A Tree Grows in Wedding: Welcome to Das Baumhaus
Berlin is a city of ideas. It is a city of innovative start-ups, of cafes, pop-up shops and art galleries that all believe that ideas are worth pursuing. All these projects and innovations begin with a single seed of an idea, and in the case of the Baumhaus, this idea was planted one day almost ten years ago when Karen Wohlert, a German environmental activist, and Scott Bolden, a former New York-based designer and engineer, met on the S-Bahn.
The idea was simple: Karen and Scott had both recognized the need for more spaces in Berlin for meaningful engagement, places where artists, activists, environmentalists and change-makers could come together for collaboration and connection. They envisioned a place that would be not just another co-working space, bar, or café, but rather a hub—a meeting place in which to create and foster a community centered around sustainability and social change. As this idea for a community center developed, it grew into the premise for Das Baumhaus: an indoor tree-house in Wedding.
Why a tree-house? As the Baumhaus website explains, a tree-house evokes playful and imaginative memories of playing and creating together as children, and the design highlights the environmental aspect of the project. The model of Das Baumhaus is a surreal Gaudi-meets-Lord-of-the-Rings style, featuring a “tree” constructed around a central pillar which houses the second-story loft. Extensive greenery colors the space with a natural, forested aesthetic, and a vertical garden is planned to benefit from the south-facing windows of the Baumhaus.
What began as a conversation on the S-Bahn is now an extensive network with over three-hundred people from all over the world. Although the space is still in construction, estimated to be “Phase 1” fully functional by September 2016, the Baumhaus already hosts weekly bike-repair workshops, meetings, workshops, and open office hours. Additionally, the network of people behind the Baumhaus have also founded and hosted the Emergent Berlin Festival for the past three years. The festival aims to connect social and ecological projects with Berliners who want to learn more about sustainable initiatives and look for opportunities to engage.
What separates the Baumhaus from so many other start-ups and co-working spaces around the city is their unique inclusivity and community connection. The Baumhaus seeks to connect and unite the existing diverse population of Wedding as well as the ex-pat community. As signs all over the space proudly display, the Baumhaus is an “Open Greeting Zone”, meaning that anyone should feel comfortable introducing themselves to people they do not know or joining a group of strangers. As co-founder Scott describes, this idea is central to the Baumhaus, a place for meaningful engagement, where everyone is welcome. Scott tells a story from the Emergent Festival, where he noticed a group of Turkish women in headscarves sitting together at one of tables and went over to join them: “Since the entire area was an 'Open Greeting Zone', I decided to try it out. So I walked up to their table, sat down and said hello. What followed was an hour long fun, informative and engaging conversation. Not only were we cracking each other up but also figuring out how we could collaborate to make our neighbourhoods better places.”
In another story, Scott tells how he met some of the Roma men who were often hanging out on the sidewalk outside the Baumhaus, how after showing them the space, Scott invited them to an event that night. The event was an Improvisational Groove Orchestra (IGO), just one of many events happening in the raw space of the Baumhaus. The IGO is a candlelight improvised a cappella jam—just people standing in a circle, using their voices to build a sound and sing and collaborate together. Scott describes the group that night: “young Roma dudes, ex-pat hipsters, middle class German intellectuals, scruffy creative types and even a couple of retirees. We had some really authentic human connections between everyone and a really nice jam session that night.”
Besides connecting with the local community, the Baumhaus has already been in active collaboration with many other sustainability and social justice projects around Berlin as well as having forged connections with international activists. As anyone who has ever come up with an innovative and slightly eccentric idea already knows, realities must also be dealt with. After years of planning and strategizing, the Baumhaus has a thorough operating model and plans to generate income through several areas: space rentals, courses and workshop fees, and selling products and services from the network of collaborators. The project currently is hosting a crowdfunding campaign until July 17 to raise funds to finish construction on several projects.
What seems so surreal and yet so incredibly poignant and inspiring about the Baumhaus is its growth—from an idea to a tangible space and network of hundreds of people from different countries, backgrounds, and expertise. The Baumhaus seems to symbolize something about the dynamic nature of innovation and growth in Berlin, that an idea is worth believing in.
By Selene Ross