Welcome to the club
Its address may be Torstraße 1, 10119 Berlin, but when you enter this eight-floor building with its characteristic curved facade, you will find yourself whisked half-way round the world on a tour of style and design. Getting in the lift, you will be carried into a dazzling mix of industrial chic, art deco and shabby chic, embellished with assorted items from indeterminate English clubs, American diners and grand hotels. Majestic crystal chandeliers sparkle harmoniously alongside châteauesque sandstone fireplaces and weather-beaten wooden boards from farms in rural Brandenburg. Around the house, groups of creative professionals tap quietly at their iPhones and iPads on inviting English country house-style floral-patterned sofas that would be big enough for a small family to sleep on comfortably. It feels like you have a rich, rather eccentric friend with a passion for collecting things, who has invited you and all sorts of other like-minded individuals back to his
And in a sense, that is just what is going on at this listed building at Torstraße 1/Prenzlauer Allee, Berlin. Soho House Berlin, which opened in May 2010 in the city’s Mitte district, is a boutique hotel with 40 rooms, but also a private members club with well over 2,000 members, all professionals from the media, music, film and art industries, and other creative disciplines.
A monthly subscription of 75 euros entitles members to use the 4,000 or so square-metre house to meet friends and business associates, eat, exercise... whether they want to relax or work, it doesn’t matter. But according to the concept, they should not neglect the one in favour of the other. “Soho House,” according to the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, “is like Facebook, only it’s offline, exclusive, and it has a menu.”
Facebook’s successful offline version is the brainchild of the British gastronomic entrepreneur Nick Jones. Jones’ first Soho House, which opened in 1995 in Soho in London, is a kind of relaxed alternative to the traditional, stuffy London clubs. “I don’t feel particularly comfortable around banker types,” says 47 year-old Jones. “At Soho House we want individualists, not suits.” And there is clearly no shortage of suitable individualists wanting to meet like-minded people, as demonstrated by the fact that three more Soho Houses have since opened in London, and one in each of New York, West Hollywood and Miami, as well as a country house version in Somerset. The first Indian Soho House is currently being built in Mumbai.
“Every Soho House is fitted out uniquely in a way that does justice to its location, architecture and history,” says Heide Proett, head of PR for the Berlin club. None of the other eight Soho Houses have a history as colourful as that of the house on the corner of Prenzlauer Allee and Torstraße. It was built in 1928/1929 as a Jewish-run department store, but the Nazis seized it from its Jewish owners, and the leadership of the Hitler Youth moved in in their place. After the fall of the Third Reich, it was renamed “House of Unity” and became the HQ of the Communist Party of East Germany. The East German Politburo met there up until 1954. One can just imagine Wilhelm Pieck, Otto Grotewohl and Walter Ulbricht gazing confidently out across their young socialist republic from the balcony of the hall on the second floor, where today dinner guests enjoy a quick cigarette in the fresh air. When this confidence, and with it, the GDR, finally disintegrated, the house remained vacant for a time, until it was discovered by the Soho House management.
“We’d been looking for a suitable location in Berlin for some time, and this building spoke to me immediately,” explains club owner Jones. “Its history and the fabric of the building meant we could do everything we wanted to with it.” Architect Alex Michaelis (Michaelis Boyd Associates, London) revitalised the building with great care, keeping its architectural roots in mind at all times. The decision to use the “Berker Serie 1930” switch range, which, like the building itself, dates unmistakably from the Bauhaus era, thus came almost entirely naturally. These switches control not only the lights, but also the underfloor heating, heated towel rails and mirror heaters in the rooms.
It was interior designer Susie Atkinson’s job to create the impression that this distinguished building’s history was the logical result of a whole sequence of colourful, fantastical goings-on, rather than a sequence of rude interruptions. The “House Kitchen” restaurant with its recycled tiles and heavy iron lights feels like an American diner, while the “Club Floor” seems to have been inspired by an artist’s studio from the 1950’s. The private cinema in the basement, with its dark red carpet and 30 betasselled armchairs, might have been lifted straight from a bankrupt grand hotel, while the shelving in the well-stocked library next door is from the British Library. The rooftop terrace on the eighth floor, with its timber deck, grass-green pool and snow-white sunbeds, feels like a beach house in the Hamptons. Suddenly, looking down from here onto the eight-lane Prenzlauer Allee with its grey line of prefabricated blocks of flats and the TV tower emerging from the fog, you realise where you really are: Berlin in 2011. A city encapsulating half the world. If not more.