Urban Catalyst – Philipp Oswalt, Klaus Overmeyer, Philipp Misselwith, DOM Publishers 2013

Urban Catalyst is the title of a new book published by DOM Publishers (2013) Written by a group of authors including Philipp Oswalt, Klaus Overmeyer and Philipp Misselwitz, the book is the outcome of a collaborative study of the mechanics, the potentials, and the instrumentality of urban interim use over the last decade. The collaboration is also known by the name Urban Catalyst. Under the duration of the study, interim use, or Zwischennutzung, has become increasingly popular and incorporated into mainstream urban planning and property development. However, there has been a knowledge gap in terms of understanding both the mechanics of the interim use and its instrumentality. Partly this is due to the informality of the practice, but as the authors point out, this is something on the verge of changing, if it has not already. As new actors, including municipalities, property developers and architects, become interested in what was previously a marginalised practice, there is a need for understanding the processes behind the successful interim projects. Often, these processes are thought of as the result of contingencies, rather than skilfully executed plans of action, but this book can potentially alter this misapprehension.

Urban Catalyst opens up for a very practical way of theorizing the temporary uses of space in urban Europe. This is a discussion implicitly connected to the notions of tactic vs. strategy of Michel de Certeau, albeit less politically motivated. The distinction is important, as Urban Catalyst primarily focuses on the instrumental aspects of temporary uses rather than their role as parts of a larger political agenda. The book discusses temporary use as a tool which is not by definition wielded by the powers that be or in opposition to these, but rather a tool which opens up a new arena for working with architecture and the urban. Although acknowledging the potential exploitative nature of the interim uses as tools to augment property value, the authors clearly focus on bridging the divide between man and “the man”, and instead seek out synergetic relationships where interim use is of mutual benefit to both of the above. It is aimed at entrepreneurs rather than political activists, aiming rather at combining the two. Consequently, the book is a manual, catalogue and archive of the potential benefits of interim uses rather than a critical analysis of who benefits at the expense of whom and the impact of formalised interim uses in gentrification processes.

Instead, the book is a call for action, an attempt at learning from a great range of interim projects, which, in the way of architects, attempt to systematize something that so far has resisted systematization. And this is one of the principal problems with drawing any general conclusion from the phenomenon of interim use: when every situation is so unique, what can we learn from them? This is probably where the book will make its most significant contribution: in providing a set of conceptual tools to guide the process. These tools, and the connected actors, are well known within the interim use scene, but perhaps less well known in the world of architects. It is in many ways a parallel world, a shadow world of the formal world architects and planners normally inhabit, a shadow world which is infinitely lighter on its feet, infinitely more dynamic and infinitely more fun—the question that remains in my head after reading the book is this: How will this world be affected by the merger between the worlds that the authors see? The formalization process of the informal is never painless, and it is questionable whether the formal world will be able to adapt to the informal, or whether it will simply absorb the informal into its own static, slow-moving system.

Although the book attempts to maintain a pan-European focus, its natural habitat, so to speak, is the city of Berlin. Here, temporary uses have evolved beyond the traditional antagonism between squatters/owners/municipality in many instances. In a lot of ways, Urban Catalyst is more of a dossier than a book in a traditional sense, an impression emphasised by its notebook aesthetics. Apart from essays and case studies, the book contains a number of texts from among others Saskia Sassen, Margaret Crawford and Kees Christiansee. Many of these have previously been published in other places, and in order to move beyond the danger of becoming an anthology of texts on everyday urbanism, the authors complement these texts with thoughtful interviews that add new material as well as provide an extra dimension to the original texts.

Urban Catalyst is by no means a neutral book, and I do not exaggerate when I suggest that it aims to be a catalyst in itself. The book is a powerful argument for the potential inherent in the urban interim. It proposes one way forward in a world where planning and architectural practice are increasingly disconnected from the lived reality on the ground. This is indeed a very welcome book; useful for understanding and discussing the processes, the actors and the evolving practices of interim use in the urban environment. Urban catalyst provides a very compelling argument for an expanded architectural practice into the temporary spaces that it is among the first to articulate, theorize and analyse.

Helsinki Architectural Guide – Ulf Meyer, DOM Publishers, Berlin, 2012

Helsinki is home to a fantastically rich history of architectural masterpieces, as most of us know by now. While Aalto, Revell and others have put Finland high on European modern architecture itineraries, our northern neighbor’s architecture history on this side of the Modern movement’s heyday may be unfamiliar territory for many. Finland has a tradition of great architecture that is hard to rival. Throughout the past decades, Finnish architects have managed to produce formidable architecture almost continuously, much of which sadly goes unnoticed in the shadow of the great masters of modernism. Many who have wished to embark on an exploration of Finnish architecture have met the challenge of doing so without a comprehensive guide in the English language. Ulf Meyer’s new guide to Helsinki architecture (DOM Publishers, 2012) should help to remedy the international architecture community’s oversight. The insightful and user-friendly guide portrays Helsinki’s architecture history over the past century, paying great attention to the continuity of Finnish architecture history.

Berlin-based DOM Publishers have produced a great many architecture guides over the years. The two-volume guide to Berlin Mitte from 2009 is a joy to use (if you read German), and DOM have expanded their guidebook repertoire since. Having previously been traumatised by another publishers’ truly atrocious English in a Berlin architecture guidebook some years back, I must admit I was wary of an English-language edition, but I was positively surprised by Meyer’s eloquence and flow.

Every user’s architecture guidebook preferences are individual. I personally prefer a geographical organisation of objects (which I find facilitates navigation and helps find things in an object’s vicinity) to a chronological one (primarily useful in the exploration of a specific epoch) and am thus very pleased with the format of this guide. Another point of preference is information density, entailing the choice between in-depth presentations and cursory overviews. A city guide has very little choice, really, seeing as it has to cover so much ground. Nonetheless, the book’s format allows for several longer analyses by locally-based architects and planners, which in turn impart a helpful broader perspective to the guide – a welcome contextualisation which is easily lost in the plethora of architectural objects. The occasionally overlapping cursory overviews and the analyses complement each other well.

My points of complaints are minor. Unfortunately, the guidebook format does not really allow for plans and sections, which are in most cases essential in understanding how architecture is constructed. This is however a shortcoming of the format itself and not a reflection on this specific guidebook. Improvements to the print quality could be tolerated; in the absence of plans and sections, the guide relies heavily on photographs and the print does not do them justice. Meyer’s Helsinki Architecture Guide is overall a very beautiful and helpful guidebook, that should succeed in inspiring people to explore the architecture of Finland beyond the legacy of Alvar Aalto.

MONU No 15 Review

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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