Can This New Concept Mall Revive Interest in West Berlin?

The recently-opened complex combines fashion, high culture, and a resourceful spirit to reinvent the shopping experience.

Bikini Berlin is a new “concept mall” located in the German capital’s Charlottenburg district and housed in a landmarked Modernist building called Bikinihaus. With 43 stores and 19 pop-up shops, it’s hoped that Bikini will be a new design beacon for City West.

Above and below courtesy Bikini Berlin

A few years ago, if you’d passed by the Zentrum am Zoo complex along Budapester Straße, you would have been greeted by a friendly face. A glass-encased advertisement for a nearby Chinese restaurant framed a grinning portrait of German actor and comedian Harald Juhnke, gleefully tucking into a meal of Peking duck. The sign, anchored to a rounded, ground-level column of an aging building of some repute, had become an unassuming and unlikely landmark of the City West district.

A casual holdover of the Cold War, the beloved ad is now gone, as is the half-century old restaurant—the oldest Chinese eatery in the city. Their eviction was occasioned by the rollout of a new “concept mall” housed in their former location’s revitalized shell, the colloquially termed Bikinihaus. (A Berlin blog pleaded with the mall’s operators to “bring back Harald!”) The building is the centerpiece of Bikini Berlin, a doggedly hip shopping and design hub that opened in early April. In its first week of business, close to half a million visitors passed through its doors, though it’s anyone’s guess if they actually purchased anything.

Bikini Berlin aims to provide a novel shopping experience by summoning up the cachet of that Ur-hipster enclave, Kreuzberg, and the fashion-house gloss of Schöneberg and Mitte. It purports to a scrappy authenticity, what is called the “Berlin attitude” and shorthand for the city’s seedy-chic, poor-but-sexy ethos.

Just about everywhere you turn in the mall, you’re faced with some less-than-subtle missive about just how “creative,” “magnetic,” and “resourceful” the whole place is. It claims to have a hold on its own past; period photographs of Bikinihaus flash by on screens and dissolve into stylized images of the new development, inviting suggestions of historical continuity and inflated notions of architectural heritage. And the mall brands itself as a breeding ground of culture. Its hand-picked shops are punctuated by darkened gallery spaces, whose bare-faced concrete walls and unfinished ceilings strive for an imagined industrial past. Bikini, it so wants to us to believe, is duly capable of playing host to the specters of art and commerce.

This hybridity between design and fashion, retail and culture is, of course, a major part of Bikini Berlin’s draw, and the basis for the “concept” epithet. “It’s about that crossover magic,” says Frederik Vaes, of Brussels-based SAQ Architects and supervisor of the Bikini design team through 2011. Visitors aren’t encouraged to buy so much as to populate and enliven the mall’s three levels of shopping and its adjacent public spaces. Towards that end, several of its shops feature integrated coffee stations and hangout spots, where visitors can retreat and lounge in expensive chairs. Hesitant staff are frozen in place, careful not to push too much, lest they throw the calculated cool off balance.

The ground floor of Bikini Berlin, with a view to the zoo’s monkey park.

“The goal was to make something unique that you couldn’t find in any other major city,” Vaes says. “We didn’t want to have H&M or Zara.” With no anchor store on the ground floor, however, the mall is without focus. As such, the preferred point of entry seems, counterintuitively, to be via Bikini Berlin’s mid-level public roof deck and garden. Stairs running between the spiderweb of trusses that support the terrace seamlessly drop visitors into the Bikini Gallery, the mall’s second-level shops devoted to “unique” retail tenants like Pasadena, California’s Art Center College of Design—which has a satellite studio here—and the Vitra Loves Artek store. The latter, a concept shop that boasts a variety of legacy Vitra and Artek chairs and stools, packs in a coffee bar and Comme des Garçons cologne, among other products. It’s a strategy that is echoed closely in the Gestalten store located upstairs on the roof terrace, which adds a large café and a slew of dandyish body products to the mix.

The ground floor consists of more conventional stores, like the Vans Zooperstore and the token off-brand Starbucks (here, Berliner favorite Einstein Kaffee). More curious are the 19 Bikini Berlin Boxes that dot the main hall. Designed by Hild und K, the Munich-based architecture firm that took over the project’s execution in 2013, the pop-ups accommodate independent businesses for a fixed period of time, anywhere from three months to a year. The idea is compelling, but the offerings—a puzzle shop, a macaron stand, a picture vendor peddling Warholesque screenprints of Obama—clash with Bikini’s self-conscious, curated tone. Even so, it wouldn’t be surprising if these transient purveyors actually pull in more business than their high-concept neighbors.

See the retail experiences inside Bikini Berlin that promise to change the future of the shopping.

But as the light-and-sound shows tell you, Bikini Berlin is also notable for its historic Modernist architecture, an ensemble of five structures designed by architects Paul Schwebes and Hans Schoszberger in the mid-1950s. Bikinihaus is flanked to the west by the famous Zoo Palast cinema—for decades, the city’s most popular movie theater and the venue for the Berlinale film festival—and, further down, the “large skyscraper” (Großes Hochhaus), an office building and the shabbiest of the stretch. To the east stands the “small skyscraper” (Kleines Hochhaus), recently occupied by the boutique 25hours Hotel, and a multistory garage, which runs up against the Berlin Zoo. All the buildings are landmarked and, excepting the Großes Hochhaus, were recently restored by a handful of architecture offices.

The results are mixed. The recognizable bulge of the Zoo Palast’s facade has been renewed to its former glory by Maske + Suhren architects, though now it is festooned with a poster promoting the latest X-Men blockbuster, whose lurid colors and mercilessly touched-up humanoids posit an uncomely contrast to the cinema’s crisp, convex lines. A few steps away lies Bikinihaus, a six-story building that originally sported an open, mid-level terrace that resembled the riotous swimwear of the period. It, too, is blotted with somewhat more subtle, but no less jarring, signage promising “eats,” designer wares, and a franchise grocery store.

It would be unfair to fault the place for these unpalatable markings. After all, Zentrum am Zoo was, since its opening in 1957, plastered with signs and text of all kinds. Poised directly opposite the Breitscheidplatz and the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church—democratic Germany’s most enduring monument and more or less official avatar—the five-building complex presented a startling foil to the church’s bombed-out husk. Its location, at the edge of the Kufürstendamm shopping street—referred to in a 1963 CBS special as Berlin’s “Fifth Avenue”—made it a highly central entertainment district and a natural propaganda tool. As many Cold War–era films showed, the site was propped up as a worldly beacon of commercial exchange. Invigorated by neon lighting, the headlamps of passing traffic, and crowd chatter, Zentrum am Zoo was Times Square by way of Alphaville.

Yet, City West’s fortunes dipped beginning in the 1970s, when the West’s supposedly solid foundation buckled under economic and social pressures. By the time the squatter and other protest movements took hold, the area around City West, with its proximity to the Bahnhof Zoo train station—West Berlin’s central transit core—had developed a thick patina of spit and grime. The Bahnhof attracted a sizable drug trade and its concomitant vices of crime and prostitution, all famously chronicled in the book by Christiane F., Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo (Children from Zoo Station), and its subsequent film adaptation. “Once a symbol of West Berlin’s postwar resilience, the Breitscheidplatz and Zoo Station area became a symbol of what many in the media called the city’s downfall,” says Emily Pugh, author of Architecture, Politics, and Identity in Divided Berlin (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014).

All of this makes for rather handy copy. And you can be sure the press materials for Bikini Berlin allude to City West’s vibrant “punk” past. The mall’s developer, Bayerische Hausbau, is positioning Bikini as the harbinger of West Berlin’s re-rebirth. A quarter century after unification, it is West Berlin’s time to wrench the spotlight from its formerly estranged half. “The focus isn’t just on the East anymore. Now that it’s working, that the infrastructure is there, the West has to catch up,” says architect Jürgen Mayer H., one of Germany’s preeminent builders with an expanding portfolio of local and international projects. Mayer, who is developing a similar concept mall off Alexanderplatz, contends that these types of developments are not just vital to Berlin’s economic revitalization, but that they give back to the urban landscape. “If you look back at how public spaces were started, the first public space was the marketplace—from the market and bazaar to the department store and mall. So if you can introduce certain forms of public space and gathering areas in a shopping environment, it stays very close to the history.”

The Bikini mid-level roof terrace and garden overlook the zoo next door and the Tiergarten. Open to the public at all hours of the day, the park has proved popular with Berliners, who have taken to comparing it to the High Line.

Courtesy Bikini Berlin

Bikini Berlin’s urban contribution is its 7,000-square-meter deck terrace and garden that overlooks the Berlin Zoo and its monkey park. Open to the public all day, the terrace quickly hit on with visitors, who, encouraged by the mall’s promotional blitz, were quick to dub it Berlin’s High Line. Friends meet here and recline on the park furniture, while families and tourists lean on the railing and gawk at monkeys and baboons, who do precious little besides sulk and excite themselves. Like the High Line, the terrace was planned as a living landscape; numerous plant studies went into determining the plantings that cover the folded, glass volumes that cut through the center of the platform. “Berlin has a lot of parks with trees, but they don’t have parks or gardens without them,” Vaes says. “We thought it was a unique opportunity to create this treeless public park.”

That generous gesture, however, came at the expense of Bikinhaus’s singular urban character. The building’s original circulation was a series of stair towers that projected out from the rear facade and opened onto a shady loading alley. These stacks, which were partially structural, were excised in SAQ Architects’ scheme, despite the fact that the firm had evidently worked with a historical consultant on the plans. “It was a very important original architectural detail that conflicted directly with the viability of the project,” says Drew Seskunas, Vaes’s former partner and Berlin lead for the project, before it was eventually handed off to Hild und K. (Seskunas has since moved to New York to start The Principals.) Ironically, it was the architects who pushed for the egregious alteration, which would make room for the public roof deck; the proposal initially sparked a confrontation with the mall’s client, who, after being convinced of the plan’s retail-boosting potential, was soon persuaded of the necessity of the stairs’ removal. “We made some shadow studies and found that they would inhibit light on the deck terrace,” Vaes recalls. More crucially, the towers completely obstructed the view of the zoo and, afield, the Tiergarten, “making the possibility of renting these spaces almost impossible,” Seskunas adds.

A 1956 photograph showing the rear facade of Bikinihaus and the large stair towers, which were removed in the building’s recent conversion.

Courtesy Bert Sass/Landesarchiv Berlin

It may have been a necessary deletion, but the disfigurement calls Bikini Berlin’s historic claims into question. “This reuse has almost nothing to do with preservation,” says Florian Heilmeyer, an editor of Berlin-based Uncube magazine, who worked in Bikinihaus in 2006. Then, the upper part of the building was mostly empty, though its form, after a half century of on-and-off use, remained almost entirely intact. The grade-level arcade, however, was generally abuzz with activity, containing an eclectic mix of shops and restaurants including Tai Tung, Juhnke’s old haunt.

The “regenerated” Bikinihaus wears its period detailing—those International Style touches embedded in the building’s main facade—as mere accessories. The rear facade was nearly completely gutted and reworked according to a preening, but unprepossessing pattern. If Zentrum am Zoo was protected by law, how can the architects justify their design? “The buildings were landmarked as an ensemble, which meant that original detailing in the front facades, salient architectural features, and overall geometries had to be retained,” Seskunas explains. “The stair towers were a somewhat gray area.” The ambiguity on the part of the authorities involved speaks to the public’s middling perception of Berlin’s Cold War architecture. “The Zentrum’s lower status within the pantheon of West Berlin’s postwar modern structures may explain why the buildings were allowed to be modified so extensively,” Pugh says, suggesting that the city’s Modernist heavyweights—Mies’s New National Gallery, to take the obvious example— never could have been tampered with in the same way.

Such historical concerns, however, are easily trumped by questions of Bikini Berlin’s financial viability. “It’s surprisingly convincing for a mall, but only the future will tell if the concept works out economically,” Heilmeyer muses. Mayer offers up a similar sentiment, saying that “the products in many of the stores are not consumable enough” to sustain long-term business. Others are hesitant that the model can be replicated in other parts of the city. Hild und K’s Dionys Ottl, the lead architect of the project through its completion, admits that Bikini is “exceptional and not [yet] representative for the planned future of the city.” Berlin, “oscillating between reinventing an imaginary past and preserving a myth of what the city may have been before gentrification,” is still trying to figure itself out, he says.

Seskunas is optimistic, saying that Bikini plays a catalyzing role in Berlin’s self-discovery. “The project supports the creativity of the city as opposed to capitalizing on it.” If the mall’s fortunes wither, however, Vaes is confident that the complex’s design is flexible enough to take on another program. “You can make an iconic building, but within a few years it’s out of date. We now have a great building whose role can be reinvented so it can continue playing an important role.” In the meantime, “everyone just has to relax and breathe a bit of bikini.”

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