BY Oliver Elser in Opinion | 06 AUG 11
Featured in
Issue 2

Aus Neu mach Alt

Many architects are turning towards found materials. Are the buildings of the future already waiting in the rubbish?

BY Oliver Elser in Opinion | 06 AUG 11

raumlaborberlin, The Big Crunch, Temporary installation, Darmstadt, 2011

The municipal authorities werent sure what it was supposed to be: too big for an art work, housing a bar selling alcohol but without the legally required toilets, its surfaces dangerously sharp-edged, and all this without an official permit for who could have tested a heap of old junk for structural soundness? But the citys freshly elected mayor from the Green party smiled on the project, and an anarchic breeze was allowed to blow across Darmstadts Theaterplatz square in June 2011. Even without all the usual permits, raumlaborberlin, a group of architects from Berlin, were able to erect their junk installation The Big Crunch as part of the Architecture Summer Rhine-Main 2011.

For anyone familiar with the activities of raumlaborberlin, this project is quickly identified as a variation on Das Küchenmonument (The Kitchen Monument) that has accompanied the architects on visits to art and architecture festivals around the world since 2006. Its elongated inflatable form has already served in Berlin, Liverpool, Venice, Warsaw and elsewhere as a mobile soup kitchen, stage, party zone and seminar room for the inevitable panel discussions with architects, artists and curators. In Darmstadt, this model was played out in an interestingly modified way. Architecture students and employees of the citys waste disposal company presorted junk and brought it to Theaterplatz, where a professionally erected scaffold was waiting to be covered over. Whereas the inflatable Küchenmonument has to be filled with life every time, The Big Crunch is complete in itself as a large-scale sculpture.

Das Küchenmonument flirts with the space capsule concepts of the 1960s, most obviously with Archigrams Instant City (1968): an unattractive neighbourhood upgraded, not by the addition of new buildings, but by the arrival of a guerrilla force in airships with hi-tech equipment which transforms the place into a kind of noisy, flashing Times Square. A city centre as an out-of-the-box solution, hence the name.

The Big Crunch has other associations, even if the principle of a drop sculpture designed by well-meaning higher powers is the same. Do the discarded items of furniture not signal a cosy familiarity? After all, the junk-hybrid school of interior design has become the trademark of countless cafés, especially in Berlin. The fatal trend towards a new petty bourgeois style has been discussed more than once in connection with these places full of second-hand furniture selling homemade cakes.

raumlaborberlin, The Big Crunch, 2011 Inside view

But what is wrong with surrounding oneself with fragments of history, even if they are old furniture and other rubbish? The prickly surface of The Big Crunch, apparently assembled out of carefully selected and particularly striking pieces of junk, not only speaks of the wish to build something wild and disturbing (inside there was a grating sound installation by Bruno Franceschini) but also suggests that theres no harm in offering the audience a bridge to understanding. Who wouldnt be convinced by the idea of using old items of furniture to build with instead of trashing them?

This turn towards using found materials and the wish to involve the audience are not exclusive to raumlaborberlin. Within the last year, issues of two magazines have appeared which, taken together, offer something like an inventory, providing a surprisingly clear picture: the architecture scene in Germany (and elsewhere) is gradually coming to the conclusion that augmenting, repairing, extending and improvising can be more important than the never-ending quest for the new and the unprecedented. Under the title Germany: New Urban Strategies, issue 6/2010 of the Czech architecture magazine ERA21 examined this tendency. The guest editor was raumlaborberlins Matthias Rick, with the Prague Goethe Institute acting as sponsor. And the March 2011 issue of Arch+ magazine dealt with the theme of Berlin in the form of a sometimes rather chaotic mix of articles, but including a well written overview of recent trends in the Berlin architecture scene by Florian Heilmeyer, who cleverly addressed the sensitive issue of whether it might be time to proclaim a new Berlin style: The projects shown here are interesting because they have been able to free themselves from merely flirting with the image of the provisional, even if they still use its vocabulary. In other words: they are interesting not because they elevate the broken, the provisional and the crude to the trademark of a popular Berlin myth, but because they use these elements as a natural option.

BeL, Grundbau und Siedler, Contribution to the IBA Hamburg 2011

What these magazines barely showed, however, is that the German capital is not the only place where people are considering altered strategies in architecture. The only exception was BeL, the Cologne firm of Anne-Julchen Bernhardt and Jörg Leeser. ERA21 featured one of their projects that manages to eye-catchingly combine all the ideas now circulating in the architecture scene. Grundbau und Siedler (Basic Building and Settlers), their contribution to the current Hamburg International Architecture Exhibition, endeavours to strip architects of some of their power and allow owner-occupiers to participate as the creative, home improvement enthusiasts they show themselves to be anyway when they return from the DIY store on Saturdays with fully loaded cars. To this end, BeL developed a kit of parts including detailed instructions for the owners who can decide themselves how to complete a bare concrete skeleton. These are all ideas that were already considered in the 1960s and 1970s. At that time, participation topped the agenda. As part of the process of emancipation from all manner of dependencies, homes were also to be revolutionized. Now these strategies are making a comeback, with less ideological baggage, based purely on the need to be able to offer affordable accommodation to an increasingly poor middle class. The parents of todays prospective homeowners had already built their own houses by the time they were 40, without a lifetime of being in debt to the bank. Today, anyone who still has money is more likely to join one of the construction co-ops which in many cities now offer an alternative to buying residential properties from commercial developers. But the question of whether a broad-based settler movement exists or can exist in Germany beyond this current boom in construction co-ops, as BeL wished to find out with its deliberately rudimentary project, goes beyond the bounds of a mere architectural experiment. If people with modest incomes gain access to accommodation that really can be completed by the owners, the entire overpriced system of the real estate industry might be blown apart…
Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Oliver Elser is a curator at the Deutsches Architekturmuseum. He lives in Frankfurt am Main.