Tacheles is an old Jewish word meaning ‘to disclose, to reveal or to speak clearly’. The slang meaning of the word is ‘bringing to an end’. – from the Tacheles web site
Originally published in 2005.
It was night and it was dark and I had to wonder if this place was cool or dangerous. At street level on Oranienburgerstrasse, dark walls loomed with spots of graffiti here and there, doorways led into graffiti-filled-devoid-of-humanity hallways, scattered metal littered the yard, and a sign in a sculpture studio doorway said No Photographs.
The building they call Tacheles has a long history steeped in creativity and intrigue. The building was intended to be a high-end shopping center called Friedrichstrasse Passage when it was first built around 1907/8/9. The structure at the time was an ode to modern architecture, utilizing gothic details and one of the biggest iron and concrete constructed domes of the time.
The shopping center idea never really took off, but during the building’s history it was used as the Haus der Technik, a products showroom for the electronics company AEG, as the broadcast point for the 1936 Olympics, as the headquarters for various Nazi affiliated projects – including being used as an SS office, as well as temporarily housing French POWs during WWII. Even though the building had been damaged during the allied air raids of 1943 and 45, the East Germans continued to use the building to house the FDGB Trade Union for a short time and a lot of stuff was stored here. Finally abandoned and left empty, in 1969 and then again in 1977, it was condemned. It was recommended that a once beautiful architectural highlight of Berlin be destroyed and almost all of it was. The remaining part lives on due primarily to the political turn of events in 1989 and the two story underground vault that was able to support what was left of the structure.
The final demolition of the building had been planned, well in advance, for April 1990, but was avoided because a band of squatters had taken over what was left of the building. In 1989 The Berlin Wall fell and a group of artists, both International and East/West Germans, squatted the building, using it for studios. They went on to form a coalition, which they named Tacheles, with the idea of keeping the building in its decayed and ruined form, using the upper floors as studios and galleries and the lower floors as a movie house and cafe. It was then that it was decided that the vaulted basement could support what was left of the structure and it remains standing today.
The day after my night time stroll, I took a walk around Tacheles again, this time when studio doors were open and light came streaming through the large industrial windows. Not looking much different than any other dilapidated, run down and graffittied building I had been to on my journeys, or lived in at home, this one had a history steeped not only in the artists who founded the place and worked there, but in the very history of the country itself, which makes this place just a little different than all the others. There was a lesson to learn here and I was out to find it.
People hanging out in the backyard encouraged me to visit the artists and to talk to them about the space and see their work. The building had stairways to climb and hallways to explore. Some studio doors were open while others were not. As I walked by one door, drums exploded into a thrasher rythym, throwing sound down the corridor.
The first studio I actually walked into held the works of Iraki artist Al Sharaa Ahmad. A talented painter from Bagdad, he had been living in Germany for quite some time before finding his way to Berlin and into a studio at Tacheles. We had a wonderful conversation about his work, about politics (both US and gallery), and where in the world to go from here, before I moved on to explore more of the studios.
I stopped into American artist Jason Morrow’s studio as well as Andrea Colitti’s. A gallery down the hall was conducting a taped interview, people ebbed and flowed through the hallways. The exquisitely bright spring sunlight flowed through all of the large windows. People outside sat on randomly placed couches and talked, smoked, and drank while others worked on painting walls – again. It seemed the walls were continually painted. Stilt walkers practiced their craft in full mask regalia, with a choreographer leading their movements and steps.
Tacheles wasn’t a beehive of activity. It actually felt a little sleepy and laid-back, but maybe that was because of the time of day. As I left the building I wondered what I could take away from here besides a few a memories and photographs. Tacheles has a lesson to teach other artists in the world. This building is listed in the travel guidebooks. The artists keep their studios open to the public on a daily basis, throughout the year. Visitors from all over the world walk through its corridors and some even buy work. All of these things seem like they might be the first steps in thinning the gap between artists and the general public, and if Tacheles has done anything in its first fifteen years of its life, I think that is it.
You can get more information from the Tacheles web site.