BERLIN — Daniel Plash, 31-year-old manager of Stattbad Wedding in Berlin, appeared in the front entrance of the former nightclub wearing a black leather jacket and skinny jeans and, at a volume much too loud and a tone much too energetic for a German, described our surroundings as a “ghost house.”
Only two weeks prior to my visit, the lobby in which we stood was the entrance to one of Berlin’s weirdest, most awesome nightclubs. Today, it’s a massive, empty building with two swimming pools and an old boiler room in a neighborhood with next to no nightlife. According to local media, Stattbad may be closing for good.
The displays of creativity at Stattbad were dramatic and plentiful: An unusual music venue idea; an artistic space and gallery; a re-use of a city pool and its boiler rooms; an injection of international cool and economic development into an immigrant neighborhood that needed it.
The lessons in strategy and leadership at Stattbad are sobering: The industrial chic clubs also eventually face building and health inspectors; a club with longevity requires alignment with longer-term business and finance plans; sometimes creative spaces and cultures don’t last forever.
Stattbad was one the first and one of the few existing nightclubs in the Western Berlin neighborhood of Wedding, a former worker’s district and now a hub for immigrants, a place which Daniel described as “underprivileged, more or less.” Authorities, due to city code violations, have recently shut down the facility. The new situation of the club provides a leadership dilemma to Daniel and the team of 20-something creative entrepreneurs who turned an abandoned city pool into one of the most innovative techno clubs and art spaces in the world.
Built in 1905 and finished in 1907, it incurred damage during World War II and was remodeled in the 1960s, whereafter it served as a public pool. In 2001 – after closing as a pool, trading hands in real estate deals and being considered as a site of loft apartments or grocery stores – the building reopened as a non-profit nightclub: Stattbad Wedding. It’s two giant empty swimming pools hosted DJs, classical symphonies and art exhibitions.
Between the nightlife, symphonic, and artistic uses of the building, Stattbad brought in a healthy cash flow, but not enough to bring the building (especially the decrepit boiler room) up to code. The facility does not have a fire detection system, an emergency power supply, a sprinkler system or emergency lighting in place. Daniel also remarked that heating the building comes at an enormous financial cost.
The nightclub is famous among the Berlin’s clubbing scene for Stattnacht, a monthly all-out techno fest and Boiler Room, a YouTube broadcast of top DJ sets in the boiler rooms at Stattbad, which drew thousands of viewers worldwide. Customers dance in the pool, in the boiler room, in the basement, in the dressing rooms, etc. The club hosts guest DJs such as George Fitzgerald and Acid Pauli.
For the past few weeks, Stattbad has been using other venues to host its DJs and customers. Daniel made it very clear that he is trying to create an “experience” in his club. He has turned down offers from poppy DJs, including Avicii, who’d bring tons of customers to the club on any given night.
Stattbad is very exclusive when it comes to the DJs they host, focusing on a more hard-edged house or techno music found in Detroit, Chicago and Berlin rather than the Electronic Dance Music (EDM) which is more popular in Las Vegas and other parts of the US. However, Stattbad doesn’t seem too concerned with exclusivity among its paying customers—almost everyone gets in.
Daniel wants to attract real techno geeks, it seems. He thinks that those who aren’t part of the underground techno scene don’t show up to clubs and concerts for the music (which explains their no-cell phone policy). He says, “People are here for the music, not for partying. [Stattbad’s] not about sex. You really have to want it.” Daniel wants to shut out all possible distractions from the pure techno experience he’s trying to create—including EDM freaks and iPhones.
To see if this is really the case, I went to a Stattbad party (moved to a temporary location in Friedrichshain) on a Friday in June. My friends and I arrived at a garage-like venue called RAW that stood among five other similar venues on a side-street. At the door, a man with what looked like tribal tattoos on his face told us that we were on the list as “Extra Americans.”
Daniel wasn’t kidding—it was clear why someone like Avicii wouldn’t be received well by the Stattbad crowd. DJs Ron Morelli and Will Bankhead’s music was far more technical than EDM, which is more about Molly, weird neon bras and chew toys than it is about music. Even if Stattbad’s customers’ trances were drug-induced, drugs were clearly not the objects of the occasion—music was. The crowd followed the club’s “no phone” policy: they were not Instagramming and tweeting about their night, but rather enjoying the music they actually love.
Here is the problem, though: Stattbad will have a hard time separating itself from the rest of the underground techno scene if it isn’t in Wedding, a predominantly Turkish district with very few nightclubs. Daniel described the Stattbad project as a “lighthouse” primarily because it’s the only nightclub in Wedding. There are plenty of other clubs that focus on bringing in the best of the best techno (akin to underground Detroit techno artists).
If Stattbad continues holding events in small (unspecial) venues in neighborhoods with already rich nightlives like Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain, it risks losing the distinctive venue that shapes the “experience” Daniel is pushing for. Without the historical building’s enormous swimming pool(s) in an unlikely neighborhood to host its following, Stattbad runs the risk of becoming comparatively average.
“It’s a real shame,” said Matthias Schütze, a real estate lawyer in Berlin who has advised the young people running Stattbad and has been a fixture at the club over the years, attending many of the artistic events and planning some classical music concerts at the venue. Walking his pug dog, Dolly, around Stattbad’s massive halls, pools and boiler rooms, he reminisced. “There was a lot of innovation happening here.”
Not only does the location of the club contribute to its uniqueness, but the acoustics provided in the swimming pool area are equivalent to a classical symphony hall in quality. Daniel says that the acoustics provide for a synesthetic experience, as if the techno is “going to touch you.” Daniel mentioned that he is in talks with an Austrian PA company and upgrading from Stattbad’s current Function 1 sound system. The big question is whether any investors will emerge to make the necessary infrastructure improvements into the building in time to save Stattbad as a club.
Daniel considers techno a serious art, and is taking it upon himself to create the proper home for techno. Techno isn’t about music alone, it seems. He left off this way: “It’s not about getting f***** up and hitting on girls. It’s about the ‘moment’—where I’m standing. It’s about pure passion.”