BERLIN -- Tucked away in a tired, inner courtyard in Germany's capital city, the former vacuum cleaner factory with broad cement floors and tall, industrial ceilings might have been destined for private residency -- or even demolition in the least visionary of hands.
But when long-time friends Sarah Vollmer and Silke Lorenzen happened upon the empty space three years ago, it was clear this would become the living room to which they would invite the rest of the world.
Recruiting neighborhood artists and local materials alike, Vollmer and Lorenzen crafted their original vision of an "Agency for Everything" into a cozy, yet fanciful recreation of a traditional German camping ground. Complete with refurbished travel trailers, upcycled huts and cabins for guests to spend the night -- plus a cafe, summer garden and occasional restaurant -- the communal space became known to guests and neighbors as the small-feel, big-city getaway Hüttenpalast, or "Cabin Palace."
"There's something very bourgeois, very square, about German garden-camping culture -- these funny stories where a man cuts his neighbor's rose bush in half because it's growing over the fence," Vollmer said.
The stereotypical German camping or "garden colony" experience -- in which typically orderly Germans venture out to connect (and sometimes conflict) with disorderly nature -- is simultaneously revered and loathed in Germany.
"But on the other hand, there's something incredibly endearing -- and even enduring -- about it. Life there is enough, things function and no one is trying to get anywhere. It's something indescribable that we wanted to bring here," she added.
The travel trailers come with a sense of cultural import and nostalgic charm: One model, pet-named the Little Sister, is made of light plastic -- a design characteristic that enabled the official East German car, the Trabant, to pull it on just two cylinders. Another West German model, called the Swallow's Nest here, was so widely produced at one time, that a couple celebrating their silver anniversary at Hüttenpalast was able to relive their honeymoon in the same model 50 years later.
"These are the people we love meeting here," Vollmer said. "Someone came in from Siberia recently, and I could only think about how incredible it is that someone has come all that way to allow me to host them in my living room."
Vollmer said she and Lorenzen had always envisioned a simple, communal space with minimal distractions:
"When you visit a city like Berlin, there's already so much sensory input, that you really need a place at the end of the day where you can relax. I can feel as at home as if I were sitting in my own living room. I can use this space to process the impressions of the day."
At the same time, the Hüttenpalast occasionally plays host to community events, the works of local artists hang in the cafe, and overnight guests are highly likely to cross one another's paths -- often enough to become friendly with one another, be it in the indoor "camping" space, the cafe or at dinnertime.
"Here, a 60-year old man from Switzerland staying in one caravan can come in contact with a 20 year old backpacker from Australia -- and then suddenly you see them in the bar next door talking over a beer," Vollmer said.
Born and raised in the German capital, she says the city's many pervasive "shortcomings" may be just the reason success stories like Hüttenpalast emerge in Berlin.
"Since the reunification of East and West Berlin, you could really feel the city's cracks, that it's broken in many places, and that a bunch of things don't function in the classic sense," Vollmer said. "But in place of that deficit, Berlin offers a completely unique set of possibilities and open room to play and develop ideas. People are coming from other countries to be a part of this."
Lorenzen and Vollmer have been approached about possibly expanding Hüttenpalast to other cities like Cologne -- but Vollmer says that would miss the point.
"I couldn't imagine this another way: We're happy to be small. It's a little bit as if we're personally hosting guests in our own home, which I think makes such a difference to the anonymous experience you get when you check into a hotel with 1,800 standard beds, complete the typical check-in process, and in the end you're basically just a number."
PHOTOS: Jan Brockhaus