The Accidental Planners

The Berlin activists who staged a protest at a vacant government building didn’t imagine they’d end up leading a €140 million redevelopment project.

In a former bicycle shop near Alexanderplatz, in central Berlin, a band of artists runs an unofficial annex of the city planning department. The walls are covered with architectural renderings, and maps are spread on plywood tables around the room. In a large display window, overlooking a boulevard where Soviet tanks once rolled on parade, is a scale model of the project they are working on: a mixed-use neighborhood center with art studios, offices, and apartments for thousands of people. There will be affordable housing for seniors, settlement homes for refugees, shelters for the homeless, community workshops, a new town hall. It’s the sort of project dreamed up by utopian collectives around the world. Here it might actually happen.

Passersby can look up from that styrofoam model to the empty shell it mirrors: the Haus der Statistik, built in the late 1960s for the national statistics office of the German Democratic Republic, also known as East Germany. Spread over eight downtown blocks, the complex totals half a million square feet in three connected mid-rises (up to twelve stories tall) and a few smaller buildings. After reunification, it housed one of the offices charged with opening up the surveillance archives of the Stasi, the East German secret police. But that’s all history now. The Haus der Statistik closed its doors in 2008, and for the past decade it has been abandoned, a conspicuous ruin in the center of the city.

The buildings were supposed to be torn down and replaced with private apartments and offices, following the fate of other state-owned properties. But here a handful of artists staged a remarkable intervention. What began as an effort to protest Berlin’s lack of affordable housing turned into a serious plan to save the Haus der Statistik and adapt it to community needs, backed by €140 million in state funding. Now the artists are working directly with public officials, planners, and architects to lead a participatory process that will transform the area around Alexanderplatz. “It’s a huge statement about the future of development in Berlin,” said organizer Harry Sachs. If it works, it will be a model for bottom-up city-making — and a lesson in how outsiders can claim political power. ...