Transforming Public Space
Radically New Perspectives

„Eichbaumoper” by Raumlabor Berlin
„Eichbaumoper” by Raumlabor Berlin | Photo (detail): © Raumlabor

Designers like the architects at Berlin’s Raumlabor collective work in the overlapping fields of architecture, city planning, art and urban intervention.

Eight architects form the core team at Raumlabor Berlin, which was established in 1999. One of its fundamental principles, however, is to put together a bespoke group of experts for every project. Members of the network may be theatre people, musicians, artists or sociologists – or indeed simply urban dwellers. After all, no-one knows a place like the people who live there. Raumlabor gathers together expert knowledge about a particular location and adds “a dash of imagination”, a process it dubs “research-based design”. This gives rise to radically new perspectives that can help kick-start a process of transformation.

One example of this practice and of the passion with which Raumlabor embarks on transforming difficult sites is the Eichbaum Opera project. The Eichbaum station on the underground railway line between Essen and Mülheim an der Ruhr is situated right next to the busy A 40 motorway – not a place people enjoy spending much time. Raumlabor decided to realize a grand vision, and for a time turned Eichbaum into an opera house: the station became a place of communication where the architects, together with composers, dramatic advisors and local residents, created the Eichbaum Opera which premiered in 2009.

Mobile and temporary monuments

The team also created the prototype for a temporary structure in the form of its inflatable Kitchen Monument. This mobile monument has already been inflated at many different inhospitable locations – under motorway bridges or in industrial estates in Duisburg, Hamburg, Warsaw, Liverpool and New York. Every time, people throng to this foil-clad bubble to eat together, to dance and to party: experimental guerrilla urbanism transforms problematic areas into fascinating places of encounter.

One example of this experimental approach to construction is Raumlabor’s “Hotel Shabbyshabby” architectural competition in which participants are invited to build the hotel room of their dreams out of what appears to be rubbish. What is more, the team works time and time again with mobile, open workshops in which for example wooden chairs can be built that not only serve as chairs to sit on but can also be combined to form spatial structures, allowing people to experience the city as a cultural forum for exchange.

Thus Raumlabor coins a new brand of architecture with its out-of-the-ordinary urban interventions and actions and expands the concept of what public space can be. “We are well on our way out of the niche”, says Markus Bader from Raumlabor, who has been a visiting professor at Kassel University’s urban development institute since 2013. “We no longer have to engage in a discussion about whether what we do is architecture or not.”

Imaginative and suitable for everyday life

This is partly because a whole host of architectural firms these days pursue similar urban strategies and are thus widening the discipline’s boundaries. Die Baupiloten, a group headed by the architect Susanne Hofmann, believes that users have to be involved right from the outset if a sustainable and innovative building is to be achieved. The group concentrates on kindergartens and schools, achieving results that are as imaginative as they are suitable for everyday life thanks to its consistently participatory design approach.

Works by Folke Köbberling and Martin Kaltwasser are testimony to the fact that the boundaries between architecture, art and social intervention are becoming increasingly blurred – for instance the Jellyfish Theatre that was built temporarily in London in 2010 using recycled materials. It was constructed with the help of volunteers and served as a venue for theatre performances for one entire summer.

The Prinzessinnengarten in Berlin is one of many pioneering projects that are opening up new ways of accessing architecture and the city. In a collective effort, more than 500 different vegetables and herbs are being cultivated on an area of wasteland that had remained unused for decades – urban agriculture as a paradigm of forward-looking neighbourhood and urban development, though this should not imply that the project’s future is secure.

After all, economic pressure in cities grows. The question of what this means for public space and for social cohesion is one that also preoccupies Raumlabor. “Our work approach is always based on discourse and a specific agenda”, says Markus Bader. At the same time, Raumlabor’s urban living experts create beautiful places in which people can come together, places that are full of life. Their focus for example on water, a public commodity that is in short supply, led to the fountain house project: in the summer of 2014, Raumlabor will build a pavilion-like and partially greened fountain house in the Canadian city of Montreal. According to Markus Bader, the fountain house will be optimistic and poetic. “The aspect of spaciousness is important. We should take countermeasures before we get completely immersed in the urban narratives of shortage and poverty.”

For the fountain house Raumlabor will be teaming up with the Goethe-Institut and other partners.