Bernadette Geyer charts Kunstquartier Bethanien’s transformation from hospital to cultural center…
With its twin towers flanking a raised bell and cross on the roof high above the entrance, Kreuzberg’s historic Kunstquartier Bethanien tends to evoke feelings of awe, sanctity and fear; perhaps what one would expect of an old medical institution – built between 1845-1847 – that has found new life as a centre for the arts.
The former Central-Deaconess-Institute ‘Bethanien’ (Central-Diakonissen-Haus Bethanien) presides over Mariannenplatz near Bethaniendamm, a short walk across the Spree River from the Ostbahnhof. The approach to this impressive building is at first a bit intimidating, but once inside, the patterned arches and religious iconography in the grand entrance hall give it the air of a grand chapel.
Bethanien was built at the behest of King Friedrich Wilhelm IV for the purpose of educating nurses and carers affiliated with the Society of Our Lady (the Order of the Swan), which the King had reintroduced in 1843. This religious association of nobles and princes was originally established in 1440 by Friedrich II, Elector of Brandenburg, but had been eradicated during the Protestant Reformation.
During World War I, the deaconesses of Bethanien became employed as military hospital nurses. Following the war, more buildings were constructed on the site, including a large seminar house, as well as the ‘Tabea’ House, for the training and accommodation of nurses.
In 1933, the hospital refused the demands of the Nazi party that managerial positions be assigned to party members, but many of Bethanien’s doctors were ordered to serve at the front in World War II and the building suffered damages due to bomb attacks and air raids in 1943 and 1945. Following the war, the institutional buildings were partially reconstructed.
After the construction of the Berlin Wall, the number of patients and nurses from the Eastern sector decreased sharply. Bethanien could not pay its debts and was nearly forced to close. In 1968, the building was slated for demolition, but protests throughout 1969 enabled the building to receive protected building status. Bethanien functioned as a hospital up until 1970, when it was sold by the Evangelical Church to the state for 10.5 million Deutschmarks.
From Squat to Cultural Centre
The early 1970s were turbulent years for the institution. While the main building itself was not affected, squatters took over the former Martha-Maria House and renamed it the “Georg-von-Rauch-Haus”, after the leftist activist shot by police in 1971.
The squatters, along with the Berlin Senate, agreed to the space’s legal use as a youth residential project, but the amnesty was short-lived. On 19 April 1972, there was a raid on the house, which inspired the “Rauch-Haus-Song” by the band Ton Steine Scherben, the ‘musical mouthpiece’ of leftist movements, such as the squatting movement, at that time.
In 1973, Bethanien reopened as a cultural and social centre, hosting a studio and exhibition program, a printmakers’ workshop, a music school, a communal gallery, a senior citizens’ meeting point, a library, and a social welfare office. The senior citizens’ center was closed in 2004 and the social welfare office vacated its spaces on the 1st and 2nd floors of the South Wing in 2005.
The floors formerly occupied by the social welfare office did not remain empty for long. In mid-2005, the residents of Yorckstrasse 59 housing project – commonly known as Yorck59 – were evicted from their building and many began squatting in the empty floors of the Bethanien building, renaming themselves NewYorck59. The organization remains in the South Wing of the institution but maintains its own separate postal address and supports a variety of social, political, and cultural projects.
In 2009, management of Bethanien was taken over by the Gesellschaft für StadtEntwicklung gemeinnützige GmbH, Treuhänder Berlins, a non-profit, non-government organization. The main users of Bethanien at that time – Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien, the BBK Berlin Printmakers’ Workshop, and the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg Music School – remain fixtures in the space.
They are now joined by a host of artist and musician studios, as well as arts organizations including Tokyo Wonder Site Residency Berlin, Camera Austria, Freiluftkino Kreuzberg (open-air theater), Dachverband Tanz Deutschland, Dramaturgische Gesellschaft e.V., Lufttanz Theater, and Teatro Só.
Visitors to Bethanien can wend their way through vibrantly muraled hallways on their way to Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien, a gallery that is open to the public with no entrance fee. Down the hall from the gallery is the Historic Theodor-Fontane-Apotheke, the historical pharmacy preserved in its original state.
Theodor Fontane – who, after years as a pharmacist, achieved notoriety as a writer and journalist – worked as the pharmacist at Bethanien from 1848-1849. The Apotheke is open to the public on Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 2:00-5:00 p.m.
Also open to the public is the 3 Schwestern café and restaurant, which opened in 2010 in the old nurses’ canteen in the main Bethanien building. With its soaring ceiling and high arches, the café is open and inviting, with a small stage for entertainment and large windows that look out on the space that serves as a Biergarten in the summer. But the star of the restaurant is its massive bar whose back wall features a striking, geometric pattern that mimics the arch framing visitors’ view of it. The café is open daily to the public.
Mariannenplatz 2, 10997 Berlin-Kreuzberg
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