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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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.

Oxford street

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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Hutong – a new model for Beijing?

When China opened up and became a socialist market economy, it didn’t take long for the real estate sector to emerge and start developing the contemporary Chinese city according to the logic of capital, demand and supply. Even while many companies are still state-owned. For years, the traditional alleyway neighborhoods of central Beijing, called Hutongs, were a playing ground for profitable big scale redevelopment projects, tabula-rasa style. At some point, however, residents and critics became aware of the economic and cultural value of the small-scale homes in the Hutong, leading to long and difficult recompensation processes.

Dashilar Project

During Beijing Design Week 2013 I visited the Dashilar Hutong, and later that week a few other expamples. Professor Wu Chen, also director of the Beijing Institute for Architectural Design (BIAD), presented the transformation process of Dashilar, a very central and traditional hutong, close to Tian´anmen square. Earlier that day, Jia Rong of the Dashilar Project had given us a tour. The neighborhood is to a large extent made up of one and two-storey buildings from the Ming en Qing dynasty era, with the typical structure of courtyards. The complex property situation (leases, land use rights etc.), restrictions to building heights and costly expropriation arrangements have turned Dashilar into an area that is hard to redevelop at a profit by the (state) development companies. At the same time, developments are required, since the infrastructure, sanitation and public space in the area are precarious.

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Dashilar Hutong (left) and Nanluoguxiang Hutong (right), Beijing

Therefore BIAD has been working for years already on an alternative development strategy. Among other measures to make people concious about the cultural value of the area, the Dashilar Phone-App was developed, through which tourists and visitors can easily explore the labyrinthic hutong and constantly receive information about design galleries, restaurants and other features in the streets of Dashilar. In collaboration with local investors, a shopping center with housing on top is being realized, avoiding the standard ‘closed box’ typology. At the same time, the infrastructure is enhanced. A new public toilet is under construction, since many of the small dwellings don’t have their own toilet. Professor Wu summarizes the project as ´Nodal development´ as opposed to the modernistic ´Tabula Rasa´ development.

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Vertical hutong project, by Steven Holl, Beijing

The permeable hutong-model with its narrow alleys was abandoned by the upcoming middle class in the 1980′s and 1990′s. The old and precarious structures – many times without a proper bathroom or connection to water and the sewage system – were easily changed for modern appartments in superblock tower buildings beyond the 3rd ringroads of Beijing. The hutong, however, is making a comeback. The new generation likes going to famous hutongs for leisure. The centrality and function mix of many hutongs have become much appreciated, since Beijing now suffers from massive traffic infarcts and monofunctional suburbanization. Architects like Steven Holl and Riken Yamamoto have realized housing complexes in Beijing, conceived as modern, vertical, hutongs. In their project Meta:Hutongs, architects Wang Shuo and Andrew Bryant organize workshops to explore the possiblities of the hutong model, without taking sides of either the preservationists or the demolitionists. It is one of the projects featured in the Abitare China #34, a special magazine on Hutong Adaptation.

Abitare - Meta:Hutongs

The hutongs in the central area of Beijng (within the 3rd ringroad) can easily be explored in three dimensions using Baidu Maps:

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