My review of Esra Akcan’s Open Architecture: Migration, Citizenship and the Urban Renewal of Berlin-Kreuzberg by IBA – 1984/87 (Birkhäuser, 2018)
A humanist trajectory
“Writing this book, I often felt like a weaver, interlacing stories of distinct individuals from different countries, cities, and schools; with dissimilar ideas, life experiences, political positions, and economic conditions… At one point in history, the paths of these individuals merged in the same city borough, and this book is a story of this convergence.” With these words Esra Akcan opens her new book, Open Architecture: Migration, Citizenship and the Urban Renewal of Berlin-Kreuzberg by IBA – 1984/87 (Birkhäuser, 2018). Far from being a rhetorical strategy, this weaving is the first powerful feature of this book, a radical and precise historiographic choice. It is, indeed, a new methodological approach aimed to open the territory of architectural history, to make it host the voices of those that, even if at the center of the design process, as recipients and users of the buildings, are usually left behind, not only in the design practice, but in the making of history writing.
Furthermore, since IBA’s major area was the Kreuzberg borough along the Berlin Wall, heavily bombed during World War II, left to decay, and largely populated by immigrants, writing an history of IBA-1984/87 means also to write about international immigration, about the relation between city and statelessness. At the time of the launch of IBA’s renewal plan, in fact, almost half of Kreuzberg residents were noncitizens, predominantly from Turkey, arrived as part of the guest worker program since 1961, or as refugees escaped to the violence of the coup d’état of 1980. Thus, this topic, more than any other, required an “applied hospitality”: a collection of testimonies, made through informal meetings and recorded interviews, and cross-checked through archival documents and the multiplicity of different opinions, but able to bring the voices of the inhabitants to the forefront of the city making, together with that of the architects and policy makers.
Difficult not to hear in this approach an echo of Gayatri Spivak’s 1988 essay Can the Subaltern Speak?, a text that, a decade later the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism, together with Homi Bhabha’s The Location of Culture, declined the postcolonial perspective according to post-structuralist trajectories. Engaging in a critical discussion with Foucault, Deleuze and Derrida, Spivak and Bhabha had contrasted an easy response to Said’s critique (the inclusion of the Other through “assimilation”), elaborating several new concepts to challenge the Eurocentric perspective and deepen the understanding of the “non-Western” contexts. Notions such as that of subalternity, epistemological violence, representation, difference, hybridity or mimetic subversion, on the one side problematized the very possibility of representing the “other” (Spivak), and on the other side opened up a new possibility to look beyond “the illusion of cultural isolation” (Bhabha).
In an essay written a few years ago, Postcolonial Theories in Architecture, Akcan argued how moving from the critical strategy of the poststructuralist approach, and questioning its notion of “radical alterity” and untranslatability, a different and more productive approach is indeed possible. Drawing from Said’s later writings about the construction of a “cosmopolitan humanism,” Akcan called this second approach “the humanist trajectory” of postcolonial theory. The main premise of this critical position is that there are already globally shared values, “criteria that are not necessarily Eurocentric.”1
Thus, if the notion of translation had been central to deconstruct the notion of universal modernity in the writing of her previous book, Architecture in Translation: Germany, Turkey, and the Modern House (Duke University Press, 2012), with a further methodological shift in this new book the voices of the Others (here the noncitizen residents) become a central part of the historic narrative. And, strolling across Berlin, page after page, we read about an intertwined past, where geographical distant places share similar experiences and where places are always connected by the movement of people.
Yet, second feature of the book, this is not a book of sociology, this is from the first to the last page a book about architecture. The streets and blocks of Kreuzberg, the discussion about what to do with this run-down landscape, the possible approaches to architecture and to the relation between architecture and the city, the differences between the modernist post-war reconstructions of the 1950s and 1970s, the raising postmodernist approach, and the approach defined as critical reconstruction, as well as the content and meaning of built and unbuilt design proposals, constitute the hard core of the book. Though, even from this point of view, the book is not impartial but stands out, taking the parts of a precise methodological approach: that of collaborative design (as opposed to the single planning, one solution, one big sign, one loud voice) as a strategy to open architecture, to make it talk with the existing city fabric and its many voices.
In this sense, even if most of IBA’s Neubau buildings were not in themselves specific examples of flexibility and adaptability of form (one of the several meaning of “openness” which the book presents and discusses), Akcan presents IBA-1984/87 as an overall example of “open architecture.” As a matter of fact, it was open as a process based on the involvement of an incredibly large number of architects from Europe and the United States (about 340 local and international architectural firms). It was open as a process aimed to the comparison of ideas, through the conceptual device of design competitions, but also through a design mechanism that required the competitor teams to provide ideas not only for their specific building but also for the entire urban block. It was open as a process that for more than half of it dealt with the renovation of existing buildings, mainly with a participatory approach and often keeping the inhabitants inside the building during the renovation. It was open as a process that, even in the new construction, managed to avoid gentrification and, despite the discriminatory laws of the period, succeeded in maintaining the noncitizen population. And, last but not least, was open as a process aimed at the collective construction of the city through a shared conceptual frame: that of grounding each design proposals in the historical plan, “the geographical and spatial characteristic features of the area,” taking the remaining historical building to “serve as orientation for the scale.”2 A clear brief, open enough to allow participation of designers diverse as Krier and Rossi, Eisenman and Koolhaas.
From this point of view, the book stresses the close relationship between the notion of “critical reconstruction” of IBA Neubau’s director, Josef Paul Kleihues, and Aldo Rossi’s notion of typological design, as expressed several years before in Architecture of the City and even before in his discussion of Berlin’s residential types, published on Casabella in 1964. If type is for Rossi the very possibility of the City as a work of art, a man-made object that grows over time (because, when every architect, even at different times, designs in relation to the same type, the result is unified), the main result of the typological approach is, as Akcan writes, “the acknowledgment of the collective mind in the construction of the type.” In Rossi’s theory, the agency of the single architect gives space to a collective agency: the individuality of the author blurs within the city as collective memory.
For Kleihues, this tight relation between architecture and the city through the type, offered a powerful methodological alternative to what he saw as the destructive approach of modern architecture: turn down the existing fabric of the city and replace it with freestanding prismatic blocks. Blocks without any more relation with the shape of the city, of its roads and open spaces. The very idea of IBA-1984/87diverged from the previous building exhibitions, proposing for the first time the idea of urban renewal of an historical area of the city. For Kleihues, the past had to be the new guide for design, not as a nostalgic, mimetic reference, but as something alive and capable to produce a new continuity. With Rossi in mind, he defined the “ground plan” and the perimeter block (with its system of buildings edges shaping courtyards and streets) as the “gene structure of the city.” The critical reconstruction of the urban blocks became the basic brief of design.
Gentle urban renewal
But IBA-1984/87 had also a second less well know soul, IBA Altbau, under the direction of Hardt-Waltherr Hämer and, third interesting feature, the book explores this part of IBA as much as the other. Beginning with Hämer’s role in convincing Berlin Senate of the opportunity to pursue also this alternative path to reconstruction. Restoration, Hämer argued, was not only convenient in terms of cost (62 percent of the cost of demolishing and rebuild), but contained rents increase and avoided residents displacement, a major problem for the inhabitants and the municipality. Since the main problem of Berlin was at the moment exactly the housing and services shortage, the Senate accepted Hämer’s strategy, which he defined as “gentle urban renewal.” In this gentle approach, participation became an essential part of the design process, to the point that many of the Altbau apartments have strange layouts, as a result of an additive process that made each apartment nearly unique.
Going back to Akcan’s attempt to open the territory of architecture giving voice to those usually left behind, another historiographic choice of the book is that of making space for several unknown architects. Between them a special place goes to Heide Moldenhauer, one of the few women architects in the urban renewal project, responsible for IBA Altbau’s Block 76/78. “The participatory architecture, self-help projects, photographs, building programs, public art installations, exhibitions and event” that Moldenhauer designed and organized, Akcan claims, “stand as unique examples of feminist practice.” Her huge collection of diapositives of the streets, the meetings, the renovation process, not only constitute a city archive of the period, but testify the agency of the residents she worked with. Furthermore, her attention to women’s voices and women’s empowerment, was translated in the design of a building only for women in Block 76. In the same block, she managed to turn a squatted building into a self-help restoration project, which transformed the building in a place still open today to the community, “where passersby can use a public bathroom and lunch is served in the common dining room.”
Citizen to Come
A last important feature of the book, is its specific relevance in this historic moment. In fact, if on one side migration is becoming a permanent condition for a growing numbers of people and the world is living the biggest refugee crisis since the World War II due to the Syrian war, on the other side the neoliberal system is becoming every day more aggressive and globalized, marginalizing more and more the twentieth century strategies of welfare. On the contrary, architecture in the meantime is living a period of incredible “popularity,” thanks to the experimental season connected with the digital turn of the end of the millennium, but also to the movements of capitals around the world and the consequent emergence of new markets and geopolitical centers. Though, if the new global cities compete to emerge on the world geography, positioning their image trough extra-ordinary architectures, the everyday life of the majority of people is threatened by the lack of affordable housing and basic services such as efficient transportation, schools and parks. For those who have to leave their countries, because of violences, wars, poverty and increasing drought, the situation is ever more critical.
This is the reason why, one of the goal of the book is to expose the current human rights paradox: the disappearing of human rights when citizenship is lost. As Akcan tells us, in 1993 Giorgio Agamben published a text about the status of the refugee, Beyond Human Rights, which refers to an article that Hanna Arendt published in 1943, titled We Refugees. Here, Agamben argues, Arendt “turns the condition of countryless refugee –a condition she herself was living– upside down.” Indeed, instead of looking at it as an exception, she presents it “as the paradigm of a new historical consciousness.” The consciousness of a stateless being, in a world-system that, ever since the American and the French revolutions and the first declarations of human rights, have linked tightly together “natural” and “civil rights.”
Thus, if what is new in our time is that an unprecedented number of people is no longer representable inside nation-state, Agamben argues, the traditional way to represent the political subjects “Man, the Citizen and its rights” is now old, and it has to be abandoned so to extend human rights beyond the borders of citizenship and of nation-state. As a matter of fact, the very notion of citizenship has to be rethought, imagining its future beyond the nation-state. Building on Arendt’s approach, the refugee, not as a victim but as the only “category” in which we can glimpse to the future, is indeed the very base on which to build a new political philosophy.
Going back to the notion of open architecture, the history of IBA-1984/87 reveals itself as an opportunity to mobilize and question notions of migration, hospitality, citizenship and right to housing, in the context of an architectural discourse which seems too far away from these problems. Talking about public housing for an immigrant neighborhood is thus an occasion to contest today’s situation, where the majority of architects is designing mainly for the minority, the wealthy one percent of the world population. Re-launching the centrality and topicality of IBA, is a way to argue for the necessity to look for new “forms and ways of practicing open architecture.”
1Esra Akcan, Postcolonial Theories in Architecture, in “A critical history of contemporary architecture: 1960-2010,” edited by Elie G. Haddad and David Rifkind, Routledge, 2014
2IBA competition brief, 1981, quoted in the book.