This picture is from a late 2011 interview I did in Berlin with Matthias Rick from the experimental architecture practice, Raumlaborberlin. Raumlabor describes itself as a network and collective, formed around a core of eight architects. Under the title of ‘instant urbanism’ or ‘sudden cities’ they work on the borders of architecture and urban planning to find ideas for better cities.
One of Raumlabor’s projects at that time was Markthalle Neun. The Eisenbahnstrasse Market Hall in Berlin’s inner city district of Kreuzberg ceased being a thriving social centre for the neighbourhood in the early eighties when large chain stores displaced the smaller produce sellers. Eventually it became empty. Raumlabor was invited to develop an idea for how it could be transformed back into a place for lively exchange—essentially, back into a neighbourhood market.
The interview was not so much about Markthalle as a project — but about the way Raumlabor thought about all of their projects; what they meant to them and their relationship with the city. Matthias Rick was a delightful person to talk to and somehow, for me, this photograph brings to mind his love for the work and his contagious enthusiasm. Tragically, Matthias died in April 2012. He was only 47.
Visit Raumlaborberlin site.
See pictures from a recent Raumlabor exhibition in Sydney.
So Berlin is changing…
Forever. There’s a very nice quote from the sixties where a guy said, ‘Berlin is not a city. Berlin is a process’. Historically it has no centre. Because it grew from two cities next to each other on the river. And then I think in the 13th century they unified because of power, trade and that kind of stuff. They were not sure where the town hall should be. And then they built a bridge and built the town hall on the bridge.
This is part of the character of Berlin. You always have different parts and they fight against each other but then they have to collaborate and then… We have walls and bridges. That’s it. And also at the beginning of the 20th century, Charlottenburg was an independent part of the city and Berlin was an independent city. Berlin had the Brandenburg Gate and Charlottenburg built the Charlottenburg Gate. It’s the one on this big axis that Adolf Hitler and Albert Speer made. They wanted to have this big wide axis for the armies, military parades and so on.
One of my interests is what I call ‘small, slow things in big, fast cities’. Initially I thought these interviews in Berlin would be about that. Then I realised it’s far too simplistic—although I imagine the idea of fast and slow is probably something you do think about.
I visited the market hall in Kreuzberg a few days ago. Would it be right to say that you’re somehow trying to engineer some of its original slowness back into it?
With Markthalle Neun we won a competition. First, the City of Berlin wanted to sell this place to a big company [a supermarket investor] to transform it into a huge supermarket. And then there was resistance. And this is something that maybe makes developments slower… in a way. But also the development and the process is non-stop, so it’s a kind of contradiction. So there was a resistance and then the mayor of the district decided that they would change their approach and they wanted to assign the Markt Halle project, not to get the highest price but for the best idea. So there was a fixed price. And so we collaborated with a project group called Markthalle IX, who asked us to develop an idea of how this could be transformed into a contemporary marketplace.
This was an interesting question for us. What is a market hall—in our time? How do you understand ‘market’? For sure, the project group had their views on food and food production, educational stuff and so on, but we have our particular view on public space—and a market is a major public space. It’s a place of acting and trade and negotiations. And this is what we wanted to bring in to the project.
In the end there were two concepts [between the two remaining competitors: Markthalle IX and the investors, BerlinZauber Veranstaltung GmbH]. There was our concept and the investors. And the investor said, ok, we have a lot of money, we’ll just turn it into a market with market stands in 9 months. And we said… the big difference was that we said, ok, we’ll do it in seven years!
It’s been a learning process because it’s a difficult situation there in Kreuzberg. It’s one of the areas everybody knows all over the world because it has this alternative, multicultural atmosphere. It’s full of possibilities but there’s big pressure at the moment because of investors and the gentrification process. There’s fear, because rents are rising and people are not so rich here, they don’t have money, and poor people often have to move out. There’s a segregation process somehow. And there’s also this fear that this markt halle is going to only be made attractive for people with a lot of money…it’s an attractive space so we have to deal somehow with this. How can we make places and atmospheres for people with lower incomes? And also how can this be a place where you can discuss the problems of the neighbourhood, because it will be a kind of town square…with a roof. So this is what we tried to bring in with our idea of space and design and development.
Will they go ahead with the seven year plan?
We have something like that—but it also depends on money and ideas. One fourth of the hall is empty. Three fourths of the hall is filled by this discount store. The discounters have longer contracts. The other competitor, he wanted to pay 200,000 Euros so they would leave. We didn’t want to do that. We said, ok, they can stay two more years and we can start using this scenario. We can learn. We don’t have traders to fill up the whole hall so the discount stores should stay longer. We can also start with a collective… a bakery from here, a biological vegetable place from there, there can be market farmers from around Brandenburg… then there’s a kind of association growing. The smaller traders can’t afford stands so they will do a kind of cooperative and work together. Something like that. But we have to try it. To see if it’s working.
So this is the nature of your methodology? That you build in this learning process? This is something I’m interested in: using all of the experiences. This way of also using the false starts, dead ends and experiments that in the beginning don’t necessarily look like they will pay off.
It’s so easy to imagine at the outset how something could be and put this framework on it. Like with gentrification. This is a sort of engineering. But there’s also a softer kind of engineering (engineering is not the right word). One of the things I was interested in with Raumlabor is that you seem to have built in this way of moving with the project. To say that you’ve slowed it down to seven years is interesting but I’m also trying to work out what it is about your philosophy, work process, or whatever it is that you’ve found works. You’ve consciously built the learning process into your practice somehow.
We are architects and urban planners. And we have a lot of doubts about the developments of our times. Also doubts about how the city centres are developing and we see also, wherever we are, that people are losing their relationship with the city and the possibilities of the city. This is something we have decided to work on.
Raumlabor means space laboratory. Very simple. Our name is our program. We use public space, urban space, as our laboratory to find out what kinds of possibilities are hidden — behind rules, behind expectations, behind all this stuff, and this we do on different levels. We do it one-to-one, and with people together. We have this subjective view. We make subjective research. We expose ourselves to the site, we make contact, and through these experiences we just create a kind of narrative—for example, to transform a neglected highway junction into something better, or to turn a metro station into an opera house. It’s about conflict. We design a conflict. It’s not about the opera house, it’s about the conflict. We create conflicts and arguments to change viewpoints and people start thinking differently.
At the outset they say, You’re stupid! This isn’t possible. How are you going to do it? This opera house?
We try to design conflicts. We start with this idea. It’s a realised utopia, in a way. In the end, people are very proud. When you have a place or a site where people are thinking, ‘Nothing is possible any more. It’s lost.’ If you are able to realise something weird, it’s open again, and everything is possible after that.
So what is Raumlabor?
We’re not an office. We work like a sort of community. We work as a collective of independent freelancers. Raumlabor is a label. We’ve been doing this for 12 years. 8 people in the core. About 25 people in total. Maybe one third chefs (bosses), one third free-workers (freelancers) and one third interns. We work in different units and we are always looking for special knowledge. For specialists. Not only citizens (citizens are also specialists) but also maybe… For the opera we needed contact with the composers. And because we built it we collaborated with a carpenter—from Korea. So they have to be very flexible and nice people. So we’re looking for collaborations.
Good distillations are often difficult—but if you have a sort of voice, what is it… or how do you describe yourself in a limited number of words, what you’re about, your working philosophy…
We are working on the borders of architecture and urban planning and using architecture—not as an object—but as a tool to improve our environment. We’re looking for ideas for better cities. If you want a sort of title I would call it ‘instant urbanism’ or we create ‘sudden cities’ or we sometimes say ‘instant building practice.’
How did you begin?
We’ve been fortunate. We had the good luck to begin studying in 1989 in West Berlin. We met each other at the university in the first semester of architecture and then there was unification and suddenly the city was so different and we had the possibility to learn a new approach on the city and architecture compared to how it was taught in the academy. It was really boring and conservative at that time. So there was this time full of experiments around you everywhere in Berlin and we started playing and are still playing and this became our business.
And it’s all these things between memories, between possibilities, between visions and trying to make things real. This is something important to us—to make things real and to be part of it. We’re not just the kind of architects who make a drawing somewhere and wait until it is built. But also, I have to say, we became more successful and started working all over Europe and overseas and stuff and then it starts getting more routine so it’s just like a business and sometimes I’m really doubting… jumping around the world… what is this?… is this really necessary?
It was really stressful for me to commute to Korea. I went there 6 times since we started in 2010.
And dealing with other ways that businesses and governments operate in other places…
Yes. We’ve been asked to do something in Sydney next year in autumn (your spring). It’s not really fixed. We’ve started discussing it but I don’t know if this will happen because it’s so far away. For sure, Rem Koolhaas would just do everything, everywhere, but from this experience now, over the last 2 or 3 years, where I was just jumping between London, New York, Vienna, Korea, Berlin…
Maybe this is just one phase of your own learning process.
It’s still a learning process. I like challenges. I like changing what I’m doing. I like being a DJ. Sometimes I’m a DJ inside of a project. Like in Korea the first thing we built was a bar and after we built the bar together we opened it and then I’m the barkeeper. Why not!