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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.

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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The first time I walked by Times Square a few years ago, I didn’t think very much of it. The place had already gone through its transformation from seedy to touristic and the place felt mainly like a scaled up version of Piccadilly Circus, taller buildings, more lights and more traffic. It possessed no qualities to make you want to stop and experience the space, but rather functioned as a backdrop to the idea of the city, a typical scenography space with no life of its own.

On my return last week, the space had gone through a gargantuan transformation. Streets had become pedestrianised, people were standing still on these and staring upwards with vacant looks on their faces. At first I figured some kind of super-villain had taken over the city and hypnotised everybody, you know, like in the comic magazines. Then I looked up and saw the giant Television screens on the facades, even an auditorium with no stage but facing the screens.

Looking back down again, I noticed families sitting around tables, watching and listening and discussing the shows with friends, cops or basically anybody standing nearby. In a sense the place has been turned into a giant living room, or a temple to the gods of television depending on the level of cynicism applied.

I have a hard time making my mind up about this space. If we start with the positive view of it, as the living room of the city. Times square has become a place where people feel at home and enjoy the spectacle without fear or suspicion, an otherwise far too common ingredient in our relationship with the city. People behave like they would in their home in front of their own television set, but in urban setting. The space turns the home inside out and puts it in an urban setting. It is a setting everybody knows and the rules and behavioral patterns are clear to everybody, making it an easy space for people to appreciate and experience the spectacle in some form of unity that crosses the borders of your standard urban tribe.

It doesn’t really matter that they’re all tourists, they are all just humans together enjoying a spectacle together that they would otherwise have enjoyed separately at home. Perhaps something good will come out of this, it is always a good thing to me when people choose to do things together and in public rather than in private. In that sense this is a new type of public space, where the private space of the home has become public. This is a very comfortable way of creating public space, and an interesting one.

With a more cynical approach on the other hand, the new Times Square reminds me a lot of George Orwell’s 1984, just take a look at this, and compare it with the image above. It is very easy to read the space as a space of open mass-indoctrination, of hypnotising people, telling them what to think and how to consume themselves happy. In a sense it displays very openly all that is wrong with television and what a powerful weapon it is. The agenda for the space, and for how it is used is set not by the participants in the space, but by somebody else somewhere else with their own agenda. This prospect becomes really frightening when you walk by the nearby Newscorp building and read their news-ticker for instance.

In that sense, Times Square is no public space at all, but rather something potentially like a permanent mass-meeting. A very strange space where the TV-personalities and spectators are replaced but the meeting goes on. In that sense, it’s a great relief that this space is in cosmopolitan New York City rather than somewhere with a more homogeneous population; the heterogeneity of NYC should keep the space from being abused to any greater extent, at least for the time being. It is however a very powerful space, and I suspect that sooner or later somebody will discover this and use it for something that I’d rather they didn’t.

I am, as I mentioned above, extremely ambivalent to this space. Public life is good by definition, to create contact between people is always a good thing. On the other hand is this a space that appears so easy to abuse, but that’s probably just my skepticism to television talking, go and have a look and make up your own minds.

The average American household apparently has a television set turned on four eight hours and eighteen minutes daily, so it’s no wonder the place is packed with people and will be a success.