A/D/O by MINI | Studio Karhard designs for debauchery

Studio Karhard designs for debauchery

The Berghain designers tell the story behind the world’s most famous nightclub, and discuss the future of clubbing in Berlin and beyond.

Fifteen years after opening its doors, Berghain is revered as a hedonistic paradise and colloquially called “church” by the thousands who visit every weekend. And that is no accident, according to Studio Karhard, who created its immersive interior. “Berghain is a spiritual place for me,” co-founder Thomas Karsten told The Journal. “Every time we are there, it’s always special.”

Those granted access inside also often describe a religious experience. Despite its ascent to world fame, Berghain has remained true to its underground roots with an infamously strict door policy that generates endless discussion and recently, a film: Berlin Bouncer, which documents the daily life of head doorman Sven Marquardt.

“We understood very quickly how this door worked in a technical sense, as the filter between outer world and inner space,” Karsten said. “When you are in, you feel special and realize why a hard door is so important.”

Karsten and fellow Studio Karhard co-founder Alexandra Erhard are humble about their own contribution. The pair moved to Berlin in the late 1980s, and have been based in the multicultural bezirk of Kreuzberg since beginning their practice 16 years ago.

They undertook the project in 2003, as the city was establishing itself as a clubbing capital. Reunification in the early 1990s brought an influx of illegal raves, eventually paving the way for huge industrial spaces in the former East to be transformed into mega-clubs. Studio Karhard’s task was to turn an abandoned power station into a venue that could safely accommodate 2,500 people.

“Berghain was more of a technical question,” said Karsten. “The building is wonderful and inspiring. We understood that our part was to preserve what was there and not destroy the old structure.”

The studio installed a series of wide and staggered metal staircases, which could allow easy crowd circulation between the three floors. Karsten and his team also remodeled the ceiling in the main room by adding multiple layers for fire protection and sound absorption. Original windows were removed and replaced by replicas with better sound insulation.

Karsten could recall the first walk-through with the club’s founders Michael Teufele and Norbert Thormann, who already had a vision for the layout: an upstairs bar for chilling, a cavernous main room and multiple secluded areas intended for debauchery.

“There were little trees growing inside, and birds were flying, and it was ice-cold,” said Karsten of his first impression. Out of respect for the building, he wanted to intervene as little as possible. From the start, those involved in creating Berghain wanted it to be gritty and unpretentious. “The brief was to keep it real,” said Karsten. “Not fancy or ‘Ibiza-style’, but down-to-earth.”

To stay true to this, the studio avoided creating raised DJ booths or podiums, to create an organic connection between the DJ and the crowd. “They play at eye-height, which wasn’t so normal in 2003,” Karsten explained.

Unlike many clubs, Berghain entices visitors to stay there for at least 24 hours. There are numerous areas to recline and copulate, sectioned off with leather and concrete armchairs. To complement the industrial space, Studio Karhard used raw and untreated materials. “A club is touchy-feeling and people are half-naked, so we wanted the furniture to feel nice,” said Karsten. “We like to touch real materials like steel, wood, stone… nothing plastic or artificial.”

Studio Karhard is now turning its seasoned hand to a similar project: a huge club currently under construction inside a 150-year-old brewery in central Kiev, Ukraine. “It’s the most challenging project we have right now,” said Karsten. “The building is in quite a critical condition, so it’s a lot of work.”

Could Kiev become the next techno mecca? “It could be a very interesting place to go in future, for dancing culture, like Tbilisi is now,” Karsten noted. “It has a strong techno scene, and young people cannot afford to fly to Berlin, so they organise parties there. It reminds me of Berlin in the 1990s.”

If anybody would know, it’s the design studio responsible for Berghain. Studio Karhard has since designed clubs, record stores and bars all over Berlin: most recently a small bar called Eigengrau. Karsten told me he prefers small projects started by young people, as these allow the most creative freedom.  

The bar is only a short walk from Karsten’s studio in Kreuzberg, and neighboring a park known as a hub for drug dealing and petty crime. “Things are really developing here,” Karsten said. “We like to do projects in this area. The bar has changed the dealers’ behavior, because there are always people around and security on the door. It makes you feel safer.”

Development has benefited some of Berlin’s traditionally poor areas, but while the city remains almost absurdly cheap, it is pursued by the looming threat of gentrification. Could these new projects cause the city to lose its “poor but sexy” image?

“It’s difficult,” admitted Karsten. “But it’s not just business people with big money who are coming, it’s all sorts of people, from all countries and cultures. And many of them are a bit special. They are creatives who understand that Berlin is a playground, and they can do things here that you cannot do in London, or Tel Aviv, or Budapest.”

He has a point. Like Berghain, Berlin has stubbornly kept its anti-establishment streak in the face of surging popularity. We met with Karsten the day before May 1 – a public holiday where Berliners take to the streets to protest against capitalist interests and wage suppression. “There’s a big tradition here of taking your part of the city,” he said.

But can Berlin resist the changes still to come? “Berlin can’t be compared with Paris or London, its politics are different. The financial pressure is not so great,” said Karsten. “I don’t see it happening in the next five years or the next 20. Berliners are very flexible in a lot of ways, and of course it will survive.”