When Yiliu Shen-Burke and Taylor Dover were reached, via the marvels of modern technology, on a recent spring day, the birds outside their Berlin, Germany, apartment were celebrating the season—and loudly. Shen-Burke and Dover’s feathered neighbors, like the couple themselves, make the most of a nest at the edge of Görlitzer Park in the city’s Kreuzberg neighborhood. But instead of a treetop, the couple’s flat is on the top floor of a five-story altbau (an old building that predates modernism) and has a nondescript exterior that hides their apartment’s very good bones.
“It’s a relatively normal Berlin apartment for the layout, the space, and the quality of it,” says Dover. But what lies beyond its windows—or rather, what doesn’t—is what makes it special for the couple. “When I stand in the living room and look out the window, all I see are trees. When you look out the back window, it’s also all trees. It looks like we live in a forest.”
Six years ago, Shen-Burke, a tech entrepreneur, and Dover, a designer in artist Olafur Eliasson’s studio, each found themselves arriving in Berlin over the same weekend. “There’s proof that we booked the tickets way before we even met each other,” Shen-Burke says, laughing. Dover had secured a job in Eliasson’s studio and Shen-Burke was visiting as a tourist. As fate would have it, Dover’s apartment fell through just as Shen-Burke was deciding to stay in the city.
“After dating for a week, we moved in together, just a block away from where we live now,” says Dover. “And that was six years ago.” Görlitzer Park has been an anchor of their time in Berlin, a place they’ve always lived near. Many of Berlin’s green spaces were formerly the sites of structures destroyed during World War II. Görlitzer Park, for instance, was once a train station.
“Many buildings were just missing suddenly, and they weren’t built back because people started to use them as parks, informally,” he explains. “They somehow became formal parks over time. Now, developers aren’t allowed to buy them.”
The couple is fond of the Kreuzberg neighborhood for many reasons, and, unlike in other desirable cities like New York City, Paris, or London, the cost of an apartment isn’t as tied to location. “I would say, generally, you can choose where you want to live based on qualities other than price,” says Shen-Burke, noting the neighborhood’s Landwehr Canal, artistic community, numerous cafes, and the cultural and ethnic diversity of its residents as the area’s main draws.
After several years of apartment hopping, the couple was ready to find something more permanent, and in 2017 they got lucky: Instead of going through the regular channels, they were able to scoop up a lease that needed new signees.
“The normal process for applying for apartments involves a real estate agent, a viewing, and you and a hundred other people putting your names into a hat, if it’s a nice place in a nice neighborhood,” says Shen-Burke. “But if the current tenants are looking for replacements for their lease, then they have a great deal of say over who gets it; they choose three names and forward those onto [the landlord].” The two women moving out did just that, paving the way for them to take occupancy.
While the building’s exterior is a bit rough around the edges, the apartment was in great condition, with high ceilings, parquet floors, and broad windows. It was spacious, too, which was important: Dover dreamed of a large table that could accommodate dinner parties for 12, serve as a desk, or be a home for architectural models.
Americans might be surprised to find that in Berlin apartments, tenants have to supply their own kitchens. “When you get an apartment, it just has a pipe coming out of the wall; there are no cabinets,” Dover explains. “It’s just literally the plumbing.” Fortuitously, the two women moving out wanted to sell theirs, so Shen-Burke and Dover inherited it. “It’s not really our style, but it’s also kind of cute,” says Dover.
“I think we’ve been very judicious when we’ve added furniture, bookshelves, or lamps or lights,” says Shen-Burke, noting that the apartment felt a bit spare for the first year. But as time wore on, they accumulated more objects—like chairs, gifted to them by Shen-Burke’s family each Christmas, and plants, one of Dover’s hobbies.
“It’s kind of my obsession,” he admits of the 30 to 40 plants throughout the home. None of the plants are older than six years, having only been acquired since he arrived in Berlin, a poignant measure of the length of the couple’s relationship. “We’ve somehow slowly grown them all over the years, and the really big ones we’ve had for six years. The little ones are maybe a gift from a friend or a new clipping,” says Dover.
While there have been times when they’ve contemplated leaving the city, Dover says they have somehow always returned, physically or mentally. It’s a testament to the affordability of Berlin and, these days, to the serenity of their home.
“We live in a busy neighborhood of the city, and if I walk to the window, then I realize I’m on a street full of buildings and there’s tons of people outside,” says Dover. “People walk into the living room, and they’re like, ‘Oh my God, where am I?’ They know where they came in on the street and it feels very strange. It’s really nice that it feels like you’re not in the city at all when you’re sitting on the couch looking out the window.”