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Thomas Bendel — Unbelievable
Having turned into Bergfriedstrasse, I began to doubt that I would find Thomas Bendel’s studio at number 19. The blocks of flats I was passing where a postmodernist’s dream...
Thomas Bendel — Unbelievable

Having turned into Bergfriedstrasse, I began to doubt that I would find Thomas Bendel’s studio at number 19. The blocks of flats I was passing where a postmodernist’s dream, and therefore not an obvious location for the studio of an architect and interior designer known for his excellent command of Minimalismus. And yet, there it was—a clean and almost unfurnished studio in a repurposed retail space on the ground floor of a concrete tower. After just a few minutes inside, I realized why Thomas wouldn’t exchange this space for anything. I’ll leave it to him to explain how he designs spotless apartments living in Berlin’s messiest quarter.

Irma: Most of the interiors you have designed so far are in Berlin. Is there a typical Berlin apartment?

Thomas: For sure. We often get to redesign old apartments and most of them are located in tenant houses of the same type—the so-called Berliner Mietshaus. Apartments in these buildings usually have a big living area in the front and a long, corridor-like space leading to the back. The back area, called the Hinterhaus, originally accommodated the kitchen and the maid's room, while the space in the front with a view towards the street was inhabited by the owners of the apartment. It's a very challenging layout because you need to merge these two spaces, which were designed to be separated, into one. I deal with this issue over and over again, and I really enjoy solving it anew every time. In order to liberate myself from the constraints of the traditional layout, I often rethink the function of each specific room. I take a close look at guest rooms, office rooms and bathrooms—spaces which are usually overlooked, but have the potential to serve more than one purpose. For example, to avoid the feeling of a dull corridor with multiple doors, which is very often the case in a Berliner Mietshaus, I try to think about what a corridor really is: Is it just a long, empty tunnel, or could it also be a library? Are there other ways to connect the corridor with the rooms? The bathroom is another good example of neglected space; maybe it can be kept open to allow daylight into the corridor when nobody is in there. In bathrooms I often use matte glass which, on one hand, allows light to travel through, and on the other hand provides sufficient intimacy.

I think in a flat it’s particularly important to create long vistas through a sequence of spaces in order to achieve the precious feeling of openness. If the bedroom, for instance, needs to provide privacy at night, why does it have to be kept apart from the other areas by day, too? I try to organize the layout so that all these special rooms can be integrated with the rest of the apartment throughout the day, and separated when needed. I don’t like the idea of seeing closed doors and perceiving what could be a generous space as a cluster of box-like rooms. My aim is to utilize all available space in an apartment and organize the layout in a way that makes the environment flow. My apartments are never static. They can mutate over time to provide a feeling of newness without the impression that they have lost their original identity.

In most of the apartments I designed, I managed to create the illusion that they’re bigger than they are in reality. I also wanted to give their users the flexibility to rearrange things as they please. They can close doors without getting the sense of being imprisoned in a room, because as an independent space it also has a special quality. This is what I’m aiming for. I define space with furniture, not just walls. Colors also play a very important role in my work. The right choice of color palette can completely redefine the space and lure the user into it.

I: You design luxurious flats with a minimalistic approach. Do you think that simplicity has replaced opulence as a status symbol?

T: On one hand it's true, and on the other hand it’s not. In the past, ornamentation used to be very labor-intensive, but once the press technique was invented, decorations started to go off the production line. Today minimalism is considered luxury because this is what is now labor-intensive. Regardless of the historical period, you can recognize luxury by asking the same question: how much work does a certain thing require? A material I often use—which is considered luxurious and expensive today and was quite widely used in the past—is terrazzo. Once, a construction worker on the site told me that in Croatia, where he came from, it was only used to make pig troughs. We use it to decorate high-end apartments, because it’s handmade, and it’s the high cost of human labor that raises its value. It’s also a material that can be customized. I often take my clients to the terrazzo factory in Brandenburg where we can mix custom colors unique to a project. One of my clients remembered the dark red terrazzo in the house of his grandparents, and we integrated this memory into the design. Materials of this kind are full of energy because of the human factor.

Minimalistic, custom-made design has become the new luxury because it’s unbelievably hard to make. I was once building a concrete house in South Germany for my cousin. He wanted the purest form possible, which was, in his opinion, the easiest to build. I kept explaining how hard and expensive it is to achieve a form that looks completely pure, in the sense that it doesn’t have any excessive elements. It’s not easy to place a glass pane in a concrete wall at the right angle without any frame; in fact, the opposite is easier to do. At first he didn't believe the prices I was giving him. But by the time we finished the house, he had realized that every detail of a minimalistic design is very problematic and expensive. I was on the site every day with my measuring equipment and sometimes had to make the workers move a whole wall by two centimeters, because otherwise it wouldn’t look proper. They must have thought I was mad. But I knew that a number of such neglected elements would have made a terrible house in the end.

I: How much do you engage your clients in the design process?

T: The psychological aspect of my work is what I like most about it. I see myself as an architect and a designer, but in the end I’m a servant who has to transform a client’s vague and unspoken wishes into reality. It's a long process. Sometimes they throw everything away from their apartment because they want to start a new life there. Sometimes there are pieces they want to keep, so we look for a place for them in the new design.

I often become friends with my clients after the job is done. I don’t take up projects just for money. If the brief isn’t interesting or challenging enough or if I can’t establish a connection with the client, I turn down the commission. The mental connection between the client and me is extremely important to my design process. I know some architects who don’t need this direct, honest relationship, but I personally can’t design without creative input from my clients. It's actually the most important aspect of my work. What I’m interested in, is designing special places for special people. None of my clients have ever entered their new home and said that they would have changed something, because it's their work, too. And I would never be able to live in one of these apartments myself, even though they bear traces of my style.

I: Let’s talk a bit more about Berlin. How has the city changed over the last 20 years?

T: When I moved to Berlin 20 years ago, employment opportunities for architects were much better here than in other German cities. It was a time when the city was being built anew. There was empty space in the very center around Friedrichstrasse, between Checkpoint Charlie and Leipzigerstrasse, which is now densely covered with new buildings. There were parties in the basements on bare earth, with carpets instead of flooring. It was truly wonderful. Everything felt so real, and there was no artificiality.

I: Twenty years after that construction boom Berlin is considered a poor city.

T: It is poor, but this is what I like about it. It's a city where a comfortable life is within everyone’s reach; it’s not reserved just for the rich. The prices are still low and rent is cheap, but change is lurking around the corner. Apartments are pretty cheap here in comparison with other European and German cities. A lot of foreigners buy apartments here as an investment, which drives the prices up. In egocentric terms the influx of affluent people is good for my business, but from the society’s point of view it’s quite disturbing. Even in Kreuzberg, which isn’t an expensive neighborhood, things are changing in a brutal way. The landlords kick out the tenants who can't pay the rising rents in ruthless ways. I hope that the government will introduce regulations to stop the rapid increase of prices and rents that we have witnessed over the last five years.

I: The controversy surrounding the proposition for property development on Tempelhof showed that Berliners are not afraid to speak their mind and take action.

T: Like most Berliners, I voted against the plan to build a housing estate on the edge of Tempelhof. Not because it would damage the park—it’s a huge area anyway. I was against it because Tempelhof is a very significant place for Berlin’s history. It was a military base during the Kaiserzeit, and then a Nazi airport. I don’t see a reason why any part of a heritage site like this should be commercialized to bring profit to the developers instead of serving the public. Berliners protested so fiercely against it because they realized that the situation is a sign of a wider disorganization in the municipal and national governments, and because they fear that public property will be sold into private hands. Deutsche Bahn, for example, is still owned by the state, but there are plans to change it into an AG. And it's not just about the railway. People fear that basic commodities like water, electricity and gas will soon be supplied only by private companies. I guess the case of Tempelhof is a sign of public disagreement with these profit-driven policies.

I: The low prices are probably one of the factors that draw so many creatives to Berlin. Do you feel like you’re a part of the artistic community?

T: I believe Berlin is a very good place for architects, but not necessarily because there is a community. I’m not at all inspired by the work of other local architects. It’s the city itself that is inspiring: not perfect and shiny, but dusty, dirty, vibrant and unpredictable. For me Berlin is the best place in the world. It's a wonderful city and living here is just fun. Over the 20 years that I’ve spent in Berlin, I’ve seen the city change and go through different phases, and each of them was fascinating. There is a feeling of constant evolution, probably because of the cultural mix. Things that happen here are unthinkable in other European capitals. Think about the refugee camp in Oranienplatz: A group of African refugees established a camp in this beautiful old square when they arrived in Berlin, and it remained there for two and a half years. It grew to become a village in itself with its own cultural and political life. I live very close to the camp, and although it had begun to bother me after two years, I love the idea that it could exist for so long. In every other city it would be dismantled immediately. In Berlin, nothing is ever done by the book, things aren’t straightforward and solutions aren’t standard.

I: I was very surprised to find your office in this neighborhood.

This area is very close to the center of Kreuzberg, to Kottbusser Tor and the places where a lot of people go out at night. But ultimately the blocks around here are inhabited predominantly by a low-income community. We set up our studio here four years ago because we prefer this neighborhood with its slightly absurd vibe and vivid contradictions to the polished, rich-only atmosphere of Charlottenburg and Mitte. We don’t want to separate ourselves and be labeled as designers who only work for rich people, because we work for various clients, and it’s not their income that defines them. They all share an interest in art and appreciate our way of designing very personal interiors that reflect their identity and wishes. I sit here in the office every day, look out the windows and sometimes think, “Unbelievable! What's going on out there?” It’s a constantly changing environment that brings a lot of life to our daily office work. There’s an elderly woman who lives nearby and brings us cake every day. We thought of her as a very kind old lady until one day, completely out of the blue, she came with the cake and started talking xenophobic nonsense. So this is Berlin—nothing is ever what it seems. Everything is at least twofold.

I: I love the postmodern scenery that you get from your window. Being so close to Kottbusser Tor, what's it like being an architect there?

T: When I’m there I have a feeling that nothing is ever finished. Kotti is both beautiful and disturbing. I often spend my evenings at a wonderful place called Südblock on the corner of Skalitzerstrasse and Admiralstrasse. It's a bar where everybody can go and nobody will be looked down upon, no matter how shabby they look. Ultimately, what I like about Berlin is its inclusivity. In Kotti, every day you are confronted with things that are both repulsive and exciting. The variety of stimuli that you get here keeps you in a constant state of shock. It makes you feel alive.

Many years ago, shortly after I came to Berlin, I was working on a project for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a studio called Müller Reimann Architekten. Their office was in Charlottenburg, and every evening when I went back to Kreuzberg, it felt like entering a different world.  —

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In this publication we have collected stories from the designers and artists that inspire us with their creativity and skill. Whether working in fashion, design, photography or architecture, they share the commitment to process and have a strong, personal voice.

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