Archive

Tag Archives: Semi-public space

Today, it is 21 years since the Berlin Wall came down. Here is another book excerpt from the book Berlin- matter of memory on the Wall and the voids that replaced it. A draft for this text was previously published on this blog about a year ago.

It is impossible to write about Berlin without including the former Berlin Wall. The Wall that separated the East from the West for twenty-eight years, from 1961-1989, officially ceased to exist over twenty years ago, but it still plays a central role in the city. When the Wall came down, the general opinion was that it should be excised from Berlin, from history and from the minds of the city’s inhabitants. The question of preservation was secondary to the desire for reunification, and voices asking the city to preserve stretches were raised only very late in the euphoric beginning of the 1990’s.

As it has turned out, the physical wall has become a ghost. A conscious policy to rebuild Berlin from Potsdamer Platz to Bernauer Strasse and the wish to conceal the city’s unsightly scars have led to the removal most of the actual Wall. As the Wall was superimposed on an already existing city – which has since been reconstructed – it can be difficult to trace the wall on a map today, while in the actual landscape, especially some distance away from the most central parts, many signs of the iron curtain’s physical manifestation can still be seen.

Many have written about the Wall, what it meant to Berlin as a monument and what it has continued to symbolise for Berliners. Since most of these are written by competent historians (see for example Brian Ladd’s “The Ghosts of Berlin”), I will keep to aspects concerning myself as an architect. The first of these is the significance of the physical void left behind by the Berlin Wall.

The voids of the former “death strip” have done more for the integration of the reunited city than any of the grand projects such as Potsdamer Platz or Spreebogen or the like. Today, the voids are what characterise Berlin and constitute the one of the city’s prime assets. One could even say that the voids define Berlin culturally. Architect Rem Koolhaas was fascinated by the void when the Wall was still standing, and wrote the now-famous words ‘where nothing exists, everything is possible’.

It has now been twenty years since the Berlin Wall fell, the iron curtain was lifted and Berlin became one city again. During the first few years after the Wall came down, investments in the reunited city were made on a scale that rarely has been rivalled in Europe. At some point however, Berlin ran out of money and the city has been struggling economically since. The construction has continued, albeit on a smaller scale. Many of the new projects are constructed on land where the Wall used to run.

To some, the void left after the Wall is a scar which can’t be concealed rapidly enough; as long as the scar is visible, the division of Germany and the inequalities resulting from the unification remain contemporary. These memories can’t be written into the history books as past until the void has been filled. As long as the wound is open, the past will continue to leak into the present. Monuments make history, while scars keep the past current.

Architect Daniel Libeskind saw the physical voids as mental voids in the collective mind, the marks of a society broken and a representation of the relationship between Germany and its Jews that was destroyed in the Holocaust. He maintained that the psychological voids would remain even if the physical voids were filled with new buildings.

The Wall was the millstone around Berlin’s neck, but through its demolition, this symbol of oppression became the stage for freedom. The cultural capital Berlin would be unthinkable without the voids; this is where nightclubs, art-installations, concerts and flea markets thrive(d) to make Berlin what it is today. These spaces can be used for anything or for nothing. Experimental culture can burgeon and evolve. For all intents and purposes, these ‘unprogrammed’ spaces are the cornerstones of cultural innovation in this city.

The voids give Berlin a unique spatial character and create unique opportunities in regard to public space. The voids are free spaces, to be used or inhabited in different ways as long as it is of a temporary nature. In and of themselves, the activities taking place in these spaces are monuments to freedom. The voids are a by-product of the Wall, perhaps the only positive one. If we decide that the voids of Berlin are spatial monuments, they are no longer functionless empty spaces. On the contrary: the voids become spaces worthy of preservation.

Another aspect of the Wall is the layer of activity and function it now creates on top of the reunited city. An almost invisible line crisscrossing through the city, the former path can be – and is – explored by tourists and Berliners alike, providing a view of the city from a new perspective. Travel along the Wall’s former path is best undertaken by bicycle and entails moving in an atypical pattern through the city, passing through neighbourhoods which would otherwise remain unseen.

Is the Wall today an relic or a monument? The voids are definitely relics, while the preserved stretches are monuments; they are authored in the sense that they are interpreted rather than objective. The museums and preservation zones are monuments, encoded with messages and interpretations. There are three separate permanent Wall exhibitions filling different functions in the city to date. The “Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer” on Bernauer Strasse is concerned with the preservational aspect, meticulously tending a section of the former death strip and commemorating of its victims. Perhaps the most famous preservation zone is the “East Side Gallery”, a section of the Wall which was converted to a gallery shortly after the fall. Artists were invited to decorate a length of Wall in East Berlin which had previously (for obvious reasons) been free of graffiti. Although the section of Wall is more a gallery of street art than a memorial, the East Side Gallery tends to be the destination of choice for tourists, as the colourful murals correspond to their vision of how it ought to be. The privately-run Mauermuseum – Haus am Checkpoint Charlie (Checkpoint Charlie Museum) focuses on spectacular escapes and escape attempts during the years of the Wall. It also offers an opportunity for visitors to be photographed with border guards and have their passports stamped.

The rest of the Wall is a relic, albeit one whose effects on the demographics and the social composition of different areas is much more in your face than the disappearing physical traces. The integration of the reunited city is slow, much slower than anybody expected, and even twenty years after the fall, the demographic division remains.

Areas with high non-German populations are generally the areas that were just on the Western side of the Wall, dead ends during the divided years but today quite central areas – for example Wedding, Kreuzberg or Neukölln. Areas on the Eastern side are typically old and run-down, with a few exceptions. These areas were rapidly gentrified when the Wall fell and still host a large, floating, international population of artists, architects and other people without proper jobs.

To preserve the void as a common territory and acknowledge the unique spatial conditions with which Berlin’s turbulent history has provided the city would be a positive motion and create opportunities which will eventually help Berlin out of its slump, or slumber. Berlin will never be as picturesque as other German cities, but what it does have is a unique urban landscape of spatial opportunities unrivalled by any other European city.

In Brunnenstrasse, Mitte, a very interesting building has been completed by architect Arno Brandlhuber. This is perhaps the antithesis of the L-40, where the L-40 is carried through with a minimum of compromise and adaptation, this is all compromise and adaptation. And it is all the more interesting for it.

The building is located in a part of town that is currently the forefront of gentrification; one of the last squats across the street was emptied last November, the façade still reads “Wir bleiben alle hier”, we’re all staying here, but the building is now a sad empty shell. New bars and galleries pop up, and the area will continue to become more expensive, like the rest of Mitte. This building is of course a part of this process, but then again, so am I, so I will leave this subject for now.

The building itself stands on the ruins of a previous investor’s dreams, the plot was bought, and foundations built in the middle of the 1990’s by an investor who went bankrupt. To use the existing foundation was one of the first and a very defining decision in the construction process. This was the first compromise, the next is the buildings height, it has been chopped off to allow the people living in the courtyard house behind it to keep as much sunlight as possible. Another compromise is the unquestioning adaptation to the floor heights of the neighboring buildings, which incidentally are at different levels, and meet each other in a low step in the centre of the new buildings that is visible through the façade. The facades are pragmatic and built on a very low budget. The majority of the façade is constructed with translucent polycarbonate sheets, which allow the house to light up at night. The result resembles French Lacaton Vassal in its pragmatic approach to create great spaces on small budgets, but with a certain Berlin roughness to it.

The most interesting part of the building is the gallery in the ground floor, equipped with a wall that swings inward and opens up the gallery to the street in a manner similar to the Storefront Gallery in NYC, but where the Storefront gallery has a nice and specific façade, the façade here looks like an anonymous wall and is covered with posters, stickers and tags, bringing the city into the gallery in a way that the Storefront never managed. It produces a great interface between the city and the building, a way to blur the border between the public and the private, and turns the entire gallery from being a semi-private space to a semi-public space.

In order to understand what is great about this building, it is essential to understand the two major issues that have haunted Berlin architecture over the last decades. Firstly, the city suffers from an architectural trauma imposed by the draconic construction regulations Hans Stimmann introduced here in the 1990’s. These principles defined the “Berlin style”, or Neo-Prussian style, where all new, and preferably adaptations of old buildings would be maximum 22 meters tall, follow the old block structure with outer and inner courtyards, be divided, at least visually, in street facades that were short, preferably shorter than they were tall, with standing windows and facades in natural stone or a material resembling natural stone. This conservative and frightening dogma has been imposed on new constructions across the city. You can see the traces everywhere, and the results are often, at least in my opinion, suspiciously similar to the local architecture of the 1930’s.

Secondly, there is no money here. Ever since the happy days of reunification and grand construction projects, Berlin has suffered, and still suffers from an economic hangover. The city is broke, and investors are cautious, and reluctant to invest in architecture. They often manage to get cheap and very mediocre buildings built in return for promises of creating jobs. This means that value engineered rubbish is built in prominent locations across the city every month. Boxes with no resemblance of architecture but with plenty of space for billboards litter the city these days.

This is a building that presents an alternative for Berlin architecture. This is an architecture much more in keeping with the Zeitgeist of the city than the neo-Prussian value engineered rubbish that constitutes the majority of the new buildings in this city. It is a cheap, yet sensitive and elaborate building. A building that communicates with the public spaces and adds something to the street. The city slogan these days is “be Berlin” and this building is Berlin.

On a recent trip to London, I started thinking about the concept of Semi-spaces, i.e. Semi-public and semi-private spaces and how these are created. First a short definition of semi-spaces:

Semi Private space- Here defined as a space that is access controlled and accessible to residents and associated people only. An example here would be a communal staircase in a residential building with a controlled front door access. These spaces are not really private since they’re shared, but since they’re usually inaccessible to outsiders, they’re not really public either.

Semi Public space- This is normally defined as a private space accessible to the general public, e.g. a shop or a Public house. In this context however, I’ll define it as a space open to the public but has a certain private character to it. It can be a small local park, an open courtyard or something similar. It is accessible to anyone, but is understood to be used primarily by the surrounding residents.

You find semi-spaces in most major cities in Europe, Berlin, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Paris and so on. New housing projects are usually equipped with a number of semi-spaces all across the range. At the same time, in the U.K, most of the energy goes into creating strict borderlines, fences, gates, access control points and so forth. The semi-private spaces exist out of necessity rather than as an actual space for inhabitants, and the semi-public spaces seems to have disappeared completely from the architectural scene.

London used to have some great semi-public spaces, Bedford Square, Berkeley Square and so on. Something happened however, possibly post-war modernism, and the concept went into decline. Most of the gardens and green squares have been turned into Semi-private spaces rather than Semi-Public ones. Just walk around in South Kensington, and you’ll see a number of examples of these spaces.

Somehow, London has arrived at the conclusion that either, Semi-public spaces don’t work, or that theses spaces will yield profit if converted into semi-private spaces instead. In South Kensington, the latter is probably true, while in East London, presumably the former is more accurate.

The notion that semi-public spaces don’t work is wide-spread, the main issues being of course security and maintenance. Security is obviously an issue, and the concept of designing away crime would suggest that the semi-public spaces just have to go. At the same time, in most European cities, these spaces work when the residents themselves use and identify with these spaces. In those cases, security is maintained through the presence and observation of local residents. Maintenance is always complicated in these instances, the best ones are maintained through self-organisation, the job is divided among the people who use the space. In other cases, organizations are formed to deal with the spaces. Neither of these issues should be insurmountable in London one would think.

Then, does the city actually want semi-public spaces, does the city need them, or are they as London has concluded, waste spaces to turn into other types of spaces? What purpose do they serve?

One could argue that these types of spaces serve a number of immaterial purposes. The semi-public spaces provide residents somewhere neutral to get together and get to know each other. They also provide a reason for contact between residents, or force rather.

Normally people who know their neighbors feel safer than people who have no idea about anybody living in the vicinity and who step out in completely unknown territory as soon as they exit their front door. Jane Jacobs’ local Greenwich village street-scapes functioned more or less as semi-public spaces and from her point of view, they would provide a number of functions.

There are on the other hand no end to the possible arguments between neighbors that can be generated. Whether they function or not is very much up to the individuals who live around the semi-public space. The semi-public spaces can go completely wrong and destroy an entire neighborhood if they end up neglected.

From an economical point of view, semi-public space only makes sense from a long term perspective. If the same organisation that builds the surrounding context will maintain it over the years it makes sense, but in speculative projects it makes no sense whatsoever.

I’m not entirely sure about the answers to the questions above, but I do however think it’s a worthwhile debate that does not really exist at the moment.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 39 other followers