The Eis Fabrik Berlin, or 'Berlin Ice Factory' on Koepenickerstraße is an abandoned (you guessed it) ice factory along the River Spree. According to Wikipedia (warning: German version), it's one of the oldest surviving ice factories in Germany, and churned out blocks of ice up to 1.5 meters long from its construction in 1914 until its parent company ceased to exist in the early 1990s. There have been plans to demolish it since at least 1995, but the building is still standing today and is currently controlled by TLG, a real estate management company in the city.
I'd heard that the building was filled with graffiti and that it was a pretty cool old warehouse, so one day while passing through the area I decided to see if I could walk through myself. I found lots of graffiti, lots of broken glass, and a group of really nasty squatters. But more on that later.
Getting into the property was really easy. There was a gate permanently stuck open, through which the visitor walks into a large grassy plot. The building itself has clearly seen better days. There is no glass left in the window frames, bricks are beginning to come loose and there's an overall feeling of decay. But even so, one must remember that this factory was constructed in Germany, so a certain solidity remains.
We weren't alone here, even while walking through the grassy plot. We spotted a graffiti artist doing his thing, and there were a few other people walking their dogs or simply doing what we were doing: catching a glimpse of the old Ice Factory on a nice early summer day.
There aren't any locks to the factory - there aren't even doors anymore. There are lots of broken bottles, though, and one really cool old ice-making machine.
All of the walls inside had been painted. The floors were littered with bottles, paper, and empty spray cans. I also noticed something more interesting: people had moved into the factory and seemed to be living there. There was a grill at which a woman was cooking food on an upper floor, the smoke drifting out the empty windows and into the courtyard. In the photo at the left you can see a clothes line with clothes drying in the sun.
I suddenly felt like a voyeur peeking into a family's private home. I told myself that this was public land, that this family didn't "own" the building, any more than I own the park down the street from my apartment. Unfortunately, my internal thought process was interrupted by a glass bottle that suddenly hit me in the chest. One of the group's members, presumably, had his own thoughts about who had a right to enter the factory. And I wasn't one of those people. Not wanting to start a confrontation, I made a quick exit out the building and back onto the street.
My own unpleasant experience notwithstanding, the fate of the Ice Factory has become a politically delicate question. Nobody is arguing that the factory should be renovated and start producing ice again to preserve manufacturing jobs. Nor do I hear complaints about the loss of open space (Berlin already has a ton of green space). The issue is rather how fast Berlin is changing, how fast should it change, and who should control the process? On the one hand there are those who would tear everything down and build a shiny new building (one of the buildings on the site was torn down in 2010). On the other, there are those who want to preserve Berlin's history, derelict factories and all.
These two sides seem to fall into the same categories of those I discussed last week regarding rising rents. Do you want to develop Berlin's under-utilized spaces by tearing the old stuff down and starting fresh? Or do you want to let Berlin continue to develop organically, without the pressures and demands of developers? Your answer to that question probably dictates your opinion about what to do with the old Ice Factory.
I can't help but wonder whether there is a middle path, with a development agreement that allows the construction of a new residential building on the condition that the factory is preserved in some way. Whether this means incorporating the factory into the actual construction plan, or simply dedicating a certain percentage of revenue to ensuring the building does not fall down, is probably purely monetary.
For many Berliners, though, that's exactly the point. To many people, the problem is that money is doing all the talking, and they're being forced to listen. Whether the Ice Factory is ever torn down is not the main issue. The issue is whether ordinary people will have a say in the development of a city that they feel is their own, and is in danger of being hijacked by outsiders.