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A New Literary Centre for Berlin

Steph Morris takes NBG readers to a once-forgotten corner of Berlin’s vibrant district of Kreuzberg, in search of a new literary and arts hub that promises to enliven yet further the area’s lively cultural scene.

A ‘creative centre’ extending over 17,000 square metres, the Aufbauhaus in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district is home to a range of art and design businesses centred around the architecture supplies emporium Modulor. These ventures include a tailoring workshop, furniture designers, goldsmiths, printers, mosaicmakers, carpenters, galleries, a 24-hour kindergarten, a nightclub, a theatre, a bookshop, and the publishers Blumenbar and Aufbau.
Aufbau will be familiar to NBG readers as a publisher of new fiction as well as a frequent source of ‘forgotten gems’ from its rich back catalogue, famously including Hans Fallada, author of Alone in Berlin. Aufbauen means ‘to establish’ or ‘build up’ and the press was founded at the end of the Second World War with the initial aim of re-establishing a platform for the kind of literature suppressed under National Socialism. Aufbau later became the largest publisher of fiction in the GDR and the only major press to survive the state’s dissolution. In 2008, however, ongoing legal and constitutional issues in the wake of reunification threatened to bankrupt it, and it was purchased by former schoolteacher Matthias Koch, who maintains a hands-off approach as executive director.
© Reno Engel
Aufbauhaus Berlin
The Aufbauhaus project was initiated by the retailer Modulor. Initially an outlet for architectural model-making materials, Modulor had become an institution, providing artists, designers and architects with their every need. They envisaged running an artsupplies ‘superstore’ as the hub for other creative enterprises, and seized on the former Bechstein piano factory at Moritzplatz on Kreuzberg’s Oranienstrasse – arguably Berlin’s most lively street. Yet Moritzplatz is precisely where Oranienstrasse life peters out. The rest of the street is known for its bookshops, cafes, galleries and watering holes, for music festivals, Mayday mayhem and the annual Lange Buchnacht when the street becomes a mini literature festival, with readings in the bookshops and many other venues. To finance the necessary building work, Modulor went into partnership with Matthias Koch, who needed a permanent home for Aufbau and had a similar vision of a creative centre. The 1970s factory was taken back to its shell and extended to create a new structure, with simple, clear forms and glassy expanses, opening in 2011.
Naming the new centre the ‘Aufbauhaus’ was more than just a nod to one of its co-founders. Standing for regeneration, ‘Aufbau’ reflects the focus on new creativity and artistic development that the project represents. The property, previously owned by the city, narrowly escaped being put out to tender, which would have meant an international concern muscling in to sell mass-produced wares. When Modulor negotiated to use the site, however, one condition for the initiative was that every business involved must be demonstrably creative, with a three percent cap on gastronomy – Kreuzberg is already saturated with restaurants and cafes.
As it is, there is just one cafe, where the literati rub shoulders with designers, craftspeople and architects; the mix of wordmerchants and -makers is another result of Matthias Koch and Aufbau’s involvement. The other food outlet is a restaurant doubling as a culinary school and cookshop, while the house bookshop, the Buchhandlung Moritzplatz, does a roaring trade in both fiction and architecture-and-design literature. The house theatre, the TAK (Theater Aufbau Kreuzberg) hosts frequent readings. A recent highlight was the ‘Debutant’s Salon’, part of a regional literature festival sponsored by Aufbau. The ‘debs’ included Antonia Baum (NBG Autumn 2011). Smaller readings take place in the bookshop; next up is Sibylle Lewitscharoff (NBG Autumn 2011 and shortlisted for the German Book Prize). The theatre is currently showing a play based on Irmgard Keun’s 1932 novel Das kunstseidene Mädchen (published by Other Press as The Artificial Silk Girl), about a girl who leaves the provinces for the bright lights of Berlin, a story with resonances for today.
Independent press Blumenbar grew out of a literary salon and moved here from Munich. It continues to hold events, running a club-bar in the building in a former swimming baths built for the piano-factory workers. Elements such as the pool’s tiles have been maintained to stylish effect, with creative lighting and judicious architectural additions, arguably marred only by the bar’s incongruous name, ‘Prince Charles’. Edition Braus, publisher of fine art and photography books, and also owned by Koch, has offices in the building and a gallery. Koch had hoped to take over ill-fated publishers Eichborn, and office space had been reserved for them. Negotiations broke down, but he was still able to acquire Eichborn’s bibliophile imprint Die andere Bibliothek, which will be moving into the vacant rooms this year along with Viennese children’s publisher Ueberreuter.
© Jörg Schaper/Illustration Rafael Varona
Oranienstrasse’s ‘Lange Buchnacht’
The regeneration of Moritzplatz began opposite the Aufbauhaus, at the Prinzessinnengarten, a community garden and outdoor cafe. On fine days the Aufbau staff meet here for lunch, and the relation between the two projects is symbiotic. It is to be hoped that there will be further interaction throughout the neighbourhood, and that the Aufbauhaus will extend the cultural life of the Oranienstrasse and reaffirm Kreuzberg as a district for culture and experimentation. Aufbau certainly plans to participate in this year’s Lange Buchnacht on 12 May, so perhaps it will be Berlin’s literary public, swarming along the Oranienstrasse from one reading to the next, who connect the established bookshops and cultural venues with their new neighbour.
© Howard Mollet
Steph Morris
Steph Morris is a writer and translator living in Kreuzberg, Berlin.