In Berlin grassroots initiatives and municipality are masterminding a town hall of the future in a pioneer quarter to decouple the city’s economic growth from environmental impacts, in addition to an avant-garde cultural approach.
Haus der Statistik can be so inviting. What used to be the Stasi Records Archive responsible for the safekeeping of 111 kilometres of Stasi files produced during Communist Berlin, now houses a high concentration of resources, human capital and talent, uniquely positioned to drive a transition towards a circular economy in the city.
Despite its wholly unremarkable architecture—stacks of faded concrete floors piled into a squat rectangular box—Berlin’s Haus der Statistik hides a growing society of creatives, culturemakers and urban activists within its shabby exterior, all of whom have found space to flourish thanks to an unlikely collaboration between local advocates, a public real estate firm, and city policymakers.
Still, perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Haus der Statistik is not the diverse collection of interests that came together for its development, nor the breadth of projects it houses, but where it’s located, right at the heart of the city across from the iconic Alexanderplatz—a prime piece of real estate that should have been snatched up quickly by private investors in a city where demands for real estate have swelled. Instead, until 2015 the building stood empty for 10 years (after a number of commercial plans fell through), becoming a quietly iconic site at the Karl-Marx-Allee, thanks to the blocked red letters tattooed across its empty top floors “STOP WARS”, and the eeriness of a dilapidated tower in the middle of an otherwise booming city.
Indeed, despite years of discussions around what to do with the building — which belonged to the Bundesanstalt für Inmobilienaufgaben of the German federal government until the state of Berlin bought it back in 2017 — the Haus only caught the public eye after a group of concerned artists affixed a large official-looking poster to its exterior, proclaiming that the space would be used for social and cultural activities. With public interest piqued, the activists, with support from former district mayor Christian Hanke, successfully convinced public officials of their vision.
Years later the Haus der Statistik is no longer the fevered dream of local activists, but is now being developed by a collaborative group of public and cultural actors, including the Department for Urban Development & Housing, the state of Berlin, the District of Mitte, a state-owned housing company, and the now-formalized group of Berlin activists and cultural workers who first advocated for its development, now under the banner of ZUsammenKUNFT Berlin eG. Together, these stakeholders have formed the so-called “Koop5,” working with the public to develop not only the landmark Statistik building, but surrounding structures as well, which will include open spaces for arts and culture, affordable housing, education, and public administration offices.
Despite building and renovation plans now fully underway, a number of urban actors, either from the cultural field or working in climate justice, have already moved in some of the buildings. In a two-story low-rise building, a little in the shadow of the main buildings, the occupants are acting as “pioneers” for ecological and climate-friendly alternatives to overconsumption and environmental pollution. Inside the building a banner with the name Haus der Materialisierung hangs among broken windows and shabby concrete canopies. Waste is a matter of definition at this Haus.
The entrance aisle leads into an approximately 1000 square meter hall. The first encounter are acrylic and plexiglass sheets, illuminated letters, wooden sheets, plastic barrels, etc. Simone Kellerhof runs the Material Mafia and has set up a warehouse to collect residues and by-products from exhibitions, museums, galleries and trade fairs for selling.
Kellerhof is also working on a research project on sustainable recycling management at the TU Berlin, together with ZUsammenKUNFT Berlin eG and Circular Cities eV and supported by the German Federal Environment Foundation, as part of a bigger vision for a circular city of fully closed resource cycles in different industries.
Not far away from the Material Mafia, the initiative Kunst-Stoffe-Zentralstelle für wiederverwendbare Materialien e.V. advocates for the healthy circulation of materials in Berlin. Kunst-Stoffe, a play of words in German referring to art but also to synthetic material, displays a fascinating storage of affordable DIY supplies. From wood to metal, foils, paints, stationery and fabrics, all have been rescued from destruction. Here they get a second life.
“We want to encourage people to be as creative as possible and think of alternatives to build what they have in mind using the available materials. This is a great networking place to try things and exchange experiences of usage of materials,” explains enthusiastically Michael O´Donohue, in charge of the material warehouse.
Corinna Vosse, its founder, was inspired by an idea of a used material collection point in New York called Materials for the Arts within the artists scene. She brought it to Berlin with the purpose of reaching a wider audience beyond the art field and has increasingly devoted herself to researching re-use strategies, consumer behavior and waste as a social phenomenon. Accordingly, Vosse enjoys passing on her knowledge to reduce pressure on the environment of an economy based on increasing production and consumption.
We hope that we will encourage many people to open material centers in other cities, claims Vosse.
Isabella Artadi sits on a self-made wooden bench outside the Haus. She together with Gianna Mewes are the founders of Merijaan, a network of engineers, activists and designers who use plastic waste from locals to turn it into new products for those markets.
To really tackle plastic pollution, we need to rethink the way economies work. Our goal is to set up a circular economy in the city and worldwide that focuses on upcycling plastic waste into new, beautiful and durable products, explains Artadi.
She moved to Berlin from Sri Lanka where she started a pilot project in 2020 concerned with the amount of plastic that the country receives from the German recycling system.
“For our pilot project, we set up recycling facilities at a kitesurf camp in Sri Lanka. Thanks to many helping hands, we successfully collected and recycled plastic into kitesurf equipment”, explains Artadi. Back in Germany they have evaluated the existing recycling infrastructure and have incorporated it into their approach to develop new products.
In a glass room inside the Haus, people are sewing and working with textiles. Another initiative called Kostüm Kollective is a pool of costumes of the independent artistic scene in Berlin. With over 20,000 pieces you can always find something and everything is possible.
The list of initiatives at the Haus is long and all of them aimed at transforming the city into a living system which relies on a healthy circulation of resources. These flows maintain the value and utility of products for as long as possible in order to close the loop and minimise new resource use and waste generation.
If the circular economy means a transformation of the systems in the city, the unique character of this public-civic partnership for the common good at Haus der Statistik is perhaps one of the most disruptive ideas to reach that goal. The circular economy of the city of today needs a social dimension, without which it will be nothing but a wasted opportunity for humanity.
This article has been co-written by Sara Grossman and Susana F. Molina.