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Former Jewish Girls' School, Berlin
Image: Stefan Korte

Berlin face-lift

March 23, 2012

Berliners are no strangers to the act of re-appropriation - the cultural process by which a group reclaims artifacts that were previously used in a way disparaging of that group.


With as many artists as there are in the capital, subversion is not an uncommon act in the gallery room or the protest line.

Yet where re-appropriation is most at home in Berlin is amongst the citizens with no authority to seize unused public or private land for community use. The tired relics of the past are reclaimed by another sub-culture, movement or trend for the enjoyment of society at large; whether it's squatting abandoned property after the fall of the Berlin Wall, using retired Finanzamts (tax offices) as performance spaces or World War Two bunkers as galleries, it's as though Berlin is a type of cultural playing field where the Kiez kids, neighborhood kids, are building their forts for fun.

So, as the capital becomes a hub for transnationalism, new residents bring new interpretations of the city and thus fashionable ways to make the best out of empty spaces. A massive argument exists, however - usually by those who have lived in Berlin since the division between east and west - that the city should preserve its spaces in their purgatorial states, while they await their next temporary purpose.


But amongst all the buildings in standstill in Berlin, there are some that have been claimed by proactive curators. THE WYE, opening next month, is an international artist center housed in the iconic Deutsche Post Office (built circa 1927) in Berlin's Kreuzberg district. The idea behind THE WYE is to secure long term, affordable studios and offices for professional artists, musicians, designers, creative businesses and art-focused organizations, as well as short-term residencies for established international talents.

Taking its name from railroad terminology - “wye” is a triangularly shaped junction that joins tracks to permit the passing of trains from any line to another - THE WYE will encourage cross-discipline projects that engage the community and support cultural programming, which will include exhibitions, performances and events. According to Leah Stuhltrager, an American curator and director of THE WYE, the space will create a type of synergy across all creative identities.

Stuhltrager opened one of the first galleries in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a neighborhood she helped escalate into an international art Mecca, and since 2010 her gallery "Dam Stuhltrager" has been operating in Berlin. THE WYE is the next evolutionary step for her and her team, who did some serious space and soul searching to find the perfect housing for their ambitious vision - a vision which Stuhltrager says is an amalgamation of the art world's top initiatives, from which she borrows her favorite parts.

Walking with Leah Stuhltrager through THE WYE, in all its whitewashed glory, is like listening to a painter describe her vision for the blank canvas. The ground floor will be used as a commercial space - a bookshop, boutiques and an eatery with affordable Berlin cuisine - along with a lounge for cultural and educational programming. The four floors up are allocated for studios, offices, and an ‘Event Hall' for photo shoots or readings. She tells me that there's an old postman who still resides in the building - a living, breathing relic of a bygone time.

Jewish Girls School

Former Jewish Girls' School in Berlin
The repurposed Jewish Girls School is now a cultural MeccaImage: Stefan Korte

Over in Berlin's Mitte district, curator Michael Fuchs repurposed a Jewish Girls School into a stunning four-story collection of galleries, including Michael Fuchs Galerie, Camera Work Contemporary Gallery and EIGEN + ART Lab, that will exhibit contemporary art and classical modernist work.

Berlin's first Jüdische Mädchenschule (Jewish girls school) was built in Mitte in 1835. It was expanded in 1930 and moved to its current location on Auguststrasse. The work of a prominent Jewish architect Alexander Beer, the school was built in the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) style, which favored functionality over aesthetic design.

By January 1933, the year Hitler's National Socialist party came to power, there were approximately 160,000 Jews living in Berlin. Three months later, a law against the overcrowding of German schools was passed, which in-turn limited the number of Jewish children allowed in public schools. At the Jüdische Mädchenschule on Auguststrasse, the number of pupils more than doubled, from around 400 to over 1000. Yet by 1942, all Jewish schools were closed due to the National Socialist plan for the extermination of European Jews. The school was closed on June 30th, 1942 with the majority of its pupils and teachers later deported to concentration camps. Until the end of the war, the Nazis used the building as a military hospital.

From the 1950s to the mid-1990s, the building was the site of the Bertolt-Brecht Secondary School, named after the Bavarian playwright Brecht. For 10 years the school remained empty, and in 2006 it was temporarily re-opened for the 4th Berlin Biennale. In 2009, the building was returned to the Jewish Society and since last month it has been under the curation of Michael Fuchs.

The original facades and room divisions were retained in the course of the restoration work and adhere to Fuchs' vision of concept spaces where art, food and drink can be enjoyed under one roof. The restaurant, Pauly Saal is located on the ground floor of the Mädchenschule, which takes its inspiration from Berlin's golden years of the 20s and 30s in cuisine and décor, and also offers the Kosher Classroom every Friday evening, where a traditional Shabbat dinner is held.

Private to Public

What's reassuring about both THE WYE and the Jewish Girls School is their use of private funds to create projects for the public. Not a cent of public funding was accrued - every donation was private. In that case of THE WYE, as Leah Strultrager tells me, getting it off the ground was a tight collaboration between grandmothers, friends, colleagues, partners, sponsors and in-kind contribution.

Back on the tour of Strultrager's master plan - one of the most ambitious art projects the capital has witnessed in decades - I can't help but breath a sign of relief for my fellow Berliners who boo-woo about the continuous closing of collective art spaces (Tacheles and Schokoladen among them) to make room for money-making schemes that polish the city's surface for investors. But have no fear Berliners, other burgeoning projects are breathing new life into architecture and creating cultural cornerstones.

Author: Melanie Sevcenko
Editor: Jessie Wingard

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