11 March 2009

Property Marketing Balls Pt.4



[This article originally appeared in the December 2008 issue of ExBerliner Magazine.]

A big old city like Berlin can only be described as a mythological place: a place where myths are born. It shouldn’t come as any great surprise: get enough people to live on a swamp for three quarters of a millennium and you’re bound to end up with a story or two. The complex web of circumstances which make up a place’s history, its fabric, seems to build up in layers and layers of meaning, until the city itself begins to resemble a gigantic semantic compost heap. New things keep on being added to the top of the pile, making it difficult to know what was there before.

Currently adding to this semantic compost heap are property developers promoting new inner-city housing projects with names like Marthashof, Choriner Höfe, Palais KolleBelle or Fellini Residences.

Common to all of these developments is a marketing campaign in which each property is assertively branded not just as a mere home, but as the physical manifestation of a pre-defined life-style. A brand is nothing if it is not filled with a promise, put into context, boasts a set of values, or has a snappy name. All of these things need to be fabricated, usually at the cost of authenticity and empathy for location.

Take the Fellini Residences, who claim on their website to be in the heart of Berlin’s Italian quarter. Berlin has no Italian quarter and never did. The property will be located on the border between Mitte and Kreuzberg where the Berlin Wall once stood, a fact conspicuously absent from the Residences’ promotional material. It’s in a neighborhood which offers little in the way of excitement – unless you were to include the Federal Printers or a nearby retirement home. So to compensate, the Residences have sought a more flattering context. What they have found is the Gendarmenmarkt, a 17th Century square adjacent to Friedrichstraße’s luxury shopping mile, which is a “7 minutes’ walk away”. By suggesting that the square represents Berlin’s architectural debt to Italy, an attempt is made to justify the Residences’ historicised Italian pastiche façade. The idea is laughable: the Schauspielhaus, Schinkel’s 1821 theater building at the center of Gendarmenmarkt, is a textbook example of Greek Revivalism. The Residences are about a fetishisation of “Italianyness”, bolstered by a blend of vague impressions and romantic clichés, and hammered home by the choice of name. Owners are asked to buy into a sanitised essence of Italy, right in the middle of Berlin.

In some ways, Palais KolleBelle in Prenzaluer Berg, is closely related to the Fellini Residences since they share both architect, and the cringingly pretentious need to elicit feelings of otherness, in this case “Frenchyness”. KolleBelle is a ham-fisted contraction of Belforter and Kollwitz Straße, but hilariously also appears to combine the Latin for “beautiful” (“bellus”), with the Greek for “arse” (“kolos”).

By way of Paris, KolleBelle touches lightly on the district’s aging reputation as being a seedbed for artists and bohemian idealists, and indirectly acknowledges the old comparrison of Prenzlauer Berg with Montmartre. But it quickly looses interest in local history and opts instead for a string of fanciful self-titilating statements: “The flair that made Paris into a legend in the 1920s – it lives on here,” and “everything here is ‘trés chic’”. So chic that this one-time worker’s district has become a defiantly bourgeois enclave. The KolleBelle website describes an idyllic parallel universe, where life is one long breakfast spent in a leisurely street café.

Not so for future residents of Mitte’s Choriner Höfe whose entire life has already been planned by for them. According to their website, the Höfe are a “hot spot for people who have made the decision to lead a self-determined life”, but contradictorily goes on to confirm that buyers are people who want to “make brands” and “be there when it happens”. In April this year, the site even stated that future homeowners “will work and produce on balconies” while listening to the Kaiserchiefs, the Beatsteaks or Bloc Party on their iPods”. It’s a sinister day indeed when you realise that you are little more than an accessory for your apartment.

Meanwhile, Marthashof in Prenzlauer Berg is busy styling itself as a kind of wellness resort for wealthy folk who want to live in the city and the countryside simultaneously. For half a million Euros you can buy the illusion, but I expect that rearing chickens on your 6th floor penthouse terrace won’t exactly be encouraged.

In a city as grubbily dynamic as Berlin – broke and scandalised, but restless and improvisational – it’s oddly compelling to observe how groups of developers have tried to reduce the city down to a palatable set of easily digested ideas and images, regardless of legitimacy. In doing so they’ve added a further layer to the semantic compost heap of Berlin, and will one day themselves be covered by more layers of meaning. Maybe that’s the point of living in a city: it’s all things for all people, simultaneously. But most of all it’s a big stinky pile of fertilizer, covered in growth.