Course Close-up: “Urban Landscape: Public and Open Space in Berlin”

Course Close-up: “Urban Landscape: Public and Open Space in Berlin”

By Mareike Hanna Lee, Adjunct Professor, Visual Culture

Coming to Berlin a decade ago, we had the feeling of carving out our own way of living. For a while there, after the Wall came down, rents were really cheap. We would find, trade, and share things. Maybe even live in cold-water flats with wood and coal burning ovens. Biking around, we saw a city of construction cranes. Undeveloped space was rampant. You could make your own studio space, invent your own home/concert space/gallery/bar—and do it seemingly with next to no money. To experience Berlin then was to experience a kind of anarchic utopia charged with a sense that anything is possible. This way of life is rapidly and radically disappearing. But that underlying punky, do-it-yourself culture cuts to the heart of Berlin even today.

What made this space possible was a moment of transformation. As transformation continues, it raises the question: What kind of urban landscape do we actually want to have around us these days as the city is gentrifying? As everything becomes increasingly monetized, how can we cope with city space to address everyday life, art, hopes, and dreams? In the search for architectural strategies for rapidly changing environments, how can the provisional solutions found by chance circumstances be creatively reinvented? As the city attracts a flood of new migrants from around the world, and considering what is already in place, how do we imagine shaping the future?

To confront these kinds of questions, we do not only want to look at “masterful” architectures, but also at how personal, intimate, and lived spaces may be found and shaped from the ground up in the last remnants of “no man’s land.” Berlin is a city of resistance and of spaces in between – exploring urban planning at a grass roots level.

In the tradition of occupied buildings, things that grew in the space between East and West, CityLAB: Berlin’s Architecture Seminar in Process projects throw students in confrontation with the trailer-park colonies of old Bethanien, the brutalist architecture in the bustling Zentrum Kreuzberg complex around Kottbusser Tor, the paradoxical abandoned fields between former Communist housing high-rises on the edge of the old island West Berlin, or new housing compounds built from container units.

For the seminar, I led a project, “Urban Landscape: Public and Open Space in Berlin.” Beginning in spring 2014-2015, we explored one of the last remaining former death strips, where the Wall once stood between East and West. This area is located right on the cusp of glamorous, new “Mitte” and the old, rough Kreuzberg, which is losing much of its old rough edge and is on the verge of being washed away in a shiny aura of softening.

We spent the semester investigating the “park,” which is basically an abandoned urban tundra. Each architecture student had the opportunity to develop a project that engaged and responded directly to the site. Exploring a side of Berlin that is being squeezed out with the increasing pressure of gentrification, the course engaged with a kind of self-invented architecture, a moment of shifting spaces, and creating an ode to living in moments of in-between, self-carved areas. Students invented and realized their own projects. These included Keith Stipe’s Maison Trouvé, a rebuilding the home of an evicted junky using objects found on-site. Müll Miranda Otto’s Archiv created a humorous and poignant archive of detritus found on site. Rachel Opare-Sem’s Interlace Space reinterpreted a long-standing history of the principle of shared goods in a woven bartering canopy. Sheridan Steiner’s Memory Tree featured a tree laden with personal photos and texts that created a memory space bridging one’s own previous influences and the experience of being abroad and far away from home, while alluding to the infinite matrix that is still possible in Berlin.

All projects were presented to the public during a one-day exhibition. The students were confronted with the challenge of working mostly with found, used, and improvised materials, rather than high-tech ready made objects, to create invented poetic reflections of living space in free-form.

Currently, students are creating hand-made books reflecting the human experience of a specific area in the German capitol. Students also created books particular to their interventions’ qualities to document their on-site projects, such as Formbar Erneuerung by Timothy Bain, and Pipe Dreams by Kyle Niehaus.

The urban tundra we have been fortunate to claim for our use since 2015 has just been sold for $29 million Euros for commercial development.

This course is open to all interested students seeking a creative exploration of what it means to define and shape a personal space within the urban environment. The semester projects and their forms vary from semester to semester depending on the class, from on-site installations to drawing, book-works, printmaking, video, and impromptu sculpture.