In 1997, when we began searching for a property to develop, we drew up a list of criteria that potential sites must meet. Naturally the classic first three characteristics (location, location, location) were at the top of the list. The next most important criteria was the combination of new and old. We wanted a site that had an existing building we could transform, and enough empty space to build a new building.
A building that combines new and old has a richness that comes from the building's physical history. The successive layers of alteration tell a story that no tabula rasa design can imitate. By modifying an existing building you extend its story. Each change is a new twist in a plot that unravels over hundreds of years.
Choosing the site
The site at Hessische Str. 5 was ideal because there was a run down nineteenth century building at the back, and a twelve by fifteen meter gap at the front. The building that had occupied this gap was severely damaged by a bomb during the Second World War, and had been demolished shortly thereafter.
The existing building was typical of its time, and had been slightly renovated since the war ended. Fortunately it was not listed as a historical monument, which meant we did not need to clear each design detail with the department of historical preservation.
Before the war the building was owned by a Jewish family that had been persecuted by the Nazis. They were a prominent family in the fashion business, and also owned another property in the textile district near Gendarmenmarkt.
After the wall came down the German government began returning confiscated property to its original owners. We bought the site from the surviving heirs of this family, the eldest of whom was 90 years old. She must have spent much of her youth in the building, and may well have been born in it.
Berlin's first building boom
The existing building was built in the late 1890's during Berlin's first major period of growth. Buildings of the time were incredibly dense, developed in square doughnuts around small courtyards. The parts of the doughnuts each had names – the 'Vorderhaus' (front building) faced the street, the 'Hinterhaus' (back building) at the far end of the courtyard, with the 'Seitenflügel' (side wings) filling out the space in between.
Just over a hundred years ago the first building on our property was erected – the missing 'Vorderhaus', a few years later the surviving south facing 'Seitenflügel' was added. Since then the property has undergone many changes, only some of which can be traced.
The property is located about 100 meters outside the old city wall, which followed Hannoversche Strasse. Part of this wall is still visible today, integrated into a recent building at Hannoversche Str. 9.
After the Wall
In 1990 buildings like ours in East Berlin were all relatively dilapidated. The East German Regime did only the minimum work needed to keep the existing buildings from falling apart. Fortunately they also left most of Mitte (Berlin's historic center) untouched. This meant that after the wall came down Berlin could renovate the historic center without repeating the mistakes of the 1960's and 1970's (read Berlin Politics to find out more about this).
When we bought the building it seemed undistinguished, just another late nineteenth century building. The East Germans had done minor renovations to keep it livable – they had re-tiled the leaky roof, re-plastered the walls, and replaced all the historic wooden doors and windows with poorly made counterparts. Despite this, the basement, ground floor, and roof were in bad shape, and needed intensive repair.
The ground floor was ridden with dry rot. We had to treat all the masonry work to remove it for good, and replace the wooden floor structure with a concrete system. The wooden roof structure too was rotten from years of negelect, and had to be completely removed.
After the demolition of the floors and roof, the house was a bit like a brick skeleton, ready for us to re-clothe with our own design.
Building in layers
Old European churches were often constructed over centuries, by generations of architects. They tell a subtle story of hopes and values, written by the hands that built them. The master builders inheriting this mammoth task often ignored the work of their predecessors, adding in their own handwriting. Because fashion and taste changed during the construction, these churches often show a strange mix of traditions. Despite this collage of style, they read as one piece of architecture – one building with a historical layering of identity.
This approach brings a richness to a building that you can never achieve when starting from scratch, but these layers of history can often be frustrating, and pose difficult problems that make architectural planning more complicated.
Integrating Old and New
Our goal was to create a building that was obviously new, and yet clearly stated its roots in the existing structure. The new construction should give a distinctive twist to the building's story, but at the same time be respectful of the past, and the urban context it has grown to become a part of.
We did the new construction in two phases. During the first phase (2002) we renovated the existing building, creating the Classic and Compact minilofts, and building our own apartment on top. In the second phase (2004) we built the new building at the front, which houses the Introverted and Extroverted minilofts, our office, and the small ground floor shop.
Phase I: Renovation, modification
The interior design of the classic and compact minilofts incorporates all these elements, and combines them with modern ones, like glass and concrete (read Materials to find out more). In particular details like the arches above the windows tell the story of the miniloft's nineteenth century roots.
Our own apartment is on the top two floors of the existing building. The lower floor was previously two small apartments, and the upper floor was the old roof. We removed the roof, and built a green flat roofed extension in its place. Because the extension is set back on the South side, it looks as if it has grown out of the old walls below.
At the back, a double height window unifies the space, integrating the new extension within the walls of the existing building. When seen from behind, the building looks like it was conceived as one piece; however oddities and idiosyncracies in the rhythm and materials reveal that the building has several layers of history.
Phase II: The new building
The new building takes cues from the old building. Because the staircase of the new building provides the access to the top two floors of the old building, the storey heights of the new building are determined by the heights of the old building.
The theme of bending bands is also repeated in the new building, which helps tie them together.
The result is a self confident hybrid of old and new, like a modern cross-cultural child it is more than the sum of its parts and pasts. The building tells its own story, revealing its history in little details scattered throughout the project.