CITIES, how the world works, policy & design

BMW Guggenheim Lab in Berlin: PR English, asking the wrong questions, and the festivalisation of urban planning.

It so happened that last Tuesday I attended a meeting with the BMW Guggenheim Lab curators, organised by the students of the TU Berlin Masterstudiengang Historische Urbanistik (or Historical Urban Studies). I was invited ad hoc, and had no intention of writing about it, and would not have, were it not for the strange and indicatively unsuccessful nature of the encounter.

Some background: according to BMW’s own head of branding, the company decided to engage in some image-cleaning and reach out to “those people who currently don’t have any particular affinity to the BMW brand and might even view cars with ambivalence”, thus joining with the Guggenheim Foundation and funding an enormously expensive, world-touring, well, 6-year event, a sort of festival of urban planning and design. A temporary carbon-steel building by Atelier-Bow-Bow (very vogueish Japanese architects) is erect for 10-or-so weeks, each time in a different city, and a series of events, from lectures to workshops and tours, takes place. The general theme? Urban problems, challenges, opportunities. The cities? New York, Berlin, Mumbai.

Having had its 10 weeks in NY, the Lab was on its way to Berlin when the trouble started. The site chosen to erect Bow-Wow’s temporary architectural work was an abandoned site in Kreuzberg, in the Wrangelkiez, right on the river Spree.

If you know a single thing about Berlin, you know that Kreuzberg (specifically, the smaller area within it known as Wrangelkiez) has as enormously strong, politically radical community, and a history of resistance to top-down planning. Here is where Berlin’s (and to some extent Germany’s) squatting started, with 160 apartment buildings occupied at once in 1980, around half of which became legalised housing communes soon after. Here is where the residents’ opposition to inner-city demolition led to a wholesale change of the Senate redevelopment policy from greenfield construction of new estates to careful urban renewal of existing neighbourhoods: careful to the historical building form, careful to not displace any residents, and careful to involve them in the planning process. The squatting movement in Kreuzberg led to financing programs that allowed housing communes to renovate the buildings they occupied, to almost every existing social housing policy in Berlin, to the squatting culture that opened up the city’s empty spaces to art and music in the 1990s, and, subsequently, to the image of Berlin as Europe’s party capital, an image that is today Berlin’s only relevant export. Kreuzberg today, again particularly the Wranglerkiez, is struggling under increasing gentrification (the rent-controlled contracts signed in 1980s have largely run out in the past few years, and the rents have risen under the pressure from tourist and temporary residents lured by Kreuzberg’s allure of cool), and there are almost constant meetings, protests and initiatives to come up with new policies that will protect the rents in the neighbourhood, and the rest of Berlin. In a city where 85% of citizens rent, with no industry and the highest unemployment rate in Germany, sharply rising rents are a social catastrophe.

No wonder, then, that public resistance to a Guggenheim vanity project in the area was huge. An anti-project blog appeared; there was a protest against Guggenheim; letters were sent to papers and the police ascertained that vandalism would be a serious threat (this is an area in which new apartments and expensive cars are regularly vandalised, too). Guggenheim responded to the threat of vandalism by renouncing the Kreuzberg location, and moving to the much nicer, already-mellowed-down Prenzlauer Berg in the former East.

The media largely welcomed Guggenheim Lab as a good investment and media project, but even then with reserve. Berliner Zeitung:

“It all seemed a bit ridiculous, as it’s only about a six-week project, and not a permanent establishment. The coming weeks will reveal whether the debate blows over, or continues with ideological posturing. But the city-state’s politicians can no longer ignore the agitated atmosphere in the inner-city neighborhoods. And the Guggenheim organizers are burdened by high expectations. They want to address the issue of urban living, but so far there is no convincing program. They will need to prove that they want to build more than just a talking shop.”

Süddeutsche Zeitung:

Still, the protesters hit a nerve in the city. For their blackmail they used widespread fears of rising rents, the displacement of the poor into outer districts, and the specter of ‘gentrification.’ … The Senate has yet to find a politically convincing answer to this. As correct as Klaus Wowereit’s rejection of intolerance is, the fears and worries must be taken seriously.

Non-mainstream commenters were openly critical. Berlin Art Link commented on the choice of location thus:

An uncontroversial choice in the Wrangelkiez area where rents have increased by 20% last year, and about half the locals had to leave. One wonders whether anyone from the BMW Lab bothered Googling “Berlin” “Urban problems” or “gentrification” or the like before settling on this spot.

Intercultural Urbanism (a blog) commented on the new location:

The area has been undergoing gentrification, however, and that might not send the best message to citizens in Berlin and elsewhere who worry about what corporate-sponsored “pop-ups” portend for their neighborhoods.

But the most interesting critique came from Despina Stokou in Bpigs, who went to a community meeting in Kreuzberg at which the Guggenheim project was presented to residents, and who analysed it through its use of what she terms ‘PR English’ or Art English. (“The surface of the sentence (and it’s meaning as we know it in the English we have learned or natively speak) is often miles away from it’s actual meaning as used in the PR/Art context.”)

It got hot in the Guggenheim Lab event too. What started off in an already negative atmosphere got worse with the power point presentation. I had to double check, as I could have sworn it was in English and that would make no sense in an 90% German speaking audience in Kreuzberg. It was in German but it really felt like English, with program titles like: Confronting Comfort, Beyond Segrification: Models for Equal Glocalization, FeedForward 2: Co-opting Place, Urban Yoga… People started booing and they were absolutely right. This use of language is common in media circles, (it would not have caused a stir in Pfefferberg, I would have shrugged it away myself) but it is void of meaning, it is constructed only to impress, not to inform. This became very evident in this non-art context, where people just wanted to know how this project would affect their everyday lives. As somebody graphically put: Ich versuche jeden Monat die Miete zu bezahlen und Ihr macht eure Kunstkacke. [I try to pay rent every month, and you’re making your art turds.]

I wish, in fact, I had read Stokou’s article before our meeting with the Guggenheim curators at TU Berlin, because it would have prepared me better for what was going to happen.

Instead of a discussion, we were given a PowerPoint presentation of the project, organised by four curators, each one programming roughly a week of events. Jose Gomez-Marquez, an MIT-based engineer, would be running workshops on how to make stuff from everyday stuff (e.g., a solar-powered coffee grinder). Carlo Ratti, another MIT-based engineer and architect, had a program on the new technologies for sensing the urban. Corinne Rose, a psychologist and artist, the only German and the only person of the four with any experience of living in Berlin, was presenting many small projects with local artists and designers, all around her interest in the aesthetic experience of the city. (To her credit, Rose will put on one event of relevance to Berlin right now: a discussion of the role of Liegenschaftsfonds Berlin, the public body responsible for selling public land, exclusively to the highest bidder. The current discussion in the city has focused largely on whether they should be legally forced to consider other criteria too, such as cultural or social merit.) Finally, Rachel Smith, a Brisbane-based transport planner from AECOM, had a series of events about participation and sustainable transport (cycling, largely). Only Smith and Rose were there to talk, and the focus of the discussion was on their part of the program, not least because the presentation contained very little on the actual Berlin program (and a lot about the many institutions and people involved in making it, as is usually the case with vanity projects of this kind). There would be walking tours. There would be a workshop to teach Turkish women how to ride bicycles. (The program has since been found on the website: buried deep in the ‘Press’ section.)

In a city whose urban renewal policy has been shaped by mass squating of the 1980s and 1990s, a city in which, on any given weekend, about half the programmed events are illegal, a city in which trespassing is a collective sport and commuter-train parties normal, Smith asked: “Imagine if you didn’t need a permit to do whatever you want, what would you do?”

In a city in which everyone rides bikes everywhere, a city with fantastic cycling infrastructure, and a culture of utmost respect for cycling, Smith was posing questions relevant only to cities, such as Brisbane, trying to deal with chronic car-dependency and related health problems: “How can we get more women and children on bikes?” “How do we negotiate between the lycra cyclists who hate parents riding bikes with their children, and vice versa? Could we establish 7-metre-wide ‘cycling superhighways’, fenced off on both sides, for safe cycling to work?”

You only ought to have spent a day cycling around Berlin to understand why the local students’ eyes glazed over at these ‘exciting’ proposals. In this city, one is allowed to cycle both on the (very wide) footpaths and on the (very wide) roads, and the continuous network of paths and crossings means that one genuinely has about 7 metres of cycling space in most parts of the city. The fencing off, a typical example of monofunctional urban-design thinking, would make no sense in a streetscape dotted with shops, apartments, things to get off one’s bike and do. In fact, the only place where having fences on both sides of a bike path would not be a nutty idea would be in the middle of a freeway. But this is not that kind of city…

Finally, Smith programmed an event in which we establish a “No Excuse Zone”. This deserves some explanation. If a group of AECOM urban planners meets in the centre of a CBD, each rides their bike in a different direction for exactly 20 minutes, then stops, maps their position, and draws a circle connecting them all, the resulting zone around the CBD is the “no excuse zone”: if you live within this residential area, and don’t cycle to your CBD work, you have “no excuse”. This is an excellent example of a moralistic, guilt-inducing, feel-awful approach that is so often used in Australia, that costs money, solves no problem and serves nobody. Just like desire lines trod through lawns, people queuing at wrong ends of a bar, or accident-prone intersections, non-cycling-friendly cities are a design problem, not a behaviour problem. People cycle in cities that have low car speeds, pleasant and safe cycle lanes, good street lighting, high residential density, and high density of shops and services on the street. Otherwise, cycling is unsafe, boring and impractical. Berlin has all of it, and there are quite probably more bikes on its streets than cars, at any one point of the day. Furthermore, Berlin has no CBD: it is a polycentric city. Where would you begin your 20-minute radial ride? In Alexanderplatz, a low-density wasteland? To watch Rachel Smith talk about cyclability in Berlin, apparently completely uninformed about any of this, was about as strange as it would be if she gave a speech in Italy about how to make pasta.

The first glaring problem was pointed out in one of the early questions. Smith and Rose insisted on having met with many Berliners, involved as many as possible, and shaped the program around urban problems facing Berlin. “Can you go back to your list of Berlin issues, please”, asked one student, “and explain how you are going to address each one in your program?” Well, there it was. Gentrification? “We have one whole day devoted to it.” Lack of industry and jobs? There will be one event on the day themed ”. Berlin’s over-reliance on tourism as an export industry? “One Planet Tourism, the world-leading tourism consultancy, will be working with local tourism businesses, to teach them how their businesses can be made more environmentally sustainable and economically sustainable, in the current climate of crisis.” (I hope you don’t have to be an urbanist to notice that this does not address the problem of ‘over-reliance on tourism’.) Rising rents? “Oh, I don’t think we’re doing anything specifically about that.” “So”, said the student, “the most important issues facing Berlin, gentrification, rising rents and unemployment, you are going to address all in one day?”

Begging the question was: how in the world do they think that, whatever is said or achieved in that one day, will be relevant for Berlin? Relevant to the point of justifying the stress on the existing neighbourhoods that the Lab would bring, relevant to the point of making up for the insult and injury of having an international mega-corporation orchestrate a supposed discussion about the city, bypassing all existing channels of communication and community and government groups? I was going to ask, simply, how they understand the benefit this would make to Berlin. But the questions kept coming, and they were not generous. The curators responded: we are hoping we could create a platform for a dialogue. “But there are already many platforms like that here!” the students responded. The fact that the event was corporate image-cleansing was brought up a few times: how does this not compromise the event?

“How did you decide on the location?” Apparently, they thought that Berlin was not using its riverfront enough, so they rented a boat, sailed down the river looking for an empty lot, and then found one. “I think that’s quite insensitive, actually”, recapped the student. Rachel Smith seemed genuinely confused about why their chosen location caused so much stir. “I come from Brisbane, and they would have done anything to have such an event in their city. Any Australian city, Sydney, Melbourne, would have done anything to host BMW Guggenheim Lab. We have marvelous speakers coming to speak for free. We have One World Travel, the world leader in tourism consulting! We have the man who founded Surfers Against Sewage! We have the people who run Copenhagenize website! In Brisbane, when Richard Branson gave a talk, the tickets were selling for AUD$2,000! There are some really cool people coming here!”

This was, finally, when it all descended from satire into farce. It was perhaps terrible enough that we were greeted to an expensive program that posed no questions of any relevance to the city. But to be there, concerned about the influence that such globally-visible vanity project will have on rising rents, and be told that this is about seeing some “cool people” speak, was not even offensive; it just showed what a gap there was between Guggenheim Lab and Berlin. To have a talkfest programmed, with the large majority of speakers either coming from international consultancies or media, bloggers and dispensers of internationally diluted best-practice, and call it engagement, city-building, anything but festivalisation of urban planning, would be believing one’s own lies; one’s own PR English. Brisbane perhaps can’t tell the difference. But Berlin has had a history of good planning; it can.

In the end, many of my questions were simply too cruel to ask. How can BMW Guggenheim be useful to Berlin? It won’t, and that’s not its intention. Berlin, the capital of European cool, will be useful to the Lab. It will add to its image of relevance, real grit, and internationality. It will cost money, be another tourist attraction for a few weeks, and then move on leaving little behind. As some German media have commented, it is the same stuff as usual, only much more expensive. But, if the meeting we had on Tuesday is anything to go by, the Lab curators might be completely clueless about the feathery weight of their work.

Further reading:
Frankfurter Rundschau, Guggenheim Lab startet nach Protesten
RBB, BMW Guggenheim Lab – das Program steht fest

NY Times, Amid threats, BMW Guggenheim Lab withdraws plan for installation in Berlin neighbourhood
Der Spiegel, German press review on Guggenheim Lab relocation in Berlin neighborhood
Der Spiegel, Guggenheim Lab cancels ‘high risk’ Berlin project