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.
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.
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.