The Berlin / New York Dialogues

(Still recovering somewhat from the trip. Things were so busy before I left a couple weeks ago and I neglected to get this posted…)Life Without Buildings’ New York correspondent and all-around bon vivant, Jac Currie attended the Berlin / New York dialogues last week at the New York Center for Architecture.The 10-week long exhibition aims to compare and contrast the architecture, culture, and lifestyle of the two ciites. It is presented as part of the Center for Architecture’s “Global City Dialogues” series.

 The tour began in a busy Center for Architecture. It was two hours before the VIP reception, and people were still getting ready – running around with mounted photos and stretched canvas. A twenty-foot, spiraling installation by Brooklyn designers, Made, bridged two of the floors, and the staircase walls were printed with various urban statistics – density of people, amount of public space by area, number of dogs, length of bike trails, how many cinemas in each city:“Two of the world’s most dynamic urban centers, Berlin and New York City, are making radical transformations in their streets and neighborhoods,” says Rick Bell, Director of AIA New York. “The purpose of Berlin / New York Dialogues is to discover the similarities and differences in what drives our architecture and urban design.”The primary themes of the exhibition include artist as a pioneer/culture as a catalyst, community-based activism, greening of open-space, and social engineering/government based interventions. To make the exhibition accessible to the general public, displays consisted of layers of information portrayed through various easy-to-understand media – charts, photos, text, and illustrations. Facts and testimonials about successful art school programs, snapshots of public art projects, photos of a development sites, and floor to ceiling landscapes printed on stretched canvas tracked urban development throughout the two cultural capitals over the last couple decades.While the overall exhibition, designed by New York design firm Project Projects came across as well researched and smartly displayed, the actual density of information and tightness of space made it difficult to a take in. Having lived in both cities, I could really appreciate the variety of information and comprehensive presentation. It was interesting to see squatters, warehouse clubs, and illegal urban farmers given as much credit as politicians, large-scale developments and social programs.My favorite features of the show were the agencies that went beyond architecture in attempting to affect their surroundings. Berlin-based design groups, Platoon and Deadline Architects. With public art, innovative media, and networking, Platoon’s projects use cultural activities to change lives in Berlin. Deadline Architects are perhaps best known for their project, Bender Berlin. Their first building, it was entirely self-financed by the architects, who raised the money over a period of three years. Now complete, it houses their office, apartment, art gallery, and 14 rentable mini-lofts. (ed. note: more on these offices soonish!)Despite all the careful comparisons and meticulously presented facts, I felt there was something missing, some strong, intangible difference between the two cities. Maybe it’s the uniquely American pursuit of wealth, fame, and “the Dream.” Or perhaps it’s New York’s status as hub of industry, media, and real estate versus Berlin’s economically bankrupt reality. It’s hard to say really, but perhaps Anders Lepik phrased the question best in his introductory speech: “What is the reason that NY dreams of Berlin, and Berlin dreams of NY?”And then there was the reception. It started quietly enough with just a few VIPs, a DJ bleeping and blooping his way through Minimal Techno records, and, of course, German beer. I took the opportunity to catch up with former schoolmate– and current Berlin / New York Dialogues researcher, Anthony Acciavatti. (ed note: what’s up Anthony!) Soon though, the place began to fill up with a serious crowd. A lot of black jackets, tall people, hip glasses, and hipper haircuts. The music kept getting better, a serious Techno set by Berlin pop act 2raumwohnung, and people were seriously getting their dance on. It really did feel like a party in Berlin, and New York loved it.Stay longer next time, Berlin.Berlin – New York Dialogues: Building in Context runs through 26 January at the Center for Architecture. Jac Currie is an artist and designer based in New York City and New Orleans. He is the founder of Defend New Orleans and Jaguar Jaguar.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Peter Eisenman's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

The first attempt of recognizing a German war memorial to WWII occurred in 1989. The Neue Watche, a temple-like neoclassical building designed by Karl Schinkel in 1818 had served previous state governments as a national memorial and wreath-laying site. Being located very near where the Berlin wall stood prior to 1989, German chancellor Helmut Kohl hoped the centralized location of the monument would unify the city in the honoring of all its dead. Unfortunately, when the monument was rededicated in 1993, public reaction was less than enthusiastic.

Five years earlier in 1988, German television personality Lea Rosh proposed a contest to design a memorial commemorating the murdered Jews of Europe. With the relative failure of the Neue Watche memorial, people were inspired to again begin debate over her proposal. This time, with the fall of the Berlin wall, and plans on moving the capitol back to Berlin, the project was backed by the federal government as well as the now-unified Berlin Senate.

Of course, the project was going to be controversial, and the debates seemed like they would never end. During this time 528 artists’ entries were exhibited to the public, and in the eyes of some intellectuals, this ongoing debate and exhibition became a kind of memorial in itself. The time put into the memorial designs represents thousands of hours spent in the act of remembering and theorizing how to honor those who were murdered. As debates continued, however, people seemed to become more concerned with the politics and academics of the issue than with what and who were actually behind remembered. A decision was finally reached, and nine finalists were invited to modify and resubmit designs

Architect Peter Eisenman and Artist Richard Serra submitted a design consisting of a field of four thousand white pillars, or stelae, spaced three feet apart and ranging in height from ground level to sixteen feet high. The height of the pillars sheltered people from the city, permitting them to become lost in thought or memory without distraction from the outside world. They were initially designed to occupy the entire block, expanding out to the very edge of the street. Reading this memorial as an object was impossible – it became a forced experience, something that must concsiously be either entered or avoided. Helmut Kohl favored this submission so much that he personally intervened and asked Eisenman and Serra to make some changes to their monument. Eisenman agreed, Serra, unfortunately, felt that the project would no longer be his, and dropped out. Once these changes were made to the scheme, it was declared the winner of the new competition.

The revised scheme makes the field of pillars read more like an object and this new reading of the memorial implies a clearer analogy to a cemetery. A weakness, I think, inherent in the changes, and perhaps one of the reason’s for Serra’s exit. Standing outside the memorial, one understands it one way, but when they step into the memorial and become a part of it, it is understood in an entirely new light. Those who do indeed choose to enter the memorial will find their own path through the pillars – there is still no proper route, no final goal or end destination. Each person’s experience and interpretation will be unique as they find their own path to, through, or even around memory. This element of the uncanny creates an indeterminacy which I believe to be the true mark of a successful memorial.

The effect of Eisenman’s indeterminate field can be compared to Maya Linn’s Vietnam memorial. As people walk through the memorial they project themselves and their ideas onto it. They choose their own individual experiences – personalizing it – while also become part of other mourners’ experiences. In both, the ephemeral is a vital part of the experience – perhaps you might catch a glimpse of another body passing through the pillars or hear footsteps in the gravel ground caused by other visitors.

Peter Eisenman Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Will Cedric Price’s “Fun Palace” Finally be Realized in Berlin?

Although, that might well be a misnomer. My new favorite weekly, “Building Design” has a great story about what seems to be an otherwise little-publicised event in old East Berlin. The conference, “Fun Palace 200X”, was held in the partially demolished Palast der Republik, the former East German Parliament Building, and attended by architects, anthropologists and social geologists. (I’m assuming they first removed all gutter punks and squatters)

The conference takes its name from Cedric Price’s Fun Palace project, (1961-4) a building “conceived as a highly serviced fun fair.” Users are able to tailor the building to their specific needs, a feature inviting architects to consider the Fun Palace as a possible model for 21st Century Cultural Center. Potential exists for the Palast to become a sort of architectural ready-made, whose monumental structure could served as a frame for a new, unpredictable building type.

I’ve been to this building, and it. is. enormous. and awesome. (thats my professional opinion) Gutting it would create what i’m sure would be a truly sublime space – especially once new ad-hoc structures begin appearing within it. Alas, methinks it will never happen.