The music machine: designing creativity in a post-industrial space

LA-based Optimist Design has transformed a former power station in Berlin to create a recording studio for Red Bull. The firm’s director of design Michael Brown discusses the opportunities and challenges of regenerating an old industrial site to create a fresh, creative space that sounds as good as it looks.


mezzanine

In a city as old as Berlin, history lives on in the built environment. Structural relics from the Industrial Revolution often stand empty and dilapidated for decades, memories of the past rendered in bricks and mortar. Modern Berlin has earned a reputation as a global hub for art and fashion, and has made of virtue of repurposing the spaces of the past to house the creative endeavours for which the city has become known.

Red Bull's new recording studio in the city is a perfect example of the ways in which forgotten spaces can be recalibrated with creativity in mind. The studio, which forms part of a growing network of Red Bull recording facilities that stretches from Los Angeles and New York to Cape Town and Tokyo, has sprung to life inside the shell of a disused 1920s-era power station.

For LA-based Optimist Design, the height of the former power plant's industrial hall afforded the opportunity to build verticality into the finished studio and create an innovative space-within-a-space. The recording studio itself is housed in a sculptural chamber clad in copper as a nod to the site's power-generating past, while social spaces surround the chamber in three dimensions thanks to a well-placed staircase that allows for pleasant hang-out areas around and even on top of the chamber.

"There is an interesting connection between the surrounding social spaces and the recording areas," said Optimist Design founder and Berlin native Tino Schaedler after the studio's completion. "We crafted a 'hang out' lounge on the upper level that has a beautiful view from above into the recording space. Ultimately, the music is about creation, but at the same time it is also about communication and the experience involved in the process. The space is platform to foster creativity, add spirit and make people feel comfortable."

Transforming an industrial site

Optimist Design was brought on to design the Berlin studio after emerging top in a shortlisting and pitching process, and far from mandating a concept that would fit into an overarching Red Bull brand, the firm's brief was open and location-specific.

"Red Bull doesn't have a preconceived idea of how their studios should look, in fact quite the opposite," says Optimist's director of design Michael Brown, who joined the project as a partner at Berlin-based architecture firm NAU, which collaborated with Optimist on the design. "They want each studio to reflect something of the culture of the city that it's in. Ideally when artists go in to record, some of the city's vibe flows into their work. So in that sense the brief was quite open, and it was part of the design process to figure out what the intangible piece of Berlin was that we would embed in the design."

Repurposing an industrial site is not without its challenges. The team found that they would have to strip back the layers of the building's chaotic interior to achieve their goal.

"Red Bull doesn't have a preconceived idea of how their studios should look, in fact quite the opposite."

"The space, like many in Berlin, had been through several stages of renovation and reuse," says Brown. "It had linoleum floors, blue painted walls, gold window frames and some red sofas when we first saw it. Part of our approach was to strip back some of the layers that had been added and bring it back to more industrial roots."

The end result of Optimist's work is a studio that has unified look and identity - driven by the warm interplay of the slate-grey walls, the bright copper of the recording chamber and the light that floods down from a glass roof and through triangular interior windows - but also harks back to the building's original purpose.

"It was important that a memory of the old infrastructure remain present in the new design," notes Brown. "The kilometres of copper cable that once carried electricity through the old transformer station are referenced in over one kilometre of copper bands that clad the new studios. The site's industrial history in many ways parallels the history of Berlin. This building complex, which takes up nearly a city block, originally housed analog switching equipment that can now fit into a space the size of a large room. The transition to a post-industrial, and in Berlin's case post-World War II and post-Cold War, rethinking of the city has left many of these amazing old spaces empty and unused - spaces which have subsequently been taken over by the creative economy."

Good vibrations: acoustic-driven design

The flow of the space is designed to facilitate quick communication between musicians and sound engineers while also having a navigational layout that emphasises clear sight lines and the occasional secret nook.

"Flow through the spaces was imagined along two axes; one linear and one meandering," says Brown. "The first was a direct line cut through all the rooms and glazed so that from the entrance you can see in a straight shot through all the spaces. You immediately know where you are, and from the control room, a sound engineer can maintain a visual connection to all the band members. The second [axis] weaves through all the rooms and eventually wraps along the side of the volume and ends in a hidden lounge on top of the structure."

For a recording studio, the visuals are only one side of the story, and in fact the less important side. The space had to sound as good as it looked, or it would fail to catch the attention of producers and recording artists. Schaedler has described the design as "shaped by acoustics", and Brown agrees.

"One major concern was eliminating parallel surfaces to prevent standing waves from building up, and more generally breaking large reflective surfaces into smaller facets to diffuse sound," he says. "This led to faceted, irregular surfaces which prevent harsh sounds and provide a unified design language. The control room has a ceiling of stretched fabric, above which rows and rows of absorptive baffles have been set to capture excess low frequencies, and which allowed the room to be tuned like an instrument."

A modern approach to design

"One major concern was eliminating parallel surfaces to prevent standing waves from building up."

The Red Bull Berlin studio is the work of a design team that brings together a number of creative disciplines to enhance its vision. Schaedler has had extensive experience in film production design and set design, and has worked on films such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, V for Vendetta and the Harry Potter series. He describes himself as "an architect learning from Hollywood", and the firm brought digital visualisation technologies to the project to allow for a complex, sound-sensitive design to be completed in a short space of time.

"This design could not have been created with the time and budget available using a conventional design process," Brown says. "The acoustician we worked with had rigorous requirements for the interior spaces with regard to materials, surface angles and sightlines. To incorporate those requirements and use the 3D model to test how sound waves would bounce through the space was an essential feedback cycle. Also working with a digital modelled allowed us to create the complex surfaces required on the interior while simplifying and rationalizing the steel framing and exterior shell."

It seems fitting that the design of a project that has seen a disused industrial space reborn as a musical and social hub was driven by a technological approach that is transforming traditional architectural methods into a more open process that is informed by other industries and pushes for a clear visualisation of how a space will perform from a human perspective.

"Architects use orthographic, two-dimensional tools to draw up floor plans and imagine how the final space will look," Brown says. "A process driven far more by the film industry allows design to be driven by perspective - how people will actually perceive space at eye level - which results in more lyrical and complex design solutions."