“We found this studio by absolute coincidence”, explains Johanna Dumet while touring the grandiose entrance hall of the Villa Heike. “We stumbled upon a little ad on Kleinanzeigen. It was by the architect, who was simply testing out if he could find any interest for this space.” She laughs, and adds: “Well, he found us!” Johanna, who is a young painter from France, shares the new studio in the villa’s top floor apartment with her partner Manuel Wroblewski, a German sculptor and installation artist. The couple invited us to explore the turbulent history and magnificent architecture of their new residence

Villa Heike

Not until long ago, the Villa Heike had been abandoned: since the beginning of the 1990s, the building has been an empty shell. Located on the outskirts of Berlin in Hohenschönhausen next to a former prison, it had been used by the Stasi during the Cold War era. It was only recently saved from its demise by the architect Christoph Schubert, who bought the house and modernized it. Since the beginning of 2019, Villa Heike hosts artists’ studios such as Johanna’s and Manuel’s, as well as offices and a showroom.

Abandoned Villa Heike - copyright Digital Cosmonaut
Abandoned Villa Heike – copyright Digital Cosmonaut

The Villa Heike was built in 1910/1911, from the plans of the architect Richard Lotts. As we take a walk through the building – its mighty entrance hall already imposing -, the artists passionately recount the story of the villa. In the beginning of the 20th century, businessman Richard Heike became a wealthy man by industrializing the production of meat and sausage making machines. As his business grew, he decided to build himself a headquarter and home on the outskirts of Berlin in Hohenschönhausen – the Villa Heike was born

The building was constructed by an at the time advanced method of reinforced concrete skeleton with an unusual blend of functions. Heike wanted to show off his wealth, and here, he had it all: a 9,5 meters high vestibule designed like a Doric Temple, used as a showroom for his machines, two floors for his offices and a 340m² penthouse with balcony (for his wife and five children) and view on his factory. “Can you imagine,” Johanna asks. “There were palm trees outside of this building!” She points to the neighboring parking lot. Well, there’s a Lidl now.

Villa Heike: History & Future

Until 1945, the villa was the seat of Heikes factory for meat processing machinery, where Soviet forced laborers were also employed during the war. The house survived the Berlin bombardments unscathed, and the Heike was shot by Soviet soldiers soon after they invaded. After a brief period of use by the Soviet secret service NKWD, the villa became the property of the Stasi in the early 1950s, which set up its secret, strictly secured archive for cataloguing and evaluating NS files. The house was now part of the infamous “Sperrbezirk” around the Stasi prison, which existed only as a dark spot on East Berlin city maps. After the fall of communism, the vacancy finally followed, at first still interrupted by sporadic interim uses, then definitely: Villa Heike sank into a deep sleep for over 20 years.

The morbid history of the building stands symbolically for Berlins rapid transformation throughout the years: While I adore how well preserved the villa still stands, it also leaves me feeling quite uneasy to know its now being used as yet another “creative hub” for affluent businesses and artists. “We consider the atelier at Villa Heike a chance”, Johanna comments. “It’s not cheap to be in such a prime location, but it’s worth it: for once, we can actually show our art in a worthy context, and with loads of space.”

“We consider the atelier at Villa Heike a chance”, Johanna comments. “It’s not cheap to be in such a prime location, but it’s worth it: for once, we can actually see our art in a worthy context, and with loads of space

Johanna Dumet

As you should: the atelier of Johanna Dumet and Manuel Wroblewski sports a bathtub in the middle of the living room, is decorated with giant sculptures of bananas and garlic bulbs hanging from a wooden-sculpted ceiling, and is surrounded by colorful big format oil-paintings.

Johanna Dumet's studio at the Villa Heike penthouse
Johanna Dumet’s studio at the Villa Heike penthouse

Discover more of Johanna’s and Manuel’s works during their Gallery Weekend 2019 exhibition “FIRE” at Villa Heike, Freienwalder Str. 17, 13055 Berlin (M5 Freienwalder Str / M6 Genslerstr), open April 26 from 6-9PM and April 27 & 28 from 3-7PM and check out their work on Instagram @johanna_dumet and @manuel_wrobleswki