Surrounded by one of Berlin's busiest U-Bahn stations, dominated by a deteriorating architecture and blanketed with beautiful works of graffiti, Friedrichshain's RaW Tempel has become a trademark site for the city's art enthusiasts. Once a 19th-century port for the Prussian Eastern Railway, this area off Warschauer Straße is now home to one of Europe's largest collections of street art as well as numerous nightclubs, cafés, art galleries and even a climbing wall. Graffiti from artists such as Low Bros, whom we have written about before, and Wurst Bande (another brotherly street art team) are just a few of the pieces that adorn RaW.
Typically on a Friday or Saturday night, the enclosed community is swarming with young people partying in one of several concert halls. Its close proximity to Berlin's most notorious nightclub, Berghain, makes it an ideal place to spend the weekend. Visiting the area during the day, however, you are able to take advantage of its artistic venues like Urban Spree Gallery , which not only has a gallery space but studios and projects spaces as well, or Skalitzer's Contemporary, which recently relocated to the RaW complex. With its colossal size, unique location and fascinating architecture, RaW Tempel has a history undoubtedly as complex as the art that covers its walls.
"We Were A City In Ruins; Almost No House Remained Intact"
The above quote by Dorothea von Schwanenflügel, a former resident of mid-century Berlin, speaks about the leveled terrain of the city after the Soviets destroyed it at the end of World War II. Today, this decay has since been covered in a patina of concrete and paint. While RaW Tempel's disfigured aesthetics are due more to the fall of Communism rather than the hellfire of the war, the crumbling walls that make up its labyrinths are a brutal reminder of the city's appearance from 70 years ago.
One graffiti artist currently on display within the Tempel, VHILS, takes advantage of RaW's deteriorated interior brilliantly. The Portuguese artist, whose real name is Alexandre Farto, is known for drilling directly into a wall's facade and molding out striking portraits. It's not surprising Farto also has a permanent space at RaW: he's represented by Skatlitzer's Contemporary, which is only a few meters away. At the Tempel, he shows a young man's grin bursting through the cement, as if it's the face of RaW itself were laughing at how it's been able to survive for so long. Built in 1867, this area has witnessed the rise, fall and second coming of Berlin. Within its interior you can find the narratives of five generations of Berliners that sought to get the most out of the city.
At one point, if you had ventured towards Revaler Straße 99 you would have entered Berlin's home for locomotive maintenance as well as a hub for the transportation of the city's incoming goods. At that time it only housed 600 workers. However, in only two decades this number would double as it officially adopted the title of "Reichsbahnausbesserungswerkstatt," a German word roughly translating into automotive/locomotive repair shop.
Just Call Me RaW
Naturally, akin to other similar stations and out of simplicity, it adopted the nickname "RaW." If you are to walk between its brick structures today you can still skip over a few train tracks scattered around its infrastructure. Interestingly enough, they continue to use areas of RaW Tempel to store and transport goods for the city like they did two hundred years ago. These days, however, they export more Club Mate and Berliner Beer than in the 19th century!
As World War II came to a close and the Allies took jurisdiction over parts of the city, RaW Tempel found itself within the grasp of Communist Russia. Dangerously close to the border between the Russian and American sectors, it held a critical position for the Soviets during the Cold War. The area was prized so highly by the Russians that on the 100th-year anniversary of its construction, they named RaW after Franz Stenzer, a German Communist who was killed by the Gestapo. With the Berlin Wall in view from the roofs of RaW's buildings, it was only a matter of time before those from the west perused its alleys.
Interestingly enough, along the the base of Warschaur Str. and inside the gates of RaW Tempel, the graffiti of the Berlin Wall is echoed along the myriad arches that face the Urban Spree Gallery. Part of the gallery's Arcade Project, curators invited several graffiti artists including SMD Crew from Tel Aviv, Jbak, Blo and Wurst Bande to paint works within each arch. The result is a lineup of some of the world's most prominent street artists in a display that was only matched by the East Side Gallery. Ironically, however, after the unification of Germany and twenty years before the Tempel became a graffiti utopia, RaW entered an arduous period that almost led to its destruction.
In 1991 the German government closed the doors of the Tempel for repair. Due to its deterioration and because its tracks had to be converted to adhere to western standards, RaW Tempel sat in limbo for nearly ten years before a fate would be decided. Yet in 1998 the story took a twist: a group of Friedrichshain residents sought to resurrect the Tempel from its ashy ruins. As with a great deal of Berlin’s abandoned spaces, they hoped to turn it into a cultural center where creatives could develop their ideas. How did RaW end up falling into the hands of these artistic aficionados? This transformation and the history of how a few individuals helped put RaW Tempel on the map will be revealed in part two of our investigation into this artistic utopia.
For those of you impatient for the next article on this incredible RaW Tempel, go get a taste of what's happening at RaW's artistic hub this weekend during an opening at Urban Spree Gallery. The gallery will be exhibiting the work of French artist Karine Lémery, who will be presenting some delicate drawings, mobiles and sculptures in their large and open space. The vernissage will take place on May 18th at 17:00, so enjoy!
Article by James Shaeffer