This isn’t another essay bemoaning that Berlin has changed; I can take it that everything is more expensive, that finding an apartment is a nightmare, even that there are more twats with Soho House membership cards than ever before. After all, change is in the DNA of this city, it’s still an urban paradise, yadda yadda yadda…
However, at a time when more and more people are struggling to keep pace with the rising rents and many are being forced to contemplate life in the here-be-dragons outer rim of the city, is having Berlin’s most lavish apartments rubbed in our haggard, soot-dappled faces really acceptable?
For the blissfully unaware, Freunde von Freunden is an online interview-based magazine that was started in Berlin in late 2009. It showcases the alleged cream of the city’s creative world, with an emphasis on dazzling pictures of their homes – each profile has about 30 screen-filling images, sandwiched either side by a short intro and a Q&A session. It has now published a hardback book, established a partnership with Zeit magazine and extended to feature people in almost 50 cities worldwide.
And the key to this success? Well, success itself, as it happens. As the apartments get more and more sun-drenched, the ceilings just get higher and higher. Fresh fruit and flowers fight for precious space with home-baked sourdough loaves and bubbling cafetieres. Giant artworks loom above Chesterfield sofas while the subjects themselves, in varying states of studied nonchalance, chortle smugly about how affordable life is here: “Berlin is unconventional, not status-oriented, and still wonderfully unfinished.” It’s enough to make you want to puke all over your non-parquet floor.
Here’s a typical beginning to the interview: “Could you show me around your flat a bit?” // “Sure. Would you like another cup of tea?” // “Oh yes please.” It continues in this vein, presenting a couple that “exemplify Berlin’s contemporary cosmopolitan sensibility” or another whose “aesthetic is so rich because it’s surprisingly humble.” The answers are peppered with the journalist’s parenthesised reminders (laughter) of how jolly chummy (laughs) it all was.
Then there’s also the sparkly-eyed questioning: “What’s the secret ingredient behind your show’s success?” and “What is the reason for your happiness?” Now, in case you’re thinking that this sounds like any other interview you’ve ever read, or that seeing successful people lounge around their beautiful homes is nothing new, you’d be partly right. From Royals posing stiffly on the edge of their seats in Hello! magazine, to rappers stashing rolls of cash into shoe boxes under their four-poster beds on MTV Cribs, the voyeuristic formula is a tried-and-tested one. But it’s the self-congratulatory tone of “FvF” that makes it so disgusting – stemming from the concept that these people are simply friends of friends; both theirs and implicitly yours too.
The apartments might be beautiful, but this is not presented as unusual or exceptional, rather as the norm in 21st century Berlin. Because after all, we’re all living this lush life, right? And since we’re all so successful, why don’t we spend an afternoon immersed in languid mutual masturbation, smiling for the camera, and making some more money off the end result, eh? As long as we make sure as not to jizz all over the soft furnishings, everyone’s a winner.
The whole enterprise is unashamedly aspirational and they are selling their lifestyle to the reader. We’re talking quite literally here. Hover the cursor over a stunning artwork or a nice coffee table book – and guess what – a box conveniently appears showing where you might purchase such an item online. In their words: “We don‘t believe in traditional banner advertising that detracts from the overall design and content of our website.” In other words: “We’re going to cloak our aggressive advertising techniques in a not-especially-covert manner, thus making absolutely certain that our mates who run the overpriced furniture boutique on Auguststraße can still wring the best part of a grand out of your trust fund”. Of course, there’s no vulgar traditional advertising, which they know better than anyone else, isn’t that effective anymore. But there is a mysterious Bauhaus-like chair that crops up in practically every apartment and every other photo. Naturally for sale too, a snip at just €200. Not to mention the Adidas or Design Hotels collaborations.
Without a traditional industry or financial sector to its name, it’s true that Berlin doesn’t have the pinstriped ruling class that other big cities do. Freunde von Freunden refers to this make-up as: “Berlin’s new non-linear society.” I would say, however, that it must seem pretty damn linear to those currently being evicted from their apartments. So don’t be fooled into thinking there’s not an elite in this city – it just that they’re wearing bright Nike SBs and beanie hats. Same lizards, different masks.
For sure, I have more than a touch of apartment envy. Maybe I’ve lived in the Kottbusser Tor projects for too long. And I’ve definitely stepped over one too many methadone turds in my emergency stairwell. But still, I felt the need to say that the way Freunde von Freunden presents these Berlin apartments and lifestyles is simply not alright. And it’s not even the people featured either. This isn’t intended to be an eat-the-rich rhetoric. I’m not so different from them – just maybe younger or less successful. They live in bohemian opulence and that’s fine – sort of. But when it’s showcased so lavishly and shown to be so standard (just friends of friends, innit) then it ceases to be OK for me. Especially at a time when so many are barely able to afford the new rents in this ‘new non-linear Berlin’.
No one likes being turned into Kevin from Home Alone, cold and snotty nosed at the window, staring in at the glorious homes and beaming smiles. And personally, I would be way more interested in the stories of those who don’t live such perfectly charmed existences. The unheard voices of Berlin. Those without an Instagram account and a back-patting network of creatives. The Freunde von Niemand perhaps? Though I don’t suppose the mega-brands would be lining up to be associated with that project.
All image credits: © 1, 2, 3 & 6 Ailine Liefeld, 4. Mirjam Wählen, 5. Guido Castagnoli (Freunde von Freunden). Republished under the ‘Fair Use’ rule of copyright for the non-commercial purpose of commentary or criticism.