Imagine a space where actors of societal transformation can do their work, healing the rifts of soil, soul and society. At once and in harmony. Regenerating the earth beneath our feet, reconnecting with all that is possible and rebuilding a more sustainable future. There is now such a place. A fresh layer of functionality has been added to a site of creativity and storytelling, where agents of positive evolution are invited to create a new story and, with their respective actions, transmit an overall message to today’s world. This environment is set to continue into the future, growing and expanding. A pioneering landscape.

Just south of Berlin city centre, near the historic Tempelhof Airport, lie the former BUFA film studios. Films have been made here since the earliest days of German cinema, from Paul Wegener’s silent expressionist horror picture The Golem (1920) (with sets by architect Hans Poelzig) to Bob Fosse’s Oscar-winning historical drama Cabaret (1972). But in recent years the six-acre site has struggled, due to major film studios requiring larger, more advanced spaces or preferring to shoot on location.

“It was strong in its time, but it had lost its way,” says Clive Nichol, chief executive at Fabrix, a London-based property developer. Hearing those words, you might expect that BUFA is destined to follow in the footsteps of Television Centre or Gainsborough Studios, and become flats. But this isn’t London, it’s Berlin, and Fabrix isn’t your typical developer. BUFA is instead becoming Atelier Gardens, a unique campus for activists, campaigners and good causes of all kinds, with its tenants including Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg’s organisation Fridays For Future. And now it is being extended with new facilities designed by Dutch architectural practice MVRDV.

Atelier Gardens – a brand name derived from BUFA, Berliner Union Film Ateliers – is a product of the remarkable urban culture of Germany’s capital city. “Berlin has such a strong activist base,” Nichol informs. It is a centre for campaigning and progressive causes across social justice, human rights and the environment. But, as is often the case in European capitals, these organisations face increasing pressure to find affordable facilities, resulting in other disadvantages. “Previously [they] had all been quite siloed within their causes,” says Nichol. But their campaign issues are interlinked. “They are heavily overlapping; they need to be together.”

In order to make the most of every euro-cent of funding, these organisations often find themselves in the leftover, in-between spaces of a city, which raises intriguing questions about how one would design a campus specifically for them. What are the spatial needs of activists? How could premises be designed for them? BUFA may have had a long and important history, but it had not left a legacy of distinguished architecture. “What you see is a real mishmash, a real patchwork, there’s no masterplan,” Nichol remarks. “It’s a site that is very industrial in nature – that’s the case with a lot of film sites, people think they’re very glamorous but in truth they’re very industrial.”

Conveniently, though, this unlovely but significant heritage actually offers what many of the organisations need. “A lot of these groups are distributed across the world, and the way they engage now is digitally, [through] very strong online communities,” Nichol explains. This means that much campaigning is done via the media, podcasts, documentaries and so on – “storytelling”, as Nichol puts it. Fabrix acquired the studios in 2019 and, so far, its main intervention has been to landscape the site, digging up concrete and planting greenery that will help clean the soil. Rainwater is collected and recycled. It’s Nichol’s intention that the site embody the sort of sustainable practises its tenants promote – which of course will help them feel comfortable locating there...

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Nurture Studies; Soil, Seed, 2011 / Greenhouse View #4, 2016.

BUFA, historical picture

BUFA Berlinale

BUFA Berlinale, screening

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