Interview – ExBerliner 1

Culture, Clubs, and Capitalism

Clärchens Ballhaus’ new proprietor Yoram Roth on the natural laws of the real estate market, misguided nostalgia for the 1990s and what he’s planning for the beloved Mitte institution.

Although a born and bred Berliner, Yoram Roth was unknown to most residents of Berlin until his purchase of century-old Mitte institution Clärchens Ballhaus made local news last July. Another unique piece of Berlin culture snatched away from the people, grabbed by another profit-driven gentrifier? Or a dilapidated building rescued from ruin by a man who understands and loves the city? Amidst a climate of mistrust towards real estate investors and Berliners’ legendary defiance of change, the self-described “culture entrepreneur” (he has photo museums in Stockholm, New York and Tallinn, and has invested in culture here and abroad) vows to try and secure a new, bright future for the derelict institution. And he has more plans for the city he calls home.

You don’t really  sound  or  look like it, the way  you’re  dressed now, but you  were  born  and raised in Berlin – West Berlin, right? I don’t dress like this every day (laughs). And yes, I speak English like an American because I went to the Kennedy School out in Zehlendorf! I grew up in Charlottenburg and speak real Berlinerisch German. I went to boarding school in England and the US, and I studied photography in New York. But I was always a Berliner. My family always lived here and I’d come back for every vacation – like a couple of weeks after the Wall fell, for Thanksgiving 1989. After that I stayed here for about five years, until 1995.

So you lived through the post- Wende heyday – exciting times, right? I was 21 and those were super exciting times. In 1991 with two friends I founded D’Vision Records and we produced techno and house. I was working in real estate during the day, working for my father as his junior assistant, carrying his bag around – my father was a real estate developer. And then I’d go take a disco nap, and then go out and do the record label. When you’re that young you don’t need to sleep – you can do that on a Tuesday. And yes, there was that unlimited DIY vibe, you didn’t need a business plan, you just did things.

Sometimes it was crazy dangerous. The original Tresor was literally a safe several floors down. There was one staircase that was about as wide as your arm. And you went down three flights and then there was furniture that was made out of hay that was wrapped in cloth. And everyone was smoking and completely fucking high. It was a death trap! It’s amazing that nothing ever happened! And if you think about the Love Parades, from 1991 until 1994 we had a truck. It was on the Ku’damm and it went from a few hundreds to about 30,000 and they ended up having like 1.5 million people when it moved to the Siegessäule. It was nuts, but nothing ever happened. Yes people got dehydrated and maybe they took a little too much of something, but there was never any violence. Not like what I experienced in New York in the 1980s, where things were a little rough in certain corners. You might get mugged, people had guns and people were doing crazy drugs. But, you know, Berlin was not that.

It was also the time of Berlin’s legendary squat scene, which people are still fighting for to this day… I think the squat scene got a little romanticised. I don’t share the enthusiasm for living in a commune with people who don’t wash. I, personally, have always been a huge fan of plumbing (laughs). But it certainly contributed to the spirit that makes Berlin what it is. I just think people have this romantic attachment to a unique time but you can’t preserve it in amber. You can’t hold on to it forever because it was literally just a moment. And it wasn’t necessarily a happy moment for everyone. I think there’s a very privileged idealism that goes, “oh we came and we discovered this empty city and we made it ours.” You know, I’m Jewish, and a lot of the abandoned houses used to be owned by Jews – including my family.

Your family fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s, right? My father was born in 1933 on Schönhauser Allee, on the corner of Milastraße. We had a very big building there with several apartments that were all occupied by different Roths. My grandparents managed to flee with their kids to Israel in 1938. Everybody else got murdered.

Your dad came back to Berlin after the war to become a successful real estate developer. Did you recover your Prenzlauer Berg property after the Fall of the Wall?  Yeah. In 1992 or 1993 my father said “look, we’re getting back some real estate from your great grandfather. Go take a look.” So I drove over there and I came back, and I said “Papi, we have to get rid of that shit as quickly as humanly possible.” I couldn’t imagine who would ever want to live on Kastanienallee or Zionskirchplatz. Those buildings didn’t even have toiletsor heating. Nobody had touched anything since the 1930s. I obviously knew nothing about gentrification and how a place like Prenzlauer Berg could become so attractive so quickly! But honestly we only did office buildings, so apartments were not something we understood well.

Some spots in the former East have among the most expensive rents these days. Up to €23/sqm near Kollwitzplatz. Do you think it was time that Berlin put a cap on rents? What do you think about the Mietendeckel?  It’s a decision largely driven by politics, by the desire to show that you are doing some- thing that resonates with the average voter, like “we’re sticking it to the rich guys”. Putting a cap on rents right now – fine, I think that’s a valuable tool. But I think what’s more important is to admit that there is such a thing as supply and demand, which means you just need to build more apartments. That’s the only solution. And the Senat needs to let people build. I don’t do real estate development: Clärchens is the only property I personally own. But I do understand the business. And they need to let people build. And they need to incentivise it. In the last 20 years they’ve passed so many regulations and requirements that new construction has become crazy expensive. Anything new that comes to the market automatically has to be a ‘Luxuswohnung’.

The Mietendeckel might turn out to be an incentive to build because new flats aren’t subjected to the rent cap. And that’s fine. The more luxury flats there are, the less pressure there is on normal apartments. For instance, let developers build along the outer ring of Tempelhofer Feld – just 30 metres wide! It still leaves a magnificent huge field but you could build 10-12,000 apartments there quickly. And you know what? Force them to be affordable. Make them so that the socially weaker people actually also get to live with a view onto the park. How awesome would that be? And make smaller apartments. Two-thirds of Berliners are people living alone in an oversized apartment.

Well, people voted against building on Tempelhof six years ago. Now, with the housing crisis, it’s a bit of a dilemma between quality of life and affordable homes. They should have another referendum! There’s no dilemma. Politics and laws are supposed to help us. And if the situation has changed, you pass new laws. I like Berlin, but this idea that people want everything to stay exactly the way it is, you know, it doesn’t work. We all change. I mean, Jesus Christ, I’m 52, and it was different when I was 22. But you know what, the city will change. It will change and in ways that will feel like the original spirit is getting lost. I don’t think we can stop it.

But we can help mitigate consequences for people. In Germany, the real estate business is pretty opaque about who owns what, and Berliners have been subjected to speculation and investment companies pushing out tenants to squeeze out as much profit as possible… I know, but honestly those are anecdotes. Here’s a fact: 80 percent of the buildings here are owned by large real estate funds. They’re not owned by weird, anonymous investors from the Cayman islands. We all hear those stories and they’re real and it’s fucked up. Those people should be exposed and we should know who owns which building. But I think if you were to find out who owns most of the buildings you’d realise that it’s about 20 large real estate funds, instead of government bonds. Basically people who saved some money went to the bank and bought this real estate fund. So you know who owns most of these buildings? It’s old age pensioners. At the end of the chain it’s just other people. It’s not a bunch of rich guys sitting like Montgomery Burns going “ha ha ha, I’m gonna screw the little guy.”

What about famous clubs like Griessmühle being evicted  because the new landlord wants to build on the property? The problem is that it was a relatively empty space and everyone knew it was zoned for construction, including Griessmühle when they signed the lease. Look, I’m happy for them that they have a loud enough voice and can draw attention to it. I think Clubsterben is real and a serious thing – I experienced it first hand in Manhattan. Griessmühle is super fun and I think it should exist. But to be honest, I also think the Berlin culture is defined as much by Clärchens as by the city’s clubs. I don’t know a lot of other cities that have such a diverse nightlife.

So you see yourself as saving the place? Yes, absolutely. I’m gonna save it. Everybody is like “oh it’s so charming”. If they could travel back in time to 15 years ago, it was not this beat up. And if you let this go on for another five years, people would just be like “okay, this place needs to be burned down”. And, I don’t think that’s right. The goal right now is to do some basic repairs and open up again as soon as possible – hopefully by the time it gets warmer. We’ve started with some dance evenings already. But then at some point, probably at the end of 2022, we’ll have to really fully shut down and renovate this building from the ground up: pull out every cable and every pipe in the wall. That will take a year and a half. I won’t change it a lot, though. I think it’s important that it remains in spirit the exact same thing it was beforehand.

What is Clärchens’ spirit for you? It’s a Ballhaus – it’s about dancing and having fun. The Schwoof night used to be a huge hit, and so were the swing and salsa nights. We’ll have those. It’s also a great place to hang and meet over a drink or some food. We also want to do good, solid German food, schnitzel or goulash… Look, it’s getting harder to meet people. You don’t date at work anymore because of, you know, modern sexual politics. You just literally can’t. You can’t go and hang around the gym because that’s pretty douchey. And clubs are great – but they’re loud, and some of us don’t rely on our looks to find partners, but rather on our ability to tell a decent joke, and so we need to go to a place where we can be heard, andwhere we can talk, and maybe dancing isn’t my strong point but you know… (laughing) If you can come with a couple friends to a place like this, it’s just great! I think Clärchens is a special place.

What are you saying to people who worry that Clärchens will lose flair? That’s always a risk when you’re renovating from scratch. Well you have to mitigate that risk and one way I am doing this is to do this project with David Chipperfield who’s a well-known architect in Berlin and proved with the Alte Nationalgalerie that he understands how the old can mix with the new. You need to come in here and be like, “wow”. But it can’tbe totally new and shiny. It can’t be that.

So when will the new, fully refurbished Clärchens reopen? I would love to close at the end of the year to start but I think it’s going to take longer. We are really in the hands of the government. They will decide what is protected and what is not. They will decide how quickly we get the permits. We’re actually in relatively good dialogue with them. But the biggest problem that I have right now is they’re mandating that the empty spaces that were being used as offices upstairs get turned back into functioning apartments.

They want you to use Clärchens’ upper floors for housing?! Yeah. There’s four flats and they want me to refurbish them, because there’s the housing crisis and they want to be politically active! But if I have to rent out those apartments then this place is dead. You know, people always ask “is there gonna be dancing?” I don’t know if there’s gonna be dancing because if I have to put fucking apartments up there then I’ll have to close it at 10pm! And that’s what they don’t understand. This is why the clubs are dying in Berlin.

So you are a businessman who invests in culture – which you did in Berlin for example with Kater Blau and Holzmarkt. Can culture be good business and retain its edge and quality? Holzmarkt is a good example of a cultural business. We have a nightclub there, a restaurant, lots of little shops, events, flea markets… it’s a form of culture but it’s also a for-profit undertaking. At the end of the day, the people who invested in it hope to see a return on the money they put in. But they also put in the money because they believe in what it does. If you do it well, you can come up with something that’s culturally important and earns money. It can be anightclub. Or a Ballhaus.

Or Museums. Your main business is Fotografiska, a brand of photography museums and you now have three – in Estonia, New York, and Stockholm. Rumours say in Berlin soon too… Yes, hopefully really soon. I really want to tell you but I’m not allowed. We have others in the pipeline and it’s really a question of how they happen and when. But, you know, we’re looking at Shanghai and we’re looking at Berlin. I would love to open in Paris. I would love to be in Toronto, or Los Angeles, where I used to live…

Do you think Berlin needs a new photography space? Will you be competing with C/O Berlin? I support C/O Berlin a lot. I’m very good friends with the founder Stefan Erfurt; I was a founding supporter. We won’t be direct competition because we’ll be a Kunsthalle and do what we do in Stockholm, Tallinn or New York: show the work of contemporary photographers while offering a full experience – workshops, concerts, DJs, a really cool restaurant, a bar, a shop, etc. Another reason we won’t compete with C/O Berlin is because anybody who is interested in photography will go see more photography – you either like photography or you don’t. Honestly, like all the other cultural entrepreneurs I ultimately compete with Netflix. I’ve gotta get people off the fucking couch!

As a Berliner, how do you look back at the last 50 years and the internationalisation, but also gentrification, of Berlin? I think it’s great that Berlin is so international. I think it’s wonderful, but I think it will change the culture and I think that pisses people off. And the people who complain the loudest are people who’ve heard stories about Berlin being €200 for an apartment. Dude, that was 20 years ago. And there are the expats who come here and speak English and maybe a little German with a foreign accent, and it’s not just the cool areas. When I go out to Tempelhof or Wedding it’s changing there as well. And in good ways, too. I think the Germans have become more worldly and more open-minded.