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In Berlin, a Shopping Mall's Flop Leads to Schadenfreude

A group of Berlin nightclub owners are now joking about turning the failing Mall of Berlin into a "techno temple." Here's why.

The Mall of Berlin: So huge, so boring, so failing. And you can't even dance there. (Reuters/Thomas Peter)

At just three months old, Berlin’s biggest new monument is still a baby. A big baby, mind you: It’s a vast, airy space capped with a vaulted glass roof and lined with galleried tiers, standing in the city’s center and overlooking the space where border guards used to patrol the Berlin Wall’s death strip. This lofty, much-discussed building of five million square feet isn’t a memorial or a museum, however. It’s a mall.

Not just any mall, mind you, but the hubristically named Mall of Berlin—the largest Germany’s capital has ever seen, including not only shops but (as yet unfinished) apartments and a hotel. And guess what? While it’s only been open since the autumn, the whole project is already bombing.

What’s gone wrong so far? Footfall from shoppers has been lower than expected, partly because most retail tenants are brands already heavily represented across Germany. (Allegations that the mall is not fire safe can’t have helped.) The Romanian construction workers who built the place have also been demonstrating outside, dubbing it the “Mall of Shame." Apparently, they want to be paid for the work they’ve done. Now it seems they may have to wait forever: Last week, the construction company responsible for completing the complex went bankrupt.

To smother this layer cake of injury with a delicious frosting of insult, Mall of Berlin has now been offered what could be the cheekiest rescue option in history. A consortium of Berlin nightclubs want to take it over and turn it into a huge “techno temple," attracting visitors from all over the world to partake in a part of Berlin’s economy that’s truly booming: its nightlife scene. One potential sticking point for this plan is that the clubs are lowballing what they're willing to pay for the mall: They’re offering one Euro.

Surely they must be joking? Well yes, actually, they are; the clubs wouldn’t have a hope in hell of getting planning permission. In a nice example of the now-global concept of schadenfreude returning home, the clubs consortium are really thumbing their noses at the mall and the big box commercial blandification they think it represents. This lays bare one of the fault lines currently running through Berlin—a debate that is also a fight for the city’s future.

The backstory goes like this: In the 20-odd years following reunification, Berlin developed a reputation as the go-to city for Europeans seeking out alternative lifestyles or 24-hour partying, a reputation fueled by its low rents and ample unused warehouse space. As this chaotic and exciting (for some) period started to draw to a close, there was a growing sense (among officialdom at least) that it was time for Berlin to grow up and start acting like a “normal” city. While parts of central Berlin used to consist of shabby tenements, empty plots, and deathly quiet streets punctuated by the occasional nightclub, these areas have now been filled up with ministries and embassies, banks and hotels. And shops—lots of them. As the Tagesspiegel commented:

Just what the techno popes and party pioneers of the '90s always warned about is happening. The wastelands of the reunification period will become a business district. More and more people will live and work here, sitting all day in offices and going to the gym in the evening.

Much of this was a very good thing. That so much of central Berlin once seemed so empty hinted at the city’s dirty secret: Reunification had initially been a demographic and economic disaster, one that saw thousands flee westward and outward to the city’s wider region in search of greener pastures. This more recent transformation has not been without its discontents, nonetheless. Plans such as the huge Mediaspree project saw the Spree riverbank cleansed of the workshops and small, independent clubs that had flourished there in order to build offices that excluded the public (dancing or otherwise) from the waterfront.

Official bodies such as music regulator GEMA (the German equivalent of the RIAA) added to this sense of persecution with outrageous (and defeated) plans to make bars pay royalties for all music they played. Now, as venue after venue has been forced to unplug its speakers and move on, central Berlin is threatened by what the city’s press melodramatically calls "club death." The irony behind this is that, rather than being the usual underdogs swept away by regeneration, Berlin clubs are actually a big business and a major tourist draw. Even now, they are helping Berlin bag top ratings in “most fun city in the world” traveler polls, while its most famous club still gets major international press coverage.  

Meanwhile, Berlin’s “grown-up” transformation is not going quite as planned. Beyond Mall of Berlin’s current dead end, the new airport is now predicted to open seven years late after numerous safety screw-ups and a spectacular overspend. Elsewhere, the buildings of the “new” Berlin—the offices, numerous mini-malls and chain stores cropping up on all corners—possess a sameness so intense it’s almost intoxicating. There seems to be an unofficial conspiracy to take what remains one of Europe’s most exciting cities and turn it into a greige, provincial dump. It’s not that Berlin’s government and developers don’t have the guts to take on major projects to transform the city. It’s just that they really suck at them.

No one is seriously saying that Berlin should really turn back the clock. Still, in a climate where they city’s transformation is hitting some bumps, it’s hard to blame Berlin’s put-upon clubs for asking in a stage whisper: “Remember us?”

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