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How Berlin Became a Contemporary Artistic Haven

Berlin has always been a mecca of artistic creation, but since the fall of the Wall it has really established itself as Europe’s haven for international artists. With low rents and a thriving creative scene – whether it be visual, music or otherwise – the German capital has been the adopted home of millions of free-thinking, free-roaming bohemians.

Why is this the case though? Why does Berlin prove to be a European anomaly where astronomical rents aren’t overhauling the entirety of this capital city?

Anke Erlenhoff, Berlin I (2019)

Berlin was once the archetypal capital city. At the start of the 20th century, banks and big business occupied much of the city center, with a trickling down effect into other developing industries. Of course, World War II was a catastrophic blow for Germany, and Berlin in particular, with the capital profoundly feeling the effects: loss of life, loss of infrastructure, loss of unity.

Berlin was representative of the Cold War itself, both physically and ideologically. Although located in East Germany, Berlin itself was divided between East and West, with the Soviet Union occupying the entirety of the East while the West was split into British, French, and American districts. The juxtaposing cultural and economic practices would come to define Berlin as a city: the West would develop hugely under capitalism, while the East was largely stagnant due to its communist regime.

But the West of Berlin was isolated within this Soviet gulf of East Germany. Recognizing this, many big businesses and banks packed their bags and moved to West Germany for more favorable resources for growth, and as such, even West Berlin would come to rely on state subsidies in order to flourish.

Alain Amar, What are you doing for Peace ? (1990)

When the the Wall came down and the floodgates opened, an economic boom was expected as Berlin regained the tag as the nation’s outright capital (Bonn had been the capital of West Germany during the Cold War). The expectation was that Berlin would reestablish itself as the epicenter for business and trade, but this simply never happened. There was hesitation from companies to move back to Berlin when they had already established themselves in financial districts in a booming West Germany. With little incentive to develop the city as a white-collar hub, rent costs and the general cost of living has remained low, and artists across the world have taken full advantage of this.

Also, with the fall of the Wall, sometimes it wasn’t even a case of low rent costs, but no rent costs at all: many abandoned buildings in the East were occupied by squatters. With loopholes and confusion surrounding ownership of land in the East, many artists and young people took over these spaces in order to live and create, with a thriving party scene also to be enjoyed. This is a practice that still exists today in the city, and the tenants aren’t quiet about it either, with buildings occupied by squatters often draped in anti-capitalist rhetoric.

Berlin is the capital of Germany but it isn’t by any means the business capital of Germany. Berlin is an exuberant cultural hub whose economy relies on small businesses such as cafés, spätis, and dive bars. High earners from a background of large corporations and banks, therefore, don’t find themselves settling in Berlin. Due to this lack of concentrated wealth, the cost of living has historically been very affordable in this intriguing city, and this is vital to Berlin being the artistic haven that we’ve come to know and love.

Artists are afforded the time to hone their artistic craft instead of slaving away in a stale office job. With many emerging artists opting to get part-time jobs (often working 20 hours a week) which is enough to cover rent and other miscellaneous spending, the rest of their time is spent in the studio and meeting other creatives.

Jordi Machí, Berlin walk (2019)

Of course, the low cost of living is advantageous, but their are numerous cities around the world that can offer a similar standard of living, so again, why Berlin?

Berlin is also famed for its countercultural spirit that permeates the city’s streets. The way in which Berlin accomomdates for alternative thinking and a bohemian lifestyle, allows it to become the perfect space for artists looking to experiment. Like-minded people come together to think of avant-garde styles and themes in order to display an untapped means of creation.

Berlin is well placed to express this anti-authoritarian rhetoric having lived through the rise of the Nazis before enduring the communist regime. The lack of a voice and the fear attached to speaking out from these restrictive times, meant that we were left with a city with so much it wanted to get off its chest, and as if someone had dropped a mentos into a coke bottle, it all came pouring out once the restrictions were lifted.

Through visual arts, music, and fashion, Berlin has become a leader in alternative thought. Germany’s capital is like no other, it is a complete anomaly in every sense of the word. Often attached to its gritty environment (labelled as ‘poor but sexy’), Berlin’s art truly represents this. Whether it is the industrial techno that can be heard in their renowned nightclubs or the street art that engulfs the city’s buildings, you can’t escape the rawness that is indicative of Berlin’s spirit.

Although Berlin is currently fending off the unrelenting fight of gentrification, the city is still doing all it can to remain an affordable and desirable place to live for artists. With rent freezes now in place, and galleries and residencies allowing artists the time and space to exhibit their art, it seems that Berlin might be here to stay as a hedonistic hotbed.

Click here to see our top five German residencies, two of which are based in Berlin.