"Urban Drift in Berlin" / Claudia Gliemann

archis nr. 6, 2001, pp. 82 - 87

‘Our computers are part of networks. But what about our thoughts?` read the heading above the programme of BerlinBeta Version 2001. The event, with a programme comprising workshops, ‘club events` and a film festival, was devoted to the connections between new (digital) media and design, economy and architecture. In addition to the exchange of ideas and the latest technologies within and beyond the boundaries of the disciplines involved, the organizers were above all seeking to promote Berlin as an international media city.

One of the workshops, entitled ‘Urban Drift`, was about architecture and the digital media. Cedric Price (Cedric Price Architects, London) opened the workshop with the image of a labyrinth. Nothing new really, apart from a snail crawling into the picture. Price explained that the snail does not conform to the familiar concept of architecture. It does not approach the labyrinth on the basis of the generally accepted notion that only one path leads into the middle of the maze and out again. And that the aim is to find it, wandering blithely about or panic-stricken, according to the circumstances. The snail, however, does not have to concern itself with this principle. It crawls vertically up the walls and down, and thus this slow creature soon finds its way to the final goal. What does this picture seek to make clear? That without information and communication architecture can function in a way which is not immediately obvious, but which is nevertheless characteristic of it? Or is it about the interpretation of a concept or principle and the use that derives from it? The participants in the workshop are working on projects which they show in one or other variant.

If the snail were not only to leave a slimy trail, but while crawling along also transformed the maze, then the result could be compared to the work of Mark Goulthorpe (dECOi Architects, Paris). In collaboration with computer programmers, Goulthorpe develops architecture which reacts to passers-by or sounds. This is not a screen affixed to a facade on to which changing images and colours are projected. What changes is the form itself; the physical wall assumes different shapes. A computer-controlled system makes this possible. Up until now, moving forms were used only in and for the design phase. Whereas previously moving forms could exist only within the virtual world, and rigidified as soon as they entered the real world, now, with the aid of digital media, material is set in motion. In Mark Goulthorpe`s case the material is metal which, arranged in patterns, reacts interactively to the opposite side, whether musical/rhythmic or physical/human.

Together with Rem Koolhaas (OMA), Reed Kram (Kramdesign, Denmark) designed interiors for the Prada shops in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco, in which virtual and real fashion intermingle. Kram was inspired by the connection between technology and elegance in Stanley Kubrik`s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. And so he created spaces where monitors showing the latest fashion shows are suspended between the racks of expensive, elegant clothing and where there are changing rooms in which customers can view themselves in a garment from the front and behind without having to turn round. The technology of the digital media is used here in order to enhance the physical space with comfort, information and aesthetics.

In his project Living 2020, Reed Kram put his ideas to the test and sought to combine the virtual and the real in everyday life. In a simple cube measuring 3 by 3 by 3 metres, all manner of things such as the interior, but also the daily newspaper, were projected. Only the bed and the table are tangible. This offers many advantages. The newspaper can easily be replaced by other reading matter without producing refuse. The interior can be quickly and cheaply exchanged for a new one. Only it`s a shame one cannot relax in the virtual chairs. Instead of combining the virtual world and the real world, Claire Pétetin (Grégoire & Pétetin, Paris) treats the two domains as parallel worlds. She works with real places. In her project Second Time Zone Territories, Pétetin placed a model of a neighbourhood in Paris, with 1960s buildings and many social problems, on the Internet, after which she encouraged residents to work on this virtual neighbourhood. The project was supported by the city and the scheme appears to be working. After the residents had become familiar with the digital medium, which had been totally new to many of them, they exchanged problems and ideas and submitted proposals for the improvement of the quality of the living environment. Anyone who felt involved could have a say in what needed changing and what should be retained. The aim is that, after the wishes and preferences have become clear, the altered virtual spaces will be transferred to the actual location. The project, which is still running, could also be of benefit, both architecturally and socially, to a city like Berlin, with its deprived areas in the eastern and western parts of the city.

Matthew Griffin and Britta Jürgens (Deadline Architects, Berlin) also work with actual sites, albeit in a very different way. With the aid of digital media, they access physical places, that is to say, actual locations in the city, which are available for temporary use. For their project Urban-OS, they designed a website ( showing vacant sites in various European cities. Why? Because they believe in the potential of unoccupied spaces and in the creativity spaces need in order to develop. One of their first projects was a site in the centre of Berlin to which anyone who wanted to show something could go. The site was intensively used until they had to leave it to make way for a new, permanent user. In a city like Berlin, where everything is changing so rapidly, this means: be flexible and search for new sites.

Clubs in Berlin, such as the WMF Club, are, by and large, rarely a permanent fixture. Relocation is a typical feature of this city. For example, in the present WMF Club is a bar which used to stand in the bowling hall of the Palast der Republik. A second bar, from the great hall, is constantly travelling. The Berlin-based sculptor Fred Rubin is responsible for this. In the workshop he told the story of the palace bars. There was no underlying concept. He acquired the bars by chance. First the one from the great hall. He decided to enlarge the bar and to divide it into sections so that he could send it travelling. The the bar could now fulfil its function anywhere in the world. Disengaged from its original location, the bar could be relocated repeatedly. The other bar, the one from the bowling hall, had to stay in Berlin. And perhaps they`ll meet up again one day in the city of their birth, under one roof. The relocation of the bars is, however, not only a specific spatial act, but also a political act. Objects from the Palast der Republik, that were once the property of the DDR and an expression of a now defunct politics and culture, come by chance into the private possession of an artist, who recognizes their value and transforms them. Fred Rubin calls this process Rotations Recycling.

Digital media play no role in the latter project. Architecture can be viewed with the aid of various media, but it can also function as a medium itself. In the above example, an architectural object switches medium, only in this case it is not a digital medium, but the medium of art. The object moves to a different medium in a different culture.

Another specifically Berlin project is that by Urs Füssler (architect, Berlin) and Andreas Schneider (musician and organizer, Berlin). For eighteen months, they belonged to the large group of tenants of Haus des Lehrers on Alexanderplatz. This first block of flats to be built in the DDR, by Hermann Henselmann, with a frieze by Womacka, was designed in the style of Social Realism. After having been vacant for some considerable time, it was leased to a large number of mostly new, smallish companies. A motley collection of artists, designers, architects and musicians used to meet each other on the staircases and in the wide corridors, where they drank coffee together. And not infrequently, joint ventures resulted from these contacts. Projects, inspired by this location and the surrounding area were presented to a wide public as an ‘event`, in a ‘lounge` and as a mix between gallery, club and business. The building has now been sold and the companies have gone. They have moved to the nearby Haus des Reisens or to the Neue Deutschland near Ostbahnhof. Haus des Lehrers is to be renovated. The staircases, corridors and interiors will be demolished. Perhaps Fred Rubin can salvage and relocate something. Haus des Lehrers was a good example of the way in which a location and the structure of that location can ensure that different groups and media meet each other, start to form networks and collaborate. Now, commercial interests are destroying these connections and life inside the house has been lost together with the architecture. Luckily, Haus des Lehrers will be spared the fate of total demolition suffered by, for example, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ahornblatt and the Palasthotel (all former DDR buildings). The street facade is to be retained. Too little, but better than nothing.

Looking at one medium via another medium assumed complex forms in Haus des Lehrers. Another example in Berlin, which was not discussed in the workshop, is the exhibition of work by Ann Veronica Janssens in the Neue Nationalgalerie. Here, via the medium of art, this building by Mies van der Rohe was presented in a new way. In contrast to what is customary, the focus of attention is not the exhibited art but rather the space itself. The space here is steel and glass and marble, large and straight as an arrow, bathed in an abundance of light, as one would expect in a modern building. What is there still to be discovered, to reorchestrate?

Ann Veronica Janssens calls her artwork Light Games. In the space, she has positioned bicycles and mirrors for visitors. Apart from that, there is only emptiness in the space, which is uninterrupted by dividing walls or partitions. Pure architecture. As a result, visitors can experience the entire space and allow it to impact on them. An unusual overture between art and architecture, in which the art does not seek to look like architecture, but is the focal point nevertheless. Here, art is the medium by which the architecture is viewed.

The Neue Nationalgalerie is considered one of the high points of modernism. But is there anything new or different to be discovered in this space, which visitors are perhaps familiar with from many previous exhibitions? Firstly, attention is focused entirely on the space itself. Here, the space is no longer a casing for art, rather it has to be looked at. The viewer can thus experience its size, concentrate on the way in which inside and outside merge, on the light reflections of the large windows which visually delineate the environment within, how in this way inside and outside interact. An impression which is reinforced by the moveable mirrors positioned in the space, in which everything is fragmented and in which visitors see themselves among the other visitors. The bicycles introduce accelerated movement into the space, and because the wheels have an extra layer of metal, movement and reflection are reinforced. The viewer here is an active formgiver of the space, not merely a passive visitor. The rationality of the Neue Nationalgalerie, but also the sophisticated grid, the proportions and the surveyability are enhanced by other aspects the space has to offer, which are concealed within it and which the visitor can perceive, as an emotive game of complex interactions between inside and outside and between physical and visual characteristics.

Still full of all the fragmented images and the fragmented light, visitors can view another work by Janssens on the terrace of the Neue Nationalgalerie. Entitled Red, Yellow and Blue, on the outside it is a simple cube, on the inside a space without boundaries. In sharp contrast to the impressions just gained in the Neue Nationalgalerie, here visitors find themselves in a space full of mist, which is red, yellow and blue by turns. A highly intense experience, because they know that they are inside a space, without, however, being able to see it. In a physical sense, the boundaries of the space do still exist, but they can no longer be perceived. Here, art ignores architecture. One medium causes the other to disappear. Just as virtual digital projections often cause us to forget the walls behind. What is interesting about the work of Anne Veronica Janssens is the way in which she allows art and architecture to interact. She pushes architecture to the fore with the aid of art, by directing the eye and attention to the architecture, in order subsequently to negate architecture via art.

Claudia Gliemann is an architect based in Berlin.