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Posted 01 Apr 1994


Joost Meuwissen, ‘Berlin Voids. Ich bin kein Berliner’. Translated from the Dutch by Peter Mason, Wiederhall 16. Towards a Supple Geometry. Edited by Matthijs Bouw and Joost Meuwissen (Amsterdam: Wiederhall Foundation, 1994), 60-63.

Berlin Voids. Ich bin kein Berliner

Joost Meuwissen

Two years ago the Europan-2 competition in Berlin was won by Winy Maas, Jacob van Rijs and Nathalie de Vries. This success - and the flood of commissions which it brought in - prompted these three architecture graduates to convert their temporary collaboration into a firm of architects in one of the liveliest post-industrial fringe districts in the Netherlands: Vierhaven in Rotterdam, facing warehouses full of the scent of oranges, the pastel colours of the Mecanoo architectural firm, and the studio of the artist Henk Tas. Nathalie de Vries has also worked for Mecanoo, while her two partners have worked for Rem Koolhaas' Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) up river in the Boompjes.
The unusual feature of their collaboration might be that it made it possible to test the analytically optimal character of Mecanoo housing units, stylised to the limits of 'happy homes', against Rem Koolhaas' more daring theses on how a block or a building appears in the city, in a certain sense as a 'house with no style'. In the Europan housing project, typical style-less over-design means that every architectonic element - not just staircases and supports, but floors and walls as well - appear as furniture within which home-making is situated. One of the computer simulations is of an apparently contented, foreign family with four children in a house that is fully furnished without an item of furniture. The building is a home machine in which architecture has been reduced to a home, to a piece of furniture. The building is a container filled with home. It recalls the nineteenth-century urban block: not a combination of separate homes, but a fluid, soft, passive volume which followed the building lines and street contours, whatever shape they assumed. It was filled with homes, even though the façade expressed nothing of the units themselves, their breadth and height, their rooms, their type or their relations. The Prenzlauerberg district in Berlin is a somewhat blunt variant of a city made of these building blocks.
Situated in a corner of the district, the site has the form of regular, elongated, closed blocks with courtyards. It is as if a corner has been taken out of a continuous urban structure, as if the block at the corner of the district was demolished and never rebuilt. It was always available for public use. To keep it that way, the architects situate the programme on the margins. Extensive functions such as a market for local traders, a department store, building supplies, bars and car parks are arranged on the long side beneath the sloping roof with the approach to the bridge over the former Wall route to the West, while the short side bordering on the large open space where the Wall once stood is the site for homes with facilities and intensive functions such as offices. The architects feel that the empty Wall area should be reserved for large-scale functions which cannot be accommodated in the surrounding urban structures, such as 'traffic systems, allotments, shopping centres, patio houses, golf links, car parks and skyscrapers'. They rule out extending the existing neighbourhood structures, the Prenzlauerberg blocks, over the abandoned Wall area: this would be to give back the city a continuity which it has never had in this form. The architects place the public functions at, or rather under, street level; their articulation with the street is vertical instead of horizontal. It is as if the pattern of streets is itself a building surrounding the individual blocks, which is what it has always been in architectural terms. The nineteenth-century block is represented in the high-rise wedge with private functions beside the wide expanse of the Wall area. The building rises from a horizontal to a vertical position. In the words of the architects, it becomes a 'statue', not of but for the district. The block rears up to display its architectonic content. Not the form or the style of the block, but only its concept, its logic, remain. In this respect, the project is not a continuation of the existing structure of blocks, but it is not a substitution of something else, something new either. It is not an alternative, but a complex, at least non-literal repetition, abstraction, architectonic concept.
Everything that was exterior becomes interior, without much in the way of a façade. Or, vice versa, the interior comes to the surface, to the exterior, to cancel every reminiscence of the scansion, rhythm and line of an architectonic order. The former anonymous, stylised street façade of the block is now no more than the random contour (which it always was) of an extendable architectural body whose limits coincide with those of the site. With this breadth as the basis, the height within the shallowness of the wedge is determined by the required housing and office volume plus inner courtyards. As in the block, courtyards are chipped off the wedge for the entrance hall, caretaker's garden, squash and sauna, playground, party terrace and 'niche gardens' for the offices, until a delicate balance is reached in the emptiness and fullness, the holes in the cheese, the absence and presence of homes as a gelatine-like substance. Less holes would make them too tectonic, too much façade would mean too many lines or windows. The wedge would be too voluminous. And further erosion would give the pudding too much form, or the building would look as if it were about to collapse. It would be too dynamic, at the expense of the passive extensivity of its content. In this respect, the form of the building is not the result of design or style, but a logically determined, conceptual optimum. The construction obeys different rules. The remaining material of the wedge after erosion coincides with the concrete supporting frame which extends along one side of the wedge as a surface above the rest of the building's volume. Construction and façade are one, just as home and façade are one on the other side. One side is dominated by the semi-transparent gelatine of a semi-transparent home, clear and indeterminate. The other side is a receptacle for what Rem Koolhaas in Delirious New York called solidified puke - concrete - obscure but determinate. The beauty of it is that if you imagine the wedge-shaped building lying on its side on the site, the concrete supportive structure, the support or supportive surface coincides with the floor, the constructed surface. Construction as an activity and supporting as an activity occupy the same space.
In many respects the project recalls Rem Koolhaas' design for the Bibliothèque de France from two years before. There reading rooms were hollowed out of a semi-transparent, rectangular volume, without a façade, filled with books, in shapes which challenged the force of gravity. They were not negative but free volumes, air bubbles partially visible in a cloudy aquarium. The difference is that the Berlin project is a flat wedge which also refers in its determinations to an architectonic theme - the nineteenth-century housing block -, while the library in Paris evokes the universe. The infinite stock of French books was thus a public transcendental object for which no borders are wide enough, while the Berlin homes must have the introspection of a private transcendental object. There is another distinction too: the Berlin project can be seen as

a major step in what Rem Koolhaas calls the 'aggressive exploration' of the new freedom which architecture has acquired through the 'electronic revolution'. Parisian books could appear as a flux of bulk items because every book is different. But if a container filled with homes is not to have a despotic structure or texture which refers immediately to tectonics, the Berlin housing units must still prove their individuality. The problem is that every home is both internal space and housing volume that is repeated in the block. A home as reading room and book.
The ideal book that makes all other books redundant is as undesirable as the ideal home in the eyes of the architects: 'The unexpected and the unique have more qualities really'. 'All two-hundred and eighty or so housing units', the architects write, as if it is impossible to know the precise figure because it would be too much of a structure, 'are different'. They are not different in design. That would imply equal variation. Only their differentiation, their differenciation as Gilles Deleuze would call it, their individuation, is determined. In the same way, the block as a whole is determined by defining some units as emptiness and others as fullness, cutting some out of a reading room as a sea of books, as reading that detaches a book from a transcendental pile of wisdom, and cutting out others as unread books. There is a sliding scale from volume to form and from form to volume. Both forms and formless volumes are purely symbolic; it is only in the second instance, if at all, that they acquire an architectonic concept and name. Each home has a name of its own. Those with the most form - the 'Cross-house' and the 'Church-house' - have the most symbolic form: a cross-shape which defies gravity as a symbol. Unformed homes, slithering between forms and dripping through holes in the floors in their mobility and fluidity, have names like 'snake', 'half-snake', 'stair' or 'loop'. The idea of living is thus differentiated into the home itself and the idea that runs through the whole block of a soup containing what the architects call 'home ingredients' - though 'home attributes' would have been a better term: 'wooden bathing units, brickwork shafts, stainless steel sinks, partitions made of glass, wood and paper [...] completed by the concrete lift shafts, the columns and the wedges for stability.' Even the crudest architectonic elements become furniture in a sea of housing.
Although the project does no more than to address the spontaneous knowledge which the residents have of their district in the simplest way, without rhetoric, perhaps some of the determinations were too negative or too extraordinary, too lateral or too indirect, to survive without rhetoric in a self-conscious culture.  The people of Berlin did not see it as a monument of the district, as the Stadtkrone of Prenzlauerberg, but as a wall, as a monument to the Wall which no one wanted. The architects have been asked to collaborate with the two other award winners, Walter Noebel from Berlin and the Moscow duo Dimitri Bersh and Alexander Khomyakov, in a follow-up commission to work the project out in low-rise building. They will have a difficult time of it if they have to cling to their advanced Dutch architectural approach in a more formalistic and ideological setting. It will be no easy task to transform their high-level wedge into a low-level one with an even more far-reaching formulation of the housing block, instead of engaging in a nostalgic restoration of what never was.
After Walter Noebel’s proposal was accepted, the architects were asked to build a middle part of this scheme. Other middle parts will be worked out by the architects Duwensee and Kreplin, Büro ENNS, and Bersh and Khomyakov. Walter Noebel and his friend Bernd Albers will build the outer parts. The leitmotivs for the whole of the block now became ‘brick work’ and ‘Berlin block’.



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