Rave New World II: Networks and Territories of Interim Urbanism in Berlin’s Techno Underground
William Kinne Traveling Fellowship
In 1989, following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of East and West Germany, Berlin’s urban fabric and organization experienced radical disturbances that affected the cultural production, spatial politics, and power dynamics of the city—dynamics which continue to the present day. Whether formally, through a series of critical construction initiatives meant to “reinvent [the city] as a ‘Western’ metropolis, or demographically, through the mass migration of Berliners from the economically depressed East Berlin to the comparatively wealthy and stable West Berlin, these modulations simultaneously shifted capital and power from the East to the West and paradoxically allowed for a burgeoning space of underground cultural production in East Berlin characterized by the illicit appropriation of abandoned, post-industrial space.
This proposal, titled Rave New World II*, is the second in a series of studies attempting to explore the impacts of techno subcultures (and their ad hoc, often illicit forms of architectural intervention in leftover spaces) and the methodologies with which these subcultures have begun to impact and shape the built environment and visual culture. Following the death of industrial Europe Rave emerged as Europe’s conclusive and monumental youth movement, and this study considers the social, political and economic conditions that led to the advent of rave as a ‘counterculture’ across Europe and the manners in which these seemingly dissonant cultures begin to form salient architectural networks, alternative modes of building habitation (squatting, 24 hour buildings, illicit occupation, etc.), and forms of interim urbanism, whether for a single night, or over the course of history. Underground rave culture, manifesting as specific, spatio-temporal instances of urban resistance and appropriation, underscores the methodologies with which youth countercultures begin to respond to crisis and uncertainty to aver new, often visionary, architectural/environmental potentials from the bottom-up. This iteration of Rave New World, focusing on the peculiar, spatial dynamics of Berlin, looks at how techno-territories, rave subcultures, and subsequent interventions on the built environment in the late 20th and early 21st centuries began to flourish as a consequence of the fall of the Berlin Wall and its resultant urban modulations and crises.
On November 9th, 1989, the Berlin Wall was demolished, eliminating a division that had been imposed upon Berliners by international powers more than four decades earlier as a result of the Second World War. While the fall of the wall and the subsequent unification of German had broad impacts that affected the global economy, politics, and society, it additionally presented political, technical, and social challenges for two halves of a single city that had forcefully ignored one another for four decades, then were markedly in confrontation (and, frequently, opposition) with one another. Each half of Berlin, guided for a large half of the twentieth century by separate political, economic, and urban agendas, developed their own distinct urban forms, with myriad differences still notably evident today as one transverses the “scar” left by the Wall, running directly through the heart of the city. For instance, the urban morphology of East Berlin was delineated by a mono-nucleic structure with lower-level density and a functional, programmatic mix at the city’s core, whereas West Berlin was evidently multi-nucleic, with a high-density, multifunctional center. Additionally, there was considerable disparity in the physical condition of each half’s urban fabric at the time of reunification, with East Berlin still marked by a considerable glut of leveled areas, industrial buildings, and destroyed or damaged structured from World War II. Despite these conditions, however, West Berlin had been the recipient of considerably more financial assistance for reconstruction and refurbishment—a result of the victory of the capitalist system over the whole of Germany over the socialist East. These violent shifts in capital created economic consequences and divergent degrees of economic opportunity across two halves of a single city; Berlin was marred by disjointed and disruptive economic restructuring and massive deindustrialization, leaving the industrial buildings and economies of East Berlin unoccupied and redundant, a crisis with which West Berlin’s socio-urban fabric proved more formidable. Interestingly enough, the massive capital stimuli from Berlin’s urban planning policy (“Critical Reconstruction”) resulted in the overexpansion of new built space “with a high level of vacancies despite the move of most administrations and government agencies from Bonn.” The aforementioned factors and changes in concentration of capital and labor potentials catalyzed a mass exodus of Germans from East Berlin, producing a large labor supply surplus in the West – emigration from East Germany alone between 1989 and 1992 totaled around 870,000 people. Despite reunification and the fall of the Berlin Wall, the two halves of Berlin at the end of the 20th century remained culturally, economically, and formally disparate.
Ultimately, however, this vast inequity between the Eastern and Western portions of Berlin led to the city achieving a new, unique, urban identity. An unforeseen consequence of the flow of capital, power, and population from East to West was the creation of a burgeoning center of cultural production in the East. Nonetheless, in regard to political policies, the government of Berlin’s engagement in the cultural sector has historically been relegated to marketing and promotional initiatives rather than actual stimuli to creative production, leading to forms of creative and cultural production that appear loosely from the bottom-up, rather than strategically from the top-down. This distinct methodology of cultural production, combined with the relative blind-eye the government turned towards the East during a period of economic and political crises during reunification, allowed rave culture to establish the footholds of a techno-territory in a cheap and relatively empty East. The city’s thriving rave and music scene, active nightlife, and bustling street scene have become important attractions which, in the 21st century, define the German capital (indeed, in 2018, a study by Germany’s Club Commission calculated that the total economic value of Berlin’s rave/club scene stood at 1.5 billion euros). Unlike other musical subcultures, which typically occupy formal, regulated environments (whether they occur in concert venues, pubs, etc.) the sites of underground raves globally are deliberately characterized by the temporary reoccupation of spaces whose meanings are subverted from those which are ascribed to them (e.g., raves as heterotopic spaces of musical ecstasy inhabiting warehouses, abandoned factories, leftover infrastructure, etc.). Several locales of East Berlin, inhabited by disgruntled youth, artists, marginalized groups, queers, etc., have been characterized by the “in-between” occupation and use of abandoned buildings for little to no rent.
The manners in which this post-occupation can explicitly be considered architecturally relevant can be averred by an examination of the spatial politics and strategies (deliberate or not) of rave subculture to subversively claim, appropriate, and transform leftover cracks in Berlin’s urban landscape. Underground techno subcultures have “consistently portrayed their subculture in terms of specific sites chosen as venues, and the transformation of these sites into imaginative landscapes.” This site-specific appropriation and transformation “illustrates the centrality of spatial discourse within rave scenes, promising unique, lost paradises for dancing oases, other worlds and fantasy landscapes constructed within the shells of industrial capitalism.” (Gibson) That these spaces can be defined by a temporal, ad hoc, often-illicit subversion of the existing urban fabric to create a network of esoteric, utopic territories of escapism—territories where different logics and desires of society (for example, in sexuality – through the seminal influence of the LGBTQ community on rave culture – politics, gender, etc.) are projected and overlaid, gesture to these spaces acting as instances of temporary utopia, interim urbanism, and alternative methods of habitation. Rave spaces, fostered by techno culture and the specific, urban condition of Berlin, are spaces of daring experimentation and ecstatic utopia, at once sites of survival and pleasure, where necessity and hedonism – pragmatism and romanticism – exist simultaneously.
An archetypical case study of a space which techno youth subculture has appropriated within the context of Berlin’s shifting, urban landscape in the late 20th/early 21st century can be found in Berghain. The mythical, paradoxically-famous-yet-shrouded-in-secrecy, nightclub, occupies the remnant of a socialist, neo-classicist, heat and power station in Friedrichshain; the obsolesce of these power stations, combined with the restructuring of Berlin’s infrastructure, led to the eventual abandonment of the building and its subsequent reoccupation in 2004 by its current tenant. The cavernous interiors of the space, never fully-documented due to strict policies against any forms of photography, have lent themselves to Berghain’s establishment as a heterotopia occupied continuously over a period of 24 hours. The vast interior of the nightclub is comprised not only of the typical devices of nightclub culture (dance floors, bars, etc.) but also includes such spaces as an amphitheatre, an art gallery, dark rooms, and spaces for temporary habitation (reputedly, ravers have been known to sleep inside a capsule-tower like intervention, only to wake up and continue their nights again). Berghain is “filled with dance-hungry revelers, setting their innermost selves free. The ceiling height, the industrial ambiance, and the powerful bass created a force of nature making itself felt far beyond the city of Berlin.” (Wurnell) Rave New World II will attempt to document and map the network of underground raves in Berlin resulting from the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent political and economic changes in the city. Looking at spaces like Berghain (and its contemporaries, like Tresor, Lab.Oratory, Panorama Bar, Ohm, Greissmuehle, Anomolie, Radion, De School, etc), and the multifarious ways they attempt to reoccupy and reclaim underutilized fragments of the city (whether reoccupying power plants, abandoned train stations, department stores, industrial lots, parks, etc.), the project will create a visual taxonomy of these spaces and the ad hoc methodologies they have used to appropriate architecture, establish techno-territories, and project a heterotopic vision of society. These interventions, often done without formal architectural training, merit analysis and observation in order to glean how subcultures begin to alter their surrounding environment in response to crisis and turmoil, and affirm how symbols of opposition and spatial utopia are produced.