Two become one

Unification is at the heart of Kontorhaus, TOG’s first overseas venture

Comprising two separate buildings, Kontorhaus encapsulates Berlin as a city of contrasts.  The 19th-century half, with its Neoclassical facade and palatial proportions, has an illustrious past as the former Kronen Cafe – a glitzy hotspot for theatre-goers during the 1920s. Its minimalist Nineties counterpart, however, has a more brutal back story from the GDR era, sitting across from Checkpoint Charlie, the famous crossing point between East and West Berlin. 

Local architecture firm Weiss-Heiten was tasked with merging these opposing buildings in the heart of Friedrichstadt to create a unified office space that acknowledges the old and embraces the new, speaks of grandiosity and simplicity, and has both local and international appeal.  

‘What excites us more than the aesthetics is the beautiful energy and history that’s within the walls themselves,’ says Tobias Kohlhaas, founding partner of Weiss-Heiten. ‘It’s wonderful to add to this heritage and continue the legacy forward. I believe those that use the building will be able to sense the love and care that’s gone into crafting Kontorhaus and they, too, will become custodians.’ 

Weiss-Heiten takes a people-centric approach to its projects – an ethos that also runs deep at TOG. ‘It’s considering what people need, rather than what you want to do as an architect. We believe in “life balance” rather than work/life balance,’ he says. ‘If a large part of your life is work, it’s about enriching it – we wanted people to look forward to Mondays again.’ 

This was considered even in the finer details. A warm colour palette and rich materials including oak and brass evoke 1920s glamour, but more importantly, they were chosen because Berlin is predominantly dark for around eight months of the year. ‘It can be very depressing and we wanted people to feel happy in their workspace,’ says Kohlhaas. ‘We also introduced plenty of greenery, referencing the Botanic Garden as Berliners often go there in winter.’ 

The old building boasts soaring ceilings and vast windows, creating an atmosphere of easy elegance that lends itself to the more formal meeting areas. Curved glass partitions were installed in the Nineties office block to reference the original 19th-century archways and soften the minimalist architecture, while the raw-steel finish is a nod to the city’s ‘roughness’.  

While a considered use of materials creates a sense of cohesion internally, merging the two spaces pragmatically was more challenging due to differing levels in the old five-storey and new seven-storey building. ‘It was tricky connecting the two, with each floor requiring a bespoke approach,’ says Kohlhaas. ‘As a result there are a lot of stairs with intermediate levels. It’s a quirk of the building but also demonstrates its uniqueness.’ 

There was also the task of bringing TOG's UK-based ethos to Germany. ‘The UK feels more coherent despite its regionality, whereas it’s very different here; as the saying goes: “Berlin is not Germany, Germany is not Berlin”,’ says Kohlhaas.  

‘However, Berlin is most akin to London as a multicultural hub – it embraces difference. While the exterior is completely localised to Berlin in its stark contrast between old and new, the interior is perfectly aligned to TOG’s universal vision and is a more coherent space as a result. It was the perfect fit.’ 

Charlotte Luxford is a freelance design journalist and former editor of Grand Designs Magazine