Using only the lights from our phones to guide us, we climbed up and up -- eleven steps, turn a corner, repeat.
Panting unashamedly, we emerged into the big, dark space, which was lit only by a shaft of light from one window. I could hear the echo of my own astonished voice as I looked up to see a figure representing heaven and one representing hell reaching around the inside of the dome at the top of the tower, fingers touching, as though holding the space between and all of us in it in a reluctant embrace.
I'm at Berlin's Teufelsberg Field Station, a former listening post for the US National Security Agency, known for its giant white bubbles on top of the facility that look like a collection of moons. Abandoned for many years, Teufelsberg is taking on a new lease on life as an art exhibition space.
The amazing acoustics of the top dome mean that these days it is used for jam sessions and even small gigs, but it was a different case during the Cold War. British and American agents used the four white globes at the facility to spy on the Soviet Union.
The spheres were put together via many teflon triangles, each one unique and arranged according to a complex mathematical problem in order to best create the ball shape, and would only allow information to pass in and not out. They also served to shield whatever technology -- something that even today is a mystery -- was hidden underneath.
When the NSA left in the early '90s, it took all its equipment with it. Reports about the activities that took place at Teufelsberg are classified until 2022. But even then, we may not find out much. Marvin Schutte, the current landlord of the site, believes that when the information is finally made public, the bulk of it will be redacted.
That would be a shame, I said to him, as we squinted into the late afternoon sun at the makeshift bar he has set up in front of the station, but he shook his head. "I don't care actually about the past," he said. "Looking forward is better."
And his forward-looking vision for the place is already taking shape. In 2016, he officially opened Teufelsberg to the public (although people have been stumbling upon it in one way or another for years) charging them 8 euros for access, and another 7 euros for a photo pass. In May, he announced a more ambitious renovation of the site to make it fit as "a natural cultural space."
Eventually there will be more indoor gallery space, as well as a little museum with some history. Schutte's main focus right now though is infrastructure -- putting in lighting, water, windows, heating.
Then there are the jam sessions, the street art that occupies the inside and outside of most of the buildings, the little bar with up-cycled furniture dotted around -- these are all already feeding into the renovation.
There are enough places in Berlin for partying, said Schutte. He wants locals and tourists alike to come to Teufelsberg to chill out.
"If you have a stressed week in Berlin, you come up here Saturday, sit around, listen to music, see art, talk to artists and just enjoy silence and free time," he said.
From espionage to art
Teufelsberg, meaning "devil's mountain," is actually the name of the man-made hill on which the Field Station sits. The site was chosen for its height rather than its obscure location, but the fact that it's situated slap-bang in the middle of the Grunewald forest, requiring at least 30 minutes of uphill hiking to reach it from an S-Bahn train, does enhance the sense that it's shrouded in mystery.
Nyika Mukada is one of several artists who works at Teufelsberg doing tours, running the payment desk and arranging space for visiting street artists to come and do their thing. Artists can call up several weeks before arriving and book a wall upon which to spray or paint. "We support sport and art and culture," he told me, as we wandered between the murals.
Keen to show me one of his favorites, Mukada directed me to a photorealistic portrait of woman created by artist Nick Flatt, who spent 17 hours per day for ten days painting the woman and the words that surround her. "Fuck Facebook," "Fuck NSA," "Fuck Brad Pitt," they read.
This anti-espionage, anti-politics tone is echoed in other works around the complex. Schutte seems more keen to encourage a certain vibe rather than furthering a specific political agenda, but many of the artworks at Teufelsberg hint at underlying anarchist and anti-statist sentiments that are self-consciously at odds with the setting.
Teufelsberg really is a place of great natural beauty and while it could be interpreted as decaying, it is actually being reclaimed, not just by artists, but by nature too. From a 360-degree platform half way up the tallest tower, Mukada pointed out the lake of Wannsee, shimmering in the distance on the far fringes of the forest. In the other direction is Berlin's skyline. "And look, we are still being spied on today," he joked, gesturing to a red and white radio tower in the direction of the Olympic Stadium.
As part of the regeneration project, there will be no new buildings because the area is protected. "What you see is what you get," said Schutte.
His vision for Teufelsberg runs counter to what one developer wanted to do with the place, which was, in Mukada's words: "to turn it into the Beverly Hills of Berlin." On one floor the mock-up of a model apartment still stands, but it's now just another canvas for artists.
"Berlin is so much more than money," said Schutte. "The place is really precious. You can do much more here than just take some rich people inside."
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