L-40, Berlin

The other day, the scaffolding came down from one of the most awaited construction projects in Berlin this year, at least by me; the L-40 at the end of Linienstraße, on the corner of Rosa Luxemburg Platz and Torstraße. For once, I can easily fit architecture, urbanism and art into the same post.

The building is designed by BundschuhBaumhauer in collaboration with artist Cosima von Bonin and is located in Mitte on the border of Prenzlauer Berg, in other words, right where the New Berlin is rising. The block the L-40 has landed in was constructed in the first decades of the 1900’s and centered on the Volksbühne, the People’s Theatre, from 1914. The block around it was a homogenous composition of residential buildings, some were destroyed during the Second World War leaving the area full of holes that have since gradually been filled in.

The reconstruction of the neighborhood left an empty, awkward, triangular site at the northern end of the Volksbühne area. Despite its central location, the site remained empty for many years, its shape made development difficult. The origins of the building that now stands there was a smaller art project for the site created by Roger Bundschuh and artist Cosima von Bonin, in the form of sausage stand a few years ago. In dialogue with the client, the project evolved to become a residential building.

The thing that attracted me right from the start was the uncompromising nature of the project. The concept was a black concrete monolith, and now, as the scaffolding comes down, there is a black concrete monolith. In Berlin, concepts are so habitually washed down and value-engineered that when the building finally stands there it looks like pre-fabricated standard issue, and is usually very hard to distinguish from similar projects that have gone through the same process. Not so here, this building is anything but run of the mill, its exterior is rather hostile with its sharp corners in combination with large solid walls of concrete. This may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but the perseverance in pushing such a project through is astounding.

As a work of architecture I appreciate the clean lines, the material qualities of the concrete, and the idea of turning the standard Berlin tenement house inside out. One of the primary concepts of the project was to attempt to open up the courtyard rather than use it as a second grade source of light that is one of the main problems of the Berlin tenement blocks. All of these are qualities that are not very common in architecture in this city. A rigid planning code and cost cutting measures create numerous obstacles. The flats themselves are interesting, and quirky. For a speculative project, they are frankly courageous in their layout. The building is as mentioned a speculative project, and this means that the flats are designed for hypothetical buyers, in this case hypothetical art-collectors. Yet they are highly personalized and anything but standard. The flats are laid out with an Elizabethan long gallery as a centerpiece. This is a rather introverted space with mainly skylights, intended for the display of artworks and is a form of a private gallery. This is an interesting take on the flat layout, and I really enjoy the fact that somebody has got the guts to do something other than the market optimized solutions routinely employed by everybody these days.

The borderline between art and architecture is fuzzy at best, and sometimes produces very amusing or tragic hybrids and results. This blog has previously covered the collaboration between Chipperfield and Gormley in Kivik, Sweden. This structure was conceived and built as a sculpture, and led an existence as one, until one day, some unhappy neighbor filed a complaint to the local council, claiming that it was in fact a building and not a sculpture. The local council resolved the question in a very bureaucratic way, declaring:

“A building is a durable construction of a roof and walls that on the ground, and is large enough to allow people to enter” (my translation, the Swedish version can be found here)

This meant that the structure had been illegally constructed since it did not have planning permission, furthermore would the sculpture then have to be adapted to the rather rigorous Swedish Construction code, equipped with 1.10 m rails on the platforms, disabled facilities and so forth. In short, as art it was a great project, while as architecture it became useless.

The indistinct border between art and architecture is an issue that has haunted primarily the architectural profession at least since Michelangelo’s day. This text will not attempt to settle that question but will only mention a few questions that pop up.

The building has been called a hybrid between art and architecture, or a sculpture to live in. The origins of the L-40 building were, as I mentioned previously, an art project on the site. If this building is a sculpture, then whose sculpture is it, and of what? Is the building a sculpture full of wealthy art collectors’ condos for the enjoyment of the city, or does the building in fact become a monument to the egos of its builders, or its wealthy art-collector inhabitants? The second possibility is decidedly less attractive. It is hard to see it as a work of public art as there is no public access to the building. I usually do not have any reservations about architects referring to public buildings as art projects. Here on the other hand, we are looking at a private structure that has an enormous impact on the context, and the questions of whose artwork it is, and its role in relation to the public become relevant.

I prefer to look at it, not as a sculpture with elements of architecture, but rather as an art project that became architecture at one point. As far as I have understood the design process, the artist on the project Cosima von Bonin was more involved in the early stages of the project, before it turned into architecture. In my opinion, the sculptural part may have been an integral part of the process, but the end result is so much more attractive if we look at it as architecture rather than art. The questions raised by it as an art project would have an impact on its role and functionality as architecture, and in an urban context.

The relationship between art and architecture is never easy or simple. Architecture needs to be “nice” in the sense that it is created to make the situation better for somebody, to shelter, to protect, to sell or some other reason. Architecture needs a purpose. As a consequence, architecture needs to be “functional” in the sense that it is always measured in relation to its purpose. Art suffers from no such petty preconditions; it can be whatever it wants to be, it can ask questions or provoke in ways architecture is not allowed to. Art is often more interesting if it is not nice or functional, while the same work as architecture would lose all legitimization, and sometimes vice versa.

Whichever way you choose to look at it, the L-40 project is an interesting exploration of the enormously complex borderline between art and architecture, on a scale and level rarely experienced in Berlin these days.

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