The illuminated Werksviertel Mitte building with white Ferris wheel against the evening sky

Party culture in Werksviertel

Work hard, party harder

Formerly a party district – now a desert of office blocks? Nothing of the sort. Werksviertel-Mitte has not lost its former character: the bars, restaurants and party places for nocturnal visitors have been deliberately integrated into the new area architecturally. As revealed by a tour with Johannes Ernst, architect and chief planner of Werksviertel-Mitte: it’s actually possible to combine work and partying in a single neighbourhood very effectively.

The importance attached to night-time eateries and entertainment in Werksviertel-Mitte becomes instantly apparent when the door is opened to a spacious, dusty room. A few empty beer crates are standing around, the walls are unplastered, the floor is made of rough concrete. But it's instantly obvious: this is the most sought-after spot in the entire area. There aren’t any interior fittings yet. But even now, the view through the metre-high panorama windows is stunning. Nowhere else on the entire grounds can you get as high as the 24th floor of Werk 4 at 86 metres.

Even now, the view through the metre-high panorama windows is stunning. Nowhere else on the entire grounds can you get as high as the 24th floor of Werk 4 at 86 metres.

Pfanni heir and developer Werner Eckart could have created a nice loft apartment here. The space could have been rented out for a lot of money to the four-star hotel on the floors below. Instead it will be a bar that is open to the whole city. In view of the sums involved – the construction of Werk 4 alone cost 115 million euros – the question immediately arises: why would anyone do it? A few hours and some detailed explanations later, you wonder: why doesn’t everyone do it?

The man who has answers to both questions stands on Knödelplatz (literally: “dumpling square”) in a windbreaker and down waistcoat and is delighted – at the large numbers of hungry people who will make their way across a temporary footbridge towards the square to have lunch at one of the numerous snack bars and restaurants housed in the adjacent Werk 3. “A few years ago there wasn’t even a passageway at this point,” says Johannes Ernst, who is managing partner of Steidle Architekten and chief planner of Werksviertel-Mitte.

A job that has kept him busy for a while and will continue to do so for a while longer. More than 1,000 apartments are to be built on the site within the next few years, a good 12,600 jobs and 1,000 hotel beds are to be created, and numerous leisure and culture spots will be newly established or preserved. And something else is going to be moving in here, too – or rather, returning: namely bars and clubs.

More than 1,000 apartments are to be built on the site within the next few years, a good 12,600 jobs and 1,000 hotel beds are to be created.

The Pfanni factory used to be located on the 40-hectare site near Ostbahnhof (Munich East): here, millions of tonnes of potatoes were processed into dumplings, pancakes and mashed potatoes every year. The company was sold in 1993, but the Eckarts – the proprietor family – decided to keep the factory premises. Plans for a new development emerged: apartments and office buildings, all neatly arranged in rows. Negotiations with the city authorities and neighbours proved difficult, however, and nothing came of the plans.

Instead, the Eckarts decided to lease the site for interim use. Kunstpark Ost came into being, later expanded into Kultfabrik, transforming Munich’s nocturnal scene to become the biggest nightlife district in Europe: studios, galleries, workshops, bars and arcades moved into the empty spaces. The gigantic silos where the potato flour used to be stored became a climbing hall, while the huge factory halls were converted into clubs, theatres and concert halls. If you lived in Munich at this time and wanted to party, you went to the Kultfabrik: hundreds of thousands did so every month for two decades.

Kunstpark Ost came into being, later expanded into Kultfabrik, transforming Munich’s nocturnal scene to become the biggest nightlife district in Europe.

There’s not much left of the colourful party strip today, at least not on the off-white miniature model at which Johannes Ernst is now standing to explain the future of the area. The development plan was completed in 2017. The city authorities and owners, wanted the former party district to become Werksviertel-Mitte – in other words, the neighbourhood had to grow up. But the nightlife scene was in mourning: party-goers saw urban development as a euphemism for an anonymous desert of office blocks, squeezing out vibrant urban culture simply to maximise profits.

If you ask chief planner Johannes Ernst about this accusation, he launches into a brief keynote speech that begins with a surprising admission: “It’s true, we actually forgot how to build urban culture,” says Ernst. The last time it was done successfully was in the years of rapid industrial expansion at the turn of the century – more than a hundred years ago, he says. The rents in Munich today suggest he is not entirely wrong in his assessment: neighbourhoods like Haidhausen and Schwabing are among the most popular in the city – and this is precisely where a lot of buildings from the Wilhelminian era are to be found. By contrast, Neuperlach still suffers from its reputation of being a disconnected satellite town: it was built on a greenfield site at the end of the 1960s.

Cities are exciting places to live providing everything isn’t tidily compartmentalised. In other words: quality of life results from diversity of usage.

The question of what makes cities attractive places to live in is something that has occupied Ernst throughout his entire career. He studied architecture in Berlin in the 1990s – “a time when East and West were growing together in a completely disorderly way”. He also spent a lot of time in New York, where he was able to observe the Meatpacking District transform into a vibrant, hip neighbourhood. These experiences gradually led him to draw two conclusions: cities are exciting places to live providing everything isn’t tidily compartmentalised. In other words: quality of life results from diversity of usage.

“Modern architecture sought to relieve an urban population plagued by industrialisation,” says Ernst. Dirty factories were banned from the inner cities, retail units were forced to give way to housing. Where people once slept, worked, shopped, produced, traded and partied within a very confined space, everything suddenly went quiet – and the atmosphere was dreary. “The segregation of life’s varied activities caused urban culture to go down the drain,” says Ernst.

And in Werksviertel-Mitte? The aim here is to do things differently. But Ernst isn’t going to explain exactly how this is going to happen – he’d prefer to demonstrate. So out we go, leaving the foyer with the miniature model and into Werksviertel-Mitte. First stop: Knödelplatz behind Werk 3, completed in 2016. “In development plans of this size, you always have to include a park – but never a town square,” says Ernst. “But that’s just what you need as a focal point for urban life.” At the southern end of the square is Werk 12, which opened in 2019 and won the 2021 German Architecture Museum’s Best Building of the Year Award. The facade has words written on it in huge capital letters: “AAHHH”, “OH”, “PUH”.

The square is covered with nondescript, diamond-shaped concrete paving. These are the original stones from the Pfanni factories, which were painstakingly preserved and in some cases even reproduced.

Before Ernst says anything about this eye-catching building, however, he first points to the ground. “Normally, everything would have been taken down here and we would have laid granite from China,” he says. Instead, the square is covered with nondescript, diamond-shaped concrete paving. These are the original stones from the Pfanni factories, which were painstakingly preserved and in some cases even reproduced. The old railway tracks on which the Pfanni products used to leave the factory premises have also been excavated and re-laid. Today, these can be used to move the gigantic flower pots and seating to make room for larger events when needed.

“The entire plan for Werksviertel-Mitte is based on the observation that everything a city needs was already in place before,” says Ernst. So the motto now is: “Don’t invent something new – find what’s already there.” For many of the clubs and bars that lost their premises when Kultfabrik was closed, the sensitive handling of the site’s distinctive character means that they can now actually return. The already fully operational Werk 3 already houses two clubs, several bars and a stage for live performances. There are also art studios on the upper floors and a spacious rooftop bar where events take place at irregular intervals. Several bars have moved into the prominent Werk 12, too, including Schlagergarten – this already existed in the days of Kultfabrik, and even back then it had a reputation for being wonderfully tasteless and entertaining.

For many of the clubs and bars that lost their premises when Kultfabrik was closed, the sensitive handling of the site’s distinctive character means that they can now actually return.

A club is also planned for the top floor of Werk 12 that is likely to become a genuine highlight simply by virtue of its location. To enable the club to operate at this height, an external staircase serving as an escape route was specially integrated into the facade of the building. Werk 7 – formerly a potato warehouse – has been converted into a theatre, but the buildings directly adjacent to it have been preserved so that they can continue to be used as concert halls.

If you add together all the bars, clubs and stages, the nocturnal entertainment and eateries in Werksviertel-Mitte should reach the same scale as at the height of the Kultfabrik. “Our aim was not to re-purpose the buildings in a way that would detract from their potential, but to adapt and enhance them,” says Ernst.

The plan seems to be working: with every month and every new bar that opens, Werksviertel-Mitte gets that bit livelier. In summer, when the large areas are used for outdoor catering, too, the hustle and bustle is already strongly reminiscent of the colourful hubbub that was typical of the Kultfabrik – even in spite of the fact that large parts of the area are still a construction site. This “simultaneous diversity of use” – as Ernst calls the concept for Werksviertel-Mitte – seems to be the perfect formula for lively and people-friendly new districts. So why are such projects so rare?

The building is rented out in such a way that the rent paid by the large insurance company partly finances the artists’ studios on the floor below.

“A lot of planners have a tendency to put like with like,” says Ernst. “But most people don’t want that at all.” As an example, he mentions Werk 3 again, which has more than two dozen different tenants accommodated in spaces ranging from eight to 4,000 square metres. The building is rented out in such a way that the rent paid by the large insurance company partly finances the artists’ studios on the floor below. “The artists benefit from cheaper rents, and the insurance employees are happy to be able to bump into someone who’s not wearing a tie for a change,” says Ernst. A concept of this kind is asking a lot of potential tenants, of course – and it is thanks to Pfanni heir and developer Werner Eckart that it is being implemented in the first place.

When a company make him an offer to rent 80 per cent of the offices in Werk 3, he declines: he wants small, agile companies rather than closed-off staff canteens and international chains. Meanwhile, chief planner Johannes Ernst is happy to be working for a client who has such a differentiated vision of urban culture. During the planning of Werk 12, he was able to ensure that the lifts did not run conveniently from the underground car park to all floors, for example. “That’s always been my dream,” says Ernst. People only get as far as the ground floor – at that point they have to change to another lift: in this way, Knödelplatz and the neighbouring restaurants are revitalised as if by magic.

Johannes Ernst wants small, agile companies rather than closed-off staff canteens and international chains

Despite all the enthusiasm for lively urban flair, however, it is certainly foreseeable that the large numbers of bars and restaurants will eventually cause annoyance among some residents. So Werk 1.4 will be specially extended and a lockable gate integrated, thereby sealing off the residential area behind it to some extent. However, the sounds emanating from the club on the top floor of Werk 12 could reverberate further than some neighbours would like. Johannes Ernst seems to be relaxed about this type of conflict: he firmly believes that the people who move in here will be aware of what they’re buying into. And he adds: “There are some things you just have to endure.” You might also say: conflict is a part of life – and life is what is supposed to be moving into Werksviertel-Mitte.

 

 

Text: Nansen & Piccard; Photos: Frank Stolle

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