Interim Use: Interview with Christof Mayer and Andreas Krauth of raumlaborberlin

Raumlaborberlin is a collective of eight architects working to transform urban spaces through playful, political, and participatory interventions. Their experimental projects open new possibilities for occupation, engagement, and development processes within the city. In October 2013, Christof Mayer and Andreas Krauth of raumlaborberlin presented a body of work at Monash University Art, Design and Architecture (MADA), including their ‘responsive masterplan’ at Templehof Airport – encouraging informal use of the vacant and contested site to enable local actors to influence its future direction.

 

March 22, 2014

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POST: You’ve just been part of the exhibition at The University of Sydney, User Generated Architecture. Is user participation the main motivation for the work that you do at raumlaborberlin?

CM: Personally, my main interest is in urban issues and urban planning. The project at Templehof is a good example of my interest – encouraging informal practices to become part of formal urban planning. That’s pretty important to me. So that means, of course, that staging should be more central to formal planning processes.

AK: It’s also important that it’s not participation at any price. There should be the possibility to participate, but it’s not as if people have to participate or else the project fails…

CM: Yes, it depends on what you’re starting with. At Templehof, for example, we started with the idea of bringing ‘pioneers’ to the place, to make them part of the development process, and so if we didn’t succeed in doing that, it would have been a failure… but what is really a success is that the community is now starting to claim the airfield as their part of the city – they are now saying ‘we don’t want to have any development (on the site).’

POST: Right, that’s interesting. The community has developed an agency through that process. Who engaged you to undertake the project at Templehof?

CM: The government…

POST: What was their agenda? You talk about the role of the ‘pioneers’ in this project… was it your idea to initiate this form of ‘pioneer’ interim use?

CM: Yes. At the time, the property market was down in Germany, and they (the government) were in need of ideas as to how to use the Templehof area after its closure. At the same time, there were protests against its closure, so they needed ideas, a vision… I think this was just a lucky moment for us to step into the process.

“The project at Templehof…is encouraging informal practices to become part of formal urban planning.”

POST: In Melbourne, developers and private organisations are beginning to understand the commercial potential of these ‘interim’ projects – they become place-making devices to make a site more attractive before a development begins. On one hand this raises questions about authenticity, but on the other, there seems to be an opportunity here to really change the destiny of particular sites through what you describe as a ‘responsive masterplan’. Are you uncomfortable about these commercial interests or do you think it’s a risk worth taking?

CM: It’s a tricky thing. You make a good point, because if we talk about the good and the bad, the line is not always that clear… I think you have to be cautious about these kinds of things. But of course, for a certain amount of time it’s a kind of deal for both sides…

AK: The thing is that developers just do it to increase the value of the site – they’re not interested in the users and the program – that’s the problem.

CM: …It depends on the specific situation. We wouldn’t do it in most cases, but I think any artist or person has to decide for himself if he wants to engage in the situation. I think if the deal is clear – if you can use the space for a year or half a year for free, and then you need to move on – then you know what the conditions are and you can think about whether you want to work in this context or not. This is all a question of ownership and time horizons, and whether there is the possibility to engage with a long-term process… If there’s a critical mass then maybe they (the participants) can achieve some power and influence the developer.

POST: Who are your clients usually? Are your projects often the result of competitions?

CM: No, the two competitions that we discussed were actually kind of exceptional. A lot of people think that we just go out into the city, guerrilla style, and occupy things.  The opera project we undertook (Oak Tree Opera/Eichbaumoper) was the outcome of a cooperation with a theatre, and then it was part of a documentary film…

AK: As part of this documentary, we found a site, this train station, and there was an idea emerging – ‘what about doing this together with the theatre?’ – but it was just an idea, from zero, and then they started to get some money, to get the interest of other theatres, and the process began, but it was almost two years until something happened on site. In a way this is often how our projects start; it was the same at Templehof – it was just the idea to do something on this big field with different pavilions, and it could somehow be a critical comment. Then we started to find theatre partners and funding. Now coming back to the Operahouse, it was step by step, not just the big vision and straight to it, but it was as open as possible to input from the locals from the neighbourhood, from the community, and it just so happened that some young people came and wanted to do some boxing, so we had the chance to get some money for a youth project. Somehow a lot of things happened accidentally, but it was always important to bring them back to our idea from the beginning.

CM: I think a lot of our projects are just a result of the way they are funded. We have a huge network… we know most people around, so for example, the World Fair was the result of a discussion with the head of the theatre, with whom we had worked for some time. He wanted to do a big project, and we always said ‘Templehof, Templehof, Templehof!’ which led to the cooperation on this project.

AK: In general the money can come from very different sources, but it’s always broken down into very small parts, sometimes ten different sources.

POST: Much of the work that you presented in the lecture that you gave at MADA was Berlin-based, but you also presented a project you undertook in Korea, and you’re currently running a couple of workshops in Sydney and Melbourne. When you work overseas, how have your projects or tactics changed in relation to context – particularly in more highly regulated contexts than Berlin?

CM: I mean, Sydney was quite a short experience…

AK: Workshops don’t tend to have the same impact, but when we do a long-term project, for example, the project in Korea, there is a point at which you understand how the country works in terms of culture and society. At the beginning of the Korean project, Matthias (Matthias Rick – raumlaborberlin partner) was undertaking three other projects. The team tried to design from Berlin and find local (Korean) partners, but they were travelling there every two months just for a few days at a time and they got to a point where they said, ‘OK, it’s not working, we just have to go and work there.’ So the whole team went over to Korea for half a year, and started to work with the people directly. It’s not the only way it can work but it is an example where, for sure, (the process) can be very different.

CM: The Korean project was fairly tricky… the culture is so different from Western Europe. You make an appointment, and you have a meeting, and they always say ‘yes, yes, yes!’ – I think Matthias went crazy about that – and then in the end it was ‘no, no, no!’ In actual fact, nothing happened. That was the point when Matthias decided to go to Korea because it wasn’t working and it was difficult to understand the culture and their way of communication. I think it would be much easier to work here in Australia, because it’s the same tradition of Anglo Saxon culture, which is different from the German culture of course, but you can relate to it.

POST: Although, cultural differences aside, Australia has a lot of external controls. How would that affect the work that you do? Are you prepared to work outside of the system to get things done?

CM: Sometimes you don’t have to think too much about it, for example, with the Greenhouse (U6) project we did, if we had have thought of all the problems that could happen, then maybe we would have never started it, and once we had started it, we really wanted to go for it. We went there for half a year before that to get permission, because it was difficult and in the end you need to have ambition and persistence… you need to bypass things sometimes. It’s like running an orange traffic light: it’s semi legal, semi illegal but you just make it – you don’t get fined, it just works out. This is a good description of how we sometimes work and how we try to get results.

“You need to work within your city and have a position on how it should be developed”

POST: How many are working at raumlaborberlin? Is there a direct relationship between the sort of work you can undertake and the scale of the practice?

CM: It changes a lot. Basically there are eight partners, and Andreas – he’s been working for five years. There are some young architects, and then there are a whole bunch of interns. It depends on the projects – sometimes when we really need a lot of people like for the Templehof project, we just ask at the universities…

AK: We have a network of former interns, people that have worked on former raumlabor projects and we make an open call and usually it’s pretty easy to find people…

POST: So there is a core group of staff and you expand when the job requires it… Is it the case that everyone at raumlabor can bring projects to the table and that becomes a big pool of work that’s distributed?

CM: Well we try to keep bureaucracy low… raumlabor is not a company in a proper way. We are all self-employed architects,  economically each project is calculated on its own. Sometimes we find we need some refinancing of projects that don’t have the budget. So we talk a lot about what we call ‘the tax’: each project has to pay back a certain amount of money, a certain percentage for things we need to do like PR or overheads… and I think this is good because when some of us have good years with more income than the others, we pay back more to the common spendings.

POST: Do you see yourself working within the same lineage of ideas as the Situationists International?

CM: Yes! We like them… of course we share some of their ideas – the idea of just strolling around the city and understanding all the influences – there is some relevance to us. But we are not that much into discourse… sometimes you just take on ideas because they inspire you.

POST: Raumlaborberlin is operating as one of a number of Berlin offices investigating this sort of alternative spatial practice. Are there utopian undertones to this sort of work?

AK: Berlin has the possibility to be an urban laboratory – there’s so many different layers, so many different atmospheres and history is so strong, but I’m not sure that everyone is planning a solution for a utopia! It’s more that we are Berlin-based, and it’s obviously so interesting to work there…

CM: What we presented at the lecture was our subjective view of Berlin, of course, but when I prepared the lecture I realized that our very first project was in Berlin, and then we didn’t do any projects there for a couple of years; but since Der Berg project –The Mountain – was installed, we have been continuously working in Berlin. I think it’s about feeling responsible for the city you live in. Earlier this year we were asked to take part in a competition for the new Axel-Springer Campus. This was pretty difficult, because it’s actually not the sort of client you want to work for. Although we had doubts we decided we needed to take the chance to make OUR vision within this discussion, not intending to get the commission. Actually we didn’t care about the commission. But this is the point, I think you need to work within your city and have a position as to how it should be developed.

 

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