“The idea of public space has never been guaranteed. It has only been won through concerted struggle… struggle is the only way that the right to public space can be maintained and the only way that social justice can be advanced.”
Don Mitchell, political scientist
“Public space is always in some sense in a state of emergence, never complete and always contested”
Sophie Watson, social scientist
Berlin is a city “doomed always to become and never to be.”
Karl Scheffler, German art historian
"In good and in evil, Berlin is the trustee of German history, which has left its scars here as nowhere else."
Richard von Weisacker, former president of the Federal Republic of Germany
Berlin is “a fascinating montage of conflicting histories, scales, forms, and spaces.”
Daniel Libesskind, architect of the Jewish Museum, Berlin
Informal acts of public realm reinterpretation represent small yet persistent challenges against the increasingly regulated, privatized and diminished forms of public space. Around the globe “resurgent” use of public space has become an increasingly common phenomena amid growing corporatization and globalization. Examples include the overtaking, painting, and reclaiming of street intersections in Portland Oregon by the group City Repair, “space hijacking” in London by the group Space Hijackers which perform acts from “Guerrilla Benching” to “Guerrilla Street Planting”, underpass dance parties in densely populated Beijing, China, and perhaps most poignant, the occupation of public space to demand change in Tahrir Square in Cairo and Zigotti Park in New York City. These rebellious acts are not isolated incidents, but rather reflect distinct public reactions to specific social and political settings.
Berlin, Germany is one of the earliest and most vibrant contemporary examples of a self-made urban space phenomena. While every society is in transition, few have experienced transformation as abruptly and pervasively as former communist bloc nations. Berlin, a city deeply saturated with historic democratic struggles gives us insight into political and social constructs of upheaval and democratization that affect the use, understanding and meaning of public space.
In 1937 Adolf Hitler had a vision to transform Berlin from the sprawling metropolis into “Germania”, the centerpiece of a Greater German ‘World Empire.’ Centered on a grand boulevard running through the heart of the city, the plan envisioned some of the largest public spaces and monuments the world has dared dream. These spaces rather than a celebration of public life were grandiose visions of propaganda to symbolize the power of the State and the Nazi regime. However, very little of Germania was ever realized.
During World War II, more than 50 percent of Berlin’s structures were destroyed, followed by over 45 years of separation into east and west sectors during the Cold War, and then finally the collapse of Berlin Wall in 1989. These challenging circumstances altered and redefined the archetypal categories of neighborhood parks, public plazas, civic architecture, and other conventional forms of public space and social infrastructure. During this period distinctive forms of opportunism and social capital were developed to cope with communist ideologies, which in turn affected the city both socially and spatially. In the absence of a functioning economy, people repurposed public spaces for economic means such as growing food on urban plots to supplement what little could be purchased with low wages, a depreciated currency and inflated prices.
In West Berlin, these years also witnessed many demonstrations and initiatives against destructive and elite urban renewal projects, giving rise to a tradition of illegal building occupation. The Berlin Wall, a symbol of division and communism, became a public and divisive artistic canvas for the means of protest through informal art and graffiti.
Almost immediately upon the fall of the Berlin Wall, East Berliners responded to their new and unexpected circumstances with a flight to developing capitalistic opportunities and social change. The skills of opportunism and the means of social capital were then adapted and made useful in dealing with the immediate shock of the city’s transformation following the fall of the Berlin Wall. The early 90’s saw a resurgence of building and land occupations this time in the East. Throughout the city local residents often determined and designated derelict space as public. For example, residents designated Mauerpark, formerly divided by the Berlin Wall and part of the heavily guarded Death Strip, as a public park. These halting informal first steps helped establish a new structure and relationship in the use of official public space and released possibilities for publicly driven alternative interactions, functions and meanings. In the years following, the city’s inability to develop idle land and create economic opportunity encouraged an ad-hoc attitude, supported by cheap rents and squatting opportunities that encouraged an artistic community to flourish.
Rather than stifling and combating creativity, Berlin city officials and government agencies have largely accepted, and perhaps relish in public art as integral to the city’s identity. Not able to develop space in a traditional way, the city planning establishment has been forced to reconsider the advantages of a cultural economy and creative industries. Thus a unique avant-garde art scene and interpretive and creative use of public space has been fostered.
Certainly 23 years ago when the Berlin Wall came down no one would have imagined the Berlin at present, or perhaps that Berlin would be recognized as a modern day global artistic capital. Berlin building facades are blanketed with graffiti to a New York 1970’s degree; private property is consistently besieged by street art, and vacant properties are declared public through impromptu dance parties. Yet, in 2005 Berlin was designated a UNESCO City of Design. The criteria were based on contemporary creation and environment, international profile and outlook, public focus, and cultural assets such as museums, festivals, and public art.
This proposal seeks to examine the continuing process of public space reinterpretation from communist divided Berlin to the present day, from this public driven perspective. How does Berlin’s instances of insurgency challenge the conventional understanding and making of public space— one so different from Hitler’s Germania? What can designers, planners and activists learn from these casual yet unconventional acts of resistance and reinterpretation? What do they reveal about the limitations and possibilities of public space as cultural capital in contemporary cities? How are these spaces and activities redefining and expanding the roles, functions, and meanings of the public and production of space? And lastly how does this fit into the larger global movement to democratize, re-envision, and re-occupy our public spaces.
(Study fellowship granted by the Spitzer School of Architecture, City College of New York)
(Source: chiaradipalma.com )