The Knot and raumlabor Berlin

Opera On The Motorway – the Urban Strategies of the Berlin-based raumlabor Office

An inflatable kitchen monument, a temporary prefab hotel, a construction site office for opera on the motorway: the interdisciplinary team from raumlabor berlin has been shaping a new concept in architecture for more than ten years with extraordinary interventions and campaigns, expanding the idea of what public space can be.

„Küchenmonument“; Copyright: raumlabor berlin/Foto: Rainer Schlautmann

Nine architects form the core of the “Gruppe für Architektur und Städtebau” (architecture and urban construction group), which was founded in 1999. raumlabor specifically does not consider itself an architectural office, because one of its basic principles is working closely with specialists from other fields, depending on the project – for instance with theatre people, film-makers, creative artists, musicians, ethnologists or sociologists.

The “raumlab technicians” reorganise themselves for each project, and their appreciation of the city is reflected in this process-orientated, flexible working method: diverse, complex, in a constant state of change. “The city is not an abstract entity, it is carried and re-created again and again by the people who live there”, says Markus Bader from raumlabor. In the group studios at the Berlin Kunstfabrik am Flutgraben, people are telephoning, holding discussions, drawing, experimenting and tinkering with prototype structures – one of the projects being the 12th Architekturbiennale 2010 in Venice, which has the motto “People meet in architecture”, and to which raumlabor is invited.

„Snuggle – das mobile Hotel“; Coypright: raumlabor berlin/Foto: Rainer Schlautmann

Prototype for a temporary structure

With the “Kitchen Monument”, an inflatable pavilion, the raumlabor team not only attracted the attention of the Biennale curators, they also created the prototype for a temporary structure. The mobile monument has already been inflated at many inhospitable locations – under motorway bridges, in industrial estates and on car parks in Duisburg, Hamburg, Berlin, Warsaw, Liverpool, New York and other cities. Each time, around 100 people meet in the translucent plastic pavilion to cook, eat, dance and party together: Experimental guerrilla urbanism transforms problem areas into lively meeting places.

“The Knot” – an event platform for art and culture that will, after the venues in Berlin, be en route to Warsaw and Bucharest right up to October – is also mobile and flexible. Markus Bader of raumlabor is on the international curator team: ““The Knot” is a transformable research lab. It is both a production facility and an event facility at the same time, and it performs a variety of functions, such as a workshop, kitchen, stage, disco, cafe, theatre, archive or museum.” The programme is always designed with each particular venue in mind. “The Knot” project is part of “The Promised City”, an initiative set up by the Polish Institute in Berlin and the Goethe-Institut: artists and scientists use an interdisciplinary approach to work on the dreams, illusions and promises of modern metropolises such as Warsaw, Mumbai and Berlin.

„The Knot“; Copyright: raumlabor berlin

Transformation of difficult urban spaces

The working methods of raumlabor berlin go beyond the usual planning bureaucracy, and that’s partly to do with the events experienced in Berlin during the nineties. Andrea Hofmann from raumlabor says: “There were spaces that could easily be acquired. A spatial practice that didn’t function by means of applications, approvals and form-filling, but by means of ideas, scenes, people and cooperative ventures.” In this way, many a bar on a derelict site ended up as a testing ground for larger projects.

Transformation of difficult urban areas is still one of the focuses of the raumlabor team today. The Berlin-based group is often called in when the traditional planning control mechanisms are no longer functioning. In Halle-Neustadt for instance, where a significant population decline is resulting in empty buildings and demolition. In 2003 raumlabor initiated a joint venture with the Thalia Theater Halle – the “Hotel Neustadt” project. Young people opened up an 18-storey prefab, which had previously been standing empty, as a 92-room hotel. Some of the overnight guests there were the artists who were putting on a festival in the hotel, which in turn attracted residents into the building. Markus Bader: “Development can only take place if the different parties involved talk things through together. The temporary “Hotel Neustadt” was very successful as a platform for exchange and communication.” The idea is to expose resources and discover areas of action. Admittedly the jury’s still out as regards how permanently these impulses have actually changed Halle-Neustadt.

Participatory strategies

„Soap Opera“; Copyright: raumlabor berlin

The projects carried out by the Berlin space experts include brief interventions and long-term experiments, artistic installations, utopian scenarios and construction schemes involving social needs. They created a participatory sculpture in the shape of the “Chaise bordelaise”, built the “Schrebers Delight” conservatory, went on an “Expedition” in St. Pölten and experimented with “Snuggle”, a mobile hotel. raumlabor put on an impressive “Soap Opera” in Essen to mark the opening festivities of RUHR2010 in January 2010. The team spread a foam carpet of gigantic soap bubbles at the former Zollverein colliery, which is now a cultural site – transparent latex balloons, some filled with helium and some with air, which alluded to the daily cleansing of the miners after their shift. And for the Transmediale 2010, the Berlin festival of art and digital culture, raumlabor created the “Futures Exchange” exhibition architecture, a “communication cluster” made of doors for artists and visitors. The doors for this place of communication come from prefabs scheduled for demolition in Halle-Neustadt. raumlabor is also applying communicative and participatory strategies in its involvement in the “Bye Bye Utopia” project, which is to be put into action in Summer 2010 for the Kunsthaus Bregenz art museum.

The city’s hardware and software

But raumlabor’s true passion is for difficult, underestimated places such as the Eichbaum station on the U18 underground line that runs between Essen and Mülheim an der Ruhr. The station is situated right on the A40 motorway and is a classic place of fear. Structural measures were unable to make any difference with regard to vandalism and muggings. The logical conclusion drawn by raumlabor was: “Eichbaum can only be liberated by a vision: Eichbaum has to become an opera house.” Implementation of the vision began with plenty of patience and without balking at the scale of the project: recruiting project partners, raising funds, erecting the construction site office for the opera, which (based on medieval masons’ lodges) became a place of communication between all those involved. The three-act “Eichbaum Opera” was created together with composers, librettists, dramatic advisors and local residents, and its premiere was in June 2009.

„Eichbaumoper“; Copyright: raumlabor berlin/Foto: Rainer Schlautmann

People could experience a new perspective on the derelict station, as well the promising impulse for a transformation process. Markus Bader puts it like this: “We aren’t just dealing with the physical space, in other words the city’s hardware, but also the program, the software. We want to find out how a place is programmed so that it might then be possible to change it.”

Elisabeth Schwiontek
is a freelance journalist based in Berlin.

Translation: Jo Beckett

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
June 2010

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