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  • Welcome to Funkhaus: The iconic recording studio of East Berlin


Welcome to Funkhaus: The iconic recording studio of East Berlin

Constructed by the DDR, Berlin's Funkhaus might be the highest quality recording studio ever, providing the purest sound in town.

Photo: Verena Brüning

Berlin’s legendary Funkhaus has lived many lifetimes. Once a plywood factory, then a DDR radio broadcast centre and now a high-end recording studio and concert venue, the complex is sprawling and stunning. Its four main buildings sit neatly beside the Spree in Berlin’s Oberschöneweide district, buffeted by winter wind. Composer Nils Frahm, whose studio is in Funkhaus’ Block B, regularly sells out intimate shows here. “This place really changes my experience,” he says. “You feel so appreciated, and you feel like, ‘Ah, they did all this just for the music.’ All of this was made just so music could be better.” It’s a whole world built entirely for the love of sound.

Take Saal 1, where many of Frahm’s shows take place. It’s an enormous, ornate hall with Colosseum-style seating overlooking an orchestra pit. “This is the largest purpose-built recording studio in the world,” says Christian Block, Funkhaus’ events and communications manager. Block has worked at Funkhaus since 2007.

No studio of this size and quality has ever been built since

“Abbey Road Studios in London were claiming they had the largest one, but the owners here threatened to sue so they took it down. Abbey Road is only 6,000 cubic metres – Funkhaus Berlin is 12,300,” he says. “The architect and the team who designed the space were really keen on details, they did anything they could in order to get perfect acoustics,” Block explains. “If there’s ever an architect on one of my tours, they really freak out because the design is so cool. Today, you would never find an architect to build something like this.”

Photo: Verena Brüning

Funkhaus’ origin story, like much of Berlin, is tied to the nation’s turbulent history. In 1951, Berlin was home to a radio broadcasting centre called Haus des Rundfunks, established in 1931 and located on Masurenallee – in the British sector of West Berlin. It quickly became clear that the DDR could no longer broadcast from the British-controlled location. The State Broadcasting Committee chose an old plywood factory in Köpenick as their new radio centre and tapped architect Franz Ehrlich to design a sprawling, unprecedented modern broadcasting complex, using the factory’s concrete skeleton.

A student of Bauhaus and a Communist, Ehrlich was arrested by the Nazis in 1935 and taken to Buchenwald concentration camp, where, during his forced labour, he also designed the camp’s entrance gates. After the war, Ehrlich continued architecture work in the DDR, designing buildings in Dresden and reconstructing buildings lost to the war. Funkhaus, although rather pragmatic in its exterior, is one of his most artful works.

Photo: Verena Brüning

During the 1950s, around 3,500 workers were employed by Funkhaus, and all nationwide radio stations broadcast from its grounds: five stations in total, each with their own structure and programming. The DDR radio consisted of several programmes covering cities from all over East Germany; Leipzig, Potsdam, Weimar, Frankfurt an der Oder and Neubrandenburg, among others.

Although some music and sports programmes were available, Funkhaus was probably best known for its information broadcasts on Radio DDR I and II, the Berliner Rundfunk, and Deutschlandsender, also known as the ‘Voice of the DDR’. Funny fragments of this era can still be found around the complex: a trap door with gravel and dirt underneath, a staircase leading to nowhere, a studio with stone, wood and carpeted steps – all used to create sound effects for radio dramas.

Renowned Sound

“Funkhaus was created at a time when radio broadcasting was the number one mass medium worldwide,” explains Wolfhard Besser, a journalist who started working at Funkhaus as an editorial assistant in 1961 and stayed until 1991.

Photo: Verena Brüning

“The quality of the transmission paths on medium- and long-wave at that time was limited, but still there was a very high standard for recording quality in the broadcasting halls. Later on, the addition of new technologies like FM transmitters, for example, also raised the bar… although today such large-scale production facilities are no longer absolutely necessary, Funkhaus can still be considered as an important part of German cultural heritage.”

After the Wall came down and Germany was reunified, Berlin was oversaturated with radio programmes, both old and new, and the complex and its original endeavours slowly became obsolete.

In its prime, Funkhaus cost an exorbitant amount of money to maintain. According to Block, at the time it was built, it apparently cost about 180,000 Deutschmarks per cubic metre – multiplied by Funkhaus’ massive volume, construction alone cost over two billion, with another six billion in working costs tacked on.

Photo: Verena Brüning

“There’s a reason no studio of this size and quality has ever been built since,” Block explains. “Even the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg was criticised for spending about €860 million on their construction, a mere fraction of what was spent here.”

This big spending is reflected in the building’s pristine acoustic qualities. The larger studios, Saal 1 and Saal 2, have their own special features – trapezoid-shaped rooms that deter echo, reflecting panels on the walls so that recording musicians can hear themselves playing without headphones, a suspended ceiling designed to suppress low frequencies – but every studio in the complex also benefits from house-in-house construction, something typically seen on a smaller scale in regular studios.

They did all this just for the music. All of this was made just so music could be better

With room-in-room construction, a studio is surrounded by decoupled walls and ceilings in order to protect it from outside sounds. In Funkhaus, none of the four main studios or the smaller studios have a direct wall to the outside world; instead, a concrete sound chamber was constructed as the resonance body for the recording halls, adding another layer of acoustic isolation. “Even an aeroplane flying overhead, as was often the case when Berlin’s Tempelhof airport was still in use, could not be heard from Saal 1,” says Block.

Since Saal 1’s switch to a dual space, the hall has been filled with speakers, seating, stage equipment and a lighting rig suspended from the ceiling – all of which disturbs the reflections, and ultimately interferes with the sound. Audiences at Funkhaus’ many concerts don’t seem to mind or notice, but atmospheric conditions have since deteriorated. The massive nearly floor-to-ceiling pipe organ at the far end of Saal 1 is a testament to the meticulousness of the conditions necessary for good sound.

“Actually, the organ never worked,” Block explains. “They did a perfect job with the studios, but they miscalculated the climatic conditions necessary for this specific instrument and within six months, the pipes were in very bad shape and couldn’t be used at all.” He shrugs, laughing. “Now it would make no sense to fix it or remove it because the investment would be in the millions, and you’d never get the money back.”

The Future of Funk

Photo: Verena Brüning

Much of the rest of Funkhaus’ recording complex has remained similarly untouched. Block A, which now hosts long-term studio tenants and office spaces for creative companies, also houses a few very special rooms so protected that not one piece of furniture has been changed. The table in one wood-panelled conference room has been there since the 1950s, the chairs since the 1960s, and unsurprisingly, the room has been used as various DDR film sets.

The Foyer, the impressive entranceway in Block B with a grand staircase and flooring made of marble taken from the Chancellory by the Russians after the end of World War II has also featured in film: Balloon, a 2018 drama about a daring escape from the DDR via hot air balloon. A fragment of the set remains: a reception area with a big cabinet for hotel room keys lines one side of the foyer, used these days as a bar and after party area for events.

Photo: Verena Brüning

When Funkhaus’ ownership changed hands most recently in 2015, some worried that it would be detrimental to the space’s culture and history. While Funkhaus is a protected building, there is no government funding coming in, and it is not given financial support like museums or other cultural spaces. But these days, everyone involved in Funkhaus does what they can to keep the love of music and sound alive, making sure that this Haus continues to give acoustic excellence a home in Berlin.

  • Funkhaus, Nalepastr. 18, Oberschöneweide, more on funkhaus-berlin.net