Step inside the Tesla, and step sideways in time to visit a world where steam technology is common, but so are clockwork cybernetics and aetheric transference of matter not only to other continents but other universes. Dance under the light of a forty-foot high array of plasma lamps and drink absinthe or phlogiston cocktails. Step into a steampunk world where history, technology, fantasy, adventure, and mad science mingle.
The Tesla is the fruit of my hospitality studio project, where I was asked to program, plan, and develop a five-star themed venue with restaurant, nightclub, and exhibition space, in a major city anywhere in the world but North America. The concept had to be cutting-edge, integrate modern technology throughout, and cause guests to be educated as well as entertained by their visit. And so, given license to do anything I wanted, no matter how wild so long as it was commercially plausible, I decided that I wanted to do something steampunk. I’m a life-long science fiction and fantasy fan, and even more so for alternate history, especially with fantastical elements. Steampunk hits every one of those buttons and then some, because I also love Victorian tools and Art Nouveau, and steampunk covers them too. If I was going to design a club, it was going to be one that I wanted to attend.
What is steampunk?
Steampunk settings begin with the culture and technology of the Victorian era but then ask “what if.” The result is a related yet clearly different history with its own technology, fashion, and culture. Exploration and optimism are in the air, and technology is still a gift, not a curse. Materials and aesthetic sense begin with the Victorian and Art Nouveau: exuberantly detailed objects in materials such as brass, cast iron, wood, leather, and rubber. There must be gears, levers, or other elements iconic of machinery. Here at the Tesla, electrical elements also play a strong role, because its parent company was founded by an alternate universe Nikola Tesla.
Concept and Programming
The first questions were, one, were there enough steampunks to support this, two, had anyone done this before, and three, where in the world should it be? The answers were,
- Yes. There are enough in many places to run events and conventions, and their numbers are growing. Most steampunks live in Britain or its former colonies, but there are also groups elsewhere, especially continental Europe. The trend is not yet mainstream and has not peaked.
- According to Google, only three nightclubs in the world use steampunk as a theme: two in Australia, and the Edison in Los Angeles, the only one decorated to match its theme.
- Not the UK, not Los Angeles, and not Australia, because there, it would not be cutting-edge. I went looking for steampunk populations that were under-served and in or near a world-class city able to support a five-star venue. That meant continental Europe, especially Paris, Copenhagen, Oslo, Bucharest, and Berlin. Of these, Berlin was recommended by the professor and friends as being the kind of city to welcome subcultures and things out of the ordinary. It is also full of young people and people with the knowledge and skill to make worlds.
I took for granted throughout that the Tesla had to be an immersive experience: steampunk occurs in an alternate universe by definition. So the building is a set, and everyone in it is part of the story. So why — in its own universe — does the Tesla exist? What does it do? Why is it here in our Berlin? And why do they let us in?
In our Victorian era, railway companies ran hotels next to the station. We only see the restaurant and nightclub, but in its home reality, the Tesla is just one part of a bigger complex that includes a hotel and an aetheric transference station — the local equivalent of “Beam me up, Scotty!” invented by their version of the electrical genius Nikola Tesla. The true name of the venue is “Tesla Ätherische Übertragung AG Hauptbahnhof Brandenburg” (Tesla Ætheric Transference Company, Brandenburg Station). It is our universe’s connection point to the TAU aetheric transference network.
As an interdimensional meeting point, the Tesla is populated by many characters, some original, some from classic science fiction and steampunk stories, such as the Grey Lensman or Phineas Fogg. But the necessary level of illusion would be impossibly costly to sustain using only actors. That is why the Tesla’s tribe, its fandom, are critical to its success. This must be the living breathing outpost of another universe, even though the audience is mingling onstage with the actors and participating in the performance. So ask the fans to help run the show. Hire them as staff, especially as management. Court them as customers with special perks and privileges for playing a character or visiting in costume. Let them know that the Tesla would die without them. Become the heart of their social lives with regards to steampunk: this is where they go to party, to relax, to roleplay, and even where they go to work on their costumes and props for the next big event. Because the Tesla has a well-equipped workshop, just for them.
When planning the Tesla, the first rough blocking diagrams taught me that the vertical stacking and circulation would make or break the project. Guest and staff functions needed to be separated, and each had a magnet: their vertical circulation, which I then put at opposite ends of the building. The repeated elements on each level needed to be compact and not get in the way of the remainder of the floor. It took several iterations to find a version that worked. Restrooms were the other worst thing to plan, honestly, since they either had to be located on exterior walls or vertically stacked for the entire building. The size and number of fixtures changed floor by floor, further complicating the problem. Once the circulation and restrooms were placed for each floor, the rest was easy.
I present the progression of the entry floor, which is actually the top floor. Guests reach it by a bank of express elevators from the covered waiting area off the street. The distinct look of the elevators (complete with visible gears and boilers) and the ride up contribute to the unique experience.
More process work is available in the programming report (PDF, 15mb).
Detail drawing packages are posted for the main guest stairs and the secondary bar, although they do not correspond perfectly to the final dimensions.