Open House
How the PalaisPopulaire rethinks Art, Culture & Sports

With the PalaisPopulaire, Deutsche Bank is opening an innovative platform that brings together Art, Culture & Sports on Unter den Linden boulevard. The house not only seeks to combine different interests, but also different cultures, approaches, and views on the world. Achim Drucks met the makers of the PalaisPopulaire.
„We want to move away from unwieldy, often elitist concepts of art and culture,” says Josephine Ackerman. From the balcony of the former Prinzessinnenpalais, one has a magnificent view of the city. Traffic moves along Unter den Linden boulevard. Car roofs sparkle in the sunlight. Behind the Humboldt Forum, the television tower rises into the clear blue sky above Berlin. One can feel Ackerman’s enthusiasm for this house, whose very name makes a statement: PalaisPopulaire. It conjures up encounter and dialog, sounds like a place where people can experience and talk about art and culture—but also a little like the populace has conquered a palace. “No, this is not a new People’s Palace,” says Ackerman with a laugh. And the “POPulaire” does not mean the focus is on Pop art. Rather, it is a new and innovative concept intended to give as many people as possible access to art, culture, and sports. It is meant to be popular, open to all, yet without sophistication falling by the wayside. And of course the new house is also supposed to provide enjoyment.

Ackerman is Deputy Head of Art, Culture & Sports. The unit, directed by Thorsten Strauß, was formed in 2016. It bundles the bank’s artistic, cultural, and sports activities and creates new formats for cultural and sporting encounters. Right after Art, Culture & Sports was established, Strauß had a clear vision: He wanted it to be an open house that not only showcases the bank’s activities in these three areas, but that also links them in novel ways. Before the opening, the media jokingly asked whether gymnastics would be performed in the garden. The answer: Why not?

Indeed, there will be sports workshops that will take participants to the area around the building and into the city. During exhibitions there will be music and DJ sets, and promenade concerts will move through the building. Athletes will discuss issues with actors and artists. Exhibitions of Post-Internet art will be mounted, including the solo show of the Lebanese artist Caline Aoun, Deutsche Bank’s “Artist of the Year” 2018/19.

As a global company, Deutsche Bank stands for a global art concept. But the bank is aware of the fact that even in Western countries many are becoming more critical of globalization. “With the PalaisPopulaire, we are very consciously sending a signal of openness and creating a free space where new and lateral thinking is possible,” says Ackerman. She adds: “We offer a program that includes socially relevant topics and at the same time enables joint experiences. In doing so, we rely on the strengths of different disciplines: the openness and sensuality of art and culture; the fairness, competitiveness, and team spirit of sports.”

Sounds good. Yet one wonders how fairness and motivation in sports can inspire a forum for art and culture. Until one meets Ben Scheffler. The thirty-yearold is a partner of PalaisPopulaire and will soon offer Parkour workshops in the house.

Scheffler does not embody the cliché of the urban acrobat who leaps from roof to roof and performs daredevil choreographies on building walls. “That is only a small part of the hard training involved,” he says. He repeatedly emphasizes that Parkour is not a competitive sport, not a solo show. “The movement comes from French banlieues, the suburbs where different ethnic groups collide, where there are problems and violence. Through training, young people there have managed to distance themselves from these problems and have inspired others to follow in their footsteps.”
Thus, he does not view Parkour merely as a physical experience, but also as a way of promoting personality development. “What can I do? What resources do I have? You become involved in exciting situations outside of your comfort zone. And then you try to find ways out. This can be done by well-heeled people, but also by people who have difficulties in life or have health problems.” Scheffler says he is looking forward to the different kinds of people who will attend the Parkour workshops, whose participants include artists, visitors, and, he hopes, bankers.

“We view ourselves as an open house that thrives on impulses provided by the audience and the participants,” says Svenja von Reichenbach, the director of PalaisPopulaire. “We want to bring various aspects of art, culture, and sports under one roof. But that doesn’t simply mean that synergies will be created and as many expectations as possible met. The idea of the ‘popular’ does not automatically mean that the offers are geared to the masses or are easy to consume. While we want to thrill our audiences, we also want to challenge them.”

Friedhelm Hütte, the curator of the opening exhibition of the PalaisPopulaire, affirms this idea. “The new house gives us the opportunity to present all facets of the Deutsche Bank Collection. In The World on Paper, we are showing conceptual, very reduced, abstract works. We present works relating to historical and political events, urban planning, technology, and digital media. Background information is needed to understand them. And we provide it. An app accompanying the exhibition can be used for different audio tours and furnishes very specific information on individual works. In addition, there is an educational program and workshops that shed light on the medium of paper and offer new experiences. We are trying to dispel any trepidation visitors may have about art history, complex topics, and sophisticated positions.”

At the same time, the aim is to decidedly break away from disciplines and categories, to dis pense with the cliché that art enthusiasts are not inter ested in sports, or vice versa. Under the motto “Moving Arts,” an experiment is being ventured at the Palais- Populaire that combines new technology with art and sports. “We are integrating an installation into the exhibition that works with the prizewinning software Tilt Brush, which translates movements into digital brushstrokes,” explains Ackerman. “We invite young athletes supported by Deutsche Bank to give free rein to their creativity. With Tilt Brush, you can create an artwork that represents your sport. In the process, energy, movement, and body control are transformed into abstract lines. Then, visitors can put on VR glasses and walk through the three-dimensional drawing they have made.” Asked whether this doesn’t represent a break with the usual understanding of art, von Reichenbach says: “Such breaks are intentional— throughout our program. We want to inspire reciprocal dialog between art and sports and are prepared to take unaccustomed routes to do so.”

The idea of creative deviance is already expressed by the appearance of the building. The rococo palace has modern architecture inside: clear, straight forms, visual axes, concrete pillars, and terrazzo floors. It was designed by the Berlin-based Kuehn Malvezzi office. But what seems to be a break with the historic shell is actually a continuation of history, as Wilfried Kuehn explains: “The building is historic, but in a different way than one might think.” The Prinzessinnenpalais, erected at the beginning of the eighteenth century, belonged to the Hohenzollern dynasty until 1918. It was the residence of the daughters of the Prussian King Frederick William III, three princesses, one of whom was even married to a Russian Czar. During World War II, it was damaged so severely that it had to be torn down. “What we see here is basically a new building from the early 1960s,” says von Reichenbach, “postwar architecture designed by the East German architect Richard Paulick. He reconstructed the facades of the original baroque building, but equipped the interior with a modern concrete structure.”

Indeed, this building, situated right next to the State Opera, breathes the history of the city. It tells of kings and wars, and of the modern era in the GDR. Even in East German times, the Opera Café was one of the most popular meeting places for Berliners and tourists. It also served as the setting for one of the most successful DEFA film productions, The Legend of Paul and Paula. Paul and Paula, the two protagonists of the 1973 movie, go dancing there. And in the mid-1980s, East Berlin’s subculture and fashion scenes met at the café.

“It was a place of pure joie de vivre, where people could experience something different,” recalls the actor Frank Büttner, a member of Frank Castorf’s ensemble at the Berliner Volksbühne. “Word spread in the city that interesting people from the New Wave scene met there and great music was played. Disco, the Philadelphia sound of Barry White, as well as the Temptations and Gloria Gaynor. Everyone could express themselves, through dance, through their look. I had bleach-blonde hair for a while, then cobalt blue. It wasn’t political. Models and many visual artists went there, and many university people. We lived freely, were inspired by this music. You lost two liters of water in the course of an evening. It didn’t matter. The most important thing was that your moves were right.”

“The ClubPopulaire intends to revive this tradition in an innovative manner,” says von Reichenbach. During every exhibition, well-known DJs will play music, which is transferred to the exhibition rooms. And the Opera Café, which after German unification attracted guests like Sophia Loren and Alain Delon with its legendary offer of more than 500 cakes, also has an innovative successor: LePopulaire. It is run by the catering company Kofler & Kompanie.

And as Branislav Cucic, Executive Head Chef of Kofler & Kompanie, explains, the cakes are baked by the same confectioner who supplied the Opera Café. He has also created a new torte for PalaisPopulaire. And there will be many novelties, says Cucic: “When the exhibitions close in the evening, the restaurant remains open until 11 pm. The culinary program is inspired by Berlin cuisine and interprets classic components of international gastronomy. The offer ranges from breakfast and lunch to dinner in the evening. And torte lovers are also indulged.”

Von Reichenbach says the house intends to draw Berliners as well as guests from around the world. “As an institution, the PalaisPopulaire meets very specific cultural and social conditions in the city. But we also rely on a globally oriented program. The idea of an ‘open house’ is very pragmatic. Ideally, guests will come to simply have a cup of coffee or to watch a sports event, but will then become curious and also view one of our exhibitions—or vice versa—and thus will take something truly new home with them.”