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Dreaming of a City:
A Letter from Berlin

By David Womack and Alice Twemlow

The theme of this year's Design Mai, Berlin's annual design festival, was "Design City" and many of the 100 or so exhibitors presented possible dwellings for the urban nomad. The subject of urban nomaderie, or temporary living, seems very popular with designers the world over at the moment. For one thing, it gives them the opportunity to venture into the territory of architecture without having to deal with the drudgery of insuring that their creations stand up to time and the elements. In fact, few of the foldable, packable, stackable structures looked as if they could weather a light drizzle. Iglu, for example, is an igloo made by Alexander Clos from 100 pink Evian bottle crates. The caption for this pretty-pink project mentions that Iglu's "unusual construction method generates a room flooded with light." Or flooded with anything else, for that matter.

In past years, the Design Mai exhibits were scattered in galleries and stores around the city and events were spread out through most of the month of May. This year, in an attempt to make the festival more media friendly, the organizers have compressed its time span to four days and centralized its exhibits within a 97,000 square foot former train station in the south of the city. And at the press launch, Berlin's Mayor Klaus Wowereit was hustled through the various exercises in temporary living followed by a pack of camera-toting reporters who seemed delighted by his willingness to climb in tents and aboard various unstable-looking bicycle/taxi contraptions for photographs.

Centralizing the exhibitions had the unfortunate side effect of creating a sort of designer ghetto. Had the exhibits been located in situ throughout the city they might have shown to better advantage, or at least had the opportunity to share the stage with what was surely the main attraction: Berlin itself.

Brought together under the bright lights of the exhibit hall, however, many of the makeshift shelters looked haphazard and the designers--some of whom slept in the exhibits--appeared confused by the presence of visitors, as if a film crew had suddenly focused their spotlights on an encampment found under some bridge. Centralizing the exhibitions had the unfortunate side effect of creating a sort of designer ghetto. Had the exhibits been located in situ throughout the city they might have shown to better advantage, or at least had the opportunity to share the stage with what was surely the main attraction: Berlin itself.

All these makeshift shelters seem rather superfluous especially because Berlin is one of the few cities where young designers and artists can actually get a decent apartment--a fact that has a vital role in the city's evolution. Some of the world's most famous squats, such as Tacheles, were initiated in the former East Berlin. They now find themselves at the center of the Mitte, a trendy district of boutiques and galleries. In this case, the structures have remained stationary while the city has changed around them. While some of the squats have been torn down or fixed up, others still function as cornerstones of the creative community, hosting film screenings, exhibitions, parties and concerts.

More evolved design spaces still exhibit the "squat" mentality, which prizes flexibility and spontaneity over permanence (or profitability). We bought an umbrella at a store called Kwik Shop on Kastienallee, knocking on the shop's window until we caught the attention of the owner who was busy at a workbench inside. The store is front-loaded, so that all the goods for sale are stacked in the window and can only be purchased from the street through a small hatch. The advantage of this kiosk system, the owner explained, was that on rainy days, for example, she could quickly rearrange her merchandise to reflect the local conditions. Behind the glass, and only partially screened by the merchandise, was a large room that opened out onto a pleasant garden. Its sole contents were a lone workbench and some storage boxes. Seen through these New Yorkers' jealous eyes such a flagrant waste of space seemed bizarre. And yet after seeing several more such retail experiments, it became clear that in Berlin real estate is merely another material--like plastic or LED--to be reinterpreted.

A lot of the initial excitement of the city, at least for newcomers, is the kid-in-the-candy-store reaction to the elegant apartments occupied by people seemingly no older or more responsible than one's self. Most luxurious of all, however, is the fact that in addition to inhabiting gorgeous pads, our Berlin counterparts seem to posses the mental space to pursue projects for pleasure and curiosity rather than profit. It's only after spending time in Berlin that one realizes how tight are the spaces--both physical and mental--one is forced to inhabit in New York or London.

And--here's the important bit--where the creatives go, Florida predicts, business will eventually follow. Berlin seems the perfect test case for this theory. The question now is: How long will it take before business catches up?

But not all is good beer and roses. Berlin seems to be engaged in a game of chicken with the global economy. It was significant that in his opening remarks, Vitra Museum curator Mateo Kries cited Richard Florida's 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class. The book, which seems to have made quite an impression in the city, predicts that the capitals of the 21 st century will be defined by the presence of a skilled, creative (and increasingly nomadic) workforce who are attracted to culturally vibrant cities with low rents and a socially progressive politics. And--here's the important bit--where the creatives go, Florida predicts, business will eventually follow. Berlin seems the perfect test case for this theory. The question now is: How long will it take before business catches up?

This question is not just academic. Our friends Daniela and Marcel did exactly what, according to Florida, they were supposed to do. They moved their small design firm from the confines of New York to Berlin where they could live a more creative lifestyle. Since arriving in Berlin more than a year ago, however, they've had a hard time finding local clients--or at least clients that would pay for design. They have been forced to travel to more prosperous German cities, such as Hamburg, as well as trying to maintain relations with the clients they left behind in the US. Almost every designer we spoke with lamented the lack of paying projects in Berlin. Which is not to say they live poorly. Daniela and Marcel enjoy a stunning bi-level storefront studio, which will double as a gallery, in the most fashionable subsection of a fashionable neighborhood. Steps away are Bless (the conceptual gallery-cum-design-cum-fashion-store) and Pro-Qm (a stellar design bookstore). Until they can establish a client base, however, these designers' stay in Berlin has to be considered temporary.

Being left more or less to their own devices Berlin designers are free to think big--and few think bigger than Rafael Horzon. In contrast to much of the other work at Design Mai, Horzon's projects concern the long-term interests of the community rather than a short-term need for shelter. In 1997, Horzon founded Berlin's first private science academy, the Wissenschaftsakademie Berlin. It is funded by a complex web of his other enterprises including a furniture shop on Torstrasse called Moebel Horzon, in which the only product on offer is an MDF shelf called Modern. Horzon's offering at Design Mai 2006 was nothing less than a "replacement of all religious spaces." This notion took the physical form of a prototype for a spiritual center. The center consists of a light wall made of neon strip lights mounted in close parallel lines like the slats of a Venetian blind, and upon which, one supposes, the congregation's attention would be focused. The center is only the latest component in a larger vision called Redesigndeutschland, which includes a universal grammar (so that all languages can be more easily assimilated) and the expansion of the metric system (so that each day has 100 hours, each hour 100 minutes, and each year 1,000 days).

Berlin still seems a sort of creative paradise where one can live well for little money surrounded by like minds: imagine New York without the lawyers, or London without the bankers. One need only look at neighborhoods like Hoxton in London or Dumbo in Brooklyn to witness the unwelcome byproducts of financial stability. It seems barbaric to hope that big business finally arrives in Berlin--no matter how many high-paying projects it brings.

But then, like the denizens of Design Mai's Design City, we were just passing through. Like transient designers, journalists are prone to flimsy speculations, especially when they debate the future of a city that exists primarily in their imagination. Although centralizing the exhibition may make it easier for journalists to experience the breadth of the festival--it comes at the expense of a deeper experience of the city itself, which is where the issues that the festival was meant to raise are being played out. Next year, rather than building makeshift encampments for nomads, let's hear more from those who are here to stay.

 


 

Alice Twemlow and David Womack are writers living in Brooklyn, New York.