer to the question of why office space is still needed at all in the digital age. oma has provided a spectacular reply: open, multifunctional spaces that enable maximum flexibility of use; avant garde architecture as a magnet for encounters and communication.”
Today, Axel Springer is Europe’s leading digital publishing house, encompassing an extensive portfolio of media and technology businesses, including Germany’s most widely circulated tabloid, Bild. But it is Die Welt, Axel Springer’s flagship newspaper, that takes pride of place in a building that unites the title’s print, digital and television newsrooms under one roof for the first time. The building also brings together various businesses under the corporate umbrella – including the Media Impact marketing agency and Idealo, Europe’s largest price-comparison platform – to showcase the many faces of the company.
The duality that exists within the media industry, the company and the city itself was picked up by the architects in their design language: the black-and-white colour scheme throughout the building evokes print on a page as well as the polarity between East and West, and print and digital. Yet the plan was always to transcend and bridge these divides. Upon entering the 13-storey structure, visitors are greeted by an Yves Klein-esque blue wall with white lettering that spells out “East”. The opposite wall reads “West” on a gold-hued background, while 13 passageways link both sides of the new build and act as a space for serendipitous encounters.“Media, new and old, is a space for collectivity,” says oma’s Chris van Duijn, who co-led this project. “The paradox of today’s connectivity is that we are all connected digitally every second of the day across the entire globe, yet there does not seem to be a physical place for it. The centre of the design is a large open void, which allows different companies to physically share their work and boost their collective energy.”
The void of which Van Duijn speaks is the glass-fronted atrium that opens up into a stack of terraced floors supported by soaring black-and-white columns, echoing the majesty of Greek temples. The building’s façade, meanwhile, resembles honeycomb and its hexagonal motif is mirrored in the many standing desks set up in clusters across the office, which in turn give the space the feel of a beehive. When all 3,200 employees find their way back to the office, there will be a buzz in the air. That said, the acoustics of the atrium were designed to cope with the noise levels and are modelled after working in a park – you are aware of the presence of others but you don’t feel disturbed by their chatter.
“We considered the essence of the building in advance and decided that it must offer a place where people will come together, communicate and exchange ideas, especially considering that journalists can work anywhere,” says Andreas Ludwigs, head of Axel Springer services and real estate, who oversaw the project from start to finish. “From the beginning we asked ourselves: does this make sense for us, will we need a permanent home for our people?”
The answer was yes. Fanny Fee Werther, editor and anchor of the Welt news channel, is one of the employees who’s visibly happy about that. Werther joined the team in 2019 and has been a regular in the studio since. On the day that monocle meets Werther, her shift started at 05.00 and now she is busy getting ready for her final news show of the day at midday. “I’m so grateful that I can come to the office and don’t have to work from home,” she says. “I couldn’t handle that. I like being here, surrounded by my colleagues.” After her producer walks past and they exchange a few words, Werther continues. “Welt new channel was previously based at Potsdamer Platz but now all of Welt is located here. It’s an incredibly big difference, having everyone together. You meet and talk with your colleagues a lot more.” She straightens out her bright yellow blouse. “Sometimes I have 10 interviews a day, ranging from politicians to virologists, and when I leave I don’t quite know what I’ve done because it was so much,” she says.
“I had quite a bit of respect for the new studio and remember being nervous prior to my first live show here but that has settled,” adds Werther, just before make-up artist Beatrice von Pawelsz powders her nose. It is nearing showtime and Werther enters the blue-hued studio, pursued by Von Pawelsz, who’s armed with a can of hairspray. The space is silent as Werther takes her seat at the circular desk. The robotic Shotoku cameras glide into position as if by magic. The countdown has started, the studio is cleared – and the programme begins.
“Thursday at noon, welcome to the news at Welt,” says Werther as the red recording light blinks on and the cameras zoom in. Football, the Delta variant, the shooting of journalist Peter de Vries in Amsterdam, the forthcoming German federal election and the Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan make the headlines. “Our guest in the studio is Welt’s longtime foreign correspondent, Steffen Schwarzkopf,” says Werther, as Schwarzkopf takes his seat. He’s visiting the Berlin office from Washington, where he has been based for the past five years after spending many years reporting from regions including Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.
“It’s a different world,” says Schwarzkopf, once his segment is over. “Our studio in Washington is relatively small but this is something else.” Shortly after he leaves, Werther also files out. Her working day is over. “My grandmother watches the show every day,” she says, smiling, before bidding the team goodbye. Her grandmother is one of about 2.6 million German viewers to do so.
Downstairs from the Welt news channel is the print and digital newsroom of daily newspaper Die Welt and the weekly Welt am Sonntag. This is the workplace of Franziska Zimmerer, manager of community and social at Welt. “This space has allowed our departments to grow together,” she says. “We produce one journalistic product, while our web presence brings everything together, so it’s only right that we’re in one place. Our journalists are invited to the studio as experts. As it’s an election year, that will be very important.” At that moment, Dagmar Rosenfeld, editor in chief of Die Welt, enters the open-plan newsroom and chats briefly with her editors. She joined Axel Springer in 2016 and is grateful for the move to the new building. “We are finally united and it has never been brighter,” says Rosenfeld, gesturing towards the large window front in the editorial office. “A free view for a free mind,” she says, before rushing off to another meeting to ensure that the newspaper is ready for tonight’s print deadline.
Elsewhere in the office people are getting ready for a break. The canteen has opened downstairs in the atrium and staff from all departments find their way to the restaurant, where Scottish-born chef Alisdair Lawrence and his team have prepared six dishes to choose from. “We focus on quality, use regional products if possible and aim to offer healthy and varied cuisine,” says Lawrence, picking mountain coriander and red Bordeaux basil from the shelves. Everything served is freshly made in the kitchen. Today’s menu includes cajun chicken, sweet potato and lentil curry, a poké bowl and chocolate mousse for dessert. The canteen is one of seven food outlets run by Axel Springer’s subsidiary Pace, which include the legendary Journalisten-Club on the 19th floor of the golden high- rise opposite. Prominent guests, from presidents to producers and even the Dalai Lama, have been served there. The Rem Bar on the new build’s rooftop is proving popular. On sunny days, people head upstairs for a real Berlin currywurst and to take in the panoramic view.
But before it’s time to wind down and head to the roof, Fabio Plebani, head of Idealo International, shows us around his department’s expansive office. “Before moving here we had to adapt the way we worked to the space but this building answers our needs,” says Plebani. “I appreciate contemporary architecture and the feeling that the world is evolving. Idealo, too, is in a dynamic phase of growth so the new building came at the right time. Symbolically, it’s bringing us into the future; we want to become the e-commerce champion of the European market,” says Plebani of the 21-year-old price-comparison website, of which Axel Springer acquired a majority share in 2006.
Nowhere is the new building’s forward-thinking architecture better represented than in its co-working space, which is open to all employees if they want to set up in a way that suits their needs – be that perching on comfy, colourful sofas, sitting down in the silent area, where phone calls and loud conversations are banned, or booking a conference room for a meeting. Isabela Senftleben co-heads the reception here and looks after the guests. She has watched as staff from all areas of the company have explored the new space. “I’ve heard people say that there’s something special about it and they feel freer,” says Senftleben, as she walks through the space. “It allows people from different departments to meet more easily. You see faces that you haven’t encountered before. You’re in the midst of it all, you can see everything, you can react to everything – but you can also be alone.”
“Being in the midst of it all” was important to the company’s eponymous founder. Axel Springer died in 1985 and left his legacy to his wife, Friede, who in turn named Mathias Döpfner as her successor in 2020. In Friede’s honour, a black-and-white portrait has been installed on the west side of the building. It’s as though she’s watching over those at work, reminding them of her words: “Unity and justice and freedom! May the people who work here and the media created here always feel committed to this credo.”
As the company has grown, it has transformed. The publishing house’s enthusiasm to change with the times has allowed it to create an office that’s suited to a contemporary way of working – a place made for flexible hours and flexible use of space, in which people can come together. That function is clearly being fulfilled on the rooftop, where meetings are held on sunny days and cold beer is enjoyed after a busy week. One day the rooftop, as well as the café in the foyer and other parts of the building, will open to the public to allow journalists to engage with their audience and let readers and viewers get a peek behind the scenes.
For now, there’s a tranquil, relaxed vibe up here. Mint, lavender, strawberries, sage, chillies, chives, tomatoes and Jerusalem artichokes have been planted next to wicker beach chairs. Shipping containers-turned-cafés are serving drinks and snacks. In the shadow of a row of white satellite dishes featuring the Welt logo, Katerina Papapanagiotou is in the midst of mixing the rooftop’s signature rhubarb fizz with rhubarb liqueur, a spritz of lemon and sea buckthorn. The Berlin Television Tower gleams in the distance and the faint outline of a rainbow peers over the clouds. “It feels like home here,” says employee Daniela Zrelakova, as her working day comes to an end. “Like a family.” It’s this sense of community that will make this, and the office, indispensable – now and in the future.