15 May 2009

Praising heterogeneity of goals

“... The architect today has to constantly prove that things can and should be done differently, by different people, with different goals.”

Vanstiphout and Provoost, Facts on the Ground: From Dutch to Ditch Urbanism

Here follows a rather inorganic piece, mainly a walk through Berlin concentrated in the new political-administrative area of the Spreebogen, followed by a short trip to the quarter of Kreuzberg, during the last 1st of May-worker-celebrations. I tried to focus on specific themes, most of all symbolism, the architectural notion of transparency and on what I would call and explain better later recreational urbanism. I chose this two places since the represent to me some crucial urban battlefields in Berlin and I see one as a great urban value achieved thanks to time and population’s vitality (Kreuzberg), the other as potential that could be displayed in a brand-new and highly representative city quarter (Spreebogen).

Image via Wikipedia. By Lienhard Schulz

In the area of the Spreebogen (arch of the Spree, the main river of the city), in northern Berlin, we can find today the administrative complex called “Das Band des Bundes”, a 900 meters-long structure, composed of three main buildings, the Bundeskanzleramt, the Paul-Löbe Haus and the Marie-Elisabeth Lüders Haus, crossing the Spree two times on the east-west axis: the idea of the project was established in 1992 by the architects Axel Schultes and Charlotte Frank, later with the collaboration of the architect Stephan Braunfels. Construction began in 1997 and finished in 2003. Close to the area are the Reichstag (house of the Parliament) and the Hauptbahnhof (central station), both highly representative project deeply connected with the Spreebogen. After the fall of the Wall a huge architectural complex was needed first to provide essential services to the Parliament, and secondly to try to regenerate or recreate a new symbolic effect connected with german recent political history and its capital city.

The intention to build along the E-W axis comes basically from a couple of reasons: to react against Albert Speer’s nazi project of a grand North-South axis, and also because the Wall dividing East and West Berlin run exactly through the Spreebogen. Thus the symbolic choice of “reunification”. From Wikipedia:

"Hitler ordered Speer to make plans to rebuild Berlin. The plans centered around a three-mile long grand boulevard running from north to south, which Speer called the Prachtstrasse, or Street of Magnificence; he also referred to it as the "North-South Axis". At the north end of the boulevard, Speer planned to build the Volkshalle, a huge assembly hall with a dome which would have been over 700 feet (210 m) high, with floor space for 180,000 people. At the southern end of the avenue would be a huge triumphal arch; it would be almost 400 feet (120 m) high, and able to fit the Arc De Triomphe inside its opening. The outbreak of World War II in 1939 led to the postponement, and eventual abandonment, of these plans. Part of the land for the boulevard was to be obtained by consolidating Berlin's railway system. Speer hired Wolters as part of his design team, with special responsibility for the Prachtstrasse. When Speer's father saw the model for the new Berlin, he said to his son, "You've all gone completely insane."

Image via Wikipedia. By BArchBot

Hauptbahnhof today rests alone right in front of the Spreebogen: the project was drawn by the Hamburg’s firm GMP, and the main concept, stated quite clearly, is that of transparency: apart from the technical issues, the station holds a strong symbolic meaning, since it proposes itself as the main railway hub of the city and is collocated in such a decisive position. Anyhow now all the area around still needs to be developed and constructed, and Hauptbahnhof seems a bit afraid of being alone, especially at night, when she needs to turn on all the lights she has, an apotropaic action, giving the impression of a little girl in the wood. When one is inside the station it is possible to see as far as Potsdamer Platz, and obviously also the Reischtag and the Band des Bundes.
Here we face for the first time a concept that permeates all the surrounding political and administrative buildings: why transparency is so crucial? I will try to give some simple reasons. I would go back first of all to Haussmann’s 19th century parisian boulevards: it is renown that the Baron’s urbanism moved toward a safer, more hygienic, controllable “modern” city. Traffic-flow and shopping facilities together with housing concerns were taken into account in planning; last but not least, large boulevards were necessary to prevent rebels and rioters to build barricades in the streets, blocking the police: was therefor easier to reach different parts of the city from the centre and immediately stop riots. Transparency as a way to strip everybody naked, easily recognizable, identifiable and after all harmless. A kind of extended panopticon, where the guard can see everything and everybody, and it is impossible to hide. I would call also this, with a big degree of simplification, homogeneity of goals, when there is no space (intended as opportunity, possibility, situation) to differ from the specific use and intention of a determined place. (A shopping-mall for instance is such an example since the main goal by far is selling as much as possible and gaining as much money as possible). The opposite is obviously a heterogeneity of goals, in which is possible to have at the same time and the same place many different activities, aiming at different, often unpredictable and informal results. Mixture in the same spatio-temporality. Exactly because of this reason the Situationists harshly criticized Haussmann, targeting his urbanism as repressive, a state and capitalist science.

Now have a look at this: Salome, the idealized female dangerousness through erotic power takes form in the shape of some white containers and tent-like structures overlooked by a bunch of “arabic” golden domes. It is really a circus lying under a branch of the Hauptbahnhof, on a sandy Spree’s shore; I see it a kind of heroic trial to inject some heterogeneity of goals, demonstrating and showing a possible way to a different urbanism, putting together a very representative with a rather informal and nomadic architecture. I would here call helping me Constant and in general the Situationists, who, in my opinion, reached the most interesting results in term of urban thinking in the last century.

I quote Tom McDonough in Metastructure: Experimental Utopia And Traumatic Memory In Constant’s New Babylon:

“...Constant’s work on New Babylon was already presaged by an earlier project, which set in place the terms of the particular relation to nomadism articulated in the later work. It was in Alba, in the Italian Pedemont, that he visited the artist Pinot Gallizio, who had welcomed onto his lands Romany people who had been driven off the surrounding countryside; for them, Constant invented the Project for a Gypsy Camp (1956-58). [...] His Gypsy Camp was no simple provision of emergency shelter, nor was it a means to fix this mobile population to a definite point. [...] It was a punctual refusal of the underlying assumptions of this regime of postwar rebuilding: at the very moment where bureaucratic planners were concerned with a housing crisis, Constant would insist that the stakes lay elsewhere. [...] (It) did not propose a “housing” solution, but a means of simultaneously fulfilling and superseding the function of dwelling."

I find really extra-ordinary this kind of “happening” or better, situation, combining two elements which are so distant, in terms of durability, scale, value etc. We are at least surprised, creating free space for a poetic of the détournement. To me a symptom of healthiness. Even a “lido”, full of people informally sunbathing, drinking beer and resting, just on the Spree shores, in-between the Hauptbahnof and the Band des Bundes goes in my opinion in such a direction: one starts to see that people is gaining some interest in these places, for the moment still too much orphans of use, activities. Neither to say that time plays the protagonist in such a process.

But let us go towards the buildings I introduced earlier: in the Spreebogen the concept of transparency seems reversed at the first sight; one could think that all this glass, as effectively does, reveals what is happening inside, suggesting the idea (in some degree naive) that people can control politics and what politicians do, as in a democracy should be. I cannot say that this is not true, but it is also interesting to see which kind of implications a design like this one generates on the outer space: since the area is so vast, since the space is so huge, since there are not real streets, police can come and act quickly, helicopters can land with ease, every riot-attempt is automatically neutralized. Where to begin a possible revolt? Some anchor point is obviously lacking... A vast, flat space is automatically transparent. If we add the constant and spread illumination, security devices etc. we see that our heterogeneity of goals is more and more reduced, since one cannot for instance lay relaxed on the grass with his girlfriend, or eat a kebab, since there is no place to find one around. I am not anyhow just because of that implying that the esplanade in front of the Reichstag has to be an informal place, but even the original project for the Band des Bundes proposed, between the Paul-Löbe Haus and the Bundeskanzleramt a public “forum” with facilities for the people, supposed to give architectural expression to the demos, but for many reasons this idea has been abandoned.
Now let’s go in detail with some (rather curious) examples. The Swiss Embassy is the only historical building here around: in fact the general impression that one has is that of closure, no extra glass, no spectacular architectonical solutions... Also the new construction attached later speaks in the same language.

The Paul-Löbe Haus, a massive glass facade which seems strangely only penetrable with the eyes (but note the reflection of the Swiss Embassy at the bottom of the picture!). Along its sides there are many courtyards in series, which are at level -1, so that one can see them from a balustrade, but are inaccessible from the outside.

We all now the glass dome of the Reichstag by Norman Foster: I don’t know why but the huge “park” in front of the building is closed with a metal fence... Interesting at least: from the Parliament are departing some underground corridors connecting to surrounding buildings, just like this one we can see from above (the glass strip on the pavement).

Marie-Elisabeth Lüders Haus: the bridge above is for the employees, politicians etc. The one below for all the rest.

To summarize, here are some intuitions on a kind of adolescent place, very delicate since it involves issues like visibility/invisibility, transparency, symbolism: will it be possible, necessary, useless, to inject some “deviations” in what is supposed to be homogeneous and non-contradictory? In the following part I will put on the table some loose thoughts, mainly about the quarter of Kreuzberg and on what I will call recreational urbanism.

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