Open Architecture. Migration, Citizenship, and the Urban Renewal of Berlin-Kreuzberg by IBA-1984/87

Akcan, Esra
Anzahl Seiten
406 S.
€ 77,95
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Tim Verlaan, Modern History, University of Amsterdam

In May 2012, a group of mainly Turkish-German tenants threatened by eviction from their flats managed to occupy a central square in Berlin Kreuzberg, where they have stayed ever since. The tenant initiative named Kotti & Co was a harbinger of the protests against gentrification that have engulfed the former working-class district over the last decade. In many ways, the upheavals mirror the protests against urban renewal in the 1960s and 1970s, when huge swathes of Kreuzberg and other Berlin boroughs were earmarked for demolition. Tenement houses from the Gründerzeit were to be replaced by spacious blocks of flats and multi-lane expressways designed in a modernist style, providing local residents with a lush and carefully organized environment suited for modern living. With redevelopment in sight, inner-city districts such as Kreuzberg saw a rapid influx of Turkish guest workers and young adults from other parts of West Germany.1 Together with a younger generation of architects and planners they began to criticize the city’s agenda of tearing down and building up, which eventually resulted in a radical different and more gentle approach to urban renewal: the social and physical fabric of the borough was to remain intact and newbuilds had to respect the nineteenth-century grid and perimeter blocks surrounding them.

It is at this moment in the post-war history of West Berlin that Esra Akcan begins her voluminous book on the intrinsic relationship between architecture and planning, migration and citizenship. Contrary to most urban and architectural histories, the protagonists in this monograph are not policy makers or planners but actual residents and the international architects who designed their dwellings. The latter were part of the International Building Exhibition (IBA) of 1984/87, which denounced the supposedly functionalist dogma of tabula rasa planning and separation of urban functions, instead calling for a reparation of the tight-knit urban fabric of the pre-war period. In her introduction, Akcan announces that she will discuss IBA as ‘the last episode in the history of twentieth-century public housing, when housing was part of architects’ disciplinary concerns; as a microcosm of the participatory, postmodernist, and poststructuralist debates in architecture from the mid-1960s until early 1990s, and as a significant moment that exposes the contradictory relationships between international immigration laws and housing when seen from the perspective of immigrant residents’. Central in her argument is the notion of ‘open architecture’, which she defines as the translation of a new ethics of hospitality into design that is based on the welcoming of other social groups i.e. Turkish migrants into the design process.

This is a commendable undertaking a field that has traditionally been dominated by coffee-table books and biographical accounts. Akcan wonderfully lays bare the tensions between the ideals of the designers of our built environment and its everyday experience, offering us insightful and the same time entertaining anecdotes about impractical floor plans and creative resident interventions. The book is subdivided into three different parts that investigate openness in relation to architectural design, interspersed with ‘stops’ and ‘strolls’ throughout Kreuzberg. Photographs of street scenes and interiors made by the author over the last ten years alternate with illustrations and drawings from the archive. These illustrations are probably also the reason for the book’s hefty price tag – we can only hope for a less expensive paperback to reach broader audiences as well. A foldout map of IBA’s renewal and renovation projects is even included, although the reader needs prior knowledge to actually navigate the streets of Kreuzberg with Akcan’s book in hand. Literally no stone has been left unturned in detailing the recent social and built history of the borough, which is accompanied by more theoretical reflections on twentieth-century architectural and philosophical discourse and lengthy resident interviews. Akcan says that between 2009 and 2014 she rang the bell of ‘almost every door’ in Kreuzberg that she could identify as belonging to an immigrant’s apartment – a method that seems to become more prevalent in the field of architectural history.2

Perhaps the strongest point of Open Architecture is its focus on the relationship between architecture and politics without discussing actual policy- and decision-making. Akcan wants to give a voice to ‘noncitizen residents’ through oral history and storytelling rather than sociology and ethnography while trying to keep her own viewpoints out, which, as she admits in her introduction, was difficult when she disagreed with interviewees about the architectural quality of their living environment. It is certainly refreshing to hear Kreuzbergers lamenting the work of well-known starchitects such as Rem Koolhaas and Aldo Rossi with a typical Berliner Schnauze. At the same time, the lack of primary sources on the role played by housing corporations, property owners, the Berlin Senate and party politics is also one of the monograph’s flaws. Recurring concepts in contemporary academic and public debate such as gentrification and neoliberalism, which have come to define the urban experience since IBA, are not specified nor applied to Akcan’s case studies.

However, it should be acknowledged here that this is not what the author, who was trained as an architect herself, set out to do with her book. The rather narrow focus on resident experiences and architectural design is compensated by a pan-European scope, which works particularly well in the chapter discussing open architecture in relation to collectivism, and an eloquent writing style that fits the postmodernist lingo of the 1970s and 1980s. This book is clearly a work of love and passion by someone interested in the history of Kreuzberg and its residents for more than academic reasons.

With Open Architecture we have come full circle. IBA aimed to let residents participate in the design of public housing, and now, forty years later, their opinions about the lived experiences of the same public housing have been recorded for posterity. One of the interviewees states that the most important outcome of IBA was that people could stay where they lived. It is to be seen if the efforts of Kotti & Co can save the social fabric of Kreuzberg once more. Today’s protesters can definitely learn from the strategies employed by residents and architects in the recent past, which in itself is an important right for this book to exist.

1 Tim Verlaan, The Neues Kreuzberger Zentrum. Urban Planners, Property Developers and Fractious Left Politics in West Berlin, 1963–1974, in: German History 38 (2020), pp. 113–132, (27.08.2021).
2 Deborah van der Plaat / Janina Gosseye / Naomi Stead (eds.), Speaking of Buildings: Oral History in Architectural Research, New York 2019.

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