Post-Ritual Space: Berghain

“To pilgrims and many expats, it is a temple of techno, a consecrated space, a source of enchantment and wonder.”

Nick Paumgarten, “Berlin Nights

Is ritual still possible in contemporary society? This essay is one in a series which will examine those spaces which facilitate ephemeral and loosely structured (rather than repeated, highly structured, and strictly observed) events. Such spaces are communal but not socially mandatory; they are spiritual but derive transcendence from ecstasy instead of trial or mundanity.[1]

I. Introduction

70 Am Wriezener Bahnhof, Berlin today hosts one of the most famous and influential electronic music venues in the world, notorious for its fetish scenes and as a mecca to international clubgoers. This was not always so.

The building in which Berghain resides originally served as an East German power plant, located mere blocks from the Berlin Wall (maps links). To further secure their borders, the GDR constructed what would be colloquially referred to as the todesstreifen (or “death strip”): a heavily fortified zone one-hundred meters wide between the main wall and a secondary Eastern fence. Buildings near this militarized zone were often unoccupied, exacerbating the atmosphere of an uninhabitable wasteland which would prove so ripe for repurposing during the post-Soviet era. While Berghain’s power plant predecessor would have been shielded in part by its situation next to a water, rather than land, boundary (the Spree), the plant’s general proximity to the infamous Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg border would have still certainly compounded the general “abundance of derelict building and excess housing” in a post-GDR eastern sector. It was this abundance which allowed for so many underground clubs and venues to flourish in the 1990s and early 2000s. A low population density meant minimal real estate costs, noise complaints, and police presence — all factors vital to the emergence of Berlin’s thriving counterculture. Indeed, Berghain’s name is a portmanteau of the (respectively East and West Berlin) Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg neighborhoods which engulf it; this etymology reflects a specific cultural symbiosis, where a “liberal” West German culture is vitalized by — and revitalizes in turn — specific East German urban and architectural conditions.

This essay will investigate the ways in which the architectural space today facilitates experiences of sacredness and communitas — a sensation of collective oneness and egalitarianism — using as its primary signposts the work of Melanie Joseph (A Pattern Language for Sacred Secular Spaces) and Victor Turner (Liminal to Liminoid; From Ritual to Theatre). There is a potential hesitation in conceptualizing Berghain as a sacred experience, given its associations with transgression, criminality, and debauchery. This is a hesitation I hope to overcome, or at least qualify, by deferring to the reported subjective experiences of those who take part in Berghain’s revelries. In almost every report of a Berghain “experience” or event, descriptions of sacredness, connectivity, and social unity abound. Pilgrimages — so described by those who undertake them — are made from all around the world; some visitors allegedly head directly from the Schönefeld or Tegel airport to Berghain, spending multiple (consecutive) days inside and departing home immediately afterward. Regular and irregular visitors alike make frequent (and deeply serious) reference to Berghain weekends as “going to church” or “Sunday Mass,” implying that at a core level participants perceive a Berghain experience as a spiritual event shared by a specific community.

Indeed, the concept of ecclesiastical denominations, and a church along a pilgrimage route, proves useful. Given the high proportions of pilgrims to regular attendants, Berghain’s community is one which at any given moment is as international as it is local, congregating equally around geographic proximity as around Internet message boards, social media, and shared sensibility. Only upon entrance into Berghain does this potential community actualize, and with its constant influx and outflux of clubgoers during the course of a given “Mass,” it might be best to conceptualize of Berghain’s congregation through the classic metaphor of the Argo. Individual congregants are constantly replaced both during and between events, but the concept of a congregation or community as a whole remains intact. (The club’s infamously strict door policy, explored later on, strengthens this sense of belonging for allowed inside, delineating clearly the borders of this argonaut community. “[I]f you get in, you’re part of the tribe.”)

A second potential hesitation in interpreting Berghain as a sacred secular space might lie in its architectural origins. After the collapse of the prominent techno club Ostgut in 2003, Ostgut’s owners founded Berghain in the place of the old power plant, pouring money into expensive remodelings of its interior spaces (largely through German architectural firm Karhard). But Berghain is still, however, first and foremost a found space, whose layout and usage is more repurposed than designed. Vestigial wires, electrical boxes, and iron rods protrude from its concrete pillars and walls; chipped white tiles are complemented by matching plaster burn marks. This does not preclude architectural analysis of Berghain’s “found” architecture. Nor does it isolate analysis to that which has been created deliberately (as opposed to kept by necessity, e.g. the building’s general layout, its concrete construction, etc). For one, there is the matter of intentional, deliberate selection: Berghain is a chosen space, whose aesthetic and structural qualities undoubtedly played a role in its being chosen. There is also the matter of intentional preservation and passivity: choosing not to alter certain elements of the power plant, such as its small entranceway, is itself a sort of purposeful act. Finally, whether or not elements of Berghain were chosen, altered, repurposed, or created deliberately is for our purposes largely irrelevant; origins and objectives cannot undermine the validity of Berghain’s psychospatial effect.

II. Patterns & Personalization

In A Pattern Language for Sacred Secular Places, Melanie Joseph reconciles, and then adapts for secular design, the different architectural patterns of sacred spaces theorized by Christopher Alexander, Michael Brill, Phillip Tabb, Donlyn Lyndon, and Charles Moore. Accuracy of patternmatching insight is the product, then, of averaging, distillation, and common denominators between expert observers. Below, the overarching design patterns and functions, as identified by Joseph, are briefly outlined:


Table of sacred-secular patterns as compiled by Joseph.

We might begin by understanding Berghain’s spiritual appeal, and the role of architecture in facilitating this effect, by walking through its space one element at a time.

Boundaries & Edges

Perhaps Berghain’s most infamous characteristic is its door policy. Head bouncer Sven Marquardt, has gained minor celebrity in part through his involvement with the club, and a significant portion of Berghain lore centers around who is and is not allowed inside. Anxious posters litter Internet forums with inquiries into maximizing chance of entry; numerous Berlin and international publications have published guides for how to dress, act, and hold oneself at the door. Selectivity achieves not just a practical ends of curating guests; the very act of curation is itself a form of both community and sacredness building (a process always entailing exclusion or difference as much as it does inclusion and similarity). Guarding the door, and guarding it so stringently, serves to carefully delineate the boundary between sacred interior and profane exterior space.[2] Sequestering is key: it emphasizes the club’s “apartness” from the world while also implying that there is something inside its doors worth protecting. Psychological cueing or tone-setting is essential to facilitating any group experience (“an orientation has proved not only useful but necessary”), and such efforts by Berghain’s staffers are reinforced by the layout of the original power plant in which Berghain hall resides. Because the plant was so infrequently populated, there is no grand, welcoming entrance — only a small, unsuspecting door on the building’s southwest side, serving as the club’s unassuming primary entranceway. This in stark contrast with the nearly forty-five meter vertical facade that consists of the venue’s exterior. Berghain’s windows are almost always kept shut, further separating the “spiritual” space of Berghain from the external world.

We can understand the pilgrimage as not inhibiting but contributing to Berghain’s sense of sacredness. Alexander in A Pattern Language writes, “In all cultures it seems that whatever it is that is holy will only be felt as holy, if it is hard to reach, if it requires layers of access, waiting, levels of approach, a gradual unpeeling, gradual revelation, passage through a series of gates”; by way of example he cites the Inner City of Peking, the Aztec pyramids, and the seven waiting rooms required for access to the Pope. (And on page 133: “A temple which can be reached only by passing through a sequence of approach courts is able to be a special thing in a man’s heart. The magnificence of a mountain peak is increased by the difficulty of reaching the upper valleys from which it can be seen… the great beauty of a river bank… are [sic] violated by a too direct approach… the thing will simply be devoured.”)

For those traveling shorter distances to reach Berghain’s gates, the act of waiting in line to enter acts as a similar form of ritualistic sacrifice. There is a sort of choreography as one moves from outside to inside the sacred space, going from line to bouncer to coat check and each stage involving its own ordained social customs (some specific to Berghain, others general to their category of interaction). As an expenditure of (frequently multiple) hours of time, this sacrifice in turn generates further, compensatory meaningfulness to the club. Once admitted, stamps are provided for easy re-entry. Many clubgoers take advantage of this by grabbing a bite or beverages at the food trucks parked nearby, or else by retreating to the quiet, outdoor rear path for fresh air and a break from Berghain’s constant stimulation.

Transitions & Thresholds

Each of Berghain’s four floors is separated by “loose” or open thresholds — large industrial staircases leading into massive rectangular openings which allow clubgoers from lower floors to survey upper floors and vice-versa. These staircases, unlike those in Château de Ferrières or Palais Garnier, are not used socially; they are perhaps better understood as ascensions to heaven (in the vein of Trinità dei Monti’s Spanish Steps). A prominent exception is the protruding southeastern raucherlounge, a staircase  which features both a dedicated smoking lounge and the only (consistently) unshuttered windows in Berghain. Partygoers often watch the sunrise from these stairs — a spiritual experience in its own right — or take temporary respite from the intensity of the club’s interior.

Other thresholds are less permeable. Unisex bathrooms offer stalls where couples and small groups can engage in sex acts or drug consumption. Berghain’s infamous darkrooms (a staple among queer nightlife venues, but a novelty to many of Berghain’s straight visitors) lie situated in the south- and northwest corners of the building, and consist of dozens of dimly lit cubicles for private encounters. It is darkness as much as walls or locked doors which provides privacy inside Berghain: one ground-floor “bunker-like structure” (as described by an interviewee) resembles, tellingly, an intimacy gradient, with nested precincts growing increasingly sacred until reaching some “innermost sanctum. In this bunker space, specifically, visitors must pass through multiple half-story levels with “varying degrees of darkness,” each level requiring a readjustment of the eyes. In its furthest recesses, there is a complete absence of light, and navigation requires tactile exploration. There are many such places embedded deep in Berghain, hidden by either the building’s labyrinthine interior or else such complete darkness that only knowledgeable, established visitors are aware of their existence and are able to find them.

The Light That Plays

One interviewee describes the main dance hall as an “industrial Gothic cathedral”; indeed, LED or similar lights often glow in the obscured windows. At certain climactic points in a music set, the shutters of the windows — typically closed — are thrown open in coordination with the music. The divine suggestion of the light which streams inside the club during such moments, coupled with the intricate colored light shows constantly present during opening hours, complete his comparison.

The aforementioned raucherlounge staircase, meanwhile, features thirty-foot glass walls which allow light to constantly stream through during daylight hours. On occasion this area is decorated so as to also resemble stained glass: “Walking towards the stairs, I noticed that part of the windows down the hallway were covered with colored filters. As the sun [rose], it [shone] in through the filters and the smoke of the inside to create an unreal view. As people walk[ed] through the hallway, only their multicolored silhouettes [were] visible.”

The Center (“Eccentric Nucleus”)

Centers can either be a focal point within a space (Joseph cites the Piazza San Pietro obelisk) or a central, public gathering site within a system of spaces (for example, Manhattan’s Central Park). Berghain’s nave-like main hall is the largest space and primary attraction for most visitors. It is the heart to Berghain’s cardiovascular system, the site of constant veinal influx and arterial outflux. Not only is the hall located in the building’s vertical center, between the ground-floor entrance and upper Panorama Bar, it’s also the radial center of the building’s horizontal plane around which smaller and more intimate spaces (including darkrooms) border.

Stretching two stories or eighteen meters tall, the main dance hall is full of levity, “reaching upwards” towards the sky in a way which suggests divinity. Square-base, concrete pillars on one side of the hall create a side aisle, home to a cash bar and swinging couches suspended from the ceiling. The most prominent feature of both the interior and the exterior of the building is its verticality, massive concrete pillars alternating with vertical glass windows. (Inside, dancers are made aware of the middle floor’s cavernous ceiling by its ceiling spotlights, whose downward beams indicate height.)

Equally evocatively, audience members in the hall face an altar or pulpit-like DJ table; the jockey is elevated significantly above them. A shamanic facilitator and leader with significant influence over the subjective experiences of its participants, this DJ altar is a “center” in a similar sense as Frank Lloyd Wright’s residential hearths. There is the shared directionality of a huddled congregation around a focal point — a focal point, moreover, which creates pleasurable, communal sensory stimulus. Where the hearth, of course, emanates warmth and light throughout a space, the DJ controls primarily the flow of music or “energy.” (Berghain’s light technics, ostensibly, are programmed from a second, more discrete location in the hall.) A prominent eye of Horus near the ceiling, meanwhile, acts as a sort of “image which motivates,” a “cuing” stimulus operating off shared cultural signification which helps set the experience’s religious or otherworldly tone.

III. Berghain & the Liminoid-Heterotopic

In Victor Turner’s Liminal to Liminoid, in Play, Flow, and Ritual, he distinguishes between what he terms the “liminal” and the “liminoid.” Liminality, originating with Arnold van Gennep as a phase of ritual, is adapted by Turner to describe a general state of in-betweenness in which participants move from one state or place to another. During liminal periods, normative elements of social structure and the individual identity within are temporarily inverted (or else dissolved). Liminoid phenomena, meanwhile, are those which share many of liminality’s qualities — are liminal-like— but which do not permanently or significantly alter participants’ state/-us. Liminoid phenomena Turner describes as play instead of work, something optional instead of mandatory, and which has post- instead of pre-industrial origins.

To van Gennep and Turner both, liminal/liminoid phases involve extended “physical separation” of participants from society at large, echoing the way in which Berghain operates as a heterotopic “other place” in which visitors disappear for days at a time, and socially taboo or criminal behavior (including drug experimentation, sexual fetish parties, and queer nightlife) flourish; in this way, it is liminoid. Similarly we can conceive of the autotelic — rather than transformative — efforts at communitas which arise at Berghain, and the presence of an anti-structure in which social norms are temporarily inverted or transfigured.

Berghain, I would argue, is a space best understood as what I will refer to as the hererotopic-liminoid. Despite the unwieldiness of this term — and perhaps, someone can and will suggest a better one — it is chosen for its solution to the shortcomings inherent to each descriptor on its own. Heterotopia, in the wake of Foucault’s influential coinage, has been so broadly interpreted, adapted, and reimagined that it lacks much definition today beyond being an “other place” bearing some relationship to both 1) the existing and/or hegemonic order, and 2) said order’s utopic vision. Turner’s “liminoid,” meanwhile, or “liminal-like,” is also somewhat ambiguously defined in its urtext, though a more pressing problem lies in the term’s etymology. While the liminoid is generally like the liminal in its origins, properties, and effects, it lacks liminality’s central tenet — of resembling a threshold. This is unclear in Turner’s texts, and as such its unqualified usage would imply a transformative, passage-like quality to Berghain — that one of the space’s central purposes or social identities was as transition. But paradoxically, clubgoers to Berghain, despite acknowledging the club’s spiritually or psychologically transformative powers, perceive the “liminal” or “liminoid” quality of the space not as a means but as ends in themselves. These ends are the effects of identity dissolution, inverted social structure, and communitas. (Though, as Turner notes, the antistructural qualities of such spaces, Berghain included, act as a catalyst for larger structural reform.)

To define, and understand the heterotopic-liminoid in the positive rather than negative, I will be more clear: The interpretation of Berghain which I am advancing is as an “other place.” It is both culturally and physically peripheral to the main urban order (as touched upon in Part I of this piece) — which nonetheless exists in dialectic with “the place” — that larger social structure within which it is situated. This structure includes not just Berlin or Germany but the set of dominant Western contemporary cultural and sociopolitical norms which Berlin embodies. Berghain is in this way antistructural — presenting alternatives to “the” structure — and precipitates a significant portion of liminoid qualities or effects as postulated by Turner, these being optionality, the dissolution of identity, the emergence of communitas, and a state of play (albeit a sacralized sort). Communitas is, in a capitalist and hierarchical society, itself an almost inherent antistructure, but Berghain’s countercultural practices extend much further. Long host to marginalized LGBTQ and fetish communities, it is also the site of widespread illicit drug use and other socially taboo practices.

The potential for venues like Berghain to be (non-transformatively) liminoid is suggested by Turner but never explored. “There are permanent ‘liminoid’ settings and spaces, too,” he writes — “bars, pubs, some cafes, social clubs, etc. But when clubs become exclusivist they tend to generate rites of passage, with the liminal as a condition of entrance into the ‘liminoid’ realm.” This emergence of entrance rites, of course, does not preclude the survival of communitas in the heterotopic-liminoid realm, and in Berghain the two work in coordination. The liminal passage which is Berghain’s entrance policy in fact cues and eases communitas’ emergence among clubgoers. While selectivity and curation of entrants prove necessary to preserving the sense of sacredness and community which pervades Berghain, this selectivity operates in the service of self- and collective transcendence rather than identity re-affirmation. Turner conceptualizes communitas as a departure from regular social order, including social hierarchies, in a way which equalizes participants.[3] Only once freed of hierarchies and social structure, a state of hyper-intimacy and connectedness between such participants is possible. Stories, then, such as the ones shared by one interviewee of world-class celebrities being turned away at the door, exert a pro-communitas influence over the mindset of Berghain-goers (as does a lack of admissive preference for those typically favored by bouncers: attractive young women, and young people in general; though there are obviously no official statistics, Garcia estimates the average age range of attendees as “mid-twenties to mid-thirties,” substantially older than many European techno clubs). Admittance is as famously arbitrary as it is selective.[4]

Tobias Rapp, in Lost and Sound:

In its implementation, this policy actually gives a faint sense of Jacobin Terror. Whether you’re a queen or a farmer, it really can happen to anyone. Firstly, then, this door is radically democratic. Secondly, however, it exhibits a refreshing arbitrariness which makes you ask yourself the question each and every time, even after years of getting in without a problem: Will I get turned away tonight?”

Once inside, this process of identity dissolution and crowd cohesion is reinforced by a Piotr Nathan installation entitled Rituale des Verschwindens (“Rituals of Disappearance,” pictured in initial image gallery, lower left) visible upon traversing the southwest portion of the ground floor. VIP spaces are either nonexistent or carefully hidden from sight (egalitarian) while bathrooms conspicuously lack mirrors (dissolution of individual identity). Egalitarianism is arguably central to the success of a club venue: Cordes in her study of dance culture observed constant references among interviewees to “being on the same level.”[4]

Turner additionally sees pilgrimage as a potent source of communitas. International visitors to Berghain are removed not only from their daily routines but the social norms of their native country, thrust together into one building. Every man’s land yields no man’s land, as a host of cultural norms dissolve without a shared system of signification. In their place, a certain heterotopic logic of the building and venue emerges, practicing an egalitarianism of least common denominator (shared humanity). Within this context, one can understand why some older clubgoers complain about the intrusion of cell phones into nightlife venues.[6] It is the intrusion of the worldly in the otherworldly, of the structural into the antistructural, of the profane into the divine; it imposes clock-time onto a space whose power benefits in part from being “out of time.”

IV. Sacred Circuits


It is worth pointing out, in closing, the largely obvious qualification that the relationship between architecture, sacredness, and communitas is not so much that of linear (and delineated) cause and effect as it is an (albeit asymmetric) circuit. There is a feedback loop, set in place as soon as architecture (or other imaginative stimuli and psychological cues) breaks the initial inertia. Émile Durkheim, whose concept of collective effervescence in many way mirrors Turner’s communitas, writes that during sacred moments of collective oneness and transcendence (or “effervescence”), the sense of sacredness is transposed or projected onto associated objects and people, for example a guiding shaman or priest. By extension, we can understand that in hosting holy events, architectural spaces themselves become holy — they are imbued with the collective associations accrued inside their halls. Sacred spaces, in this way, are created, adapted, and animated as much by their users as their architects. So it is with Berghain, and so it will always be.

A special thanks to Andrew Pasquier and Jack Goddu for their consultation along the way.


[1] I would emphasize the way in which Berghain is an incubator of experiences and events instead of ritual. Most academics have approached raves, and rave-like environments, as examples of modern day ritual, but their arguments, frankly, do not convince. Robin Sylvan’s Trance Formation is one of the more comprehensive treatments of rave’s religious and spiritual dimensions, and his examples in defense of rave-as-ritual (specifically, that rave is a ritualized practice, in which behavior is repeated in a deliberate and consistent way) encompass: “planning, publicity, set-up, transportation, DJing, dancing, chilling out, opening and closing ceremonies, breaking down the rave at the end, and the ‘after-party.’” As is obvious to anyone who has partaken in such events, Sylvan cannot be describing the experience of participants. Few clubgoers, either to Berghain or other house music venues, are present for any of these activities, including opening and closing ceremonies but especially so for “planning,” “set-up,” and “transportation.”If we were to qualify as ritual any event which requires preparatory and clean-up efforts by organizers, the term would become entirely devoid of meaning. As for those activities which Sylvan does describe of his “ritual” participants, such as the cycle of dance and rest, these are almost self-evidently improvisatory and expressive rather than ritualized acts; one does not repeat dance moves at a club in “a consistent and identifiable manner.” Even the ban on photography is an emphasis on the ephemeral — Sylvan is applying a conceptual framework of poor fit.

Tobias Rapp in Lost and Sound, a book-length profile of Berlin’s club scene, makes a stronger but still unsatisfying argument for Berghain as a ritualized space: Whether “by design or not,” Rapp writes, “waiting in the queue is the first step in an initiation ritual… The initiation ritual continues with the thorough drug search carried out in the entrance area beside the cash desk: the ritual cleansing. Then you pay your dues, another religious act, to gain passage to the cloakroom.” As a qualification, the door policy’s status as an “initiation ritual” is ambiguous, since post-initiation access is temporary (a few days) instead of permanent. Still, Rapp’s interpretation is perfectly compatible with that of Berghain as a liminoid (non-ritualistic) space, and Berghain’s door as a liminal (ritualistic) process of initiation entailing a visible change or transformation in status on the part of the partaking individual.

[2] Piotr Nathan on his permanent art installation, Rituale des Verschwindens, which sits inside Berghain’s entranceway: “[I]t was specifically the nearness to the coat check that I found exciting [about the location] — because it’s a space of transition that still has a certain proximity to the normal and banal.” [Amy Klement, Berghain: Kunst im Klub (Berlin: Berghain, 2015), 72.]

[3] Ashley Lynn Cordes, in Rave Identity and Self-reflexive Compartmentalization perceives club crowd cohesion as an act of Burkean consubstantiation, but this theory’s emphasis on positive or “additive” identity seems, for reasons addressed in the main text (e.g. cosmopolitan compromise, reported emphasis on dissolution and disappearance), less compelling an explanation than Turner’s communitas. [Ashley Cordes, Rave Identity and Self-reflexive Compartmentalization: An Exploration of Rituals and Beliefs of Contemporary Rave Culture. Hawaii Pacific University, 2012.]

[4]  Tobias Rapp, Lost & Sound: “In its implementation, this policy actually gives a faint sense of Jacobin Terror. Whether you’re a queen or a farmer, it really can happen to anyone. Firstly, then, this door is radically democratic. Secondly, however, it exhibits a refreshing arbitrariness which makes you ask yourself the question each and every time, even after years of getting in without a problem: Will I get turned away tonight?”

[5]  Alexander writes that effective centers, or eccentric nuclei exist “not inside the community, but between communities.” [Alexander, A Pattern Language, 151.] Panorama Bar, and other peripheral spaces in the building, do see some segregation between groups, but “Berghain” the main dance floor is a unifying space in which these groups mesh.

[6] Conflicting accounts exist on this topic, and the actual prevalence of mobile phone usage is unclear.