I have always enjoyed MONU. The editors somehow manage to balance two seemingly incompatible aspects of the architecture/urbanism magazine: an impressively wide spectrum of perspectives and thematic coherence. In the latest issue, No 15, contributors from four continents cover the theme post-ideological urbanism from various angles. The pieces somehow slide into place as you read, becoming a series of narratives and perspectives that definitely do not offer one singular image, but somehow still make sense together, in spite of their apparent disparity.

One of the issue’s central themes is the notion of ‘greenwash’ of the contemporary urban ideology, how ideology is reduced to aesthetics and eventually simply to the colour green. Green becomes a reason and legitimisation to do anything in an urban context, and it is fundamentally a label – something to wear rather than something to believe in. Fundamentally, ‘green’ reduces ethics to aesthetics. Then again, the corruption of ideals is nothing new, but perhaps what is new is that the ideals are reduced beyond any actual or even pretended ethical value to simple aesthetic attributes.

Another theme is whether the present era could be considered post-ideological, or if it instead is dominated not by one single ideology, but many. The question is then whether this is a permanent condition or simply a period of ideological instability and openness that will somehow crystallise into something ideologically more coherent.

A third theme is the attempt to find and name methodologies for working with and understanding post-ideological urban practice. One interesting piece by Brendan M. Lee examines how the ‘Lean Start-up’ concept, primarily used to test the market viability of the products of IT start-ups, could be applied as an urban methodology, where ideas are tested and adapted on a small scale before being applied on a larger scale.

It comes as no big surprise that Rem Koolhaas – who may be considered one of the godfathers of the post-ideological city – is a key reference throughout the magazine (not least in my own contribution). The prevailing impact of the format of S,M,L,XL becomes apparent in a number of essays that sample the stylistic format and tone that Koolhaas established. To an extent, Koolhaas in turn sampled much of this format from Russian suprematists as well as Superstudio, Archizoom and others with a radically different ideological agenda than his own. Perhaps ethics always has been, and will be, ultimately reduced to aesthetics, only to resurface in a reflective format at a later point in a cycle of ideology and ideological corruption.

MONU is, as I said in the beginning of this post, always a fascinating read, and MONU No 15 is no exception. It invariably inspires further exploration of the theme presented and provokes elaboration and reflection; MONU is a magazine that provides starting points rather than ready-made solutions.

MONU Website

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This is another excursion into recent history. It is part of an exploration of the buildings produced during the last economic boom, which focuses on buildings that in one way or another epitomise the culture of the era. Naturally, this gets easier once the buildings have had a few years to age – in the case of BMW-Welt, it’s been almost five. One could argue that MAXXI, as an art museum without art, is the epitome of the last decade’s art-hype, and that  BMW-Welt is the epitome of brand culture as an institution and its subsequent crystallisation into a building, built around the ceremony of handing over the car keys to the customer.
These buildings are fascinating, not only in terms of their spectacular forms, but also in how they mirror our culture.

BMW-Welt is located in BMW-land in the north of Munich. Four principal BMW buildings are located on both sides of one of the city’s ring roads. The pre-iconic headquarters comprises ‘The Four Cylinders’ by Karl Schwanzer; the BMW-Museum – ‘The Salad Bowl’; one of the BMW’s factories that actually makes the cars (inconspicuous in sheet metal); and finally, the BMW-Welt by Wolf Prix and Coop Himmelb(l)au, which opened in late 2007.

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The most striking feature of the BMW-Welt itself is the roof, which is a giant (grey) ‘cloud hovering in space’, according to Wolf Prix. It is. And the roof is always very much there, much in the same way a storm cloud hovering overhead tends to feel very present. Beneath it are carved out spaces – the central hall on the lowest level is a valley where the pilgrims can explore the wonders of BMW. The upper levels are reserved for devotees picking up their new cars, and these levels are replete with a restaurant area for the celebration of BMW-brethrenship. From the outside, the building’s most striking feature is a vortex (another meteorological analogy): a double cone of glass and steel which has become the iconic feature of the BMW-Welt, featured in every shot of the building’s exterior. This contains a rather nice, if surprisingly small exhibition space.

Perhaps Jonathan Glancey in The Guardian put it most aptly when he declared the building’s style “baroque n’ roll”. The materials possess an ethereal quality – the metal has that finish which makes it slightly surreal, and impressive detailing (generally, there are a few exceptions) makes the building come off as almost unreal. Yet sometimes, a quiet sliding door opens up, allowing the visitor to see beyond the stage set, to peek into the spaces that are not intended for the public eye, reminding you that you have not left planet Earth after all. It’s not unlike looking out from a stage set into the studio; such are the dramatic and scenographic qualities of this form of architecture. The slick interior is also contrasted by a technological underbelly; the cars that are to be delivered are kept in a low-pressurised underground garage to lower the fire hazard.

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One of the most intriguing aspects of BMW-Welt is how it relates to the brand architecture of the last decade. Arguably, the era of iconic architecture started with the construction of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao. BMW-Welt represents a parallel strait of iconic architecture: the commercial brand where the iconic qualities are used to promote products of a brand through association to the architecture. This is a history that has yet to be written, but here is a short introduction to the theme.

At some point during the 1990’s, the notion of Brand started to signify a lot more than the product and its quality alone. Brands became a way of identification and recognition, and naturally, this eventually spilt over into architecture. Naomi Klein dubbed Nike Town, a conceptual brand store for the sports brand Nike, a ‘brand temple’ in her (by now almost classic) book No Logo.

Nothing embodies the era of the brand like Nike Town, the company’s chain of flagship retail outlets. Each one is a shrine, a place set apart for the faithful, a mausoleum. The Manhattan Nike Town on East Fifty-seventh Street is more than a fancy store fitted with the requisite brushed chrome and blond wood, it is a temple, where the swoosh is worshiped as both art and heroic symbol.’ Naomi Klein, No Logo

Nike was not alone in this, of course. In the same period, one of the first car manufacturers to attempt to find new ways to build up their brand was Toyota. Toyota constructed Megaweb on the reclaimed land of Odaiba, on the outskirts of Tokyo. If Nike Town mimicked the museum, Megaweb draws on the theme park concept. Megaweb is divided into three separate parts: the historical part, classic Toyota cars set in scenography. Many of these are the ‘actual cars that featured in films and advertisements’. The second part is a more standard showroom of the fleet of Toyotas presently marketed, and a third section is devoted to ‘Universal Design’. In addition to these, there are a number of cafés and restaurants and numerous rides that, combined, serve to increase the awareness of Toyota as a brand.

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Next were the top fashion houses who developed their own ‘brand temples’. It is hard to pinpoint the exact point when these flowed over into architecture; perhaps it was with the heavily promoted opening of OMA/Rem Koolhaas store for PRADA in New York City in 2001 that architects and haute couture realised that they had similar interests and could benefit from each other. At any rate, exquisite architecture became an essential part of the brand culture. This led to the rapid production of a series of interiors, quickly developing into entire buildings; shrines dedicated to the promotion of the brand. Haute architecture? Focus moved to Tokyo. Along Omotesandō and in Ginza, fashion houses one-upped each other, producing great ‘brand shrines’: Herzog & de Meuron’s Prada, Toyo Ito’s Tods, and Dior by Sanaa, to name a few.

The next, or third, generation brand architecture were the self-promoting museums of the German automotive industry. Of course, many industries have been promoting their products and brands with museums for as long as there have been companies, but the ones that started popping up across Germany in the mid 2000’s were different. These were fundamentally only focused on cultivating the brand. As such, their primary function were to be icons of the lifestyle promoted by the brand: i.e. making the drivers of their car feel that they were the pinnacle of good cosmopolitan taste and members of a rather exclusive club.

Daimler-Benz brought in Ben van Berkel and UN-studio to design theirs, Porsche teamed up with Delugan Meissl, and BMW started off with Zaha Hadid, but a few years later got together with Wolf Prix and Coop Himmelb(l)au. The difference, however, was that while the other brands built museums, BMW already had one across the road. Hence, they had to come up with a different program for the new showcase building.

What they ended up constructing was a building whose primary purpose is the ceremony of handing customers the keys to their new cars. Stephen Bayley described the ritual in his Guardian article on the building back when it opened like this.

“A broker from New York, for example, will order his new BMW and jet to Germany to pick it up. But this is not a banal transaction. At BMW Welt he is confirmed in his good taste as a consumer by not only an architectural spectacle of the very highest quality, but also by technology exhibitions, shops, bars and restaurants. At the most exclusive of the latter he can lunch at altitude, a lead-crystal glass of high-specification Van Volxem Riesling to hand, while gazing through thrilling space at shiny new motors respectfully arranged for veneration as if religious artefacts. With BMW thoroughness, not to say mania, there is BMW-baked bread on the table and four varieties of salt on offer (with scrupulous descriptive notes: I especially enjoyed the Australian Murray River Pink Salt Flakes, rich in algae).

After lunch, and a period of smug self-congratulation, our New York broker enjoys the rehearsed ritual of the hand-over [involving his car presented on a rotating floor in the purpose designed hand-over hall, where up to forty cars an hour can ceremoniously be handed over to their new owners], gets into his Monaco Blue BMW 530i and vrooms off on a 14-day tour of Europe, with an itinerary (Grossglockner, Lake Garda) helpfully provided by BMW as part of its commitment to providing him with a memorable experience, from soup to lock-nuts. On his return, the car is put in a container and reverentially shipped across the Atlantic where it will be unpacked by a Jersey longshoreman probably unfamiliar with the coruscating values and unhesitating perfectionism of BMW’s World.” (Stephen Bayley, A cathedral for the god of motors, 17/2 2008)

Both Glancey and Bayley at The Guardian refer to the BMW-Welt as a cathedral, but it is a cathedral in more ways than its cavernous interior and worship of idols. It is also the physical embodiment of the sacrament, ceremony interpreted into architecture, and enhanced by architecture. Just as cathedrals were constructed around the sacraments of Christianity, BMW-Welt was constructed around its own rather profane sacrament.

The primary ceremony in this ceremonial edifice is the handing over of keys of new cars to new owners. As with all ceremonial buildings, the architecture becomes primarily a dramaturgical tool, scenography to enhance the gravity and significance of the BMW sacrament. I have no doubt there are other equally ostentatious ceremonial buildings dedicated to other brands, and I would appreciate any suggestions and pointers. The key thing is that the ceremony is no longer the act of buying, or even browsing, in itself, which has already taken place long before, but delivery of the product. This is what makes BMW-Welt a kind of bizarre milestone in the world of brand architecture.

How does an art institution come to be? Historically, private collections were made public – the Soane Museum for example, or the Louvre, where the king’s private collection was opened to the public after the revolution. In most cases, though, a building was constructed for or around a collection in one way or another. MAXXI is a different beast altogether, a museum with a building that will collect the art as it goes along.

The art museum as an institution and building has gone far from the palatial, awe-inspiring institutions of the 19th century, where the architecture gave the institution gravitas. The 20th century art museum was a different affair, less monumental but much more radical; take the Guggenheim New York, for example. The 1970’s witnessed yet another incarnation of the art museum, exemplified by the Centre Pompidou in Paris; here, the art museum took a step out into the city and became instrumental in redefining local neighbourhoods. A transparent wall dissolved the border between the city and the museum. It was only a matter of time until the architecture began aspiring to being a work of art itself. Arguably, the era of iconic architecture was ushered in by Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao. The museum building became as important as the collection it housed, if not more. Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI in Rome is in many ways the logical continuation of this development: a museum without a collection, a museum that is solely architecture. This evolutionary process gives rise to the question: what in fact constitutes an art museum – its collection or its building?

MAXXI is dedicated to 21st century art, and its collection is to be assembled over time.  It is a museum of future art and architecture. At this moment in time, it stands almost entirely empty in wait of the future, which will adorn its halls with a collection. When I visited earlier this year, the only work on display was a beautiful and comprehensive Luigi Nervi exhibition. The Italian Nervi was the mastermind behind a great deal of grand 20th century architecture and almost certainly a source of inspiration for MAXXI’s design. At the time of my visit, three of the five gallery suites were closed and all of the visitors were congregated in the spectacular entrance hall, and I had the outstanding Nervi exhibition all to myself. I’ll come back to Nervi in a moment.

MAXXI is in many ways a curious project. Perhaps most peculiar of all is that a museum of the future has been constructed in Rome, a city with perhaps more history than any other European city and which is incidentally barely able to handle the upkeep of its countless historical treasures. A few hundred metres away from the Nervi exhibition stands one of Nervi’s original buildings in a state of disrepair. Perhaps it is this very burden of the past that has inspired the museum in the first place; Rome may well need to forget the past once in a while and focus on the future.

The MAXXI is located in northern Rome, in the Flaminio district. Large-scale installations such as Flaminio Stadium and military compounds intermingle with residential districts, and the variation in scales has a strange effect on the urban life; some areas feel almost deserted, whilst others retain the vitality of most of the grand city. From the main approach at Via Flaminia, the museum is all but invisible, its presence signalled by great flags that lead the visitor to the museum. It is a strangely humble approach. Only when one is more or less in front of the museum compound does it suddenly rise up out of the urban fabric; a moving, twisting thing.

One of the museum’s objectives has always been to infuse this area of Rome with life and vitality, presumably in the same way the Centre Pompidou effected Beaubourg. The Centre George Pompidou reaches out into the city, its transparent walls animating the square around it, and the building becomes a part of the urban fabric. The MAXXI, on the other hand, is a compound; its urbanity is inside a clearly defined border, with heavy gates designed with patterns similar to the shape of the museum. The gates are open during opening hours, but the museum has neither desire nor ambition to melt into the surrounding city.

The compound itself is made up of quite a few renovated barracks buildings and Zaha Hadid’s new museum. Between them is a landscape/urban space, also designed by Hadid, where lines and materials swoop through and “energise” the space. This space has the potential to become an interesting space in daytime, although the museum’s enormous gates keep it quite separated from the surrounding city.

The MAXXI was designed by Zaha Hadid Architects in the late 1990’s, and like any humongous, technologically advanced building, it took a long time to build. This means that the MAXXI is a product of Zaha Hadid’s office from the days before NURBS modelling software changed the output forever. In terms of ZHA chronology, the building looks as if it should have been finished quite a few years ago. On the other hand, the energy of the architect herself is more present and palpable than in her later work.

It is never very much fun to analyse a Zaha Hadid building from a functional perspective; it almost inevitably leads to a certain smug satisfaction in the observation of mistakes in execution and design. The same goes for materiality and detailing, which have never been the office’s strong side – and let’s face it –are simply not the reason why people choose ZHA. Zaha Hadid is employed is to deliver grand architecture, architecture with spectacular spaces, energy and power, architecture that defies gravity.

In that respect, MAXXI is a success. Since its opening last year, critics have used all the bombastic words in their vocabulary to describe and praise it. It has been compared to baroque masters like Borromini and most other great structures of the eternal city. ZHA aims to merge landscape and architecture, which is a very interesting ambition indeed. In MAXXI, it is rather successful. The great entrance hall which connects all of the spaces feels more like a canyon or a cavern than a space inside a building. It is a fluid space that meanders, turns and twists and captivates. The colossal entrance hall is a marvel to the eye, its grandeur only slightly diminished by the hollow ‘clonk, clonk’ as one ascends or descends the metal staircases. The great hall has justly been referred to as Piranesian, and one can readily see why. The meandering staircases interweave high above your head, disappear and reappear in a very complex space. The sheer energy of Zaha Hadid is very present, and it is breathtaking as a space. The architecture must however be measured against its ambitions.

A Piranesian system is by definition introverted, forever losing itself in itself, and it is very difficult to imagine it relating to a world outside. MAXXI is attempting to be both extroverted and introverted simultaneously, and should probably be credited for succeeding so well in the circumstances. In order to complete the Piranesian illusion, a looping system is essential. It requires continuity. In order to simulate infinity, all spaces must lead back to the starting point in one way or another. The MAXXI, however, has its fair share of cul-de-sacs, which are fatal to the illusion of infinity. It works some of the time, making those galleries which lead you into a blank wall or a window out onto the rather dull surrounding neighbourhood all the more disappointing.

The ambition level of the project is extremely high, and the museum contains a number of fantastic spaces within its gargantuan shell, the most magnificent of which is the giant hall. Spatially, it almost succeeds in creating the illusion of a Piranesian warped space it intends to, but where the building attempts contact with the city outside and in the cul-de-sacs, the illusion is brought to its knees. Ironically, it is when Zaha Hadid acknowledges the context that her architecture suffers, at least in this case. Still, the ambition and energy put into the project have to be applauded – it is a spectacular achievement to construct this building anywhere, perhaps even more so in Rome, a city notoriously difficult to build in.

The MAXXI was built as a kind of speculative art museum, almost entirely without a brief; the program will supposedly emerge over the coming century. It is an art museum built backwards, where the building is constructed first and subsequently over time filled with art as the century goes on. It is a fascinating experiment in how to construct a museum from zero. This concept as well as the museum building itself are very much products of their time; the age of iconic architecture, where form and architectural form triumph over content and substance, where the ‘container’, so to speak, is more important than its content.

Is MAXXI the ultimate incarnation of the iconic building – architecture entirely without a programme? This remains to be seen. Should it manage over time to fill its vast, curvy, cavernous shoes with an interesting programme and collection, it may well be successful; if not, it will become a gigantic folly, a testimony to the credit-happy-go-lucky days of the 2000’s.

image copyright Rossanna Bartoli

The relationship between architecture and property taxation is a territory that is largely unexplored as far as I know. A few attempts are made to create tax incentives, primarily to create walkable neighbourhoods or to promote renewable energy and energy efficiency. There is, however, an entirely different side of architecture influenced by taxation to explore: tax-optimised architecture, or the architecture of tax evasion. Tax-optimised architecture is a typology of architecture designed to exploit loopholes in taxation laws, preferably to avoid taxation entirely, or at least to minimise it. This means that the tax laws, or rather the areas  not covered by them, become the primary factor influencing the design of the architecture. Architecture as an e contrario interpretation of the tax laws in short.

In Sweden, the ‘Friggebod’ has been the primary expression of tax-optimised architecture. In 1979, the then-Minister of Housing Birgit Friggebo created a law allowing homeowners to build small sheds on their properties without construction permits. The sheds, maximum two per property, were not to exceed ten square metres in area (this was later raised to fifteen) or three metres in height, and were to be placed a certain distance from the edge of the property. Apart from these stipulations, there are practically no limitations on their design. Since the introduction of Friggebodar, Sweden has seen an explosion of construction of these sheds: twenty years later, there were already about a quarter of a million spread across the country; the exact number is unclear. Pretty soon, Swedes started to elaborate on the Friggebodar, maximising the limited area with temporary extensions and foldable walls to extend the sheds. One of the more radical examples was designed by architect Sören Stenqvist and exhibited at the H99 housing exhibition. Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to find any images of it. As far as I remember, it was a structure whose size could increase to double the regulation size, and then be reduced to comply with the legal ten square metres should the tax department pay a visit. I sometimes suspect that the real motivation for these elaborations is as much spite for the tax department as it is a real need for extra space.

The history of tax-optimised architecture is presumably as old as property taxation. History contains many legendary examples. Perhaps obviously, there is no recorded history of tax-optimisation of architecture, and most examples presented here are – from a scientific perspective – dubious at best. The most famous historic example in the Anglo-Saxon world is the window-tax imposed in England in the 17th and 18th centuries, which (legend would have it) gave rise to the expression ‘daylight robbery’. At the time of the window-tax’s introduction, personal integrity was a matter taken very seriously, which prevented the state from basing its property tax on any of the more common parameters such as area or value of the building, as disclosure of such information would have necessitated an uncivil intrusion into the private life of the property owner. Thus, tax had to be based on elements discernible from the outside and somehow related to the value and area of the property; hence, the number of windows. As a result, three different tax levels were imposed on properties: those with less than ten, those with between ten and twenty, and those with more than twenty windows. Naturally, owners of buildings with eleven or twelve windows were disadvantaged and often bricked up a window or two in order to lower their taxes. New constructions were equipped with a number of windows in the upper end of the different brackets, and as a result, properties were often constructed with fewer windows than they normally would have been equipped with.

Another historical example is Amsterdam, a city with deep narrow houses with the gable facing the street. Allegedly, this was the result of a property taxation based on street frontage imposed during the critical centuries of the city’s construction. The houses were often so narrow that furniture could not be brought up the stairs, and instead had to be hoisted up from the street to the upper levels. Each house was therefore equipped with a small crane. I’m sure there were other reasons as well, but to an extent, what we consider Amsterdam’s vernacular architecture is an example of tax optimisation: a thrifty population elaborating on the opportunities to minimise their taxes.

The most radical example I have encountered are the trulli of Apulia, southern Italy. According to Bernard Rudofsky’s ‘Architecture without Architects, ’These were built of “annual layers of stone that terminate in a false conic cupola crowned by a keystone”. The origins of this type of dwelling are disputed. Popular belief suggests that this peculiar type of construction was an innovative method of tax evasion. As they were constructed without mortar, they could be pulled down when word spread that tax inspectors were in the area, and then reconstructed upon their departure. The town could thus double its size, while its taxes remained at the level of a village. Again, this is a theory with little scientific and great popular support. In reality, the trulli’s form is reminiscent of very early human settlements, and the constructions most likely predate property taxation.

Whether the examples above are true or just folklore, it is both exhilarating and somewhat unnerving to imagine vernacular architecture as not only the product of climate, available construction materials and local cultural traditions, but also the product of a profound unwillingness to pay taxes which is quite apparently engrained deeply in the human consciousness. In a sense, the extensions and elaborations of the small Friggebodar is part of a battle between people and tax inspectors that has raged since the dawn of taxation. Makes you wonder if tax inspectors really are the root of all evil and the creators of this type of architecture are righteous, justly standing up for their rights, or if people have just always been stingy.

It would be interesting to further study the effect of taxation on the emerging vernacular of the Friggebod and other contemporary examples. I suspect there is a great market niche here. I’m contemplating setting up an Office of Tax- Optimised Architecture, based in the Cayman Islands, developing new vernacular architecture around the world, generated by local taxation laws. Then again, I think there are a number of firms doing exactly this already- and with less conspicuous names. Venturi and Scott Brown focused on semiotics in their analysis of the Strip in Las Vegas, but it could be argued that the architects of tax evasion, along with their corresponding adversaries in the tax departments, are the authors of a parallel strain of vernacular architecture, running through history, individually tailored to the local conditions across the globe but as of yet uninvestigated.

image from http://www.the-berg.de

The following is an excerpt from the book Berlin-matter of memory

Once in a while, the vision for a structure becomes so engrained in the collective mind that its virtual existence can almost be mistaken for concrete. This is the case of the Tempelhof Berg; the image has become a virtual relic, even available as postcards and prints.

During the debate on the future of Tempelhof, an illustration where Tempelhof has been transformed into a 1000 m tall mountain suddenly started appearing everywhere. The creation of architect Jakob Tigges, the mountain was entered into – and quickly eliminated from – an idea competition as a politically critical, tongue-in-cheek proposal. Nonetheless, the strong illustrations found their way into newspapers, into the minds of Berliners, and on to the postcard pictured below. It can be found in the strangest of places: I recently saw it hanging framed in a bar among photos of historic images of the city. The idea simply resonated very well with Berliners, and it was viewed by many as an ideal solution for the old disused airport.

The only problem is its construction; the newspaper Tagesspiegel calculated that in order to construct the mountain, 47 000 trucks would need to deliver 20 tonnes of construction debris daily for a period of over five years in order to build the enormous mass. And then there’s the question of whether the notoriously unstable ground could take such an enormous weight. Even so, the traffic of trucks would clog the Berlin traffic apparatus for years, release untold amounts of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere and create endless problems for the city and the planet. Not to mention the costs for a city so famous for its empty coffers that for a long while the city slogan, coined by former mayor Klaus Wowereit was: “arm aber sexy”, poor but sexy. The mountain is a pipe dream, and everybody is well aware of this.

Relics often have a place in the collective mind even if they no longer exist; Crystal Palace is one such relic. Planned, future relics can occupy a similar position in people’s minds. The Tempelhof Mountain, however, is a strictly virtual relic with no relationship to physical reality. It is the virtual world blurring the borders with the physical world.

The virtual relic is a product of digital culture. Photomontages and other credible visual evidence can easily be manufactured. Computers and digital culture also make it possible to disseminate convincing illustrations into the collective mind. By presenting that illustration in various ways, it starts to inhabit the mind, much in the same way effective advertisement places products in our minds. The digital culture allows the collective mind to separate from the physical world and enter the virtual world. The virtual world of our collective mind then interlaces with the physical world, creating images in our minds of things that never were, producing entirely virtual relics.

The connection between the virtual and the collective mind allows the virtual to seep into reality in unexpected ways. It creates a situation where the virtual and the physical approach each other and merge. When the virtual leaks into the physical world, we are seeing something entirely new. In a way, it is as if the collective mind of Berlin created its avatar, the digital alter ego that is all Berlin wishes it was, and that avatar then started showing up on postcards and walls.

The collective mind has previously produced hyper-realities, which have then been realized into physical forms. Hyper-reality is the authentic fake, as Umberto Eco put it – the collective image of times past, for instance. Often this image bears little resemblance to what’s beyond the surface.

In a sense, the postcards are from a new Berlin, where physical reality and the virtual reality are interlaced. It is not only the physical reality that merges into the virtual reality, but also the virtual invading the physical space.

The future of Tempelhof is still open, but it should be interesting to see for how long the virtual history will run parallel to the actual history, at which point these again will be detached from each other and the mountain reduced to the relics of the dream in forgotten images and dead pixels.

The Vietnamese constitute a large minority group in Berlin, presumably the largest after the Turkish. This year marks twenty years since the reunification of Germany, but it also marks twenty years since the another reunification, the almost forgotten and very strange reunification between the North and South Vietnamese in Berlin.

The Vietnam War between the US-backed South Vietnamese and the Soviet-backed North Vietnamese has left a curious relic in Berlin. The German Democratic Republic was by proxy a supporter of the North Vietnamese and accepted guest workers as well as students since the 1950’s. These were admitted on five year contracts, after which they were supposed to return to Vietnam. The Federal Republic of Germany on their part were by proxy supporters of the South Vietnamese, and in the wake of the fall of Saigon in the middle of the 1970’s accepted approximately 30 000 Vietnamese asylum seekers. Many of these were Chinese-Vietnamese so-called boatpeople, who would have had a very rough time in the reunited Vietnam as the Vietnamese are very suspicious of their Chinese neighbour.

The reunification of Germany meant a reunification of their respective Vietnamese communities, halfway across the world from their home country. The South Vietnamese had in the meantime integrated rather well in the Federal Republic, while their North Vietnamese counterparts had been isolated from the East German society and had hardly any knowledge of the language. It was a reluctant reunification with a lot of suspicion on both sides. The only thing that united them was an unwillingness to return to Vietnam.

After reunification, the North Vietnamese faced a tough situation. Their jobs within the East German industry were gone, and they had little means of supporting themselves. Some turned to crime, and Vietnamese gangs started to generate incomes by any means available. The primary racket was, and still is, selling smuggled cigarettes. They are still visible on street corners in many parts of Berlin despite harassment from the Police.

Reunited Germany had little sympathy for the Vietnamese, and offered them plane tickets back to Vietnam, and substantial grants for the Vietnamese government to accept their Diaspora’s return. In the end however, few went back and many became self-employed as means of support were mandatory in order to receive residency permits. This has created a great abundance of flower shops and small grocery shops run by the Vietnamese.

It has also helped to create the Dong Xuan Center in Lichtenberg – a run-down industrial area in East Berlin. The name is taken from a famous marketplace in Hanoi, but Berlin’s Dong Xuan Center is an Asian marketplace in a German setting. It consists of four huge structures, each with a central corridor lined with small shops selling any- and everything remotely Asian. It is like a small Hong Kong in the unlikely setting of a derelict industrial estate. Although it is primarily Vietnamese, the place is a conglomeration of traders and importers from across Asia. It looks exactly as you would imagine a weird and wonderful combination of German order and South East Asian vibrant mercantilism, if you can. The image above does absolutely no justice to the place as it was taken shortly before closing time.

It is not a place without controversy, and arson has been known to be used on occasion as a way to stifle competition in the fierce economical climate. A number of gang related incidents have furthermore caused the Berlin Police Department to set up a taskforce targeting organised Vietnamese crime syndicates.

The Dong Xuan Center is as close to  Little Saigon as it gets in Berlin. It is, in a sense, the centre of the Vietnamese community in Berlin; notice boards with classified ads and personals fill the walls inside the market. Although the Vietnamese community is one of the largest minority groups in Berlin, they are mostly invisible apart from the cigarette vendors and the city’s many Vietnamese restaurants. It is here, in an abandoned industrial estate that you find the centre of a forgotten minority group. And the centre of a forgotten parallel reunification. The Dong Xuan Center is a parallel little universe, far removed from the German community of which it is technically a part, a forgotten history that has created this very dynamic relic on an otherwise almost abandoned edge of Berlin.

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