Evolving Occupations

Eleanor Chapman explores the culture of alternative spatial practice in Berlin, how practitioners have responded to its changing economic context, and their influence on or resistance to new urban development.

March 7, 2014

There is a striking sense upon arriving in Berlin of being inside a permanent work-in-progress. As far back as 1910, German art historian Karl Scheffler spoke of a place “forever to become and never to be” 1. One hundred years on, cranes and scaffolding crowd the skyline: busily restoring historic buildings long-neglected during the division, erecting bland apartment complexes and hotels to feed the growing influx of tourists, students and creative types, or freshening up decrepit, yet magnificent, low-rise apartments recently vacated by quasi-squatter populations. Artist Christian Rothenhagen, who has been documenting the city through drawings for several years, claimed in a 2011 interview that, after completing a series of thirty to forty illustrations of buildings “ten might not exist anymore”2.

The spectacle of the grand production is impressive, but what captivates me, as no doubt it has countless wide-eyed newcomers before, is the city’s capacity for resistance. Alternative ways of life are possible here: sub-cultures are on stage playing the lead roles, not lurking in the wings. One late night in June, a demonstration, looking remarkably like a street party, winds its way through the streets – complete with police cohort and DJ pumping out tunes aboard a flat-bed truck. Banners demand more space for live music; yet, ironically, or perhaps deliberately, the group is meeting its own demand – with official approval – well past the noise curfew of 10pm (when Ruhezeit, literally ‘rest time’, restrictions apply). Everywhere there is evidence of dissent and contradiction.

Gleisdreieck redevelopment, Berlin, June 2013

Gleisdreieck redevelopment, Berlin, June 2013

The closure of the famous Tacheles artist squat in late 2012 has been widely heralded as the end of a golden age of anti-establishment freedom in Berlin, brought about by the combined pressures of tourism and gentrification. Interestingly, although officially closed, Tacheles has refused to die; instead joining the ranks of what Brian Ladd describes as the “Ghosts of Berlin”; haunting the city in the form of a ‘Mobile Atelier Project’, which aims to provide nomadic workshop and exhibition spaces. If you visit the former home of Tacheles now, you might happen upon an evicted metalwork studio clustered around the base of the building, its members readying a series of giant rusted steel letters  (TACHELES) to tour the city.

Notably, its first official static outpost is an installation in a high-end hostel, part of the ‘Plus’ chain: fringe arts culture absorbed by the tourist machine and spat out again. Is it true, as remarked by a new acquaintance in an inner-city bar one night, that Berlin is eating itself?  There are rumblings of discontent in the local design industry, from some who see the post-unification approach to development as lacking vision. Certainly the rapid pace of urban change is producing a few ‘startling incongruities’3, where a life-size Barbie dreamhouse can cohabit (broadly speaking) with the rebuilding of the former Stadtschloss (Berlin Palace), built in the 15th Century, modified in the 18th, damaged in World War II and then demolished and replaced by the East German Parliament building. The latter project might be the legacy of Hans Stimmann – city building director from 1991 to 2006 – known for his top-down approach and policy of ‘critical reconstruction‘4: implementing inner-city planning guidelines that sought to restore a form of pre-WWII coherence.

“Many cities are trying to justify ‘democratic’ decisions by offering prefabricated solutions [for which] the citizens come and vote,  but they are not really part of creating the solutions – they come very late in the process of participation.” 

Stadtschloss reconstruction signage, June 2013

Stadtschloss reconstruction signage, June 2013

The decision to rebuild the Stadtschloss is at once a reclamation of a place of fundamental historical significance at the city’s heart, and a pointed erasure of the difficult recent history of Socialist rule: an uncomfortable result that doubtless does not please everyone.5 In a recent edition of unCube magazine, architect Jurgen Mayer H lamented the absence of “daring investors and political will” that might produce “courageous architecture”6. For an idea of what Mayer might mean, take a look at his Metropol Parasol in the Plaza de la Incarnacion in Seville: a gigantic, sprawling fetish object that reached completion in 2011 at cost of some $90M euros; unfortunately timed to form a striking backdrop to the outrage of local Los Indignados and growing economic protest movement worldwide. Seemingly intended to introduce the sort of icon-driven urban renewal that put Bilbao on the map, el Parasol, some 28 metres in height, aggressively rejects any sense of human scale and has effectively privatised a functioning, if neglected, city square by implanting an indoor boutique ‘market’ and observation platform. One might perhaps be thankful that Mayer apparently hasn’t (yet) had a chance to inflict too much bravery on his adopted home town. Even so, there’s nothing timid about Potsdamer Platz; a former no man’s land between East and West during the city’s division; now an alien cluster of towering glass and steel, and a warning sign of what East Berlin might be if she truly submits to a capitalist future. Interestingly, the controversial Potsdamer redevelopment came to be under the watch of Stimmann – another contradiction?

At odds with the kind of ‘object-lust’ implicit in Mayer’s complaint, is evidence that the absence of major commissions has been a positive creative force here, as in other European cities, producing alternative modes of spatial practice that engage more directly with existing conditions, systems and people – many of which are starting to be credited with improving urban environments. Miodrag Kuc, Berlin-based architect, self-described urban theorist/interdiscipinary artist, and founder of ParaArtFormations (PUF) uses the tagline ‘tools rather than solutions’ and sees his practice as operating at “the intersection of urban studies, performative-planning, artistic interventions and micropolitics” 7. Versions of this nebulous zone have come to define the approach of many artists and spatial practitioners who have flocked to Berlin since the Wall came down.

“The arena of alternative practice and its corresponding linguistic arsenal of ‘participation’, ’empowerment’ and ‘spatial agency’ should be approached with a healthy pinch of salt.”

As East Berlin has transitioned from a Socialist system to a capitalist one, these players have been cast as the engine-drivers of the ‘creative industries’. While their manifestos might be packaged differently, there is a common thread of transdisciplinary collaboration and engagement with communities through interventions in space. It can be hard to figure out just how much these practices are motivated by ‘doing good’ rather than the imperative to invent alternative economies in hard times, especially post-GFC. As architect Markus Miessen notes, “towards the tail end of the 1990s and the first years of the 00s, one could go to cities such as Berlin and be overwhelmed by the inclusiveness and apparent social responsibility of architectural and spatial practice…[however] when jobs for physical construction were no longer available, practitioners started to rethink their formats”.8 It’s worth remembering that the world of spatial practice has always played host to more than a smattering of egos and personal ambitions, and language is a tool that can be used as much to mask as to enlighten. With this in mind, the arena of alternative practice and its corresponding linguistic arsenal of ‘participation’, ’empowerment’ and ‘spatial agency’ should be approached with a healthy pinch of salt. Other powerful words, notably ‘environmental sustainability’, have been sapped of much of their meaning upon entering mainstream use and ultimately being co-opted by commercial interests.

Lette Projekt cooking workshop, with guest artist Roos Versteeg (classic fast-food menu transformed through a self-made 'slow food' approach) / Image courtesy Miodrag Kuc

Lette Projekt cooking workshop, with guest artist Roos Versteeg (classic fast-food menu transformed through a self-made ‘slow food’ approach) / Image courtesy Miodrag Kuc

I meet Kuc at his apartment in Friedrichshain; an East Berlin neighbourhood where ten years ago you could squat in a half-finished apartment, if you didn’t mind using the toilets in the pub next door and enduring subzero temperatures and no heating for most of the year. Today, Friedrichshain is dominated by cafe culture, playgrounds and craft bombing (evidence of a growing penchant for soft guerilla activism and procreation). Originally from Serbia, Kuc arrived in Berlin in 2006. He tells me he is currently working for  youth centre Jugendzentrum BDP-Luke, on a program called ‘LetteProjekt’ (located

at Lette Platz in the city’s north) designing activities, not buildings, for diverse groups of children between the ages of 5 and 15, in part to address the physical failings of a recent ineffective urban renewal. “They put in a skatepark, but there is no culture of skating here – it was just something that someone had seen and thought would be a good idea”9.  He describes the LetteProjekt initative as ‘urban pedagogy’, with one component being a gardening activity, designed to encourage responsible attitudes to food and the environment.   With no built outcome in mind, this project is perhaps more akin to what Kuc describes as tinkering with ‘the software of the city’. There is an adamant rejection of top-down decision-making in Kuc’s philosophy. He says, “many cities are trying to justify ‘democratic’ decisions by offering prefabricated solutions [for which] the citizens come and vote,  but they are not really part of creating the solutions – they come very late in the process of participation.” He is sensitive to the possibility of informal spatial interventions being institutionalised, such as taking graffiti, ‘a subversive act of communication’, and designating sanctioned zones for its creation, depriving the action of its power to challenge. This idea of the State as a threat recurs throughout our conversation. Hailing from the former Yugoslavia, Kuc has probably inherited a natural suspicion of State authority that must resonate with recent historical memory of Stasi control in East Berlin. In something of a contradiction though, Kuc’s youth centre job is government funded; partly from local community planning office Quartiersmanagement Lette Platz, and partly  ‘The Socially Integrative City’ program, or die Sozialestadt. He points out the difficulty in generalising about Berlin: concerns vary dramatically depending on the neighbourhood. We discuss the unique experimental conditions of Berlin, and whether these could be recreated elsewhere; Kuc has developed projects overseas in  Colombia and Lithuania. He suggests that it is “possible to export Berlin because it is not a business model, it’s a way of thinking – but it needs to be adapted to site specific conditions. The roots of spatial resistance exist everywhere.” Berlin itself might be no business model, but Kuc’s concerns about the testing ground being absorbed and instrumentalised by the State are already appearing.

A case in point is the former Templehof airport in the inner-south. The massive 250 hectare site, much of it open space, was officially designated an airport in 1923 and operated until 2008, when it closed due to dwindling passenger numbers – though not without opposition. Yet another contested territory, it bears both sinister physical traces of fascism in the massive terminal building built during the Nazi period, and the potent memory of the 1948-49 air lift that brought supplies into East Berlin and prevented mass starvation after the authorities blocked land traffic. Since closing, major music and sporting events were held here until the site reopened in May 2010 as a public park. The definition of ‘public’ has itself sparked controversy, with entry, though free, only from 6am until sunset and the park managed by private company Gruen Berlin.

Templehof airport signage, indicating zones for cycling, barbecuing and 'pioneering', June 2013

Templehof airport signage, indicating zones for cycling, barbecuing and ‘pioneering’, June 2013

Signs at Templehof now delineate different parts of the site for certain activities, and those designating three areas as ‘Pioneer Fields’, state:

The spontaneous and unplanned use of open spaces is characteristic of Berlin. Until now, these informal intermediate and pioneer uses were not involved in the formal planning process to any great extent. The State of Berlin is looking to change this status with its new ‘pioneer process’ – an open process that, if successful, will transform Tempelhofer Freiheit into a model location for participative urban development.  

Pioneers are part of the overall development of Tempelhofer Freiheit. They are, in the true sense of the word, trailblazers. The pioneers of Tempelhofer Freiheit are expected to be economically independent, to work with existing local resources and contribute to the increase in value and quality of the location. 

Kuc, too, uses this moniker ‘urban pioneer’ in reference to himself and his collaborators, and it turns out to have been in circulation at least since 2007 when German landscape architect Klaus Overmeyer published the book Urban Pioneer, mapping existing bottom-up spatial practices in Berlin.

Overmeyer’s practice Urban Catalyst has worked with other groups, including raumlaborberlin (a collective of architects exploring another intersection: ‘architecture, city planning, art and urban intervention’), to develop proposals for the site’s short and longer-term future use. In 2012, raumlabor and theatre group Hebbel am Ufer produced The World is not Fair, an installation at Templehof reflecting on the elitism and wastefulness implicit in the tradition of World Fairs.  Fifteen pavilions were assembled, and works contributed by artists, theatre directors and architects, explored ideas ranging from topics as whimsical as the future housing of Berlin’s elderly artist population to the Syrian revolution and homelessness. The event was intended to challenge the typical agenda of ‘brand-building for nation states’10 and allow for subjective reflection on possibilities, rather than the world ‘as it should be’. This recognition of complexity and rejection of utopia resonate with raumlabor’s stated distancing of itself from modernist ideals, in favour of a street-level, interdisciplinary practice. Their website states “We do not solve problems, rather we initiate processes that give actors the opportunity to know, understand and use the city and its dynamics, as well as its possibilities.” 11 Christof Mayer, a founding member, is also comfortable with the term ‘pioneer’, describing it as a deliberate departure from ‘temporary’. Unlike Kuc, he accepts the need to work overtly with the government within an official framework, seeing it as necessary in order to have any influence.

“What these…approaches demonstrate is the need for socially-engaged spatial practice to manoeuvre between the scales of the street level and the power structures above” 

When I express amusement at the signs that delineate particular activities in certain areas of the vast space – barbecuing here, kite skating over there – his brow furrows. The signage is important, he says, to allow diverse uses within a shared space and protect wildlife habitats, without physical barriers. It would be easy to attribute this response to the stereotypical German belief in order, but it also calls into question the rejection of ‘brand-building’ alluded to in the 2012 project. Although not the work of raumlabor, the signage and language that are starting to define Templehof airport achieve exactly the opposite: overtly constructing a marketable identity for the development’s current phase of temporary ‘pioneering’ activity, while at the same time placing fiscal responsibility in the hands of the ‘trailblazers’ who will participate in increasing the value of the site. Mayer admits to “a sense of discomfort with the economic imperatives driving these projects, but an uncertainty as to how to challenge them” He relates an anecdote concerning a former member of the group, the late Matthias Rick, who received a call from Playboy requesting permission to use their

mobile ‘bubbletecture’ installation in a photo shoot. Rick stipulated a single proviso: that the magazine feature him in the shoot. Playboy declined. It’s an amusing story and illustrative of a moment of resistance. We talk about Modernism, as one of the last great politically engaged architectural movements. Yes, raumlabor is explicit about rejecting utopia, but I am a bit surprised at this reluctance to acknowledge a political dimension to the practice. Surely the rejection of an ideology is a political position in itself?

Interviewed recently for Volume magazine, Miessen asserted: “These people who are practicing in this alternative way, you would think it creates a large community of practitioners, but actually it creates camps…If you look at the situation now, there’s no movement.”12 If this is a complaint, it is an incongruous one from someone who has also argued for the value of dissent and the ‘constructive expression of disagreements’13, but then, such contradiction is typical too of ‘alternative’ spatial practice in Berlin. In considering what of these practices might be worth exporting from Berlin – by no means a new idea – it’s important not to confuse the medium with the message. The growth of ‘social enterprises’ and ‘pop up’ spaces in my hometown of Melbourne and other Western cities might seem to promise a ‘microtopia’ on every street corner, but in reality, driven by commercial interests, or sanctioned by authorities as ‘safe’ spaces for experimentation, these initiatives are in danger of being emptied of political meaning and rendered impotent.14 In such commercial or governmental frameworks, they can afford to be relatively harmless, while deflecting attention from the larger structural issues that prevail to maintain social inequities; in the vein of Adrian Piper’s Easy Listening Art, offering “enough compositional sophistication to engage or titillate one’s visual sensibilities, but…it is suggestive rather than explicit, soothing rather than demanding.”15 Mayer is correct that spurning engagement with authorities is no way for a socially-motivated designer to effect real change. Yet there is also merit in Kuc’s position, of the need to remain small and agile enough – outside the system to a degree – to move from one project to another and avoid being ‘instrumentalised’. What these two approaches demonstrate is the need for socially-engaged spatial practice to manoeuvre between the scales of the street level and the power structures above. These examples represent moments of resistance, yet, are at the same time threatened by the neutralising forces of authority and commerce. Like Berlin herself, they are both a call to arms and a cautionary tale.

1. Ladd, Brian. The Ghosts of Berlin, London: The University of Chicago Press, 1997, p.233.

2. Lamoth, Andreas and Leitzke, Frederic, In the Belly of the Whale, Film, (53min), 2011, (http://vimeo.com/30933524)

3. Ladd, 1997, p.3.

4. Ladd, 1997, p.232.

5. Similarly, the Barbie dreamhouse opening was picketed by feminist activists.

6. Heilmeyer, Florian. “In the Photo Booth with… Jurgen Mayer H.”, uncube, vol.13, September 03, 2013, p.46 (http://www.uncubemagazine.com/magazine-13-10378775.html#!/page46).

7. http://www.paraartformations.net/

8. Miessen, Markus, The Nightmare of Participation, Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2011, p.47.

9. This quote, and all following quotes from Miodrag Kuc, drawn from an interview conducted on 28 June 2013.

10. http://www.raumlabor.net/?p=5708 accessed and translated 3 September 2013.

11. http://www.raumlabor.net/?page_id=2 accessed 3 September 2013.

12. Cormier, Brenden and Oosterman, Arjen, “From Written Word to Practiced Word: Interview with Markus Miessen”, Volume, vol.36, July, 2013 (http://volumeproject.org/2013/08/from-written-word-to-practiced-word/).

13. Miessen, 2011, p.109.

14. The term ‘microtopia’ is borrowed from Nicholas Bourriad’s book Relational Aesthetics (Les presses du réel, 1998). Although Bourriad was referring to a specific sort of 1990s arts practice, words like this have come to litter discussions of ‘socially-engaged’ spatial practice.

15. http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/good-intentions/ accessed 2 September 2013.


Eleanor Chapman

Eleanor Chapman is an architect, writer and president of Architects for Peace: a not-for-profit organisation advocating the pursuit of social justice in the built environment. She coordinates the monthly, Melbourne-based \’words\’ talk series on this subject, and has been published in Australia and the United States.

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