The moveable kitchen in the Berliner Zimmer

berliner zimmer before

The Berliner Zimmer – a large room connecting the front and back houses of old buildings – is perhaps Berlin’s least popular distinctive architectural feature. With only a single window angled sharply to the yard, the room is often very dark, especially on lower floors, and its cut as a walkthrough room makes it incredibly awkward. Berliners have been complaining about the Berliner Zimmer basically since the moment 19th-century architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel invented it. Back in the late 19th and early 20th century, the apartments that had a Berliner Zimmer were larger: the room served as a connecting space between the “on stage” rooms in the front of the house where the bourgeois family resided and entertained guests and the “back stage” servants’ quarters, workrooms and kitchen. But now a lot of these old apartments have been chopped up into smaller ones, resulting in places like mine where the Berliner Zimmer is a sizable proportion of the total area – one of only two large rooms in the whole flat – which makes its unwieldiness a much bigger problem.

Too dark and corridor-like for a living room, too exposed for a bedroom, my Berliner Zimmer went through many awkward incarnations as a much-resented unused-dining-room-and-storage-area until I finally hit on the perfect solution: moving the kitchen in there. I mean, a kitchen is a room you’re going to use regardless of whether the light conditions are nice, and it doesn’t much matter if it’s a walkthrough. The kitchen had previously been in a small, non-walkthrough room at the back of the apartment that actually makes a perfectly suitable child’s bedroom, so moving the kitchen into the Berliner Zimmer not only made a big useless room useful and gained me a much larger kitchen, it also turned a one-bedroom apartment into a two-bedroom apartment (if you’re counting rooms in the American style; in the German style of room-counting it is and remains a three-room apartment). Moving the kitchen has made my apartment vastly more livable.

berliner zimmer

At this point, especially if you’re in an anglophone country, you may be wondering whether the fact that I undertook such a major renovation suggests that I own this apartment: nope, I’m a renter. In Germany the culture of rental apartments is very different: along with buying their own appliances, renters tend to make much more significant changes to their living spaces. Is this a waste of money? Well, clearly I’m not going to gain anything in property value from my kitchen, so it would be stupid of me to install marble countertops or something, but I think the improvement in the functionality of my apartment (whose low rent is due at least in part to its awkward layout) is worth the roughly €900 in plumber’s and electrician’s fees that it cost me to have the kitchen moved. It would certainly cost me more than that to move to a better apartment – and more than that to have a professional Hochbett built, which is the far less satisfactory way many people deal with a Berliner-Zimmer-afflicted apartment. If you’re a fellow Berlin renter with a Berliner Zimmer who would like to copy this idea, be aware that you need to get your Hausverwaltung‘s permission first. This is a lengthy bureaucratic process which may entail such stumbling blocks as needing the consent of downstairs neighbors who are in Turkey for the next six months.

I hesitated to post this because my kitchen is not finished: I still want to move out the bookshelves, paint the rest of the walls blue, organize my son’s Bastel-area better, etc. The picture of my kitchen is still a “during”, not an “after” like a design blog would have. But my whole life feels more like a “during” than a “before/after” – as do, I’d suspect, a lot of people’s lives, which is why the design blog before/after narrative sometimes feels uncomfortably close to being the 30-year-old’s version of the teen magazine makeover narrative. Also, a “before/after” is supposed to have more flattering lighting conditions in the “after” –  what I have is the opposite of this. The “before” picture was taken in May, pretty much the only time of year when my Berliner Zimmer gets direct sunlight, and the “after” was taken on this sunless October day.

war damage cat pee

On the old pitch-pine boards in the middle of my Berliner Zimmer, underneath the green rug, there is a large, dark multi-splotch stain. For years I assumed this stain to be some sort of war damage, and found it vaguely spooky. Only after a friend in Ohio mentioned moving into an old house with cat pee stains on the floorboards did this ickier and less sinister possibility occur to me. Two tenants ago a woman with cats lived in my apartment. Realizing this far likelier origin of the stain in my floor, I was equal parts relieved and disappointed.

8 thoughts on “The moveable kitchen in the Berliner Zimmer

  1. What a smart idea. It never occurred to me that a kitchen could be moveable. My apartment enlarging strategy was to outsource my office. Anyway, funny that you count the different colored walls and the bookshelves as unfinished business. Those were the two things that struck me most as features I like in your kitchen!

  2. Thank god you’ve given me permission to hate the Berliner Zimmer. In what seems like an endless apartment search (3 years and counting), I’ve come across listing after listing where the Immobilienmakler extolls the existence of the Berliner Zimmer in an apartment as if it is something wonderful and unusual. (Almost as ridiculous was the incident last week, when the real estate guy showing us around a not particularly beautiful and absurdly expensive Wedding apartment exclaimed, “AND it’s a Staffelmietsvertrag!” as if this were something good for prospective renters and we should rejoice.)

    “Why,” I asked myself for a long time, “would they list a Berliner Zimmer as a plus when practically all apartments have it and it is dark and dank and a weird shape and generally useless, and worse still, a reminder of better times, when apartments weren’t chopped up into little tiny cells to allow for maximum rent extortion?”

    Now I know that someone else hates them, I feel like my entire world has been turned upside down. But in a good way.

  3. Giulia, I think a lot of people hate them – or at least, the hate has been going on for a long time. Apparently there were complaints about them in 19th century Berlin newspapers. Selling a Berliner Zimmer as a plus (unless they’ve already done the work of putting the kitchen in there for you, which seems to be the case in some of the higher-end apartments on my street) is almost as ridiculous as selling a Staffelmietvertrag as a plus. And SO MANY Berlin apartments, even big apartments, seem to have the kitchen tucked away in some remote small room, which does not at all fit contemporary sensibilities re. cooking being a social activity and the kitchen a social space.
    Leslie, I like the blue color so much that I feel emboldened to put it on all the walls (design blogs, with which I have a love-hate relationship, tell me a bold color on all the walls is actually a good idea in rooms that don’t get much natural light), and I feel like it’s maybe not good for books for them to live in a kitchen (not that my books are rare hardcover first editions or anything)?

    1. Well, since I can’t see the whole room or the exact color of blue, I definitely am not trying to convince you one way or the other. In the photo the single blue wall just struck me. Not sure about the design blog wisdom — I think bold, *dark* rooms can feel kind of like caves unless there’s lots of sun. But a bold, lighter color like the blue could be good!

      I didn’t consider of welfare of the books. I guess you are right to get them out of there, as my cookbooks got a little sticky when they lived in my kitchen. I guess you’d have to put them behind glass doors or get a range hood for your stove (I’d love one of those!) Too bad though, they look so friendly there!

  4. Jane, with your “during” photo you used the trick of turning on all of the lights. It works so well to fool the eye, especially with what looks like natural light still hitting the floor. Nicely done!

    I’m very much enjoying your blog writing. I stumbled over as I was surfing Berlin sites in anticipation of a visit next year.
    Courtney

    1. Oh funny, I didn’t know that was a trick. The reason all the lights are on is because it was so dark inside – it can be super dark during the day here, as you may or may not discover depending on what time of year you visit.

    1. Strangely enough, I feel like I have heard a story where all the tenants in a Berlin building got together and split the cost of having an elevator installed. But maybe I’m confused and those people owned their apartments. In any event, it wasn’t cheap (like maybe €5000 per apartment, though I’d hope the people on higher floors paid more than people on lower floors?).

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