A German architect duo is converting a former jail into a smart hotel. Monocle takes an exclusive first look at the prison-turned-pension.
Architects Armand Grüntuch and Almut Grüntuch-Ernst are daring to do the seemingly impossible by opening the Wilmina hotel in west Berlin’s Kantstrasse area. This will involve converting an unloved, one-time prison into an intimate hotel.
Visitors enter through the ornate façade of the former Charlottenburg Criminal Court, a Wilhelminian-style building from the late 19th century that now hosts the Amtsalon exhibition space. The hotel itself is located in an L-shaped building clad in red bricks just through a courtyard. During the Second World War, the Nazi secret police locked up opponents of the regime here. After 1945 the block was converted into a prison and then served a sentence as a storage facility for the land registry. The architects were approached by an investor planning to develop the structure, which has been used as film sets for The Reader and Alone in Berlin. “He thought about using the building as storage,” says Grüntuch-Ernst. “And we thought, ‘Wow, that can’t be it.’”
The prison site was in limbo: it had no economic value but had been protected from being torn down. The site itself was large but there was little space to use; the walls were thick and the windows too high to be of much use. “The builder soon lost interest,” says Grüntuch. “But our curiosity just grew.”
In 2011, Grüntuch and Grüntuch-Ernst took the plunge and bought the space. “When we visited the property, we sensed this ambivalence,” says Grüntuch-Ernst. “There was a feeling of trepidation but the plot also had something enchanted, hidden, almost fairy tale-like about it.” The courtyard had been left untouched for decades and, despite the bustling traffic beyond, you can really hear the birds chirping. The building was so out of sight that even people from the immediate neighbourhood didn’t know that it existed. But converting the prison into a retreat posed ethical and cultural questions too. How would they transform a historical building into a retreat without bulldozing or downplaying the past?
Luckily, Grüntuch and Grüntuch-Ernst were experienced in dealing with Berlin’s history. One of their most notable interventions was at Jüdische Mädchenschule, a former Jewish girls school in a gallery-laden part of Berlin’s Mitte borough. They transformed it into a memorial that hosts cafés, restaurants and galleries. “If we hadn’t done that, we probably wouldn’t have even dared to work on Wilmina,” says Grüntuch as he shows Monocle around.
One of the challenges in transforming the prison was reversing the antisocial architectural features. “First we had to create spaces where people could gather,” says Grüntuch. “Then we had to open the rooms to the light.” The architects merged 72 cell units into 44 generous guest rooms, also enlarging the windows but leaving the bars in place. The rooms are airy, bright and off-white, as the architects tried to hold back with colours to avoid “over-perfuming” the place with their own ideas.
The atrium has been retained, as have the massive cell doors, while hundreds of tiny glass ball pendants have been suspended like soap bubbles from a glass ceiling. “Rediscovering the sky and re-establishing a visual connection to the outside world played a vital part in the transformation,” says Grüntuch-Ernst. “Whenever we heard potential operators talking about marketing the ‘creepy effect’ of sleeping in a prison, we thought, ‘That’s exactly what we don’t want.’” Instead, they created a quiet retreat with a rooftop spa and sauna. In the wing connecting the courthouse to the prison is a restaurant, Lovis, featuring a cosmopolitan menu from Sophia Rudolph, an ambitious chef.
“Rediscovering the sky and re-establishing a visual connection to the outside world played a vital part in the transformation”
“This part of Charlottenburg lay dormant for a long time,” says Grüntuch-Ernst. “Although it’s within walking distance of shopping avenue Kurfürstendamm, it has a mix of small shops and is not yet overrun by international brands.” Kantstrasse is known as Berlin’s Chinatown, boasting Prussian sweet shops and Asian cuisine. Grüntuch calls it “a place for pioneers”.
After all that’s changed, the duo are keen to keep certain things the same. They left past traces to be discovered, including a hidden staircase in a wardrobe. One cell was also preserved as a resting place for the building’s delicate history. But both architects are very much looking to the future. “We have learned that the best thing that can happen to a heavily charged place is not to make it a museum, like a piece of dead history,” says Grüntuch. “It’s to make it habitable for the future by integrating it into everyday life.”