An ornately carved Moroccan door leads through the large Berliner Zimmer —a spacious room connecting the front and back houses—to the bedroom in Kasia Korczak and Payam Sharifi’s apartment in a classic Gründerzeitwohnung (Industrial Era building) in Moabit, an inner city locality of Berlin.
Sharifi says that, when the door is closed, it has a tromp l’oeil effect: guests often don’t realise that it’s a real door. “Because it doesn’t fit in with that environment—there’s this traditional Moroccan door squeezed into a 19th-century house—[they assume that] it’s a sculpture or a wall piece,” he says. “They don’t think it opens up.” But it does, and it has a curious psychological impact. “There’s an ‘Open Sesame’ effect of opening an old wooden door, as opposed to a modern door, which makes the passage into the bedroom more pronounced, separating the private space from the more public realm of the home,” he says.
A NECESSARY TRANSITION
Prior to renovating the apartment, Korczak had already decided to include the door in the plans. As their architect Marc Benjamin Drewes, who worked in collaboration with German design firm Schneider Oelsen, recalls, “The first time we walked into the space, it was already lying on the floor.” He freely admits that he would never have been bold enough to include it in a renovation, but loves its effect.
The Moroccan door also marks an important transition in the apartment between the spaces with original 19th-century features—which were restored—and a contrasting, more modern section where new walls were added to accommodate bathrooms and where “we couldn’t rely on the old traditional look,” says Drewes. “Hence we went completely modern and did something without any details.”
Finding this apartment and moving in wasa significant turning point for Korczak and Sharifi. As co-founders of the art collective Slavs and Tatars, they and the other members of the collective had practiced apart, dotted across different cities around the world since they formed in 2006.
Sharifi is an American-Iranian writer, researcher, and artist from Texas who has lived and worked in London, New York, Paris, Moscow, and Tehran. Korczak, originally from Łódz, in central Poland, has lived, worked, and studied in London, Arnhem, and Brussels.
“It was essentially the first time we were both in the same city as a collective, so it was the first time we had a home and a studio,” says Sharifi.
They chose Berlin as their base for several reasons. Slavs and Tatars is a research-based artistic practice, concentrating on the region between the former Berlin Wall and the Great Wall of China. “Berlin is perfectly suited to accommodate those research needs,” says Sharifi. “It has the resources that you have at the Library of Congress in Washington DC, but also the Russian State Library in Moscow. So, in one city, you have access to research materials you would normally find only in a Slavic or Eastern city, or a Western city.”
Their current neighbourhood, Berlin Moabit, is situated slightly north of the city centre, near Tiergarten and the Reichstag. It was in the former West Berlin, but has working-class roots and was among the last neighbourhoods to gentrify. “It’s a microcosm of the whole of Berlin: most of the city is pretty communitarian, but here you have Germans, Turks, Africans, Arabs, and Eastern Europeans all within half a square kilometre,” says Sharifi.
NUANCES FROM THE PAST
The working-class roots of the area made the features of the apartment they found all the more exciting. “It had many original materials, and really extensive moulding on the ceilings,” says Drewes. “You don’t see that so much.” He thought of it as a diamond in the rough.
The 19th century Gründerzeit origins of the building were interesting to Korczak and Sharifi in terms of their artistic practice, too. Part of reason they formed Slavs and Tatars was to envision an alternative idea of modernity that does not so much rupture with the past as innovate within a tradition. Not only was the anonymous craftsmanship embodied in the ceiling mouldings an example of the kind of craft-based practice that they like to reconnect with in their own work, but it also evoked a pre-modern world view that many cultures have in common.