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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?

orestad

Ørestad is one of the largest, if not the largest, urban project in Scandinavia at the moment. It is located on the outskirts of Copenhagen, near the bridgehead of the Øresund bridge, connecting Denmark to Sweden. The project is meant to develop over the next twenty years and will provide work for 80,000 people, residences for 20,000 people and education for another 20,000 people. Ørestad is furthermore located next to the sea, and very well connected, to Copenhagen, the airport and Sweden through all kinds of public transportation.

Architecturally, the place has invited internationally renown architects, such as Jean Nouvel, B.I.G. and Daniel Libeskind to design buildings in the area. Perhaps the most famous one to date is “the Mountain”, which has won a number of prizes all over the world. Basically, it is constructed as a number of flats on top of a parking garage. The structure of the building is a result of the ambition to provide each flat with the highest amount of daylight and a large roof terrace.

mountain-1

There is no question the area has a lot of interesting buildings with character and original solutions, the nearby VM-houses by PLOT, are another example, or the new concert hall by Nouvel. What is interesting however is the urban planning of the area. This is one of the largest attempts at creating instant urbanity in Scandinavia in recent years. Ørestad, as the name implies is not only a part of the existing city, but will also function as an urban counterweight, a town in its own right, modelled on successful precedents in the Netherlands such as Almere or Borneo Spoerenburg from the late 1990’s or early 2000’s.

The Ørestad planning appears however to build a linear city along the newly constructed raised Metro. All the activities that would be constructed in the centre of an urban area are located along the metro line. The concert hall has its own station, where there at least at the moment is little else to be seen. The central shopping centre, which we’ll get back to in a minute, is located at another stop, the university at the next and so on. This can be compared to for example, Almere, which is basically creating a rather traditional centre of town in the void that was left over in the geographical centre of the town.

The idea of a linear city is not new. It was perhaps most popularised as an urban model for the Soviet Union in Milyutin’s Sotsgorod and is presented as the socialist anti-urban alternative to the city, with strict separation of functions into linear strips, one residential strip, one industrial, and one for railroads. This was never implemented on any larger scale as the urban planning in the Soviet Union was soon forced to deal with more immediate problems. What is interesting in the comparison, if one should be made is the notion of dissolving the city. In Milyutin’s view, the linear city was an anti-pole to the capitalist city, and it was an anti-urban model, whereas the linear city of Ørestad is seen as an urban model, as a way to build a city. This is an unjust comparison, but the question is what does it show of our society’s idea of urbanism?

The centre of town is, as I’ve already mentioned, spread out along the Metro-line, with nodes around the different stations. The public spaces here feel odd and more like leftover space rather than urban space planned for leading a public life. The largest centre-piece in the composition is the Field’s shopping centre, one of the largest shopping malls in Scandinavia. It sits on a giant podium above a narrow pavement. It’s interior is spacious and this is perhaps the heart of Ørestad. This organisation is symptomatic of the area. Basically all the public or semi-public functions are created inside out, monoliths that only make sense when you’re inside. It is all a bit like Koolhaas’ old text about how Atlanta functions, where the walls of the atria become the facades of the buildings.

The residential parts of Ørestad are separated and at least at the moment feel partially uninhabited. This will change with time of course, but almost all of the buildings are set back with either some dull function on street level, such as the parking garage in the Mountain, or just empty underneath with the house raised on pillars. The buildings are spread out, they all appear as their own monolith, separate from the rest of the city. Some with more character than others, but the end result is that the space in between the buildings becomes a dull experience, the monoliths are hostile mountains and the distinction between different grades of public in the spaces hard to make out.

All in all, the urban planning in Ørestad is aimed at a lifestyle where the shared experiences consist of consumer experiences. As an inside out urbanism, it reduces the common spaces to transition spaces, just like some of the clumsiest attempts at urban planning during the sixties. By creating all public functions with primarily an inside and all residences as somewhat hostile monoliths, there is no space left for any public life, which at least to me would be one of the first prerequisites of an urban area. It is a more dense version of the suburbia we all know and detest, where the buildings are scaled up but the principle is the same. As an urban ideal it is naïve at best, sinister at worst. The resulting Ørestad is not an urban space, it is just a denser suburbia.

It may not be fair to judge the area so harshly since it is still developing, and the architecture of the individual buildings is sometimes exciting. There are great opportunities to create interesting public spaces out there, I just don’t see it happening at the moment.

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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.

“Sous le pavé- la plage!”, or “Underneath the paving stones – the beach!” was a graffiti painting in Paris, associated with the Situationist International movement that referred to the festivity and creativity that exists underneath the repressive and pacifying order of the society they perceived.

The state of the urban public spaces are these days often under debate. Cities grow and the nature of the city changes, and with them, the functions of the urban spaces change. The public space has in many cities been reduced to shopping arcades or billboard foregrounds. Since you never meet anybody you would like to meet in a public space anyway, what is its function? This change is more than likely to continue over the foreseeable future. Very few of the public squares function as they ideally would. Perhaps the time has come to look at different forms of public spaces. As our public life almost is reduced to shopping, it may be time to ask ourselves whether the public spaces of our time should have another form in order for them to fulfill the functions we associate with public spaces. The functions we associate with public space would be a much longer post, here I will focus on spaces where we meet people and spend time.

There is hardly any inland capital in Europe that has not created some sort of artificial urban beach during the last summers. First out, in Europe, was, quite suitably, Paris, where the mayor had a beach created along the Seine in 2002. This was done primarily for all the people who had to spend the summer in the city. It was a huge success and has been repeated every year since. Other European capitals have also created beaches of their own, Dublin, Berlin, Budapest, and there was for a short while even one on a small parking space in east London.

I believe it was Reyner Banham who referred to the beach as the last public space in LA, referring to Venice Beach and Santa Monica. To a certain extent, the same could be said for Barcelona or Rio De Janeiro. The beach is the space where we spend our spare time, not in the square. The beach is where we meet people and socialise.

What is really so fascinating about the beaches is the ease with which an urban space is re-programmed. Through pouring a few tonnes of sand on otherwise abandoned asphalt, a completely different urban space is created. An urban space with its own rules that do not apply outside the sand box. Through this simple act, a space is created that does not reduce the visitor to consumer or spectator, which most of what we call public space does these days. The set of rules and roles that we normally associate with our city do not apply any more. A new set of rules and the roles we play are clearly defined by the sand. Your primary function as a human being is no longer to consume products or experiences, but rather that of being. Beaches have been associated with leisure for the last hundred years or so, and this association seems to carry almost seamlessly into a drab urban setting.

During the one hundred years that beach culture has existed in Europe, the rules and behavior we associate with the beach is so ingrained in our collective mind that as soon as we see sand, parasols and somebody tells us it is a beach, we accept it and adapt our behavior.

This all gives me a certain hope for the future of public space. It furthermore beckons the question what other ingrained sets of rules and behaviors could be translated into working public spaces for the contemporary and future cities.

Hauptbahnhof under construction

The railway station, as a building type, has had its ups and downs over the last two centuries. From its humble beginnings in Liverpool, it evolved into the grandiose cathedrals of St Pancras, London, Grand Central Terminal, NYC or the Victoria Terminus in Bombay.

Then, at some point in the middle of the last century, they fell from grace. From being the cathedrals of modern rapid transport, the railway stations became the local epi-centre of urban vice when airports became the glamorous, nodes of travel. King’s Cross, London, and Københavns Hovedbanegård would two examples.

Lately though, as airports become ever less glamorous and environmentally abominable in the public eye, railway stations have, during the last decades, yet again become monumental cathedrals of transportation. The train station has come out of hiding and claims space in the city where it becomes the most important of transportation nodes.

Berlin has got a brand spanking new train station (Berlin Hauptbahnhof), it was opened as late as in 2006, and is currently the largest crossing station in Europe. It is located in Moabit, an area that was more or less wall adjacent during the cold war. Large parts of the area were empty when the wall came down and a lot of government buildings sprang up south of the station during the early nineties when money poured into the city.

The station itself was the last of these grand projects to be completed, long after the steam had gone out of the over-optimistic post-wall Berlin. The final cost of the construction landed somewhere around €700,000,000.

The thing that interests me with train stations is usually not the actual building, but what kind of urban environment that surrounds it, the local context, from King’s Cross’ (formerly) seedy context to Venice’s glorious embankment, the area around train stations is never really dull.

Today, the Hauptbahnhof sits in, more or less lone majesty, surrounded by parking lots, wasteland and the river. With the railway stations’ refound status, I’ve been curious regarding what will grow up around the Hauptbahnhof, until last week when the plans for the area immediately south of the station were presented in a number of local newspapers.

Basically the plan is to construct a whole batch of hotels, totaling approximately 1,200 beds, mostly orientated to a budget market, a congress centre for 3,500 people and 300 or so car parking spaces.

Well, I can understand that tourism is one of the expanding industries in Berlin, and the fact that there is a lack of centrally located congress centres as far as I can understand. But that’s basically as far as I can sympathize with this plan. To create a tourist enclave in the middle of Berlin, isolated by government offices that are empty in the evenings, train tracks and the river is just idiotic.

First of all, this area could be so much more, it needs to become integrated with Berlin, not isolated from it. The Hauptbahnhof is not an airport in the middle of nowhere, it is an extremely central part of the city. To create a tourist island here is to separate it from the rest of the city.

Secondly, any urban area needs to develop over time, instant programs of a larger scale focusing on one function usually become very dreary. Any major European city has a number of more or less failed (on an urban level) large scale single function developments, especially those developed in a haste.

Thirdly, is it even going to be attractive to tourists? The reason you go to Berlin as a tourist is for the vibrant mix of everything, it is functionally quite an integrated city. Cheap bars next expensive hotels, squats next to banks, there’s always a surprise down every street. We all know that’s not going to last, but that’s no reason to speed up the generification (is that a proper word actually?) of Berlin willfully.

I do appreciate that the incentive for this is economical and my arguments against it aren’t very economical. I do also appreciate the fact that Berlin is still a scarred city with many blanks in the urban fabric, and some people are itching to mend them. But I can’t help but feel that the city sells itself short, over and over again.

There are lots of examples, read Architecture in Berlin’s posts on Mediaspree, or Alexanderplatz. The blanks in the urban fabric, that some are so eager to fill in, are part of what gives Berlin unique charm. The undefined spaces, that with temporary modification can become anything, allow things to prosper, ideas, art, clubs and so forth that would never even be able to survive for a week elsewhere.

However, this will most likely give Berlin something else that’s unique; a dull area just outside a major railway station.

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.