Tag Archives: Berlin

NUMMI and Japanese management

This is about two things very dear to me: Asia and industrial production. (I imagine nobody who reads Guerrilla Semiotics knew how much I am into industry until this moment, so I welcome you into the know. Just the other day I regretfully thought about how, among all the low-paid jobs I’ve ever had, I have missed out on working on the factory floor. One day I will write a long post about how industrial production is incredibly important, but I don’t think that day is today.)

Europe is very many beautiful things, but it tends towards arrogance and chauvinism – especially towards Asia, perhaps because Asia is the immediate threat, the rising competition. In my past 12 months in Germany, I have seen more incidents of open, upfront, unembarrassed racism than I have seen in 6 years in Australia (although, to be precise, it came largely from French and Italian people, not from Germans; the two times I had to break some of that residual sense of propriety we have towards haters and say ‘You are a racist’, the person saying ‘No, I’m not!’ to my ‘Yes, you are a racist’ was in both situations French).

One of the most common ways in which Europeans flatter themselves is by claiming that Asia / Asians may be doing well economically, but they have no tradition of democracy, critical thinking, and the respect for the individual. In particular, democracy gets a lot of talk-time, because Asians are considered to be prone to group-think and totalitarianism, and the example given tends to be Mao Zedong. Racism towards Asian people is rife throughout the white people’s world, and I have seen it in Australia (very often people claiming to be ‘afraid of China’s rise’ or some such thing), and I’ve seen it among educated people who hold dearly values of openness and tolerance (which is to say, it is important to them to feel that they’re open-minded and tolerant), but in Europe I was quite astounded at how readily this thesis of there is no respect for the individual in Asia was bandied about by people who knew nothing about Asia.

So, anyway: NUMMI. I’ve discovered the story of NUMMI on This American Life, and I recommend it to anyone who likes to learn new things about the world. NUMMI was one of the worst-performing car manufacturing plants within General Motors, plagued by low performance, open hostility between management and the workers, and very poor work discipline among the workers (something like 1/5 of the workers were absent at any time). It closed and then re-opened, keeping the same workers, as a part of a deal between GM and Toyota, in the 1970s. As a part of the deal, NUMMI would produce cars for Toyota, but had to learn to operate under the management rules of Toyota, which are as representative of the Japanese work culture as General Motors is representative of the American management practices.

You can listen to the entire radio program here, as well as read the transcript, but here are a few highlights outlining what happened. For training, NUMMI workers were flown to Japan, where they spent 3 months learning how to operate on a Japanese factory floor.

The key to the Toyota production system was a principle so basic it sounds like an empty management slogan– teamwork. Back home in Fremont, GM supervisors ordered around large groups of workers. The Takaoka plant, people were divided into teams of just four or five– switch jobs every few hours to relieve the monotony. And a team leader would step in to help whenever anything went wrong.

Continue reading “NUMMI and Japanese management” »

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Spatial poetics: Berlin spricht… für sich

via BERLIN SPRICHT FÜR SICH on Vimeo.

I don’t think you need to know German to enjoy this video.

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Berlin-Kreuzberg, 1979 on Vimeo

Schlesisches Tor und Umgebung
Das Bildmaterial ist der Dokumentation “Spreeufer Süd-Ost” aus der Reihe “Berlinische Berichte” von Ingeborg Euler entnommen.
Musik: Brian Eno – “Dunwich Beach, Autumn 1960” aus “Ambient 4 – On Land”
Montage: Falko Brocksieper

I have never been able to quite wrap my head around the appeal of the Berlin Divided, Berlin during the Cold War, Berlin with the wall cutting through. You see the camera in this film circling around Schesischen Tor, but always unable to get from it to my house, because my house is on the other side of the wall. I cross this path almost every day, and the film fills me with sadness.

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City-making: Prinzessinnengärten


(in English)


(in German, but with more detail and better music)

On 24th of August 2012, Prinzessinnengärten (Princess Gardens) sent out a petition, thus worded:

Petition
“Establish A Sustainable Future For The Prinzessinnengarten”

To: The Berlin Senate

—————-

The future of the Prinzessinnengarten is uncertain. The Property Fund plans to sell the city-owned plot at Moritzplatz. The Property Fund has been commissioned to sell the plot on behalf of the Berlin Senate. This could mean the imminent end of the garden.

Open spaces offer opportunities for social engagement and new forms of urban life. They are part of the creative, beautiful and wild Berlin that is so fervently espoused by politicians. Moritzplatz exemplifies the threat to such spaces, but also the opportunities that arise from them. It could become a model for forward-looking property policies that takes into account the value of places such as the Prinzessinnengarten and that include citizens on an equal footing and from an early stage.
In order to establish a sustainable future for the Prinzessinnengarten and to appropriately involve the neighborhood around Moritzplatz in the development of their living environment, we demand the following:

– the extension of the Prinzessinnengarten lease for 5 years.

– forward-looking civic participation that appropriately takes into account the diversity and different needs of residents.

– secure planning prospects for urban garden projects and other forms of social participation that do justice to the value – also recognized by the Senate – that such places and projects have for the city. (…)

The campaign to secure the future of the garden ended on 18th of December 2012, when the group released the following press release:

Press statement of Prinzessinnengarten, released December 18th

Dear press representatives,

In the last few months, we started a campaign (“Let it grow!”) to secure a future for Prinzessinnengarten. We are more than happy to inform you that this campaign was successful. Last Friday the ground was laid for the “beautiful and wild” urban green of Prinzessinengarten to thrive in the coming years.

WIDE SUPPORT FOR THE PETITION OF PRINZESSINNENGARTEN: MORE THAN 30,000 SIGNATURES COLLECTED
On hearing the news that closure threatened Prinzessinnengarten, many people spontaneously offered us their support. More than 30.000 people signed our petition regarding the future of the garden. It is the broad support for the cause of the garden that made the difference.

A STEP TOWARDS A SUSTAINABLE POLICY IN THE MANAGEMENT OF PUBLIC PROPERTY IN BERLIN
On the 14th of December, the board of the Berlin Property Fund agreed to the request of the Borough Kreuzberg-Friedrichshain: to return the land properties located at Moritzplatz and at the former site of Maria on the Spree to the Borough. A new perspective for the future of Prinzessinnengarten and Yaam opens up. According to Mr. Schulz, Mayor of the Borough, these two projects are crucial to Berlin. He considers Prinzessinnengarten as a free space laboratory for a sustainable development of the city. The decision in favor of Yaam and Prinzessinnengarten also indicates a step forward in a sustainable real estate policy, in which social, cultural and ecological criterions are taken into serious consideration; it is a strong signal in the appreciation of free-spaces in this city.

A SUCCESS, WHICH ONLY A FEW BELIEVED IN, AND THAT WAS ONLY MADE POSSIBLE COLLECTIVELY
We thank all the people, partners and initiatives, who supported us and engaged in our campaign “Wachsen Lassen!”(“Let it grow!”) for the future of Prinzessinnengarten in the last few months.

CROWD FUNDING FOR PRINZESSINNENGARTEN
To support Prinzessinnengarten we also started a crowd funding action (www.startnext.de/prinzessinnengarten)

STATEMENTS
Robert Shaw:
“The garden has now a future. It is a milestone for us, and hopefully, it will also point at a change of direction in the policy of the Berlin Property Fund”

Marco Clausen:
“Moritzplatz is an enchanted place, where another fairy tale came true. First of all, a garden grew out of a wasted land. And now, with the help of many, many people, a future is made possible for this urban garden. This could be exemplary for a sustainable management of public property in our city.”

CONTACT
Marco Clausen: mc@prinzessinnengarten.net / mobil: 0049(0)179.7313995
Robert Shaw: rs@prinzessinnengarten.net / mobil: 0049(0)176.24332297
Mail: kontakt@prinzessinnengarten.net
Web: www.prinzessinnengarten.net

I originally wanted to show these videos to my (largely non-German) readers as an example of spatial poetics, a way of conceptualising urban space that I thought was very representative of both the 2010s, and of Berlin in this period. Prinzessinnengärten is hipster urbanism, Berlin-style. It’s a fun-oriented, green-oriented, socially oriented project run commercially: we could roughly put it in the ‘social enterprise’ basket and not be wrong. (What makes it hipster? Oh dear. Everything that it isn’t: it’s a one-off project, not part of an infrastructure network; it’s not voluntary but run for money; in fact, to be precise, it’s run for glory, as an architectural project, with its own website, a company behind, it’s meant to increase someone’s public profile; it’s trading on Cool, not on Lame; it speaks to the values of the urban middle class, particularly its familied members in mid-thirties, rather than trying to be a service to the poor; and, finally, it is a neat little package of beauty and utility in balance, not a mere cash cow.)

But then they won, and I surprised myself by how happy that made me. Moritzplatz is a short walk from my house, and Prinzessinnengärten is doing a fine job gentrifying a corner of my Kiez, my neighbourhood – but, the more time I spent writing the paper I’m currently writing, on Zwischennutzungen / interim uses in Berlin, the more I realised that the story is more complicated. First, while aesthetically and functionally this really is hipster urbanism, it has an infinitely more positive function in Berlin than it would, on the surface, in another place. BECAUSE of the circumstances of its existence.

Prinzessinnengärten is a Zwischennutzung / interim use. What is a Zwischennutzung (ZN)? In the German planning law, it is defined as a ‘use which takes place while the OFFICIAL land use cannot be actualised, because of the unfavourable market conditions’. Because it’s not meant to be permanent, planning regulations for the ZN are relaxed. A land owner will often accept, or even promote, a ZN because it gives them a (usually small) rental income on an empty property, because it raises the profile of the land by bringing people there, because it gives them a user to take care of the property and keep its condition habitable, and because it saves them costs on security. It is expected that a ZN will only result in small and reversible renovations. ZN might be a shop, a cafe, a garden, an art or music event, a cinema, a sports’ park, a kindergarten, a beach… anything. The council often mediates between the user and the owner to facilitate ZNs, because they are good for the neighbourhood. And users are attracted to starting up ZNs, because they offer an opportunity to experiment with business ideas at very low upfront costs (because of the lack of regulations, permits required, etc).

Interim uses have spread around the world, but I’m pretty sure they were invented in Berlin – at least the popular form that is now touted as potentially revolutionising cities and helping renew neighbourhoods (Renew Newcastle & Renew Australia, The Gap Filler, and similar). What got lost in translation between Berlin and the world has been the seriousness, the creativity, the sense of agency and political rights that Berliners brought to ZNs, and the social consciousness with which they’ve acted. In Melbourne, a pop-up use is a cafe serving single-origin espressos for 3-4 weeks during which it’s the hot thing in town. In Berlin, a typical interim use might be a youth club organising a kindergarten, providing family services and a weekend flea market, organising workshops for kids at risk and a parkour park, and concerts in the evening, and it might have been in the same place for 18 years (the thing I’ve just described almost corresponds to YAAM, a project which also almost closed, and then didn’t, together with Prinzessinnengärten).

Prinzessinnengärten and YAAM were in danger: YAAM was served notice by its private landlord, after 18 years of at-best 6-month lease contracts. Prinzessinnengärten was leasing public land which was scheduled to be sold off this winter. Berlin’s vacant public land is managed by Liegenschaftsfonds (Berlin Propery Fund), which is required, by Berlin laws to sell to the highest bidder. After all, the two uses were interim from the start, nothing exceptional was going on. They both led campaigns to prove what good urban infrastructure they, good social, environmental, etc, services. But so have many such places, which have closed throughout the years: famously, Bar25. And yet, a full reversal of normal procedure happened: the borough (Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg) stood behind the two, and asked jurisdiction over two parcels (the one that Prinzessinnengärten stands on, and a substitute parcel for YAAM). And the board of Liegenschaftsfonds ceded the ownership of two parcels of public land back to the borough.

There have long been attempts, through city-wide protests on development proposals, to change the laws, so that Liegenschaftsfonds has to evaluate projects not only on how much they offer financially, but also on their environmental and social merit. There is a lot of hope, around the city, that what happened to Prinzessinnengärten and YAAM represents a sign of long-term change in how things are done.

Berlin’s official portal commented For years there have been protests in Berlin against a real estate management which gives the power to wealthy developers. The fact that the borough sought out a solution for both projects, with the support of the Berlin Senate, could be seen as a sign of a change of direction.

Berliner Zeitung: Finally, even the Senate has recognised that not every parcel needs to be squandered on investors. That sometimes it’s better to renounce sale proceeds, and instead do something for the image of the city as a creative metropolis, and for the happiness of its citizens.

This story is why I love Berlin. This combination of citizen creativity and agency, and a relatively cooperative government (although not as much as it could be, not at all: Berlin protests every day), is very special. When we talk about ‘participation in urban planning’, we rarely actually talk about participation: mostly it’s forms of persuasion and manipulation, very rarely even a two-way dialogue, and even more rarely does someone without millions of homey get a permission to shape the city. But in Berlin, people take that opportunity freely, or they fight for it.

I am going to start a category called ‘city-making’, to introduce some more examples. I think calling it anything else is calling it too small.

The ultimate conclusion I want to make here is that this kind of project, like Prinzessinnengärten, is genuine creative transformation of a living city. It is creative (it shapes), but the product is not an image, a text, a film, or a theatre production: the product is living neighbourhood. This is public art, but only at that highest Situationist point at which art becomes as useful as life. This kind of project is sculpting reality.

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NYE fireworks in Berlin

Two small incidents marked the beginning and the end of 2012.

My first weekend in Berlin, we went to a club which, like many clubs here, had a prominent NO PHOTOGRAPHY sign displayed. I was quite confused and disoriented there, iPhone in hand. What else to do on a night out, if not take photos of ourselves all together? And then, as I put the phone back into my bag, it slowly occurred to me: I suppose I’ll just have to be present and do stuff, participate, like the other people in this club, instead of taking photos of them doin’, and of myself among them.

My last weekend in Berlin, at NYE, we stood on the street for perhaps 40 minutes, firing rockets into the sky, screaming, sharing what explosives we had with whoever was around, all arush with adrenaline. And I thought, exhilarated: “WE DON’T WATCH NO FIREWORKS! IN THIS CITY WE MAKE OUR OWN FIREWORKS!”

Our German friends said this was normal, not even particular to Berlin. I was mesmerised: I am used to firecrackers, they’re common in Croatia for NYE, but I’ve never seen heavy-duty fireworks purchaseable, rocket by rocket, in a corner store, the way they are here. The ongoing paradox of Germany is how crazy things happen in this supposedly orderly country, crazy things by standards of both ‘civilised’ and ‘barbaric’ countries I know, and yet nobody seems to ever get hurt.

This has been Berlin’s one great gift to me: moving me from a position of watching life into a position of doing life. In a myriad different ways. In this city, people make their own street parties when and how they want, organise their own festivals (from Love Parade to May Day riots), invent their own folk rituals (such as the battle between Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg, occurring annually on the same Oberbaumbrücke from the video).

In 2012, I learned how much better things taste with freedom. I learned how much better beer tastes when drunk in a park as a part of a game of ping-pong; how much better going out is when you wear your worst, not your best clothes, because you know you will be dancing in a stuffy, mouldy, smokey basement for 8 hours, rubbing shoulders with sweaty men; how you don’t love any bike as much as the bike whose tire you’ve patched up a dozen times with your own hands; how five people and a mixing deck on a bike are enough for an open-air party, both under a bridge and in the middle of the city, in sunshine or rain; and that no fireworks are as special and meaningful as those you fire with your own hands.

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spatial poetics: Colour (Oliver Schwarzwald)

The rest of Oliver Schwarzwald’s photography is both technically more accomplished and artistically more interesting (Schwarzwald works for a number of German weeklies, producing the excellent photography that makes German people buy print media with a persistence that flies in the face of the entire third industrial revolution); but this series is a little bit special because it feels bizarrely raw. It has the same atmosphere of resolute melancholy decadence like the works of Tim Walker, but without any figuration whatsoever. Just pure set; or, rather, the props. Like an image á clef; a secret coded thing for those who already share the associations, who do not need much more than an allusion to know what’s being mentioned here.

The first image, in particular, sang to me. I could explain, about the mist, about the ping-pong table in the park, about the muted colours of the early morning and the rainbow colours of the flimsy paper decoration; and even the feeling of sleepy, relaxed exuberance that I associate with such images. But that would be breaking the code, giving words to a silence that is precious, like something rare. There are these colours, that one sees in Germany, pale and gentle even in mid-summer, and there is no stillness like the early-morning stillness of a large German city.

The entire series (and the rest of his amazing work) can be viewed chez Oliver Schwarzwald.

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kid’s wear magazine, or why Europe is beautiful.

Kid’s Wear magazine.

I was leafing through the magazines and my hairdresser’s, waiting to be called for hair-washing, my first pile of European fashion magazines in six years, when I found this treat. Kid’s wear magazine is one of those things made out of advertising; a good 95% of the magazine was fashion editorial. But between the images of children’s clothes, hidden in the middle, was a spread of perhaps 10 pages about the childhoods of a number of people, a few paragraphs for each person. Elfriede Jelinek, forced into music lessons from a young age, starting at the Conservatory as a very small child, the beginnings of her mental illnesses starting show by puberty. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s father who supported the arts, but not his children. Pina Bausch who, as a child of a bar owner, learned early how to play alone and amuse herself, and who was taken to dance classes by family friends, her own parents being too busy with the bar. Andy Warhol; Thomas Benrhard; Ian Curtis. Margot Tenenbaum.

I used to love magazines, when I was a European teenager, but then all but stop reading them as an adult in Australia, for the relentless shallowness, cruelty, tedious lack of substance.

What makes Europe beautiful is these small surprises, these moments of care, these stabs of realisation that people here think seriously, almost all the time.

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On breaking no law – Berlin by bicycle

I have been writing about flash mobs, Erna Omarsdottir, and swingers’ clubs all of this weekend. It has been a particularly nice application of my knowledge of how cities work on the subject matter of theatre, may I say.

But then the publication of this article came through, for Assemble Papers, the first in a series planned about Berlin. Here you can see me employ my purely urbanist pen, and write about this wonderful city purely from the perspective of design, circulation, livability, human rights, and such mundane things.

The whole article is also available after the break, but I suggest you follow the link instead, because Assemble Papers pairs my text with some exquisite photographs by Henrik Kuerschner – and also is a treasure trove of good writing on cities, full stop.

Continue reading “On breaking no law – Berlin by bicycle” »

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How to define a neighbourhood

Schöneberg itself was a genuine delight. Dieter noted how the area was, to some extent, demarcated by "male prostitutes in that direction, female prostitutes in that direction, and transvestites over there", a form of municipal boundary that is exactly how citizens think of cities and exactly not how administrators and politicans do.

via cityofsound: Journal: A walk in Schöneberg, Berlin: energy policy, gentrification, protest, and the humble joys of communal flower beds.

The entire long article, written by one of my favourite thinkers, Dan Hill – a designers (interface designer, perhaps?), but for a long time working in the role of a defacto urbanist, in the UK, Australia, and now Finland, is egregiously worth a read. It deals with the neighbourhood of Schöneberg, and by metonymy all of Berlin, and its many particularities: DIY urbanism, guerrilla occupation of industrial ruins, decaying suburban housing estates, the German energy policy, the Mietskasernen, even David Bowie.

But what I am quoting is what remained, weeks after reading, the most memorable paragraph and the one I found myself quoting most often: the way in which people define their territory. This is precisely what we mean when we say genius loci; the sense of place.

So many people write so much nonsense about Berlin that finding something meaningful and true is always a delight. It seems to be a positional good, the way having an opinion about New York, psychoanalysis, the French banning of hijab, Lars von Trier or Lady Gaga is a must way of separating the social wheat from the social chaff.

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BMW Guggenheim Lab in Berlin: PR English, asking the wrong questions, and the festivalisation of urban planning.

It so happened that last Tuesday I attended a meeting with the BMW Guggenheim Lab curators, organised by the students of the TU Berlin Masterstudiengang Historische Urbanistik (or Historical Urban Studies). I was invited ad hoc, and had no intention of writing about it, and would not have, were it not for the strange and indicatively unsuccessful nature of the encounter.

Some background: according to BMW’s own head of branding, the company decided to engage in some image-cleaning and reach out to “those people who currently don’t have any particular affinity to the BMW brand and might even view cars with ambivalence”, thus joining with the Guggenheim Foundation and funding an enormously expensive, world-touring, well, 6-year event, a sort of festival of urban planning and design. A temporary carbon-steel building by Atelier-Bow-Bow (very vogueish Japanese architects) is erect for 10-or-so weeks, each time in a different city, and a series of events, from lectures to workshops and tours, takes place. The general theme? Urban problems, challenges, opportunities. The cities? New York, Berlin, Mumbai.

Having had its 10 weeks in NY, the Lab was on its way to Berlin when the trouble started. The site chosen to erect Bow-Wow’s temporary architectural work was an abandoned site in Kreuzberg, in the Wrangelkiez, right on the river Spree.

If you know a single thing about Berlin, you know that Kreuzberg (specifically, the smaller area within it known as Wrangelkiez) has as enormously strong, politically radical community, and a history of resistance to top-down planning. Here is where Berlin’s (and to some extent Germany’s) squatting started, with 160 apartment buildings occupied at once in 1980, around half of which became legalised housing communes soon after. Here is where the residents’ opposition to inner-city demolition led to a wholesale change of the Senate redevelopment policy from greenfield construction of new estates to careful urban renewal of existing neighbourhoods: careful to the historical building form, careful to not displace any residents, and careful to involve them in the planning process. The squatting movement in Kreuzberg led to financing programs that allowed housing communes to renovate the buildings they occupied, to almost every existing social housing policy in Berlin, to the squatting culture that opened up the city’s empty spaces to art and music in the 1990s, and, subsequently, to the image of Berlin as Europe’s party capital, an image that is today Berlin’s only relevant export. Kreuzberg today, again particularly the Wranglerkiez, is struggling under increasing gentrification (the rent-controlled contracts signed in 1980s have largely run out in the past few years, and the rents have risen under the pressure from tourist and temporary residents lured by Kreuzberg’s allure of cool), and there are almost constant meetings, protests and initiatives to come up with new policies that will protect the rents in the neighbourhood, and the rest of Berlin. In a city where 85% of citizens rent, with no industry and the highest unemployment rate in Germany, sharply rising rents are a social catastrophe.

No wonder, then, that public resistance to a Guggenheim vanity project in the area was huge. An anti-project blog appeared; there was a protest against Guggenheim; letters were sent to papers and the police ascertained that vandalism would be a serious threat (this is an area in which new apartments and expensive cars are regularly vandalised, too). Guggenheim responded to the threat of vandalism by renouncing the Kreuzberg location, and moving to the much nicer, already-mellowed-down Prenzlauer Berg in the former East.

The media largely welcomed Guggenheim Lab as a good investment and media project, but even then with reserve. Berliner Zeitung:

“It all seemed a bit ridiculous, as it’s only about a six-week project, and not a permanent establishment. The coming weeks will reveal whether the debate blows over, or continues with ideological posturing. But the city-state’s politicians can no longer ignore the agitated atmosphere in the inner-city neighborhoods. And the Guggenheim organizers are burdened by high expectations. They want to address the issue of urban living, but so far there is no convincing program. They will need to prove that they want to build more than just a talking shop.”

Süddeutsche Zeitung:

Still, the protesters hit a nerve in the city. For their blackmail they used widespread fears of rising rents, the displacement of the poor into outer districts, and the specter of ‘gentrification.’ … The Senate has yet to find a politically convincing answer to this. As correct as Klaus Wowereit’s rejection of intolerance is, the fears and worries must be taken seriously.

Non-mainstream commenters were openly critical. Berlin Art Link commented on the choice of location thus:

An uncontroversial choice in the Wrangelkiez area where rents have increased by 20% last year, and about half the locals had to leave. One wonders whether anyone from the BMW Lab bothered Googling “Berlin” “Urban problems” or “gentrification” or the like before settling on this spot.

Intercultural Urbanism (a blog) commented on the new location:

The area has been undergoing gentrification, however, and that might not send the best message to citizens in Berlin and elsewhere who worry about what corporate-sponsored “pop-ups” portend for their neighborhoods.

But the most interesting critique came from Despina Stokou in Bpigs, who went to a community meeting in Kreuzberg at which the Guggenheim project was presented to residents, and who analysed it through its use of what she terms ‘PR English’ or Art English. (“The surface of the sentence (and it’s meaning as we know it in the English we have learned or natively speak) is often miles away from it’s actual meaning as used in the PR/Art context.”)

It got hot in the Guggenheim Lab event too. What started off in an already negative atmosphere got worse with the power point presentation. I had to double check, as I could have sworn it was in English and that would make no sense in an 90% German speaking audience in Kreuzberg. It was in German but it really felt like English, with program titles like: Confronting Comfort, Beyond Segrification: Models for Equal Glocalization, FeedForward 2: Co-opting Place, Urban Yoga… People started booing and they were absolutely right. This use of language is common in media circles, (it would not have caused a stir in Pfefferberg, I would have shrugged it away myself) but it is void of meaning, it is constructed only to impress, not to inform. This became very evident in this non-art context, where people just wanted to know how this project would affect their everyday lives. As somebody graphically put: Ich versuche jeden Monat die Miete zu bezahlen und Ihr macht eure Kunstkacke. [I try to pay rent every month, and you’re making your art turds.]

I wish, in fact, I had read Stokou’s article before our meeting with the Guggenheim curators at TU Berlin, because it would have prepared me better for what was going to happen.

Instead of a discussion, we were given a PowerPoint presentation of the project, organised by four curators, each one programming roughly a week of events. Jose Gomez-Marquez, an MIT-based engineer, would be running workshops on how to make stuff from everyday stuff (e.g., a solar-powered coffee grinder). Carlo Ratti, another MIT-based engineer and architect, had a program on the new technologies for sensing the urban. Corinne Rose, a psychologist and artist, the only German and the only person of the four with any experience of living in Berlin, was presenting many small projects with local artists and designers, all around her interest in the aesthetic experience of the city. (To her credit, Rose will put on one event of relevance to Berlin right now: a discussion of the role of Liegenschaftsfonds Berlin, the public body responsible for selling public land, exclusively to the highest bidder. The current discussion in the city has focused largely on whether they should be legally forced to consider other criteria too, such as cultural or social merit.) Finally, Rachel Smith, a Brisbane-based transport planner from AECOM, had a series of events about participation and sustainable transport (cycling, largely). Only Smith and Rose were there to talk, and the focus of the discussion was on their part of the program, not least because the presentation contained very little on the actual Berlin program (and a lot about the many institutions and people involved in making it, as is usually the case with vanity projects of this kind). There would be walking tours. There would be a workshop to teach Turkish women how to ride bicycles. (The program has since been found on the website: buried deep in the ‘Press’ section.)

In a city whose urban renewal policy has been shaped by mass squating of the 1980s and 1990s, a city in which, on any given weekend, about half the programmed events are illegal, a city in which trespassing is a collective sport and commuter-train parties normal, Smith asked: “Imagine if you didn’t need a permit to do whatever you want, what would you do?”

In a city in which everyone rides bikes everywhere, a city with fantastic cycling infrastructure, and a culture of utmost respect for cycling, Smith was posing questions relevant only to cities, such as Brisbane, trying to deal with chronic car-dependency and related health problems: “How can we get more women and children on bikes?” “How do we negotiate between the lycra cyclists who hate parents riding bikes with their children, and vice versa? Could we establish 7-metre-wide ‘cycling superhighways’, fenced off on both sides, for safe cycling to work?”

You only ought to have spent a day cycling around Berlin to understand why the local students’ eyes glazed over at these ‘exciting’ proposals. In this city, one is allowed to cycle both on the (very wide) footpaths and on the (very wide) roads, and the continuous network of paths and crossings means that one genuinely has about 7 metres of cycling space in most parts of the city. The fencing off, a typical example of monofunctional urban-design thinking, would make no sense in a streetscape dotted with shops, apartments, things to get off one’s bike and do. In fact, the only place where having fences on both sides of a bike path would not be a nutty idea would be in the middle of a freeway. But this is not that kind of city…

Finally, Smith programmed an event in which we establish a “No Excuse Zone”. This deserves some explanation. If a group of AECOM urban planners meets in the centre of a CBD, each rides their bike in a different direction for exactly 20 minutes, then stops, maps their position, and draws a circle connecting them all, the resulting zone around the CBD is the “no excuse zone”: if you live within this residential area, and don’t cycle to your CBD work, you have “no excuse”. This is an excellent example of a moralistic, guilt-inducing, feel-awful approach that is so often used in Australia, that costs money, solves no problem and serves nobody. Just like desire lines trod through lawns, people queuing at wrong ends of a bar, or accident-prone intersections, non-cycling-friendly cities are a design problem, not a behaviour problem. People cycle in cities that have low car speeds, pleasant and safe cycle lanes, good street lighting, high residential density, and high density of shops and services on the street. Otherwise, cycling is unsafe, boring and impractical. Berlin has all of it, and there are quite probably more bikes on its streets than cars, at any one point of the day. Furthermore, Berlin has no CBD: it is a polycentric city. Where would you begin your 20-minute radial ride? In Alexanderplatz, a low-density wasteland? To watch Rachel Smith talk about cyclability in Berlin, apparently completely uninformed about any of this, was about as strange as it would be if she gave a speech in Italy about how to make pasta.

The first glaring problem was pointed out in one of the early questions. Smith and Rose insisted on having met with many Berliners, involved as many as possible, and shaped the program around urban problems facing Berlin. “Can you go back to your list of Berlin issues, please”, asked one student, “and explain how you are going to address each one in your program?” Well, there it was. Gentrification? “We have one whole day devoted to it.” Lack of industry and jobs? There will be one event on the day themed ”. Berlin’s over-reliance on tourism as an export industry? “One Planet Tourism, the world-leading tourism consultancy, will be working with local tourism businesses, to teach them how their businesses can be made more environmentally sustainable and economically sustainable, in the current climate of crisis.” (I hope you don’t have to be an urbanist to notice that this does not address the problem of ‘over-reliance on tourism’.) Rising rents? “Oh, I don’t think we’re doing anything specifically about that.” “So”, said the student, “the most important issues facing Berlin, gentrification, rising rents and unemployment, you are going to address all in one day?”

Begging the question was: how in the world do they think that, whatever is said or achieved in that one day, will be relevant for Berlin? Relevant to the point of justifying the stress on the existing neighbourhoods that the Lab would bring, relevant to the point of making up for the insult and injury of having an international mega-corporation orchestrate a supposed discussion about the city, bypassing all existing channels of communication and community and government groups? I was going to ask, simply, how they understand the benefit this would make to Berlin. But the questions kept coming, and they were not generous. The curators responded: we are hoping we could create a platform for a dialogue. “But there are already many platforms like that here!” the students responded. The fact that the event was corporate image-cleansing was brought up a few times: how does this not compromise the event?

“How did you decide on the location?” Apparently, they thought that Berlin was not using its riverfront enough, so they rented a boat, sailed down the river looking for an empty lot, and then found one. “I think that’s quite insensitive, actually”, recapped the student. Rachel Smith seemed genuinely confused about why their chosen location caused so much stir. “I come from Brisbane, and they would have done anything to have such an event in their city. Any Australian city, Sydney, Melbourne, would have done anything to host BMW Guggenheim Lab. We have marvelous speakers coming to speak for free. We have One World Travel, the world leader in tourism consulting! We have the man who founded Surfers Against Sewage! We have the people who run Copenhagenize website! In Brisbane, when Richard Branson gave a talk, the tickets were selling for AUD$2,000! There are some really cool people coming here!”

This was, finally, when it all descended from satire into farce. It was perhaps terrible enough that we were greeted to an expensive program that posed no questions of any relevance to the city. But to be there, concerned about the influence that such globally-visible vanity project will have on rising rents, and be told that this is about seeing some “cool people” speak, was not even offensive; it just showed what a gap there was between Guggenheim Lab and Berlin. To have a talkfest programmed, with the large majority of speakers either coming from international consultancies or media, bloggers and dispensers of internationally diluted best-practice, and call it engagement, city-building, anything but festivalisation of urban planning, would be believing one’s own lies; one’s own PR English. Brisbane perhaps can’t tell the difference. But Berlin has had a history of good planning; it can.

In the end, many of my questions were simply too cruel to ask. How can BMW Guggenheim be useful to Berlin? It won’t, and that’s not its intention. Berlin, the capital of European cool, will be useful to the Lab. It will add to its image of relevance, real grit, and internationality. It will cost money, be another tourist attraction for a few weeks, and then move on leaving little behind. As some German media have commented, it is the same stuff as usual, only much more expensive. But, if the meeting we had on Tuesday is anything to go by, the Lab curators might be completely clueless about the feathery weight of their work.

Further reading:
Frankfurter Rundschau, Guggenheim Lab startet nach Protesten
RBB, BMW Guggenheim Lab – das Program steht fest

NY Times, Amid threats, BMW Guggenheim Lab withdraws plan for installation in Berlin neighbourhood
Der Spiegel, German press review on Guggenheim Lab relocation in Berlin neighborhood
Der Spiegel, Guggenheim Lab cancels ‘high risk’ Berlin project

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