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Photo Gallery: Berlin's Underdog Coup

Foto: SC Architekten

Hipster Village Berlin Nightlife Grows Up

For a decade, Bar 25 was one of Berlin's wildest clubs. Now, its founders want to create a new development on the site. It is to cater to former clubbers and preserve an element of 1990s Berlin. But the hurdles are high.

It is the 56th visit he has made to some kind of local authority, Juval Dieziger says after a bit of arithmetic. It's not, he notes, the kind of life he had envisioned for himself.

Dieziger is a club owner. He used to run Bar 25, a nightclub that helped ensure that Berlin became known around the world for over-the-top nights on the town -- nights that often went from Friday to Monday. He's wears a shaggy black and gray beard that reaches almost to his chest; locks of his dark hair stick out from beneath his cap. His t-shirt has holes in it and he looks a bit like the captain of a stranded pirate ship.

A taxi is standing by and Dieziger is waiting for business partner Christoph Klenzendorf, with whom he opened Bar 25 some 10 years ago and, later, the almost equally legendary club KaterHolzig. Together, they are visiting the building permits office in Berlin's Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district. The issues to be discussed are technical in nature -- minimum distances allowed between buildings, a bothersome noise study and construction permits.

Lifting the Underground into the Mainstream

As tedious as they are, the appointments with bureaucracy are necessary. Now in their forties, Dieziger and Klenzendorf are no longer intent on just running their own club. They want to build an urban district in central Berlin, along the banks of the Spree River at a location known as Holzmarkt. The quarter will provide a new home for a lifestyle that has thus far existed only in the underground world of the clubs, at night and in exclusive places that aren't accessible to all. After 25 years of club culture in Berlin, this underground culture is now being given a place in the world above -- and in a prime location, too.

The property is the size of two-and-a-half football fields. In early 2012, Klenzendorf and Dieziger founded the Holzmarkt Cooperative Society, landed an investor in the form of a Swiss pension fund and purchased the property. The price tag was well above €10 million.

The site they acquired was one of the most sought-after open spaces in the city, miraculously beating out investors and hedge funds that had likewise shown interest. Since their coup, they have been known as the "business hippies."

But now comes the hard part -- actually building the development. The plans foresee a technology center for start-ups, a student dormitory, a shopping village, a market, a trail along the river bank, warehouse space for music studios and workshops, a restaurant, a nightclub, a hotel, a fish farm, a gardening area and, given that everyone is getting a little older, a daycare center.

Klenzendorf finally arrives. For his meeting with the planning office, he wears jogging shorts and hiking boots. In the taxi, Dieziger tries to explain the issues to be addressed at the permits office, but with Klenzendorf's mobile phone ringing non-stop, it's an impossible task. Things from the night before need to be discussed and he's having trouble concentrating, he says.

Up front in the passenger seat, Mario Husten is speaking urgently on his mobile phone with the group's lawyer. There's been water damage in their new nightclub and the insurance company is refusing to pay.

In an earlier life, Husten was an executive at a major newspaper publishing house, where he was responsible for operations in Eastern Europe. Klenzendorf and Dieziger brought him on board two years ago because he's a fast thinker, persuasive and knows what the term "controlling" actually means.

The Roots of Berlin's Non-Stop Party Culture

"Shit, things are jinxed right now," Husten says as he ends the call. Dieziger looks out the open taxi window. Have they bit off more than they can chew? Starting Bar 25 was a lot easier. All they had to do was secure an interim use lease, drive a motor home onto the property for the stereo system and drink sales, build a few wooden huts and a dance floor. Then you had to put the right people in place as doorkeepers and let in the right kinds of drug dealers. The two proved highly adept and the result was one of Berlin's most spectacular clubs.

A new party culture sprouted -- one in which excess was no longer the exception, but the rule. Guests at Bar 25 didn't just lose a few hours on a Saturday. They went to the club for the entire weekend, often staying until Monday afternoon. Those who went in, people said, didn't come out.

Originally, they rented the property relatively cheaply from the city's refuse disposal company, which hadn't been using the land. It had always been clear to Bar 25's owners that the city would eventually sell the property to investors for the development of high-end apartments or office towers, as happened with other empty lots along the river. When the sale process began at the end of 2010, Bar 25 had to move out after a long back-and-forth. Dieziger and Klenzendorf moved directly across the river to an abandoned factory where they ran the new KaterHolzig nightclub and restaurant for two-and-a-half years.

The Bet

The whole time, though, they wanted to get their old property back and they began wondering if they might be able to buy it themselves. Maybe the city would sell it to them cheaply? They knew how important the kind of clubs they run are for the city's reputation, especially under Mayor Klaus Wowereit, who likes to promote Berlin's party culture. They started working on a development concept.

The concept quickly began to focus on how one could age within the club culture. Christoph Klenzendorf recently returned from a vacation in Mallorca with his girlfriend and his 15-year-old daughter. His girlfriend goes by the name Steffi-Lotta, and she worked the door at Bar 25. Her attire is almost circus-like in its outlandishness and she has a raspy voice. Her appearance is the opposite of Sven Marquardt, the tattooed and pierced doorman at the famous Berghain nightclub, a man who is notorious for his strict door policy. But getting past Steffi-Lotta wasn't particularly easy either.

Now 40, Klenzendorf has been at this for 20 years -- the partying, the staying awake for several days at a time, the drugs. Drugs were an integral part of the Bar 25 lifestyle -- mostly ecstasy, but also LSD and cocaine. Without them, it wouldn't be possible to party through an entire weekend. And in no other place in Berlin could you see as many people high at one time as you could at Bar 25.

The End of an Era?

Klenzendorf says he feels this era may be ending and that it will soon be replaced by a new, different generation. Recently, they celebrated the 10-year-anniversary of Bar 25 and, concurrently, the opening of the new club at Holzmarkt. Again the party lasted for days and Klenzendorf says it took him a long time to recover, but he was also blissful. The feeling of being among family had returned. They are many of them working together -- indeed, that is why Klenzendorf believes the Herculean project they have set out for themselves may actually succeed. Some 10 corporations have been formed under the collective, all led by friends and companions.

In August, they set up a temporary Bar 25-like establishment in a forest on a lake in Gabicz, a Polish village just across the border. About an hour's drive from Berlin, it was a music and performance festival for 3,000 people. "At the end of the day, this kind of partying is the foundation for everything we do. We have to keep that in mind, even if we're doing something different now," he says.

The different thing they are now doing explains why they are now on the eighth floor of the planning office. They intend to explain to the district councilor for building and planning, Hans Panhoff, that the bureaucracy is killing them. They say it's simply too stressful and inefficient to have to keep traveling from one agency to the next -- to the building inspection department, to city planning, to the environmental office, underground engineering and the office for the protection of historical monuments. They require an individual appointment for each agency, and often, the different agencies have no idea what the others are doing. The people behind the cooperative have analyzed the agency procedures and would like to help optimize them.

Dieziger and Klenzendorf both address the city councilor at the same time. In response, Panhoff puts his hands up, explaining that last night was the first he had spent at home again since being placed under police protection after he called the police when the situation threatened to escalate in a Kreuzberg school that was occupied by refugees. Now left-wing extremists are threatening him.

As such, he says, his appointment with the urban hippies is among the more pleasant duties his job entails. He likes their courage, he says, and the fact that they repeatedly ask questions when they don't understand something. And there are many things that are difficult to understand: fine print, regulations and a tangle of abbreviations.

In 1980, Panhoff himself occupied a house in Kreuzberg, a phenomenon common during the 1970s, '80s and, after reunification, in the early '90s. Today he's a member of the district council representing the Green Party. In these young men standing in his office, he sees something of a weapon against what he calls the city's investor-friendly policies -- namely the sell-out of the best pieces of property to developers who then build glass offices and river-view penthouses.

A Coup for the Underdogs

Because the Holzmarkt property belonged to the city-owned refuse removal service, local ordinances required that it be sold to the highest bidder. Few thought that a couple of club operators, who had done a lot of drugs in their lives, would stand a chance in a bidding process against developers and large investors.

But Swiss pension fund Stiftung Abendrot, which developed out of the anti-nuclear power movement, said it was prepared to purchase the property and to provide a 75-year lease to the Holzmarkt Cooperative. Klenzendorf, Dieziger and Husten began analyzing other potential bidders. Who would be prepared to bid how much? They were at pains to keep their own bid under wraps and have never revealed how much they paid. By the time of the auction, Andreas Steinhauser, a name known in the Berlin start-up scene, had joined them, as had the famous Chaos Computer Club, a hacking society. They all agreed not to disclose the true size of their offer. It's possible the Holzmarkt Cooperative deliberately leaked a low number shortly before the auction closed. Either way, they raised their offer at the last minute and prevailed.

With €500,000 in ground rent now owed to the Swiss pension fund each year, they are under pressure to build as quickly as possible. They need income. To that end, they've opened up a location called Pampa on the eastern part of the property, a place where you can hang out, eat and drink. There are food stalls and a temporary theater. They also quickly erected a wood-clad building in which they have opened a nightclub, called Kater Blau. In addition, they've established a restaurant inside the arches beneath the commuter train tracks near by. Just like at KaterHolzig, it is booked out every night, with main dishes going for up to €30, accompanied by expensive wine.

An old barge is anchored in front of the restaurant and the deck has become a kind of terrace. It offers a view of the evening sun and the city's famous Fernsehturm tower and city hall in the distance. It's also where Klenzendorfer, Dieziger and Husten meet with those who want to come and talk about the project -- and there are many. They include Russian investors who want to build on a piece of property across the river. The owner of an old ice cream factory is also interested in working together. Specialists present modern energy plans in the hope of landing contracts. Building contractors drop by seeking work as well. It's strange to see these men in checkered, button-down shirts and horse-leather shoes schmoozing with these shaggy partiers in shorts. Klenzendorf and Husten were initially impressed when one expert for wooden structures dropped by to make a pitch. But after Klenzendorf saw the man drive away in a Mercedes S-class, his enthusiasm waned.

Berlin's El Dorado

All around them, on both sides of the Spree River, you can see an El Dorado, the green shoots of a new Berlin that wants to be a little like New York or London. High-end lofts are currently being erected across the river on the site of the former KaterHolzig and the construction noise can be heard throughout day. There's also a piece of property belonging to German-American billionaire investor Nicolas Berggruen, which is currently still home to a techno nightclub aimed at tourists. To the southeast, you can see the construction site of the Living Levels skyscraper, which will be home to some of most expensive apartments ever seen in Berlin.

On this particular evening, a reporter from the Wall Street Journal also stops by. He's been given a tip that the Holzmarkt people might be interested in helping Detroit find a way to turn itself around. Not long ago, Mario Husten had been part of a delegation of Berlin club owners who traveled to the city to give presentations and to have a look at decaying buildings that could be repurposed. Dimitri Hegemann, who created one of the pioneering locations of the Berlin club culture with his techno club Tresor in 1991, is also on the barge on this evening, sharing a photo of the run-down Wurlitzer Building in downtown Detroit. You could do something great with that, Hegemann says. The reporter from America looks taken aback.

"I mean it," says Hegemann. "That's how we like it in Berlin!"

The reporter takes a look around the barge. Hegemann should know what he's talking about. In the early 1990s, he invited Detroit DJs to his club in Berlin and turned them into stars. But why, the American reporter asks, should Berlin care about Detroit?

The reason is obvious. These Berliners have gotten a bit older and their own city has changed dramatically over the last 20 years. In the abandoned ruins of Detroit, they see something of 1990s Berlin -- a place where they would find a run-down building in the east, somehow come across the keys, set up equipment and open up a club the next day.

A Scene Grows Up

Although that Berlin has long since disappeared, Klenzendorf wants to preserve some of its spirit in an updated version at Holzmarkt. In a sense, it is the techno spirit of the early 1990s that is growing up here: the sense of community, the hippy-esque feeling and the fearlessness of trying new things and the confidence that they will, somehow or another, work out in the end.

But the new thing they are now trying will cost at least €100 million if they want to realize all of their plans. Sure, they made a load of money with Bar 25 over the years, but they also squandered a lot of it with their extended parties. At the moment, Dieziger and Klenzendorf aren't even paying themselves a salary and things are getting tight.

Their cooperative now has more than 120 members. To join, investors must pay €25,000, and some have even bought several shares. This has raised funds in the single-digit millions. The rest will have to be borrowed. Husten says they have had no trouble finding banks willing to lend them money.

The next stage is the construction of the project's first phase, the so-called Eckwerk -- an ensemble of five high-rises up to 12 stories high with the river-side path winding through them. The plans also call for the rooftops to be used as fish farms, with the dung recycled to fertilize vegetable gardens. The buildings look good in the plans, but so far no permits have been forthcoming.

Bureaucratic Hurdles

Which means Mario Husten must make yet another foray into the bureaucratic maze. Klenzendorf and Dieziger aren't up to it. Husten takes along their lawyer as well as the architect Jan Kleihues with Kleihues + Kleihues and Wolfram Putz of Graft Architects. Kleihues designed the new headquarters for Germany's foreign intelligence service in Berlin and Putz became famous for doing several projects for Brad Pitt. Now they're discussing their plans with three women from the building permits office and city planning. The women, who look like typical Berliners, have colorful dye jobs. They say the plans are nice but that they deviate too far from the master development plan. The women speak of building regulations, fire protection, fire-fighting elevators and safety stairwells.

Husten then talks about the fish farm on the roof and the fact that there will be no individual refrigerators, that washing machines will be forbidden and that a laundry service will instead be provided. To top it off, he says no one will live at Holzmarkt for longer than 900 days. Settling down here is taboo, he says, and there are no plans to sell the apartments either.

"Umm. Yeah," the women from the building permits office say. It's not that they don't find it interesting, it's just that the master development plan may have to be altered.

Husten stares over at city councilor Panhoff, who is leading the meeting. Really?

It could take years to create a new master plan. But Husten doesn't have years -- he'd go bust if he had to wait that long.

Panhoff hesitates before saying that he could allow deviations from the master plan. The problem is that doing so might set a precedent and others might then demand similar concessions. Panhoff then proposes a compromise: an amendment to the master plan. He also pledges to expedite the process so that it can be pushed through the appropriate committees quickly. With a little luck, he says, a new decision could be ready in October. It's a partial victory for Husten.

The same evening, they prepare for what they hope will turn into another small victory. The Holzmarkt people meet with Jony Eisenberg, a feared lawyer from the Berlin left-wing scene who has represented everyone from former Red Army Faction terrorists to senior Green Party politician Jürgen Trittin.

They want to discuss a problem with him. The thump of techno from the tourist club across the river is starting to create a problem. It's a bit silly -- they themselves spent years caring little about noise pollution. But now they have a much bigger project ahead of them and they fear the loud music could become a problem -- at a time when they are trying to do everything right.

They ask Eisenberg if there's anything he can do about the techno noise pollution.

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