Music & clubs

Whither Festsaal?

With Festsaal Kreuzberg's role as central music hub of Kottbusser Tor going up in smoke last July, the Berlin music scene has felt the loss. And poured in the support. The future of the venue may be uncertain, but optimism survives.

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Photo by Matze Hielscher

The husk of Festsaal Kreuzberg sits on Skalitzer Straße, gutted and vacant. It was in late July last year when a fire broke out, just a few hours before the venue was due to open its doors for bustling hip-hop club night “Goldene Neunziger”. The blaze raged for over a dozen hours, late into the morning after.

“In the basement there were maybe a few chairs and things, but everything else was completely destroyed,” says Björn von Sweiykowsky, one of the key promoters behind Festsaal since it began in 2004. “What we know for sure is that it was an electrical problem.”

The issue, a faulty cable running down one wall, had lain dormant for a while. On that night, sparks from the cable ignited, and the flames spread through the wooden balcony running along the upper tier.

Festsaal Kreuzberg, the company, runs three spaces in the concrete sprawl of Kottbusser Tor: tiny bar/venue Monarch and bars Paloma and Fahimi, nestled alongside West Germany and Pony in the former medical complex above Kaiser’s. However, with the loss of their largest venue, the organisation had to change the dynamic of how things were promoted and run. They could still promote large events in venues such as Lido, but they weren’t able to make bar money from those gigs. And without the profitable events at their flagship space, they were no longer able to risk booking lesser-known bands.

“When the fire happened, we really thought that was it,” declares Von Sweiykowsky. But artists and local politicians rushed messages offering their support immediately afterwards. “The police who were there when it happened said how they had been to gigs there,” Von Sweiykowsky smiles. “It was really something.”

A Facebook statement posted the next day received over 150,000 responses. It was this outpouring which made the Festsaal crew think creatively about how they might raise money to rebuild.

A benefit concert was held at Postbahnhof, and a crowd-funding campaign on raised over €32,000; money which would be used for lawyers, architectural plans and basics which would allow them to submit an application to the Bauamt for planning permission.

“The owner of the building will pay for the roof and his insurance will pay for the walls,” notes Von Sweiykowsky. “But everything else – it’s all gone.” Should giving money to a commercial concern be viewed with a cynical eye? Von Sweiykowsky doesn’t refute this: “Of course! We need to make money.”

However, he explains that when Festsaal totaled up the events they’d put on over a three-year period, they found that one-third of them were affairs other than straightforward music nights. In addition to Exberliner’s seventh birthday party in 2009, political events and launches of feminist Missy magazine were held there, some of which were allowed to use of the space rent-free. There’s scope for them to apply for cultural status funding.

But given the development sweeping the Kotti area, Von Sweiykowsky and co. might not even get the chance. “The owner is thinking about building an office building – but maybe not, we don’t know for sure.” Relocation is always an option, but would Festsaal’s ethos change if it were forced to move?

Von Sweiykowsky says, “Definitely. The whole history of Festsaal was that in the beginning it was a Turkish wedding facility, and when we started using it we still had those weddings and other events in the same room. The whole development of the space was special. It paid respect to the social structure of the area. It never was just a place only for hipsters and cool people.”

Originally published in issue #126, April 2014.