From London’s Gherkin to Berlin’s Fernsehturm tower, a city can’t really call itself a city without an iconic building or two. Yet on a smaller scale, there are countless local icons in a city’s built environment that, whilst not ‘iconic’ by modern architectural standards, have worked hard to earn their status, fulfilling a need efficiently and with the kind of grace that a well-designed building can surprise you with.
Yet as times change so do our demands from the built environment, which sometimes results in older buildings no longer being considered best-suited for the function they once served. So what can be done when small-scale icons find themselves in this situation? Can these buildings be reborn with a new purpose, one that brings social and economic value to a local area and the city as a whole whilst respecting the building’s heritage?
In short: yes, and The WYE project from Berlin acts as a fine example. Located in the city’s Kreuzberg district, ‘international art house’ The WYE has taken over the Skalitzer Post building, transforming five floors of space that once served Deutsche Post into studios for local artists, incubation space for start ups, and co-working rooms for pretty much any self employed creative looking for an affordable place to be based out of in the city.
Though widely acknowledged as a Berlin icon (and designated as a cultural heritage landmark), the 20,000 sq ft Skalitzer Post building sat vacant for over five years after Deutsche Post relocated. The WYE co-founder Verity Oberg acknowledges that whilst the ‘massive open floors, ideal for exhibitions and events’ were a key factor behind the decision to operate out of the building, its ‘deep history and presence’ along with the fact that the building had ‘lost its meaningful functionality to the community that it served in the past’ was what enticed Oberg and her partners to give the building a new life.
Luckily for the Skalitzer Post, its new inhabitants were prepared to commit to a significant yet respectful renovation project, adding new bathrooms, roofing, flooring, and embarking on ‘a full paint job’, says Oberg. Critically, the team behind The Wye were aware that the building’s charm and iconic status was in its original form, with renovation efforts aimed at ‘preserving that architectural character while bringing the condition up to use today’.
Despite the expense associated with renovating older buildings, The WYE remains focused on keeping its prices at a market rate, further differentiating itself with the one thing it has got plenty of – space. The 4,000 sq ft event hall is available at no extra cost to all with studio space at The WYE, and co-working spaces emphasize the private by providing a fixed, oversized desk for each resident, along with strict limits on the amount of people in each of the two co-working rooms.
Oberg and her business partners call the Skalitzer Post their ‘winning opportunity’, but in reality, those involved in The WYE have been the winning opportunity for the building. The downside of being an iconic presence in a city’s built environment is that buildings can become too closely associated with their original purpose, thus limiting their ability to evolve. However, as the culture of our cities changes, so too must their buildings. Luckily for The WYE, the Skalitzer Post was sitting waiting for someone to reimagine it. And luckily for the Skalitzer Post, Oberg and her partners had the ideas and determination to make it happen.
The long term vision currently being acted out at The WYE celebrates and respects the building’s history whilst providing new opportunities for local people. These opportunities not only benefit those who use The WYE on a daily basis, but also those who live and work locally; what was once an iconic and functional addition to Berlin’s streetscape is exactly that once again.