No plaques or statues mark the renovated façade of Köthener Straße 38 in Kreuzberg. But true audiophiles know that since 1976, the Doric columns have been hiding some of Berlin’s most storied rooms: the legendary Hansa Tonstudios.
This is where many of the city’s most emblematic albums were recorded, from Iggy’s Lust For Life and U2’s Achtung Baby, to records by Nick Cave, Einstürzende Neubauten, Nina Hagen, Hildegard Knef and four Depeche Mode LPs. And of course, Bowie’s ‘Berlin Trilogy’.
Up a sweeping wooden staircase on the first floor lies Studio 2, or ‘The Great Hall by the Wall’ as it was affectionately termed because of the building’s proximity to the Mauer.
The 650sqm room might look a bit sanitised – it’s now occasionally used as a conference room – but it is still as grand as at its birth as a chamber music hall in 1913, with 15m-high coffered ceilings and wooden patterned floorboards. Velvet curtains frame windows, and five-pendant chandeliers cast a regal glow.
It may be atypically large for a studio, but still today, the sound of a clap reverberating through the cavernous space brings happy tears to a sound engineer.
Over time, the hall played host to meetings, concerts and readings (by Third Reich dissenter Kurt Tucholsky, among others), the awarding of diplomas to tradesmen (from which the building took its original name as the ‘Meistersaal’) and Gestapo parties during World War II before being bombed on November 22, 1943. Though the hall itself was largely spared, the building’s rear wing and roof were destroyed.
Throughout the 1950s, the hall was used for cultural events and was briefly known as the ‘Ballhaus Susi’.
Then rose the Wall, snaking barely a hundred metres away, right past its windows, effectively shifting the cultural centre of West Berlin and relegating the building to the fringes of no man’s land.
In 1964, music returned to the building when it was bought by the popular German record label Ariola. Then, in 1976, Meisel Music Publishers bought the entire building, and one of their subsidiaries, Hansa, moved in.
As a studio, Hansa won many admirers. Not only was it dirt cheap – recording costs were about a twelfth of that asked by Abbey Road – but its sound was top-notch.
“Anyone who’d ever worked there had said that it was really inspiring, that they’d got great things out of there,” said U2’s Adam Clayton in the 1990 documentary Recording of Achtung Baby. “We went there and a similar thing happened. It’s just one of those great rooms for playing music.”
Part of the magic was privacy. Without an integrated control room, only a camera would connect the producer and sound techs sitting in the adjacent mixing room, invisibly watching and listening in. Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore was said to have enjoyed this illusory cloister so much as to disrobe while recording, and Bowie would clear the room to wander and free-associate lyrics.
Bowie arrived in Berlin in 1976, making a break from a serious coke habit and ‘The Duke’s’ arguably fascist leanings to find therapy in Berlin’s “real street level” and inspiration in its motorik beats. Of the three Brian Eno-assisted albums that mark his Berlin period (Low, “Heroes”, Lodger), only “Heroes” (1977) was completely recorded at Hansa.
At the time, the Meistersaal was an almost neighbourless building, surrounded by overgrown fields and skeletal ruins with a view of cars, rubble and the site of the Führerbunker. It was this view from the control room window that inspired “Heroes’” classic Robert Fripp-graced title track.
The figures in Bowie’s anthemic lyrics, “I can remember/Standing By The Wall/And the Guns/ Shot above our heads/ And we kissed/ As though nothing could fall”, were initially spun as two anonymous Cold War strangers in a Berlin fairytale but were later revealed to be Bowie’s then-married producer Tony Visconti and his mistress, German backup singer Antonia Maass.
These days, unless you’re forking out the approximately €1000 per day asked to record here, sound engineer Thilo Schmied of Fritz Musictours Berlin is the only man able to open the Hansa doors for you.
While Achtung Baby was the last big Studio 2 recording in 1991, the more recently built and digitised Studios 1 and 3 are still in use. But who knows for how long.
Thanks to technology leaps and the rise of home recording, the collapsing record industry is seeing iconic record studios close down, from the Hit Factory in New York to the questionable future of EMI’s debt-ridden Abbey Road.
Today, the Great Hall by the Wall is still owned by the Meisel family. A Christian group performs some Sunday afternoons, walking floorboards once strewn with cable salad, and the control room where Bowie gazed out upon Visconti and his muse is now a green room with a professionally stocked bar and shelves of champagne flutes, the window view blocked by a red brick emergency firewall – all that’s left of Bowie’s heroes.
Hansa Tonstudios | Köthener Str. 38, Kreuzberg, U-Bhf Potsdamer Platz Fritz Musictours Berlin | Tours by appointment, 2-3.5 hr, price dependant on numbers (€19-35), Tel 030 3087 5633