Tresor: The Iconic Berlin Techno Club of the 1990s

No other club has helped to define techno as much as the Tresor vault club in Berlin, which opened in 1991. In the strong room on the former border strip between East and West Berlin, East and West Berliners celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall to relentlessly hard techno.

GROOVE Magazin Berlin

The sterile uniform architecture of the office building at Leipziger Strasse 126a shows no signs that it was the ironclad beating heart of techno for 14 years. Music fans just had to find the venue first. Potsdamer Platz was still a wasteland to begin with.

Club Tresor in Berlin in 1991 by T.Brembs | zeitmaschine.orgGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Tresor co-founder Dimitri Hegemann states: "There was no street, no asphalt, no streetlights, only potholes. We were at the edge of the world. And that was exactly what we found so interesting." You stood in front of an unassuming barracks on an asphalt lot. After you'd been let in by the bouncers, you stepped onto the Globus floor which was characterized by an eclectic house sound.

Afterrave at club Tresor between 1991 and 1993 by T.Brembs | zeitmaschine.orgGROOVE Magazin Berlin

The unique Tresor experience began when you climbed down a narrow staircase into the basement. You reached a passage where a few dealers were often doing business. You felt the bass thump. 

DJ Terrible, DJ Tanith and Uwe on the stairs at club Tresor between 1991 and 1993 by T.Brembs | zeitmaschine.orgGROOVE Magazin Berlin

You passed through the threshold of the heavy steel door. From this moment on, concrete walls nearly five-foot thick shielded you from the outside world—from real life. 

Club Tresor in 1991 by T.Brembs | zeitmaschine.orgGROOVE Magazin Berlin

The venue was just as unlikely and inconceivable as techno was at the time. Space and music couldn't have come together more perfectly. As DJ Tanith puts it: "I think there's hardly anyone who didn't come out of that basement a changed person." 

DJ Tanith and Tilman Brembs at a camouflage party between 1991 and 1993 by T.Brembs | zeitmaschine.orgGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Beer was handed over through metal bars. Sweat dripped from the safety deposit boxes. Through a barred door, you stepped onto the completely obscured dance floor. 

Raver at Tresor in the 1990s by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Only the flashes of strobe lights and the pounding beat guided your way. Other dancers could scarcely be made out by their contours. You experienced an alternative reality consisting of sound and light. Futuristic artists could never have constructed anything more radical.

Raver at club Tresor in the 1990s by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Chris Liebling recalls: "The energy was brought in but it never went back out. It was clear from the sweat dripping from the ceiling." Sven Väth immersed himself in another world. 

Sven Väth at club Tresor by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

DJ Rush felt like he'd been sent back to the dark ages. One Frankfurt DJ didn't want to work there because the record covers softened in the air that was humid with sweat. 

Blake Baxter at club Tresor between 1991 and 1993 by T.Brembs | zeitmaschine.orgGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Another brought an oxygen flask with him. Tok Tok reports: "During the sound check Tresor has a smell that's unique. It's ten-year-old raver sweat." Mr. C, club music legend and creator of London's The End, comments: "It was something else."

Westbam and Ralf Regitz at club Tresor between 1991 and 1993 by T.Brembs | zeitmaschine.orgGROOVE Magazin Berlin

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Tresor was the first club in East Berlin. In East Berlin before reunification, dance events were only held in cafés and restaurants. On the West side, crowds partied in comparatively normal discos or at events venues like SO36. 

Operncafé of the Staatsoper unter den Linden in the DDR in 1964 by BrueggmannGROOVE Magazin Berlin

In East Germany, the early tremors of techno could only be picked up on the radio. In West Germany, the first acid house parties with DJs like Dr. Motte, Jonzon, Rok, and Kid Paul took place in the late 1980s. 

DJ Motte at club Tresor in the 1990s by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

After the acid wave died down, the clique wanted to continue to cultivate this sound at the Fischlabor café which acted as the scene's hangout. UFO was opened in 1988 in the basement of an apartment building at Köpenicker Strasse 6 in Kreuzberg. 150 to 200 guests partied to electronic dance music, forming one of the petri dishes for the future Tresor crowd.

Dimitri Hegemann at Club UFO in Berlin in 1988 by Tresor ArchivGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Some of them had lived through the acid parties of 1988 and wanted to keep dancing to this music. Others came from the West Berlin nightlife of the eighties with discos like Dschungel and Cha Cha.

Dschungel in Berlin in the 1980s by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

At the same time there were also punks who had been listening to electronic music even before acid house. Another key event was the last edition of the Atonal Festival, organized by later Tresor creators Dimitri Hegemann and Achim Kohlberger. 

Dschungel in Berlin in 1984 by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

It was a festival bridging punk, avant-garde, industrial and club music. DJs performed there for the first time—as well as Jeff Mills with his band Final Cut. Hegemann recalls: "The crowds were no longer in front of the stage and were amazed. Suddenly, the visitors were the stars. The dance floor was born."

Berlin Atonal's Flyer from the 1980s by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

The first techno parties took place in East Berlin. In 1990, Wolle XDP and Johnnie Stieler organized the first Tekknozid. Countless Berliners were awakened there. Techno turned the rules of subculture on their head. The principles that applied before were fundamentally called into question.

Tekknozid's Flyer from the year 1991 by Archiv Mike RiemelGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Tanith comments: "In the eighties you didn't want to listen to the music of the other clique. It was about setting boundaries. Electronic music was for everyone. You no longer looked at what kind of shoes someone was wearing." 

Tekknozid in Berlin in 1991 by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

At Tekknozid, people partied together who never would have set foot in the same premises otherwise. The crowds were just as surprised as the creators. Stieler reports: "The people there were freaked out. We'd never seen anything like it. We didn't know where they came from, where else they'd go."

Tresor co-founder Johnnie Stieler in 1992 by T.Brembs | zeitmaschine.orgGROOVE Magazin Berlin

In West Berlin, every last square foot was used. Finding a suitable party location was pretty much impossible. As a result, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the West Berlin activists' sights set on the east. Hegemann and Kohlberger suggested to Stieler that they should open a club together. "With Tekknozid, Wolle [XDP] and I had a concept that was a complete hit. People were different in West Berlin. They preferred to wait and not do anything in the meantime," Stieler states.

Wolle XDP by T.Brembs | zeitmaschine.orgGROOVE Magazin Berlin

The search for a suitable space at the center of Berlin proved difficult: "We visited every building, but everywhere we went, the mayor was still Stasi (the official state security service of the German Democratic Republic). At some point we were in a traffic jam at the wall opening on Leipziger Strasse. Achim said: 'What's that over there?' So we traveled to the forecourt and had a look. It looked great. Ice-cold air streamed out from a grate."

DJ Henry at club Tresor between 1991 and 1993 by T.Brembs | zeitmaschine.orgGROOVE Magazin Berlin

The two of them persuaded the landlord to let them have the keys to the building. They went back on the weekend and examined the property's barracks that had apparently been previously used by the border troops. They cleared a bookshelf out of the way and climbed down into the basement. The light from their lighters let them see parts of an unbelievably huge basement that was filled with debris up to their knees. All of a sudden they were standing in front of a heavy vault door.

DJ Cle in Tresor's yard between 1991 and 1993 by T.Brembs | zeitmaschine.orgGROOVE Magazin Berlin

They tried using the keys but none of them fit , only to realize that it wasn't locked at all. They went in and looked at the safety deposit boxes which would become one of the trademarks of the Tresor vault club. 

Barricade at Tresor's basement in 1992 by T.Brembs | zeitmaschine.orgGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Hegemann states: "We were met with 40, 50-year-old air. The atmosphere immediately felt intense. The safety deposit boxes were broken and inside them was scrap metal and peeling rust. The vault room itself looked like it had been quietly abandoned."

Dimitri Hegemann and Jörg Henning hang up an old map of the USSR between 1991 and 1993 by T.Brembs | zeitmaschine.orgGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Stieler states: "When we went back up, nobody had anything else to say for a good hour." Together with its gigantic basement, the Tresor space was the last remnant of the vast Wertheim department store that stood there until it was destroyed in the Second World War. 

Jan, janitor at Tresor, between 1991 and 1993 by T.Brembs | zeitmaschine.orgGROOVE Magazin Berlin

There was previously a diplomat store in the barracks. A Soviet travel agency was later established there. It had a unique telephone number that belonged to a special network of government authorities. The discovery was shown to friends and colleagues. DJ Rok suggested calling the club Tresor.

Tresor co-founder Achim Kohlberger and booker Alexandra Dröner between 1991 and 1993 by T.Brembs | zeitmaschine.orgGROOVE Magazin Berlin

At the Federal Property Office the three of them met a young civil servant from North Rhine-Westphalia. It was not so much Stieler's appearance but the two Kreuzberg residents who irritated him, plus the fact that the three of them wanted to rent a desolate barracks to apparently run a gallery there. That's why he demanded a sponsor—which is why the Tresor club owes a debt of thanks to Stieler's mother. 

Tresor booker Alexandra Dröner with collegues and friends between 1991 and 1993 by T.Brembs | zeitmaschine.orgGROOVE Magazin Berlin

None of the licenses to run the club could be obtained since the relevant authorities still weren't or were no longer around. DJ Tanith comments: "It was wild. There were no more laws. The police didn't know what was and wasn't allowed. We were starting up everywhere in all kinds of spaces. The police thought: 'Maybe it belongs to them, maybe they have some old rights to it.''

DJ Tanith between 1991 and 1993 by T.Brembs | zeitmaschine.orgGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Tresor was turned into a club in the space of six months. A family formed who would later give the club its integral authenticity as its social soul. 

Tuna Bar with staff, Herbert and Heike, and guests between 1991 and 1993 by T.Brembs | zeitmaschine.orgGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Hegemann states: "It was a community experience. It reminded me of the hippie era. Everyone was helping each other. It was the spirit of optimism after the fall of the wall that dominated in certain age groups. We were now building a home in the middle of the city." 

Flooding at Tresor in 1992 by T.Brembs | zeitmaschine.orgGROOVE Magazin Berlin

When Tresor opened on March 13, 1991, they had no idea who would show up. They could only bank on the 200 people from UFO. Since the venue was illegal at first, they couldn't do any advertising. In the end, over 500 people showed up, ranging from figures of the Kreuzberg scene to ladies in eveningwear.

Ravers at Club Tresor in 1990s Berlin by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

The highly diverse crowd was typical for the club to begin with. Tresor wasn't just relevant among partygoers—it also gained huge appeal in a wide variety of locations and contexts. The media threw themselves at the topic. At one point Tresor was populated by British soldiers who knew about raving from London.

Party people at Club Tresor in 1990s Berlin by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Tresor Business Director Regina Baer reports: "Tresor was the only venue where East and West could come together." 

Alexandra Dröner, Tresor's Booker, and Regina Baer, managing director, 1991-1993 by T.Brembs | zeitmaschine.orgGROOVE Magazin Berlin

"Two cultures collided and understood each other immediately through techno. They were no longer the precocious East and inexperienced West. At that moment in time we were all inexperienced." 

Alexandra Dröner and Regina Baer at Tresor's first anniversary by T.Brembs | zeitmaschine.orgGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Hegemann states: "In 1990 extreme optimism prevailed. The kids had the need to celebrate their freedom. And we had just the right soundtrack." Not everyone liked Tresor at first. Legendary radio moderator Monika Dietl thought they'd all come down with fungal poisoning. Others claimed that toxic gas had been stored there during the Second World War. 

Dimitri Hegemann with Frankie Valentine by T.Brembs | zeitmaschine.orgGROOVE Magazin Berlin

The Tresor floor's techno focus wasn't as clear at the beginning as it appeared to be in retrospect. In Globus, the clique around DJ Clé was still playing hip-hop at first. Tanith comments: "At the time, Rok was still switching between the worlds of techno and house that he'd experienced in the gay community. Jonzon was the dead serious rhythm master, Kid Paul was the UK expert with the melodies, Roland [BPM] was the mix master, and I delivered hard-core camo cyberpunk."

DJ Cle in the future Tresor garden arround 1991 by T.Brembs | zeitmaschine.orgGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Tanith wanted to follow the trails made by Tekknozid. For Kohlberger and Hegemann, techno hell was scary at first. But it quickly became clear to the DJs that any type of club music sounded hard there, so just a hard sound alone worked. Tanith:

Dimitri Hegemann and Ellen Allien 1991-1993 by T.Brembs | zeitmaschine.orgGROOVE Magazin Berlin

"We had to put the pieces together. So we ended up using the 1T measuring unit, which I explained to Dimitri when leveling the microphones: the sound pressure could only be deemed enough when the bass was making your pant legs flap. Dimitri was both fascinated and horrified by this unit."

Tilman Brembs 1991-1993 by T.Brembs | zeitmaschine.orgGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Tanith had just come into contact with William Gibson's cyberpunk novels. The idea of this mix of technology and an archaic style was floating around at the time and was implemented perfectly in Tresor. With his camo rags, Tanith had an imposing appearance. In the B.Z. tabloid newspaper in 1991 the following could be read under his picture:

Tanith's Loveparade Float 1991-1993 by T.Brembs | zeitmaschine.orgGROOVE Magazin Berlin

"I have nothing more to do with the bourgeoisie." The Detroit techno scene was quick to understand that their music appealed to the club, and the mixing styles of Jeff Mills wowed the Berlin crowd. Underground Resistance seemed to be the Public Enemy of techno. No other Berlin club represented the Detroit-Berlin connection quite like Tresor.

Jeff Mills at Club Tresor during the 1990s by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Tresor had a series of hot trendsetting resident DJs: Tanith, Wolle XDP, Rok, Terrible, Wimpy, Jonzon, and later Pacou, Dash, and Dry. But none of these DJs became international stars. 

DJ Terrible and Jörg Henning at Club Tresor 1991-1993 by T.Brembs | zeitmaschine.orgGROOVE Magazin Berlin

The Berlin techno sound only seemed to have a particular impact on the city. The fact they didn't gain any attention in other regions may have been due to the DJs' special ethos. As Tanith explains: "In Berlin, the DJ was a raver who stood up there for a long time. Later they also kept dancing down below." 

Guest at Club Tresor 1991-1993 by T.Brembs | zeitmaschine.orgGROOVE Magazin Berlin

However, the hit Sound of Family (Klang der Familie) by Dr. Mottes and 3Phases brought the sound of Tresor to the outside world, as well as the first Tresor compilation featuring Mijk van Dijk, System 01, and Maurizio. Despite this, the Tresor label was almost exclusively intended to be a forum for musicians from Detroit until the mid nineties. With just a few exceptions, in contrast to Frankfurt, Berlin didn't have any studio or music infrastructure available that could have supported the DJs.

DJ Disko at Club Tresor in 1991 by T.Brembs | zeitmaschine.orgGROOVE Magazin Berlin

In 1991, the club was part of a trio made up of Tresor, Planet, and the after-hours club Walfisch. The first Love Parade and the first Mayday were held that very same year. Tresor was the first ever model for temporary use—an essential template for the Berlin nightlife of the nineties. 

Oskar, Dr. Motte, Fingo and friends at the entrance of Club Planet in 1991 by T.Brembs | zeitmaschine.orgGROOVE Magazin Berlin

You used a location until it was sold, renovated, or torn down. It could be a period of a few weeks or, in the case of Tresor, 14 years. 

Club Walfisch's entrance in 1992 by T.Brembs | zeitmaschine.orgGROOVE Magazin Berlin

The scene soon moved on. Tresor was visited less often than E-Werk that was opened in 1993 for example or WMF. Maybe it was its radical nature which made the club less compatible with everyday life: it was seen to be too uncomfortable, there was no space to relax, and no place for spectators. 

The morning after the Loveparade of 1994 at Club E-Werk by T.Brembs | zeitmaschine.orgGROOVE Magazin Berlin

You were either at the heart of it or didn't take part at all. From the mid nineties, the lounge floor was an essential part of nightlife, with sophisticated drinks and the standard disco rituals of being seen and seeing others. 

Club WMF in Ziegelstrasse Berlin arround 2002 by Heike OllertzGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Tresor never strayed from its doctrine: the club's greatness was precisely because you didn't have to know anyone personally to enjoy the party. 

DJ Keoki, Resident of Limelight in New York, and ex-boyfriend Michael Ailig at Club Tresor 1991-1993 by T.Brembs | zeitmaschine.orgGROOVE Magazin Berlin

The Berlin of the nineties was more dismal and broken than the current Berlin. Back then, people didn't spend their time in charming street cafés or private after-hours locations but gloomy bars and crusty basements instead. 

Agent's graffiti ‚Orange‘ at Club Tresor 1991-1993 by T.Brembs | zeitmaschine.orgGROOVE Magazin Berlin

They didn't long for light, elegance, or luxury. The melancholic Detroit techno perfectly reflected the mood in the city. Hegemann constantly advocated for Tresor to remain pure and prevented any changes being made. 

Guest with two 1-Mark coins at Club Tresor 1991-1993 by T.Brembs | zeitmaschine.orgGROOVE Magazin Berlin

He was fully aware of the shortcomings this caused:  "I was also jealous of venues like Omen [in Frankfurt] which had a different sex appeal. We had no sex appeal at all. Everything looked the same, very uniform. Berlin showed little skin." 

Denise at the afterrave 1991-1993 by T.Brembs | zeitmaschine.orgGROOVE Magazin Berlin

It shouldn't be forgotten that the true heroes of techno are not the club owners or the DJs but the ravers, who exposed themselves to the music without any signs of vanity or sights of a career. 

Club Tresor's garden 1991-1993 by T.Brembs | zeitmaschine.orgGROOVE Magazin Berlin

For this reason, a raver also has the last word here. His name is Joshi. Commenting on his Tresor experience: "When I come here, I leave the Federal Republic of Germany and have fun. That's simply amazing." 

The first Tresor on Leipziger Straße by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Credits: Story

Text: Alexis Waltz

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