A catalyst for urban processes: „The Missing Link Jacket“ a corset with hand grips for fellow passengers to hang onto in subway or on a suburban train by Eli Elysée, New York. Photo © Jonathan Riley
Revitalization at the touch of a switch
by Jochen Stöckmann
Dec 13, 2013

A local reporter recently referred to Berlin’s Alexanderplatz as an “eyesore”, because acts of violence have become a daily occurrence there. Residents hoped for relief in the form of “open-air concerts and charity events”, politicians held out for a “better quality Christmas market”. And the spokesperson of a “club commission” called for “creative hotspots” such as galleries or clubs arguing: “This would be to beneficial effect, it would enrich the entire area.”

However, these efforts at prettifying the area can at most amount to urban window-dressing by way of repair. More is certainly to be expected when Berlin’s Senate Department for Urban Development and the Environment calls for “urban intervention”, and awards a prize to what are hopefully radical approaches that tackle the root of the problem. Entries from all over Europe were invited for the “Urban Intervention Award Berlin” (first launched 2010), and Senate Building Director Regula Lüscher, who chairs the jury, has now presented the short list from 240 entries and 20 countries.

They include incredibly cute projects such as Eli Elysée’s “Missing Link Jacket” (a corset with hand grips for fellow passengers to hang onto in subway or on a suburban train), or Maciej Chmara and Anna Rosinke’s charming invention “Mobile Hospitality” (a cart with table and kitchen equipment enabling you to provide hospitality in the middle of the city). Equally indispensable for any urban strike force: the “Steel City Sound System” entered by students of the University of Art and Design Linz, and supervised by Prof. Lukas Feireiss. Ghetto blasters decorated with rustic Baroque painting are carried through the downtown area on two poles in the manner of a religious procession. The purpose: to act as an audio altar that would at the “touch of a switch” revitalize any square no matter how dull – by creating a live show and DJs. If they say so ... But it is unlikely to bother anyone else. And the advantage of temporary interventions is that should they not be welcome they can quickly move on.

Moreover, the “Urban Intervention Award” is hardly about creative quality or the aesthetics of perfect architecture. Rather the “socio-cultural aspects” are important for Senate Building Director Lüscher, in other words mixed usage concepts or the joint involvement of different persons from the worlds of politics and business and civil society. Simple wooden crates with plants and rusty metal struts serving as climbing aids could function as a catalyst for these urban processes; the “Lucas Community Garden” by Urbaniahoeve in Amsterdam does not require more “architecture” than that. And in order to revitalize non-places such as the ruins of a Berlin hostel for the homeless by imbuing it with the positive “vision” of a summer workshop, all you need is a temporary roof of old umbrellas and discarded tires as seats. The result: a pimped place where kids can meet up during school vacation.

The pavilion of the BMW Guggenheim Lab, designed by the architects at Bow-Wow (Tokyo) and Magma (Berlin) relied on much more technology in making its intervention into everyday life in Berlin in summer 2012. Jury chairperson Lüscher termed the upshot a “small communication machine”, which with its transparent metal panels was also “attractively designed” and in the midst of the argument about the gentrification of Kreuzberg can serve as a “vandal-proof ” temporary meeting place.

However, the first prize in the category “Temporary” went to a less complex project, namely the temporary Luchtsingel bridge built as part of the Rotterdam “Making City” architecture biennale in the “Test Site Rotterdam” by interdisciplinary office ZUS (Zones Urbaines Sensibles, Rotterdam). The wooden pedestrian bridge will help get a district battered by the financial crisis back on its feet. This revitalization measure was not financed by the local authorities but by crowd funding.

What might look like a declaration of bankruptcy in urban planning policy is evidence for Berlin’s Senate Building Director “that cities can be developed with private initiatives, and also with private funding. But the flip side is that people have to get involved if there’s to be bottom-up planning. And they have to realize at some point that now there are others queuing up to take over these places.”

In this wrangling over the best places in the city, small groups organized as small collaborative residential projects are jostling to lead the way. Above all, families in the upper middle classes are seeking to realize their own ideas about how to combine life and work. This will become the accepted thing, and for such efforts “Deutsche Wohnen AG” has bestowed the “Urban Living Award” for the first time. Several such groups from Berlin submitted entries: “haus h” by Nägeliarchitekten (Berlin), in which private and communal spaces merge and the reinforced steel structure “R50” with an exposed infrastructure and continuous arbors by the Institute for Applied Urbanism (IfaU, Berlin) in collaboration with design professor and artist Jesko Fezer of Hamburg’s University of the Fine Arts (HFBK).

However, more significant in terms of urban planning is how the damage wreaked by welfare housing has been remedied, as in Cologne’s estate “Buchheimer Weg”.With surgical precision, architects from ASTOC (Cologne) made incisions into the monotonous, multi-storey blocks and folded entire sections of the building inwards. This ingenious operation has produced green interstices and attractive facades.

However, that was not enough to bag the “Urban Living Award”, nor was Jean Nouvel’s unusual housing estate in Lormont, France, reminiscent of an industrial complex but with different, made-to-use layouts. Instead first prize went to the Austrian office Gaupenraub for an inconspicuously styled conversion project in Vienna: the “VinziRast” where students and homeless people live together in a building, complete with a restaurant on the ground floor. Not least of all given the 10,000 or so homeless people in Berlin the jury was swayed by the positive “socio-cultural” aspects. But this meant that unconventional solutions or aesthetically attractive architectural approaches fell by the wayside.

In other words, although it shapes the face of an entire district the large structure “Metropol Parasol” by Jürgen Mayer H. did not really stand a chance in the “Built” category, even though the umbrella-like wooden structure rising up in the historical center of Seville is explicitly referred to in the catalog as “the new landmark of Seville”.

Rather what were in demand were best practice solutions without any specific reference to a city, meaning the ideas can be readily transferred to other locations. For instance, Jakub Szczesny’s “Keret House” in Warsaw, which complete with sleeping quarters, bathroom facilities and a workplace can be squeezed into one of those typical gaps between buildings: On a plot less than one meter wide at its narrowest point it demonstrates how best to bridge the gap.

The award actually went to Daniel Dethier’s conversion of an empty multiplex cinema in Liege, Belgium. An artist also weighed in for this conversion of a gray concrete block into university lecture theaters: Jean Gilbert painted the building’s interior red. But from the outside not much remains of his efforts; the building also houses a run-of-the-mill restaurant “Le Britannique”, alongside an outlet of McDonalds. Business as usual in other words, not only in an economic sense.

Exhibition on “Urban Intervention Award”
runs thru January 29
Berlin Tempelhof Airport building / Alte Zollgarage,
Platz der Luftbrücke,
12101 Berlin
Daily from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m.

1st price in the category „Temporary“: Test Site Rotterdam, architects: Zones Urbaines Sensibles (ZUS). Photo © Ossipvan Duivenbode
1st price in the category „Built“: Conversion of a cinema in a in university lecture hall in Liège (Belgium), architect: Daniel Dethier (Dethier Architecture) in cooperation with artist Jean Gilbert. Photo © Serge Brison
Debut for „Urban Living Award“: 1st price for „VinziRast“, Vienna (Austria), architects: gaupenraub, Vienna. Photo © Sebastian Schubert
Nominated at “Temporary”: “Steel City Sound System Movement”, Linz (Austria), by Students of the space & design strategies programme at the University of Art and Design Linz, professor Lukas Feireiss. Photo © Ulrike Asamer
Nominated at “Temporary”: “Sommerwerkstatt Wiesenburg”, Berlin, by Students of TU Berlin, Prof. Donatella Fioretti. Client: Quartierfond “Soziale Stadt”. Photo © Marc Benjamin Drewes
Nominated at “Temporary”: BMW Guggenheim Lab, Berlin, architects: Atelier Bow-Wow, Tokyo, and Magma Architecture, Berlin. Photo © The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation
Nominated at “Urban Living Award“: “haus H“, Berlin, by Nägeliarchitekten, Berlin. Photo © Jan Bitter
Nominated at “Urban Living Award“: “R50“, Berlin, architects: ifau and Jesko Fezer, Berlin. Photo © Andrew Alberts
Nominated at “Urban Living Award“: housing estate in Lormont (France), architects: Habiter Autrement, Paris/ Ateliers Jean Nouvel, Paris. Photo © Philippe Ruault
Nominated at “Urban Living Award“: Siedlung Buchheimer Weg, Cologne, architects: ASTOC Architects and Planners, Cologne. Photo © Frank Warda
Nominated at “Built“: “Keret House”, Warsaw (Poland), architect: Jakub Szczesny, Warsaw. Photo © Bartek Warzecha
Nominated at “Built“: Metropol Parasol, Seville (Spain), Architects: J. Mayer H. Architekten, Berlin. Photo © Fernando Alda
1 meter complete with sleeping quarters, bathroom facilities and a workplace: “Keret House”. Photo © Bartek Warzecha
Finally, 1st price in “Built“ once again: Lecture Halls for the Université de Liège, Liège (Belgium). Photo © Serge Brison