nhow Berlin

July 7, 2011

Embedded in a former industrial district in East Berlin, the latest installment in the nhow music hotel series is imbued with the candy-coloured world of Karim Rashid.

The message flashing across the information screen in my room leaves me in no doubt that music is the main theme echoing around the new 300-room nhow Berlin – “You want to try something new? Upon request, room service will bring a Gibson guitar – just one call will do it…”

Taking the initial intentions of the nhow concept (an idea originally seeded in Milan more than four years ago) a step further, the creative directors of nhow Berlin emphasise an imposing focus on today’s music culture, all of it accentuated by art and technology. And to create the new look for the modern ‘music hotel’ concept, who better than the renowned Karim Rashid to dive in and get busy? After all, before becoming a superstar designer, Rashid actually earned his living as a DJ – and he still needs little encouragement to bring out his turntables and mixing board.

As my tour with hotel manager Glenn Maus begins, he hastens to point out the main objective: “This is not a business hotel,” he says. “This is a music and lifestyle hotel…” The music bit is clear from the hotel brochure, tucked inside a record sleeve that is handed to me at reception. The lifestyle bit is harder to grasp, but is no doubt reflected in the conspicuous design furniture and screaming colours that dominate throughout.

Despite the conspicuous design, it is actually the hotel’s goal to establish itself as a music venue that sets it apart. The architectural highlight of the building is a spectacular metal-clad ‘Music Sound Floor’ that cantilevers over the River Spree and houses two studios for both recording and mixing. Located between them and accessible from both is an isolation booth for voice, vocal and instrumental recordings.

The centrepiece of the analogue suite is a SSL (Solid State Logic) Duality mixing desk – a state-of-the-art piece of equipment brought in from London and costing something in the region of 250,000 euros. The outboard equipment that accompanies the mixing desk focuses on the ‘made in Germany’ label; there are also Siemens compressors and equalizers, Neumann and Telefunken tube equipment and much more. Final Cut is on hand for film and video editing, and any sort of post-production work you can imagine. It’s a mind-boggling array of advanced multimedia technology and proof that the hotel’s claim to be a music hotel is not an empty marketing slogan.

To give substance to its ambitions, the hotel collaborated with the famous Hansa Tonstudios in Berlin, the clients of which have included U2, REM and David Bowie. Managing the studio is Rene Rennefeld of Lautstark, a music production and management company that works with acts across the musical spectrum, from Lou Bega and H-Blockx to Kisha and Aloha from Hell. When recording at nhow Berlin, these bands and singers can chill out or practice in a 250-square metre luxury suite adjoining the studios, which are fully isolated from the rest of the building to prevent any disturbance to the other hotel guests.

The technology isn’t confined to the Music Sound Floor, however. Many of the main spaces are digitally networked with the studios to enable maximum flexibility. The seven conference rooms and music lounge downstairs are all directly wired to the studios. TV interviews conducted in the hotel can be edited on the spot and sent directly to the TV station. All bedrooms boast iPod connections. And film fragments from the recent Berlin Fashion Show flash across the giant digital wall in the lounge to underline the marriage of digital technology, data-driven space, music and fashion – a sudden amalgamation of creative culture that is gradually unfolding at the nhow hotel.

Indeed, the public areas of the hotel can even be turned quickly into impromptu studios for televised interviews and other programs. Summer gigs are planned on the riverside terrace outside, and the bar regularly hosts international and local DJs. And, as already stated, visitors with a sudden urge to do some song writing or performing of their own can have a Gibson guitar brought to their room. “We want our guests to be creative. We want them to start playing music… We have no boundaries, no limits,” says Glenn Maus.

While music is the main thrust, the hotel’s desire to tune into the city’s cultural vibe is also reflected through art and fashion. A walk up the stairs from the lounge takes you away from the world of Karim Rashid and into the first floor gallery: a bare concrete space that can accommodate everything from fashion shows to art exhibitions. Esther Perbandt, the Berliner avant-garde designer who created the androgynous outfits for the hotel’s bar staff, presented her new collection here during the recent Berlin Fashion Show. Perbandt also collaborated with Milan painter and artist Marco Grassi, aka ‘Pho’. Entitled Traces of Pho, the largely black and white collection fused fashion and art, and was widely acclaimed as one of the off-site highlights of the city’s annual fashion festival.

This type of interactive event, of bringing together people from different creative disciplines, will go a long way to putting nhow Berlin on the map of cultural hot spots as time goes by. And, just as the music infrastructure evolved out of teamwork with established names from the industry, the gallery too is the result of collaboration, this time with the Seven Star Gallery. This is currently one of the city’s hippest venues for what it refers to as “unseen photography and visual culture”. The brainchild of Thorsten Heinze, the Seven Star Gallery established a big reputation with its presentations of works by avant-garde photographers both young and old, including Joachim Baldauf, Helga Kneidl and Peter Lorenz.

nhow Berlin is hoping that this joint venture with the gallery will produce a similarly dynamic space inside the hotel. At the opening of the new space, gallery owner Heinze was his inimitable self. “This is a space age place where the astronauts come to recharge, to become strong. Imagination, dreams, visions, light, power, water, the essence of life,” he exclaims, before adding, “Mensch ist Mensch – that’s what it’s all about.” It’s anyone’s guess what that means, though my understanding is that we need more than water to survive; we also need stimulation to be human and among humans. But perhaps it explains the opening exhibition of portraits of famous people caught in private moments. Whatever the case, we can certainly expect the unexpected from the artists that come through the new gallery.

Suddenly my tour with Maus is interrupted – by a call from the riot police. Up to 2500 of them will turn up in battle gear later this evening in an operation to evict a particularly determined bunch of squatters from a nearby house… Apparently all these commandos will need to, “Uh, relieve themselves at some point during the lengthy proceedings later on, and would be very grateful if they could use the hotel’s toilet facilities.” The prospect of all these heavily armed action heroes queuing up to use a row of Rashid-designed lollipop-coloured blobby sanitary fittings is comical, but it is nonetheless a sharp reminder of the hard edge to life in parts of Berlin.

Rundown, bleak and windswept is the overriding impression of Friedrichshain, this former industrial district of East Berlin where the hotel is located. Then again, it’s difficult for any district to look its best on a wet and windy Berlin morning in early February. But things are looking up in this part of town. While the epicentre of the city was in the West when the Wall came down, it’s been steadily creeping eastwards ever since. Once impoverished districts in the former eastern, socialist half of the city now undergo upgrading and gentrification in a process that is erasing the scars left by years of division and neglect.

At a certain moment the action shifts elsewhere and the process starts all over again. Right now the city’s creatives, and big players in the music industry, are discovering Friedrichshain. The hotel occupies a building designed by Russian-born Sergei Tchoban on a site along the River Spree – between blocks belonging to Universal Studios and MTV. Countless clubs have migrated to the area too, and it is home to O2 World, the city’s largest venue for concerts.

The choice for this type of hotel in this part of town makes sense, though nhow Berlin is not the first of its kind. The first, designed by Matteo Thun, opened in 2007 in Milan. Both are owned by NH Hoteles, a Spainish hotel conglomerate, listed and traded on the stock exchange (boasting almost 350 hotels and over 50,000 rooms across Europe, Latin America and Africa). Like many of the major chains, NH Hoteles caters to seasoned business travellers. And such guests, let’s be honest, are not exactly after a design trip when they check in for the night. Instead, familiar reliability is what they’re after, which is why business hotels rarely, if ever, leave a lasting impression on guests.

The nhow Berlin, by contrast, is everything your average business hotel does not want to be. It is unconventional, or at least it tries its very best to give you that impression. It is firmly anchored to its urban setting, while most business hotels stand aloof from their surroundings. And it exudes a sense of youthful energy in the hope, no doubt, of appealing to the city’s creative class. Unlike your average business hotel, the nhow Berlin is one place you won’t forget in a hurry. To walk through the doors is to step into the saccharine, sensuous world of Karim Rashid. His cheerful colours and motifs pursue you relentlessly, everywhere. There’s hardly a single surface in the entire hotel that hasn’t been given the full Rashid treatment, right down to the towels hanging in the bathroom of your suite, which are emblazoned with the designer’s trademark swirling motifs. But it’s down in the public areas on the ground floor that his main design moves are located.

Welcoming you as you enter the lobby is a huge, amorphous form (made of high-gloss pink fibreglass) that houses the reception and concierge desks on either side of an arched opening to the staff spaces behind. “This hotel incorporates a lot of different design, fabrics and textures, but the main focus is colour,” explains Maus. “I think pink symbolises who we are as a brand. We’re bold, fresh, we want to be something different.”

It ultimately beckons the question: does the hotel’s goal to embrace edgy creativity sit comfortably alongside the candy-coloured universe of Karim Rashid? Is his smooth and bubbly style the most fitting counterpart to the raw music, fashion and art inspired by Berlin? Should it have been nhow Tokyo? Should we read this interior as a foil for the endeavours that are bound to unfold here? Perhaps such questions lose their relevance if we realise that the real significance of nhow Berlin lies not in its physical design, but rather in the cultural and creative energy it is constructed to generate.

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