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Monuments

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.

Very soon after September 11, 2001,  the dual roles of the Ground Zero site became clear. The site was to act as a memorial for the victims and was at the same time a piece of prime real estate. These two were very hard to combine. For years nothing seemed to happen. Competitions were held, and various rather horrific combinations of memorial and profitable office space were selected and questioned over and over again.

Now, it appears that construction is finally on the way, and things are starting to come up out of the ground after 8 years. I’m not sure what it will be, whether it is Snøhetta’s, Foster’s, Rogers’, Calatrava’s or Libeskind’s building that will be there, possibly it has all been hijacked by SOM and generic office towers will fill in the gap. Whatever it is, it feels rather good that something is happening and that the scar will be healed eventually.

In one very definite sense was the hole the most effective memorial there could be. It is not about whether that would allow the enemy to win or not, but it puts the entire catastrophe into the present in a way a memorial could never do. As soon as a memorial is constructed, the event memorialized is effectively put into history. A scar drags the events of 9.11 into the present while a memorial, any memorial, no matter how it’s designed, will effectively put the events into the history books.

One could therefore argue that the scar in the urban fabric is the ultimate memorial, It keeps the events in the present forever, much more effectively than any memorial. It is this that every day reminds Americans in general and New Yorkers in particular about the “War on Terror”. The physical void corresponds to the psychological void in people’s minds in a very minimalistic but effective way. I find it interesting that the last parcel of land was handed over to the developers just when the US politics shifted focus from having the War on Terror as the top priority. The void could then hypothetically have been used as an instrument of politics, as a way of stretching, or bridging the past into the present.

The void itself is not empty, and the symbolism of the void can be quite powerful. A void is a something not a nothing, there is no Tabula Rasa. No matter how much symbolism you try to load into the office towers that will be built, they will just be buildings, and they will put this quite awkward period of America and the world into the history books rather than eternally revolving on the prime-time news. Construction on Ground Zero is making peace with the rest of the world, it is putting an end to the state of emergency that has served as an excuse for humans doing rather horrific things to each other for far too long.

It is interesting to look at why we construct monuments, sometimes we construct them not to remember, but to forget. We build memorials to allow ourselves to move on and detach ourselves from the past by loading a physical structure with the guilt, sorrow and other emotions. The memorial gives us a distance to the event its created to commemorate. It also provides us with a physical structure where we can remember, but the structure or space takes on many of the immediate emotions and memories. The structure remembers, history remembers, so we don’t have to. Our minds are liberated by it, free to go on with our lives and to live in the present instead of the past. In that way, the monument is a great structure, a very human structure that sets us free to live our own lives, in our own day and age.

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One of these days, it will be twenty years since the Berlin Wall fell. Since then, Germany has been reunited and Berlin has risen like a comet, or phoenix, and crash-landed again. During the first few years after the wall came down, there was an investment in the reunited city that rarely has been rivaled in Europe. The Reichtag, the entire Government district, Potsdamer Platz, the new Hauptbahnhof and so on, the list is long. At some point however, Berlin ran out of money and the city has been struggling economically since. The construction has continued, and if you thought Potsdamer Platz was a low quality project without any connection to the existing city, it’s nothing compared to what is going up these days along Bernuaer Straße or in Friedrichshain along the Spree.

Most of the projects mentioned above are or were built on the land where the wall used to run, and why not? Suddenly there was an abundance of land in the centre of a city of three million, a rarity anywhere in the world, and in Europe in particular. To some, the void left after the wall is a scar, an open wound, and to them the voids can’t be filled rapidly enough. The voids then appear as an open wound, of an uncomfortable past, and as long as the scar is there, the division of Germany, and the inequalities resulting from the unification are present. These memories can’t be put into the history books as a past until the void is filled. As long as the wound is open, the past leaks into the present. Monuments make history, while scars keeps the past in the present, since the results, and not the monuments of history are what we are presented with, the events must still be contemporary rather than historical.

The voids can however also be argued to be a symbol of freedom, as a symbol of democracy and of opportunity. The wall was the millstone around the neck of Berlin, and what is left after it was torn down is practically the opposite. The cultural capital Berlin has become would be unthinkable without the voids, this is where nightclubs, art-installations, concerts, flea markets and so on thrived to make Berlin what it is today. These spaces that can be used for anything, or for nothing. These are spaces where experimental culture can thrive and evolve. It is in these spaces that lack programming that you can try to use in different ways, these spaces are the cornerstones of cultural innovation in this city. The symbol of oppression became the stage for freedom.

So, in these days of celebrating the Mauerfall, can’t we just agree that the few spaces left are monuments? If we regard these spaces monuments of freedom and cultural assets rather than scars and potential eventual economic assets, we should all be all right.

Basically a monument is a space or an object designed primarily to commemorate a certain occasion or person. The function of the monument is solely to preserve this memory, it has no other programming. This is the beauty of the monument, and over time the function of the monument changes, but it gets a justification, or legitimisation through its nature as a monument. When there is a monument, planners and architects do not need to find a function to fill out the space, to assign it a function, or to program it in any other way.

If we decide the voids of Berlin are spatial monuments, they are no longer empty spaces without function. On the contrary, the void becomes a space to preserve. These spaces are not empty canvases to be filled out in order to complete the city, they already have a function, albeit an informal one. They are just spaces that are free, to use or to inhabit in different ways as long as it is of a temporary nature. The activities taking place in these spaces are themselves monuments to freedom, rituals enhancing the role of the monuments.

The rituals of these spaces already exist, they are already functioning as the monuments of freedom in everything but name, so why not just see the voids as the monuments they are, and allow them to continue to evolve and enhance the cultural life of Berlin?