Tag Archives: Semi-private space

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.


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.