Protest paid off
On 26 October the Ernst Busch drama school celebrated the inauguration of its new premises, on the former grounds of East Berlin’s central theatre workshops, near Nordbahnhof station. The wooden stage tower housing two studios, designed by O&O Baukunst architects, stands as a striking tribute to the site’s theatrical heritage and unites the school’s previously scattered departments under one roof.
Shining like a beacon, visible from afar – the architectural firm O&O Baukunst wanted the new premises of the Ernst Busch drama school to be a cultural ‘thorn in the side’ of the development that has transformed the neighbourhood around Nordbahnhof station in recent years. Exclusive lofts, hotels and office blocks have gradually displaced the old housing, and the local population with it. Only a few parts of the East Berlin theatre workshops that once stood here remained. As a monument to this theatrical past, the architects stacked the drama school’s new studios within a stage tower of wooden slats against a transparent background.
The drama school, or Hochschule für Schauspielkunst Ernst Busch as it is officially named, was the first of its kind when it was founded by Max Reinhardt in 1905 and is now Germany’s leading academy for the dramatic arts. Subjects taught include acting, directing, choreography and puppet theatre. Recently, a master course in dramaturgy was introduced. As the school grew over the years, sections and departments opened in different parts of the city. The new premises now unite them all under one roof and have met general approval, though some observers are puzzled by the appearance of the constituent elements’ walls. They were left in a visibly ‘raw’ state above the 2.30m mark, and alterations also left visible. Showing us around, the project’s manager, architect Tobias Ahlers, admitted he is often asked: “When will it be finished?”
Making history visible
Fighting for its new home with incredible tenacity and creative verve, the school managed to turn around what threatened to be another inglorious chapter in the story of Berlin’s rebuilding. It finally achieved its goal after a total of 21 years, two architectural competitions and various location searches. A winning tender was announced in 2009, to cost a projected 33 million Euros, but scrapped again in 2012 because it threatened to exceed the budget limit by 1.4 million!
Outraged students took matters into their own hands. Occupying the grounds of East Berlin’s central theatre workshops, they camped on site and took classes in the open air. With the backing of prominent graduates of the school and other arts-makers, they eventually persuaded the Berlin Senate to act. Construction was approved in 2013, to begin in 2014. The bankruptcy of the company contracted to build the shell – here, the cheapest offer was taken without adequate references –, extra costs incurred for ventilation and air conditioning, and delays in construction led to a total cost of 44 million Euros and completion being delayed by a year.
The production line
Standing at the end of a long, ground-floor corridor, we look down what is fondly known as the ‘production line’ (German: Arbeitsstraße). The ‘refined’ floor is made of polished, slightly shiny concrete, which has both an elegant appearance and a workshop character. Indeed, this is where the workshops are located for realizing the students’ ideas: the props and furniture stores, and the carpenters’, lighting, and metalworkers’ workshops are in a row on the right side. High-ceilinged rooms with large windows, they offer congenial working conditions. A high gate with a loading ramp for deliveries leads outside. Inside, the workshops are connected by equally high doors, allowing materials to be moved to the lift. The puppet store, wardrobe directors’ and costumers’ rooms line the left side of the ‘production line’. The attachments for hanging up the puppets were designed and built by the student puppeteers themselves.
Rehearsing and studying
Going up to the first floor via the stairwells, which were built into the old building and likewise made of exposed concrete, we see a sign saying: “Thank you, statics”. Yes, everything here is exceedingly robust and conveys a sense of stability. The first floor houses the classrooms, small rehearsal stages for work alone or in small groups, plus wardrobes and three larger rehearsal stages. These are equipped with transverse beams, curtains and spotlights. There is even a fencing room.
Soundproofing was an important factor throughout the premises. The planners at Müller BBM explained: “The curtains allow the acoustics in the rehearsal rooms to be adjusted according to the individual rehearsal situation. To ensure soundproofing, the ceilings were fitted with low coordinated floating screeds and self-supporting plasterboard subquadrants, so that students jumping or shouting during classes do not disturb the activities going on in adjacent rooms.” For theory classes, there are two seminar rooms, one large and one smaller. Ahlers draws our attention to the impressive height of the ceilings. This was once the painting hall. Unfortunately, the original, freely suspended ceiling could not be kept. More space is clearly devoted to rehearsing and building, reflecting the importance the school attaches to practical work. But the nerve-centre of this drama laboratory is nevertheless a space for the mind: A generously laid-out library with large windows and glass panels facing the corridor, creating a comfortable environment in which to read and explore, which is obviously popular with the students. Here, too, good soundproofing ensures the library does not let in noises from the corridor despite its transparency.
Studios for rehearsals and performances
The architects “pushed in” the tower with its two studios into the old building like a “wooden box”, says Ahlers. The concrete stairwell clad in wooden boarding wraps itself around the studios; even the emergency staircases for the technicians lead into the stairwell – the principle of transparency following function. The stairwell lets in plenty of light; the wooden slats are backed by a layer of polycarbonate through which the outside is vaguely recognizable.
The school’s stage equipment was selected by close consultation with the users. Some wishes had to be curtailed to save costs. Still, an all-round work gallery with two cross-bridges running over the studio stage offers ample flexibility for installing various devices, lighting systems and audio-video technology. Underneath, there are all-round curtain tracks and steel section brackets for mounting spotlights or similar devices. Under the ceiling there are seven length-wise horizontally movable backdrop trolleys, each of which carries a tubular shaft hoist with a 350 kg capacity, which can be used for up to four mobile scenery hoists. The studio stage is equipped with individually tailored lighting systems and audio-video technology.
Right now, everyone is glad that the building is open, even if work still needs to be done here and there. But soon it will be wall-to-wall work of a different kind – and students making their own drama!