Back in the mid 1990s, British comedians Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer set the gold-standard for architecturally-relevant slapstick surrealism.
Well? Do you understand that headline? It seemed vaguely smart when I wrote it. I fuzzily recall reading recently of a cultural infliction in which the present can only be seen in terms of its role as some future iteration of the past. All debate is circumvented in the race for an ideal future where everything is in its place and there is a place for everything. Berlin’s City Palace is a castrated present and a rudely potent future-reading of the past. And it’s not doing so badly to be honest. You know, all things considered. Like for example, that it’s not been paid for yet and is currently a gigantic bucket of swill with cranes in it. Not bad really: for an ex-box. To have come so far so soon. And to have departed in spirit already well before its time. Tell me: do you believe in life before death?
Sponsors do, and will throw oodles of life-affirming cash at anything prepared to pimp out some ass. Being permanently out of pocket, and permanently confused about public/private partnerships, Berlin’s schizophrenic relationship with heritage and capital is nowhere better visible than here. The city enforces the banning of intrusive advertising in historically sensitive areas, but makes generous exceptions when the synergy feels right. And thus Berliners were to endure a 50-metre-long Christmas-time ad for Microsoft’s latest black box with electronics inside, destined to reach the end of its life-cycle by 2019. Just in time for the opening of the so-called Humboldt Forum within the Berlin City Palace.
The ad – which ran along the north-western edge of the Palace building site – re-imagines the city as a typographic montage of slogans, its landmarks dissolving into a skeletal lattice of corporate messaging. Even the weather can’t escape: clouds morph into trademarked brand names. Product dominates the panorama: an unbreachable megastructure of obsidian gouged into the metropolis and an uncanny negative-image of the GDR’s parliament building, which stood here not too long ago.
Microsoft’s new Xbox and Berlin’s future ex-box are one. The ultimate black box reimagined as an “all-in-one entertainment system”. No one can begin to fathom the complexity within, and no one need know just how the black box works. Both promise to deliver a phantasmagoria of mystery and illusion.
• Resolution of the initiative “No Humboldt 21″ for a moratorium on the Humboldt Forum within the future Berlin City Palace.
• “It looks an awful lot like a 1993 artist’s rendering of 2013′s technology.” – Engadget’s review of the Xbox
Among the many evils of time-lapse photography is its ideology of travelogue-as-deep-insight. Time-lapse turns the world into a vacation, experience into leisure, and photography itself into a solipsistic mirror-ball. A case in point is this screenshot from the Time Lapse Italia website (I’m not making this up).
You are bronzed. You are beautiful. You look at stuff that’s not directly in front of you. You are on holiday. You have a laptop. You need other people to know that you are bronzed, beautiful, that you look at stuff that’s not directly in front of you, that you are on holiday and that you have a laptop.
You wear white on the beach.
You do time-lapse photography.
I read a Geoff Dyer short story on the bog, Skunk. I liked the style in that story, matter of fact, concise and earnest, about pretty normal stuff, like smoking skunk on the canal St. Martin. He describes looking at his dick shrimpled to just foreskin, thinking in his skunky state of mind that it’s from too much coffee. I immediately decided this was a good style to write about drab architecture, allowing quicker entries, and giving that drab architecture only the little precious time of mine it deserved.
Berlin Wu Yi academy was closed, my Taichi lesson not on. Instead of the usual route, I decided it was time to check out this St. Agnes church round my studio’s neighborhood that people were talking about. Should be easy to spot, it had a church tower. Instead, cycling up Alte Jakobstraße, I found this across from Medelsohns IG Metal buidling, adjacent to the patent office.
Looks like Zvi Häcker, I thought. He had done a building in a part of the former death strip behind the Bundesdruckerei. I remember shaking my head in sympathy that a guy like that had to do stuff like this now. It was a tack render box with some applique horizontal strips of bent metal. So was this. Nicely done, in a way. Half scale autobahn guide rails wiggly bent in strips to yield an undulating, sculptural effect that loosely mimicked the protruding Gründerzeit ornamentation of some of the neighboring buidings. The rails were out of imitation titanium looking stuff, not galvanized alu, as the real things are. It seemed to work, formally. The stuff underneath looks a bit cheap, but what can you do, this is our material reality.
That’s a bit abrupt, I thought, pressing my nose against a sheet of glass, looking straight into the drab housing entrance. The only visible features were a dry riser, a surveillance eye and a parking garage door labeled as such. What happened to architectural foreplay, or some public private gradient, like a mezzanine half story, a front step, or a court, foyer, an inviting vestibule? Can’t blame the architect, working with these constraints, cramming in as much sellable space as possible, probably scraping a living – and it’ll do for the average “metropolist”. Nobody seems to care about this stuff. Maybe in Hamburg they care, where they’re defending a decrepit building from being replaced by something like this, or worse, I think.
Metropolist. Where did that come from? Oh yeah, I looked up the building on the internet, thinking I’d confirm my cunning eye, and the bent metal bands as Zvi Hecker applique. But I was wrong. An established search engine took me straight to the marketing video of the two architects behind the Metropolenhäuser. Set to some lofty two finger piano music, the architects brood over the future of this new quarter from their white loftspace, incidently overlooking my daughter’s Kita, and John Hedjuk’s Charlottenstraße tower in the background. I’d seen Mr Muffert pull out of his garage in a Merc SLS, I think. With ominous rolling hand gestures, they prophesyze across the unsuspecting neigborhood beneath the past dynamism of Prenzlauer Berg and Mitte turn of the century, taking care to give buzz words the correct emphasis. The rest is incredibly cliche. Here’s a link if you have a masochist penchant for these things.
To sum up the project’s marketing spiel:
a building that “flirts” with the city with its large window panes, a lively neighborhood with big city flair close to the shopping paradise Friedrichstraße, in the “heart of the Southern Friedrichstadt”, Holocaust (mostly, Jewish Museum), “Topography of Terror”, Cold War (Checkpoint Charly) living excitement, and for extra spice, there are the adjacent “capricious-whimsical” (quirlig) neighborhoods, which to me seems to carry some weird diminuitive undertones of the inhabitants of the mixed neigborhoods, as in not as sobre, collected and rational as us Metropolists, qualities that have put us into positions to purchase flats from you city people, but I’m starting to think I’m way too critical.
The architects are BF studio, founded by Benita Braun Feldweg and Matthias Muffert, part of a consortium administering the bequest of Wilhelm Braun Feldweg, grandfather of Benita and a pioneering German product designer and initiator of the grant or award under his name for critical design writing. Reading Benita Braun-Feldweg’s interview on the prize, I found it hard to put what she was saying there, and the really rather vacuous marketing babble of the Metropolenhaus, together:
“The social significance of design critique is huge. As an architect I’m sorry to say that I have to state that in Germany there is no critique of architecture.[…] But a socio-political examination of content, form and necessities is nowhere to be found. Should one chose not to conform, that is to say write without seeking merely to create marketing or PR, and even take up a critical stance, this would pose a great risk for a medium that wants to maintain its circulation figures.”
Muffert and Braun-Feldweg are also the developers of the project.
Found St.Agnes, tucked away behind some 60s housing blocks, the second stop on my little tour of the new Southern Friedrichstadt.
An advertisement assembly of Humboldt Box and adjacent hoarding along the extent of the Schlossplatz. Billboards on a scale of five lane highways perceived from pedestrian contexts, close up, at speeds of pedestrians, of cyclists. Currently in Xbox green. How myopic do they think we are? Yes, I can read that. ”The all-in-one entertainment system”, in 400 point Microsoft font. Half concealed and self-conscious, behind Xbox green illuminated hoarding, a showcase fragment of the Stadtschloss façade. How can it ever compete with all this spectacle?
In the distance, Europe’s second largest traveling ferris wheel, illuminated and powered by an imploding star. Christmas markets, carousels, coralled carnies. Signs that say “Kassa”. Smiley Garfield and Waymond Harding cajole christmas soul to to the petit bourgeois in celebratory middle class outfits clapping on 1 and 3 in front of the foreign ministry. Trussed city of zoroZaster, incandescent, unplanned. The sausage grill has reappropriated Berlin cathedral’s dome for itself and grills its sausages under the flood light of cranes. What is this oddly shaped gift box, light blue, with silver ribbons? Oh, Humboldt Box. Gift wrapped by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the black vaccuum at our city center, with golden ribbons, and glittering red bows, and sisal. A soothsayer, and three wise men. A creperie, that is a locomotive, bakes its crepes on its boiler and steam them towards the emergency exit, parked in a no parking zone. Trussed city of zoroZaster, unplanned by our lord, the pimp mayor. There he is, behind the clock, up in his clinker tower, overlooking the chaos unravel, spitting bitcoins and clunker. Sold! the Schlossplatz, to carnies, circuses and vacuum cleaner salesmen, to jugglers and sword swallowers and death strip entrepreurs.
The semantic war of surfaces wages on in Berlin’s eastern city center with skirmishes intensifying in the run-up to the Christmas holiday season. A bootleg medieval village has besieged Schinkelplatz and blockades hastily erected, making a mockery of the square’s architect, Peter Joseph Lené, known for his dramatic employment of visual axis. Strange how the English word ‘festival’, with its Latin roots, cements with the Germanic ‘Festung’, in the sense of a defensive structure. A perimeter fence upholstered in the jute of Sinterklaas’ gift-bearing sack is adorned with gestures of red-foiled cheer and the dispirited Glühwein-soused scrawl of an elfen scrivener armed with an Edding 850. “No passage!” declares the sign, encouraging the outward detour, whilst the passage of the city’s drinking water is redirected unabated, meters above the mêlée in pink tubes. The plastinated corpse of Schinkel’s Bauakademie skulks indifferently, resigned to its role as an un-dead set-piece for some passing carnival – from the Latin incidentally, for the dispatching of flesh.
We would like to extend our belated thanks to Sandra Bartoli of Büro für Konstruktivismus and the Chair for Urban Design and Architecture at Berlin’s Technical University, for inviting myself and Oliver Miller to hold a lecture on The New Death Strip as part of a BA course investigating the line of the former Berlin Wall.
Our lecture, held in the Kunstfabrik on October 17th, was a great opportunity for us to revisit many of the themes which we brought to paper in our contribution to the ‘Disko’ series of publications back in 2010. It made sense to reshuffle a lot of that content into loose topics, and pinpoint these to various geographic locations. By doing this we could break down the story-structure of the publication, and not fall into the trap of recounting a travelogue in a linear fashion.
We also had a great time on November 15th when we were invited back as guest critics at the end of the course along with Christian Fuchs, Katharina Hagg, Daniela Mehlich and Matthias Heyden. Over the course of an exhausting afternoon where the students present their impressive project work, their was ample chance to delve into some heated exchange about the ramifications of speculative urban design concepts for this unique space.