Devil’s hill, Berlin

January 2014, German chancellor Angela Merkel is publicly not-amused by the news that her cell phone is being monitored by the NSA. The United States and the European countries are in a crisis of confidence. I am in Berlin, about to visit a notorious Cold War relic: the NSA “Abhörgelände” (spying station) on top of the Teufelsberg.tberg1

From S-bahn stop Grunewald it’s a 20 minute walk through the forest. The area, distant from Berlin’s core, was already pointed out as a good site for a meteorological faculty by the nazis. Things developed differently though. In the early 1960′s, the part of Berlin occupied by the allied forces became a walled island within the DDR. Millions of tons of rubble from the war period still had to be carried out of the city. As West-Berlin was a very limited territory, the rubble was piled up in the parks. The Teufelsberg (Devil’s hill) is the highest of Berlin’s rubble hills, 120 meters high. In the 1950′s the intention was to shape the hills into a ski slope (part of the area actually has this function). The Cold War, however, made the area into a tactical outpost for the Americans to spy on the Russians and the countries of the Warsaw Pact.

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Few years after the unification of Germany, in the early 1990′s, the complex was sold to a project developer, who wants to build a luxury residential and leisure resort. Until today, the plans have been unsuccesfull because the investments are quite high and the housing units would under the current circumstances be too expensive. In the meantime, squatters have broken in to the complex several times and have destroyed some of the buildings and facade materials. At this moment, an independent association leases the area in order to organize guided tours and grafitti festivals, while protecting the structures from further depredation. I joined one of the two-hour historic storytelling tours. In my group one guy appeared with his drone, to actually film the old NSA spying towers from above – is this the world turned upside-down or what?

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Besides the technical and historical information, juicy details were also supplied by the tour guide. For example, that about 7 years ago film director David Lynch tried to buy the premises to turn it into a University for Floating (a meditation technique developed by the Indian guru Yogi in the 1950′s). The plans didn’t go ahead.

Photo by Merten Nefs

Art work inside the main dome of the spying station.

Despite the clear importance to maintain the complex as a Cold War relic for future generations, the strategy of the organization doesn’t totally convince yet. They disapprove of any type of private use and investment, all use should be public (art galleries and studios for example) and all investments should hence come from the tax payers. Just straightforward Berliner activism perhaps, something we’re not used to anymore in the all too pragmatic lowlands. So for the time being things remain temporary and mysterious, also very much in the spirit of Berlin.

Photo by Merten Nefs

View towards Berlin through the tower facade of the spying station, ripped open by squatters.

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Tableau comparatif

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I found this neat historical drawing in the Rotterdam Public Library, as part of a small exhibition on cartography (objects and maps borrowed from Delft University of Technology). The drawing compares the longest rivers, highest mountains and deepest waterfalls on earth by placing them all in the same view. Something we would today call an infographic.

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Rotterdam central station

This month the new main train station of Rotterdam was officially opened by the King. Only a formality, in a way, since the station (third biggest terminal in the Netherlands) was never closed during construction. At the day of the opening, March 13th 2014, dancers and musicians performed in the entrance hall, new bars and restaurants opened and a conference on Urban Transformation was held nearby. Besides room for more passengers, the stations offers a bicycle garage for over 5.000 bikes and vast areas of photovoltaics on the roof to supply large part of the needed energy.

Photo by Merten Nefs

Letter signs of the old station building were reused in the new facade

Despite the real estate crisis that has haunted the country for 5 years already, Rotterdam is in an amazing flow of construction: in 2013, the Calypso block (Alsop) and vertical city ‘De Rotterdam‘ (OMA) opened its doors, now the new Central Station and later this year the city market hall (MVRDV) will be inaugurated. At the same time various residential tower blocks are being realized in the central area, which is becoming much more attractive and mixed. The ‘building boom’ has been severely criticized, since the municipality is taking great risks while demand for new office space, for example, is still low. Perhaps it is one of the reasons why the political party of alderman Karakus, responsible for the constructions, lost last week’s elections.

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On the other hand, OMA’s tower and the Calypso development have already found the necessary tenants and buyers, and the new buildings have put Rotterdam high on the international wish lists, for instance by the New York Times and Rough Guide. The city’s ‘little brother’-complex with regard to Amsterdam is slowly fading away. The area around the Central Station is now suddenly a tourist attraction, Rotterdam is hot. During the conference, MIT (Boston) researcher Tim Rowe explained how Rotterdam may become a new dynamic innovation cluster with succesful startups and facilities. Urban planner John Worthington (London) launched the idea of opening up the Groothandelsgebouw, next to the station, in order to become a permeable and attractive hotspot for such innovative small businesses.
At the same time, the city sticks to its straightforward worker class attitude: The entire station project – by Benthem & Crouwel, Meyer & Van Schooten and West 8, was completed within the planning deadlines and spending 28 million euros less than the foreseen budget.

Rotterdam CS

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GFT-avenue at IABR 2014

The project GFT avenue (by Merten Nefs, Janneska Spoelman and Lucia Dossin) was nominated in the multi-disciplinary design competition Designing with Flows (Ontwerpen met Stromen). GFT-avenue proposes to increase local recycling of food and other organic material near centres of consumption in central Rotterdam, hereby cutting transport kilometres and stimulating urban agriculture.
The competition is organized by the Dutch Architect’s Association (BNA) and the International Architecture Biennale of Rotterdam, where the three nominee projects will be displayed. The winner will be anounced in June 2014, during the Biennale, which carries the theme Urban by Nature.

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Streetwise in New York and London

This week, the Rotterdam Academy of Architecture organized a double lecture on shopping streets, the most common urban space for human interaction, including conflict, and how designers and planners can make a difference here. The lecture ticket included a tasty hotdog from the trolley parked in front of the entrance.

The sociological view on shopping streets – by Sharon Zukin -  focused on narratives, migration and problems of gentrification, whereas the planners perspective – by Mark Brearley – showed the importance of shopping streets in the metropolis and several examples of renovation projects to give them new life. Although both agree on the vital function of diverse shopping streets in the city, the first sees renovation as a possible threat, the latter as a sollution.

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First, Zukin discussed her research on ‘Global Cities, Local Shops’. Due to the snow blizzards in New York that day, her plane remained on the ground and Zukin gave her lecture through a (rather good) skype connection. The project included cases of shopping streets in New York, Toronto, Amsterdam, Berlin, Shanghai and Tokyo. Examples of Orchard street (New York) and Javastraat (Amsterdam) show that shopping streets are not only spaces of economic transaction, but also provide visual inside-outside relationships and signs of local and global culture. Actually, the same shops and visual styles of the Global North and Global South can be found in both streets!

Often, different ethnic groups are found in the same places in different periods, until the ABC (art gallery, boutique and coffee) arrive, and gentrification and renovation start. Zukin believes that only with delicate urban policies a mixture can be maintained in transforming shopping streets. The most important threats to these ‘fragile social eco-systems’ are: lack of capital of small businesses and their need to attract customers, conflicts on rents between store owners and building owners, competition with online shops and the vulnerability regarding urban regeneration policies. In an extraordinary example in Shanghai, she demonstrates that even preservation of the local buildings and population is not always enough to avoid gentrification. A local business man took the opportunity of a real estate crisis in Shanghai to avoid demolition of the historic neighborhood and start a slow transformation process with the owners themselves. Nowadays, they live upstairs, while they rent out the ground floor to art galleries and expensive stores, hereby changing the entire streetscape.

Its comes as no surprise that Zukin doesn’t like shopping malls, being the opposite of public street life. Although, she said, “shopping malls in São Paulo don’t seem to be immune to the differences that shake that society”. (see popular ‘Rolezinho’ video belo)

Brearly, who led the metropolitan design team of the Mayor of London for over a decade, shed light on ‘Affecting Streets’. His design team was installed by London’s first elected mayor Ken Livingstone with architect Richard Rogers, continued from that point under different names until it was recently dismantled under Boris Johnson. Besides the High Street project, the presentation also revisited the Crossrail project, the London Green Grid and the choice of London for a compact city development with a green belt. Brearly’s tone was so dry that I suppose one could call him the Rowan Atkinson of town planning.

London has 600 High Streets, where many of the city’s commercial functions and jobs are located. London is also supposed to have 600 boroughs or ‘localities’, but that could be a coincidence. One example of a very long high street includes the same amount of workers as does Canary Wharf. Many streets and squares have been nicely refurbished in recent years, including some of the places affected by the riots. In fact, the high street model may continue to thrive in the future. The recent attention for high streets was propelled by massive shop vacancy problems. London, however, will still grow in the future by about a third. Brearly therefore believes it would be a good idea to extend the high street network of the city by a third as well.

London High Streets

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