Kitchens, individually customised, play a pivotal role in an art curator’s dream to build a creative space in Berlin
If Lobe Block client Olivia Reynolds, beneath her outer calm, is feeling fraught and preoccupied, there’s a reason for it. Since the previously London-based art curator, who moved to Berlin in 2009, decided to sell her home in London Fields in 2014 and invest everything she had to establish a life for herself and her two daughters in the city, it’s been a hair-raising financial journey.
But Reynolds had at least done her homework. Having spent the first five years setting up art residencies in Berlin and London, often putting the artists up in her home (in either city), she gained a foothold in the local art scene, along with curator and business partner Elke Falat, which let her develop a vision she might realise.
A self-confessed entrepreneur since she studied at the Glasgow School of Art, Reynolds had spent years living in the art community and dabbling in property. Her plans overrode everything. ‘My idea was to build an art gallery,’ she recalls of those first heady days, ‘a living space for me and maybe a couple of families, a courtyard for community projects I wanted to initiate, with a garden and maybe some farm animals.’
The result, though it’s a compromise on the purity of her original idea, is no less bold a proposition: a dramatic, multi-storey, ziggurat-shaped concrete structure in the inner-city Wedding industrial/residential area – ‘Berlin’s grubby equivalent of Kennington’.
In the end it was planning Use Class, legal issues over tax relief on the construction cost and Reynolds’ severe budgetary constraints that ended the dreamy notion of a a low-rent community live/work space, but both client and architect pursued this agenda nonetheless. Reynolds had asked up-and-coming local firm Brandlhuber + Emde to propose ‘a one or two-storey development’ – having cut its teeth on small art projects and self-funded built commissions, the Lobe Block would be its first large-scale work.
Seemingly enthused about Reynolds’ idea of a homestead, the architect returned with a model of a sizeable, five-storey concrete building of narrow, double-aspect live/work units with wide, stepped south terraces. Keen to see her capitalise on the potential of a valuable urban site, it focused on a 1958 zoning plan which allowed commercial development up to this height.
With a louche optimism that hearkened back to West Berlin’s more contingent days before the fall of the wall, Reynolds recalls Arne Brandlhuber arguing persuasively that the notion of live/work was just a shot away. ‘I said that’s all very well but having spent a good proportion of the money I’d got from the sale of the house in London, how the hell was I going to pay for it?’ she adds. Two years later, with a wincingly frugal business plan, financing secured from German ethical bank GLS, a 19% federal tax break for commercial build, and a stern caveat from her lawyer and accountant that any use other than work units was out of the question, construction began in 2016.
But even in its 3,400m2 built iteration of 16 business units, there’s a palpable sense that their mutual dream of communal domesticity never really left – certainly once you’ve risen above the three double-height commercial units on the ground floor. But it was compromised. Reynolds had to fight tooth and nail to build her own residential ‘caretaker's flat’ on the site (whose cost was subject to that 19% tax) but the four artist-in-residence flats she envisaged at the top of the building, along with her ground floor art gallery, are now commercial units helping to pay the mortgage. But on a sunny spring day in the courtyard, with chickens clucking in the garden and workers socialising on the terraces, the power of the original idea pervades.
Brandlhuber + Emde and its build architect Muck Petzet Architekten took a stripped-back approach to the design. Its storeys are simply formed of 350mm thick slabs of reinforced concrete, with two central cores of 260mm thick walls serving two units each on every floor, spaced equidistantly between the building’s blank concrete side walls. Regs guiding the dimensions of the two emergency escape/access stairs that run up the south side of the building also dictated the depth of communal terraces. With units reducing in size as they ascend, the architect stepped back floors to cantilever a maximum of 7.5m over the north side, tempting Reynolds with a proposition that created a covered ‘art terrace’ over the street-facing side. From here, the 7.5m high ceiling height of the ground floor units works with their 26m depth. Those above all have more-homely 2,400 floor to ceiling heights – topmost units are only 11m deep.
From the full-height glazed doors to units to the south, the 5.7m wide terraces have 2% falls to their edges, and for design clarity, absolutely no guttering or drainpipes. Architect Muck Petzet says the project was hard to put out to tender, noting that: ‘Costs had to be kept very low, construction had a high degree of difficulty, with waterproofed, pre-stressed concrete and wide overhangs, but it was at the same time a relatively small project.’ Reynolds says the architect approached 10 contractors, most of whom didn’t want to quote for it, adding ‘it was lucky anyone built it in the end’. On rainy days, she must be glad they did – water pours down the building romantically, collecting in a balancing tank below the permeable courtyard paving.
Internally, there was similar pared-back specification; open-plan spaces roughly expressed in concrete and plywood with floating floors of acoustic insulation and cement top-screed, in line with the architects’ ‘logic of indeterminacy; only the technical connections and sanitary facilities are pre-installed.’ The worker residents are at liberty to arrange the internal spaces as they saw fit – the only proviso concerning access to the two cores, whose double-sided lifts serving each unit provide direct external access to the north terrace.
Beyond holding the lift shafts, cores carrying the geothermal heating and cooling system, mains, sewage stacks, electricity and IT runs. And while the units’ dual aspect ensures natural cross-ventilation, a mechanical ventilation system is reserved for cores to deal with the two internal bathrooms that sit back to back on each floor. These flip from the south to the north side of the lift shaft, as the building steps back and rises. Brandlhuber + Emde originally intended their walls to be completely mirror-panelled to counter the general asceticism of the building – a dramatic if confronting effect – but value engineering put paid to the notion, says Petzet. As it is, fitouts are in restrained grey tiling, access doors similarly specified to disguise them.
For flexibility, the architect proposed that in the kitchens only the connections would be designed in. But Reynolds’ insistence that each unit be installed with a fixed kitchen unit had an unintended, homogenising effect on the development. Reynolds criticises what she calls the ‘western illness’ of designer kitchens so instead looked to a single, robust design to be installed. ‘So I decided to just ask the contractor that was building the thing to cast a concrete worksurface into every unit with a void for the hob,’ she tells me. ‘In that way tenants could customise them in any manner they see fit and you wouldn’t be wastefully ripping things out at the end of a tenancy. That seemed to fit more with my ideas for the place.’ So, for an extra £30,000, that’s what they did. And the effect has been dramatic. Each unit has, in a sense, treated the kitchen as a form of art project, building in and customising each self-supporting concrete surface themselves. Walking around the homogenous development, it’s as if these installations have become signature pieces in each unit, where tenants treat the kitchens in their workspaces as a form of branding or identity; signing their own space. One, with pink units, calls it the ‘meat desk’. The move is pivotal; the cores, rather than being just the technical heart of the project, also become the symbolic one (hearth).
Inadvertently, Reynolds’ artful action aligned with Brandlhuber + Emde’s agenda. ‘Although today the project meets the legal standards of a commercial building, it aims to overcome the separation between living and working, commercial and residential, questioning existing norms’, it stated of its project. That strategy is best-expressed in two key details: the architect’s giant geotextile curtains drawn along a cast-in track to protect the south facades from the sun’s worst effects – an external trope of domesticity writ large – and Reynolds’ domestic, concrete kitchen units inverting Lobe Block’s material language to reify the egalitarian, communal nature of her project internally. For a whole lot of reasons, though not lived in yet, it feels as if Lobe Block has been primed for this future iteration. If you build it, they will come.