Bau Wow: Shall We Bark or Bite?

I lived here, before and after. You were here; or, you will be here. They were here, the nextperts. For decades now, Berlin has been a test tube city for architects, hundreds of architects, who have been drawn to this city’s its appetite for novelty and change. During the past dozen years in particular, Berlin has experienced a bewildering transformation that has been extensive, rapid, and varied. For University of Nevada historian Janet Ward, Berlin has become the new model for cities like Las Vegas to aspire to, as Berlin has achieved an exemplary pageantry of nostalgia, exoticism and futurism–the three main tenets of strip development.

While one might agree or disagree with particular developments within Berlin, one cannot dismiss the astonishing spirit and commitment the people have invested in its architecture. One can’t help but applaud Germany’s enthusiasm for Berlin, given the neglect which cities in other nations suffer. Germany’s zeal for rapid unification was to focus on Berlin as the resuscitated Hauptstadt, the New Berlin. From the beginning of unification, the entire nation rallied around the city as a representation of confidence and optimism, unity and plurality.

However, Berlin itself was to focus on an enhanced stature among other world cities, such as London, New York and Tokyo. These cities include their respective nations, but at the same time remain necessarily distinct from, indifferent toward, surrounding national inclinations and influences. In these cities, it is the image of the city–urban branding–that casts its global viability. Once these cities are no longer defined by their nations, the concentrated value of these cities becomes diversity, boldness, and excellence.

If the New Berlin was to represent diversity and excellence through architecture, it required bold contributions from world-renowned architects–those individuals I have called nextperts. We can now look back on the past decade in Berlin and scrutinize the offerings of this enormous international cast of architects and planners. Nowhere else has so much been created from abroad. The building boom is over, but at one time or other they were all here. And many stayed.

How is the success of these architectural contributions to be measured? The Berliner Zeitung reported in July that more than 30,000 disenchanted Berliners traverse the city boundary every year, moving to parts unknown. The Prognos think tank speculates that 180,000 will leave Berlin by 2010. Are these useful assessments? Apparently they are not. According to the nextperts, the achievements in Berlin are to be celebrated; this past summer, the architects returned to this exemplary city of change to outline significant transformations that are urgently needed worldwide.

Last summer was the first time that the Union internationale des architectes (UIA) World Congress was held in Germany, where more than 5,000 gathered for the 21st World Congress of Architecture in Berlin. The title of the Congress was Resource Architecture. What is Resource Architecture? The Scientific Committee to the XXI World Congress of Architecture tabled 10 questions to assist in forming an agenda for the Congress.

What building blocks for a new global peace order can architects provide with their architecture? (I would like to meet the individual who suggested this question.)

On what moral values does the responsibility of those substantially involved in planning and building rest?

How can the ecological costs for the built environment be internalized in economic efficiency more than has previously been done while observing their global effects?

How can innovations in architecture build on traditions and the history of building?

How can regional identity in architecture, economy and society be perceived as an added value and how can it be continued in a modern guise?

How can beauty in architecture correspond to contemporary content and take a timeless shape?

How can the social value of planning as a holistic way of thinking in relation to independent decisions and individual buildings be increased?

How can sustainable, resource-saving construction contribute to a greater degree of social justice?

In what ways can planning and building protect the material resources and increase the spiritual resources of beauty and identity?

How are architects to take a stand when political changes are required, but when the realities of planning and building take the same old form?

During the course of five days, invited Congress speakers tabled their papers and directed their images toward Resource Architecture in six general modes. There were those who believed that architecture itself already provided the necessary knowledge and precedent resources for addressing change in the field. Many considered expanding globalization as the new resource for architecture. Fewer were those who thought that the ideas of architects were an architectural resource, and fewer still were directly involved in architectural activism. I’ll include those who saw the natural and cultivated environments as resources in this list, by default of course, not as a substantial concern of the Congress. Finally, there were those who ascertained that a World Congress on Architecture was bound to have good press.

It was Peter Eisenman who pressed the question “Where are all the Stars?” during the Congress. Given Eisenman’s numbing thoughts on architectural ideas–an exhausting 30 minutes of foreplay–we can be thankful that the presence of glamour wasn’t of much concern to the audience, which was expecting arguments, convincingly researched and well presented. The audience was also expecting lively debate and discussion, which did not transpire. This is truly unfortunate, given the presence of so many international scholars and designers from around the entire globe.

These expectations of intense debate grew during the week, with many papers fueling desires for confrontation. Dr. Anne Strenros of Design Forum Finland cautioned that cities are no longer considered in terms of their resources, such as water and power. Techparks, Biocities–evidence of entrepreneurialism, competition, ability to change, and an educated workforce–make it possible for cities to compete in the new economy. This fascination with an ability to change, with speed, is what Tay Kheng Soon termed “the fuel of capitalism.” The Singapore architect and planner observed that rapidly developing cities are eventually propelled toward kitsch, as kitsch mediates between noia (self) and paranoia (constructed self). Kitsch represents a return to self, a departure from the global aspirations of a people.

This focus on global competition between cities, particularly Western cities, was most concentrated during architect Gilbert Felli’s pitch for urban development and sport. Imagine the International Olympic Committee as conscientious stewards of available resources. As an IOC Sports Director, Felli laid out a mandate for urban development that had much in common with Karl Ganser’s insistence that architects had to furnish their clients with construction and destruction plans. Capital moves and capitals move.

Fortunately, this enchantment with globalization was tempered by very clear arguments that served as reminders that the resources of a city rely on the resourcefulness of individual citizens. According to Daniel Biau, his UN Habitat statistics place nearly one-third of the world’s urban populations in informal or substandard living conditions. The poor are the major builders in Third World cities, not developers. Where banks don’t lend money, citizens lend to each other. Where schools don’t exist, citizens teach each other. Where housing isn’t possible, people build their own.

Unexpectedly, it was a Canadian scholar and architect who entertained one of the largest crowds at the Congress and delivered a paper that earnestly pursued this relationship between resources and resourcefulness. Richard Kroeker of Dalhousie University’s School of Architecture, in a plenum on the architecture of 2030, turned the tables b
y stating that the architecture of the future was the architecture of villages. Kroeker skillfully parlayed global problems into local problems with local solutions. His evidence was compelling.

With a team of talented students, Kroeker arrived at a fishing village in Africa–keen to act. The village water pump had been abandoned for five years, as the sophisticated device was made in Europe and could not be fixed, or even maintained, locally. Villagers were walking kilometres to the nearest water source. Working with the citizens, the team made an inventory of local resources and designed and made a water pump that was low-tech but durable and highly efficient.

The group continued to study the fishing village and discovered that most of their deaths were due to loss of life at sea, where fishers would empty gasoline cans and cling to them upon abandoning ship. Local tailors sewed lengthy tubes, devised by the students, so that empty bottles of drinking water could be inserted into the tubes to create life- preserving watersnakes. Local problems, local solutions.

Given the general Congress chatter on urbanization and globalization, the immediacy and resourcefulness of these two village exercises could not have been more peculiar, or more necessary. Kroeker’s presentation clearly demonstrated an acute ability to listen, a refined sense of responsibility, and a willingness to act. When these individual characteristics are combined with their public counterparts, we have healthy cities.

Peter Yeadon teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design and recently held an endowed visiting professorship at Cornell University. A selection of his works are at www.yeadon.net

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