The architectural collective Raumlabor has been working at the boundaries of architecture, art, and urbanism since 1999. The practice, based in Berlin, is known for its experimental, collaborative, and passionate action in urban space and focuses more on developing the narrative that becomes part of a place instead of an object. As an unconventional architectural group Raumlabor act as the agents of direct action as a tool for urban planning ‒ showing that planning can be done not just ‘for people’ but ‘with people’. They engage with ongoing urban renewal and transformation questions leading to different scale interventions in (neglected) public spaces. Most of the already well-recognized Raumlabor’ works, number amongst them impossible utopias, social and architectural visions. Matthias Rick (1965-2012) was the co-founder and one of the main Raumlabor members and is also its spokesman being unofficially called the ‘minister of foreign affairs, Raumlabor’. His enthusiasm combined with his skills was the driving force for many of the collective’s projects.
Yesterday you started your lecture with an image of the ‘Instant City’ – an image by architectural avangardist and utopist from the 60s – Archigram, with a nice link about Raumlabor being an Instant City zeppelin. I was wondering who are your colleagues in the way of ideas?
They are the kinds of visionaries who appeared after the war ‒ people like Yona Friedman and Archigram along with Cedric Price and Frei Otto. These kinds of visionaries influenced our work a lot because they had a special understanding of architecture and of flexibility. Johanna Friedmann, Frei Otto and Eckhard Schulze Fielitz and people like this made a manifesto in the 50’s for mobile architecture (L’Architecture Mobile), which is not meant as a kind of movable structures ‒ mobility means flexibility; it’s based on the ideas of the users, in that they can adapt space, and that it can be changeable.
This is especially true in our time, where everybody can afford a house, an architect is not necessary anymore because it’s just made by companies and it’s generalized, it’s compromised in that it’s for everybody. And you know people don’t feel really good anymore, somehow.
This globalization is something we have to live with. This is an effect of our society but we also have local specifications, and we need a kind of architecture and planning which is able in the global world to adapt to local situations and individual needs and desires, and for this such people as these visionary guys from the 50s and 60s and 70s are very helpful.
Our utopia, which we call ‘Real Utopia’, is different, it’s a contradiction. This Utopia had to fail because it’s not possible to create the best world, we cannot say – ‘Ok, we have modernists planning and therefore everything is good ‒ we have a better society’. This is not possible, and this is why I like this idea of flexibility. We don’t want to change the world, we try to improve specific situations, and we also improve it from the ‘top-down’ view. Connections are also important ‒ to discuss ideas with specialists from other cities or countries and to find out what we can learn from each other.
So ‘Real Utopia’ means, for example, the project ‘The Opera’ is an opera house, it can never be possible, it’s utopic, but we can realize it for short time and show something with this temporary realization. Opera is real for two weeks. And then it’s gone. But it’s a magnifier of potentials of what could be possible.
If we go back to the beginning – How did you come to your decision to take this direction in architecture? Was it your university or was it 90’s Berlin?
Certainly not the university. University was totally boring, a very conservative view of what architecture is, learning boring tools and that kind of things. Berlin is a huge city, in terms of size, but there are not too many people living there, only three and a half million. So you have a lot of empty space. And then with unification, we got additional empty space in East Berlin. For the first 5 or 6 years East Berlin was not taken over by the Western regulations, so things were possible there. There was this kind of big movement of young people, living in squats and lots of abandoned houses. In 1991, we had 100 squats in Berlin and all these people wanted to do something and so they started using the city for experiments. Techno culture grew up there ‒ and a lot of other stuff. Berlin is now very well known for a specific kind of situative art production; we have a lot of artists based in Berlin because they like this kind of thing. That they don’t fit in an atelier to produce something, such as an object for a museum. They just deal with the city how it is, and this is something that we all did, because we all knew each other from the university, and we started to experiment in different ways, and then later we came together to found Raumlabor and to continue this; continue playing. Once a journalist wrote that we are building playgrounds for adults. I liked that (laughing).
Yeah it is playing; it’s playing but it’s serious. For children the playground is very important, they start learning new things, like social behaviours. And this is what we do: adults are different so the toys are different, more serious. We don’t try to take architecture too serious, we want to be playful, to have fun with our work, we want people to have fun, so they enjoy what they do and enjoy the city. It is not about building a slide for the children, it’s more like opening the space where people ‒ the older people ‒ can dance with each other. It’s so simple sometimes and there’s a desire for collectivity ‒ we have a lot of separation these days.
And in ‘No Trust, No City’ we wanted to show that public spaces have value. Value for everybody, value to take a risk, to confront yourself – this is public space, it’s a risk, but it’s nice to take a risk, and this we like to show with our work. To show how people can come together, how they can talk together, and how they act together. The question of hospitality and collectivity is important. There’s a lot of potential and possibilities in our time.
The project in South Korea where you were invited to design, build and program the centre for OpenCity, with the purpose of initiating a process between international and local artists and citizens. How do you see the process of becoming local – what are the steps you take?
It’s an individual thing. For myself I have to be there, I have to be interested. I try to find ways of communicating with people. For me it’s very very important to work on-site, it’s not like Zaha Hadid – her office is in London and she designs a museum from London and then sends it to somebody. What we do is we live there in the neighbourhood where we work. This is a way to understand – an understanding of where there is the nice restaurant, when they have to go to work, where the teenagers hang out after school, and all these things. You start understanding how the society works, and after – you are part of it. Then I also give an input, it’s the way I do things. This is an advantage, and this is what I like.
I don’t want to live in this kind of boring gated community, where I expect nothing surprising outside. I cannot understand that people like this, I don’t think they do. It’s because of fear; there’s a history of danger in public spaces, and so the people fence each other in, but eventually they don’t feel good. Friends have told me that in Argentina there was a fashion 10-15 years ago in which they started making all these gated communities in the suburbs, and then their children grew up and they didn’t like it, and so now the teenagers, the young people go back, but they don’t want to stay there. They go back into the city because the city offers much more.
Some of your projects are based on situative narratives or personal stories – such as ‘Ballarina project’ or ‘Die Expedition’. It seems that individuals should not lose themselves in the mess of society, because you bring up a story, like in the ‘Ballarina project’– you found a letter and made a project out of this?
This was a trick. We were asked to build a mobile pavilion for a festival, the Port Aville festival – this was a festival with dance, theatre, ballet and architectural events in London. They wanted to have bubble ‒ we agreed to build it, but there was a question of what the story was that fits to the city and the programme. The letter was written by us, we said–’oh, we found this letter’. It’s theatre.
The trick worked!
Yeah, yeah, but ultimately it doesn’t matter, it’s a good tool. In the Liverpool project called a ‘Promising Land’ we also developed some kind of history for the site. We went out into the public space, and we found some nice stones with relief, we took photos saying –‘these are leftovers of forgotten things’. It’s nice; it’s creating a value for the abandoned spaces. It’s a pity that ‘Expedition’ was stopped after one year because we had planned it for three. The idea was to plan an expedition to discover something, and we said ok. The centre of the question was the city. So this is first – creating the question and then sending out the explorers. We wanted to find ‘imaginary islands’, to go out and ask children where we could find ‘imaginary islands’ exhibit this and make a kind of museum and archive but we could not continue.
Your small scale interventions create a strong impact on spaces, both formally and informally. Do you follow the afterlife of your projects?
We were surprised at how deep a psychological impact there was with ‘The Kitchen Monument’. People are still talking about it. Like having a dream that a kind of underneath a bridge where normally the dogs shit and piss was transformed into a place for having a dinner. It’s not changing in a very fast way. It needs time. It changed understanding in a lot of cities. A lot of people are starting to rethink urban planning methods more and more. Also these columns of society, theatres or museums start to think more about the relation and the city where they are. This is where we collaborate very often. You have in turn the use of abandoned spaces, that are offered to people just for use. Real estate or housing companies understand the potential of increasing the value of suburbs. This is a big danger in Berlin now – creativity is making neighbourhoods more interesting, more and more people would like to be there and rents are increasing. So it’s also destroying it. It’s not easy all the time.
Mostly known under the name of ‘Spacebuster’, originally the ‘Kitchen Monument’– it was born of a very special local approach, for a special place and space. After it had gained success it became widely travelled, with some adaptive functions ideas and names – ’Stargrinder’, the ‘Bang Bang’, ‘Spacebuster’ travelling to Germany, Liverpool, Warsaw, Korea and all over. Can you tell us more about the life of this idea, and also the context?
The context started with a kitchen.
As a monument.
This was a very site-specific work. And then we got all the requests and we started travelling around Europe. And later we started feeling like tent-renters, like a service. We are powerful enough that we don’t need business, we don’t need this kind of money because we are able to live from what we do, so we can be idealistic, this is very good luck. And we were able to decide whether this is a nice part or this is not. What we like to do is more like in a cultural-social sense; we participated in neighbourhood events, also festivals or biennales. For ‘Spacebuster’, for example, in New York, they wanted to have a ‘Kitchen Monument’, but we found out that it was too expensive to transport it because the box was too big for a shipping container. So we decided to make a kind of variation, along the strategy of ‘Kitchen Monument’. We went to New York and we improved it, we built it with a New York specific – ‘Spacebuster’. Also the name for NY ‒ in we didn’t need a monument anymore for NY, we needed to be mobile with this kind of van, which is somehow a typical American thing. They have huge problem with public space there, you can’t really use it, that’s why we call it Spacebuster.
Yes, activating. And the principle is the same. With ‘Bang Bang’ in Korea we were asked to build it as a tool for a festival organization. It’s much more than ‘The Kitchen Monument’–you also have the really different possibilities of space for round tables, conferences, workshop with kids, dinners etc. It’s sometimes big, sometimes not. We also had one that we didn’t use any bubble at all, just a DJ in the open air. And there’s another one which was called ‘Bubble Bike’. We have a bike from Copenhagen, a Long John, in which the bubble was smaller, but it was really mobile. And in ‘Rosy’, the last one for London we improved on how it could be site-specific dealing with a story of ‘The Ballarina’.
‘Big Crunch’, ‘House of Contamination’ and others are made of sustainable, ecological materials, and waste products. ‘The Kitchen Monument’ and its variations – out of the air. Seems like you are creating things from those things that already exist or ‘nothing’?
It’s ‘use what you find’. Material, stories, spaces, or people. We try to bring that together and make an interesting thing out of it. The ‘House of Contamination’ project – creating an argument proved interesting. It was at an Art Fair ‒ what they needed was a kind of festival centre using trash or recycled materials within an art context as an argument and to start a discussion. And it’s cheap – we only had to pay the transport costs, and after we had used the material, the recycling company took it back. So we did not have any waste and this is also ecological thinking – using the resources and not wasting. In a fair people normally come with a lot of money, building a lot of stuff, and after that they have a lot of trash.
It’s not zero energy projects, but we try to find ways. And it’s not perfect, for sure, but it’s showing potential. And it’s artistic as well as symbolic, the huge tsunami that we built from trash is a big symbol, and everybody understands the danger of all the waste we are producing and what we are leaving behind. Traces of the humans.
Raumlabor has stated that there are three types of spaces: public, private and informal. Informal is the one that interests me most.
There are two kinds of cities: formal and informal. The formal city is based on the rules of what politicians might expect. The informal city is based more on activities and what people are doing. If they are just opening a little kiosk at this corner, or making a tango evening in the square, or having a barbeque in the park, or just starting to sell things, or even drug dealers. These are informal things. This has a bad notation in our society because of the drug dealers but the informal has big potential – more for the individuals and how to survive in difficult economic conditions, and it’s somehow necessary. Public space is designed like its public, but it’s not, it’s a private space, with private rules. And they avoid informal things – if you started doing something they don’t like, they’d throw you out.
You’re often asked to deal with the problematic territories of the city where ‘normal’ urbanists can no longer do anything.
Sometimes there are these ‘given-up’ spaces, but in general terms it’s about spaces in transition. Where something is happening, where the existing is not working anymore and the new is not finished ‒ spaces in-between. This is interesting for us because they have a kind of openness and we can start experiments with the situation. Also we don’t see the need to decide how it should be, so we don’t make a final solution. We create a kind of underground foundation of the process, which can end in the solution, maybe, but it’s not only our thinking which will solve this. The process is made so that it can be solved in a collaborative way.
There are a lot of spaces because we have a lot of changes in our society, and in the social structures, with all these industrial areas, former harbours, and other places. And what they are doing is just making this business of architecture. Media harbour here, media harbour there ‒ iconic architecture here and there. The same shops are everywhere, but who is using them? People start understanding that it’s a boring way to homogenize the whole world.
It seems sometimes that you are doing the job that politicians or local governments should do – dealing with social problems, public spaces. Or maybe, governments are into this collaboration?
Sometimes, sometimes together, it depends. There is a difference between administration and politicians. You always need somebody in the system, supporting you, and we always find somebody. We always have somebody innovative, and creative, who likes these kinds of ideas. And at the beginning we try to deal with administration within the normal hierarchy, and if we have problems, we go to the top. It’s just to be able to realize the things.
For sure there is a question of whether we are social workers but I don’t think so. But my definition of being an architect is very wide. I cannot say I’m only this or that. I’m not only an architect, I’m a moderator between the client and the building company in the conventional thinking, but it’s much more than that. I have a responsibility, because I’m building the world, and it’s not my egoistic thing.
My understanding is not that I can just make ‘this’ statement, because I’m an ‘architect’. It’s much more and it has a lot to do with the circumstances. I need to change my role and understand what happens there, to be a social worker sometimes, to be a DJ, or a barkeeper, or a psychologist, or other times I have to be a carpenter. So it’s more of an active role, or a supervisor of these kinds of situations. Dealing with the different scales, from 1:1, from the top-down, I have to be able to combine this, to link, to bring to ‘one to one’, to the top at the top.
You were invited for master planning after all your interventions. Was this the result of it? What made governments believe you?
We have this knowledge. There’s one project, the initial project for us, in 2003 in the East German city of Halle, Halle-Neustadt, which was a concrete slab city ‒ this typical socialistic building, the socialistic ideal city for 100,000 people next to the chemical industry for the workers. And after unification it became one of the big shrinking cities, which was also observed by the ‘Shrinking cities research programme. We started to develop a kind of master plan of how this city could be developed after losing more than half of its inhabitants ‒ just 40,000 people were living there. It’s not about growing and building, it’s about that architects also have to think about shrinking. Which houses we have to demolish and which you can keep. And so we developed a kind of master plan that we called ‘Colorado’, which was a very diverse and very flexible thing and we received prizes for it.
At the same time we collaborated with a youth theatre, and we thought about making something out of what we had proposed as a tool for the development of the city. So we made these extra tools, and one tool was a kind of narrative cultural import. There was an abandoned high-rise building eighteen storeys high in the main square and we developed the idea with the theatre – to transform it into a hotel. The project was Hotel Neustad and it was about thinking about perspectives for the teenagers, for the youth. To create something for the future; and the hotel is a very nice format – to open a hotel in a city which is dying. It’s somehow stupid, and this is what we like. The hotel offers lots of services for young people to activate their talents – design, organization, reception, opening an internet cafe, these kinds of things. Also painting the building, and all those things. It’s also a very nice place to have a theatre festival.
So that is what we did ‒ we put on a festival in a hotel built by teenagers. By the end there were more than 100 teenagers building the hotel with us with 92 rooms which was open for 7 weeks. We had all these artists there – 120 artists from all over the world and it was a very active thing. This was an exemplary project. It went on to be exemplary in relation to the master planning, because it brought things together, with the collaboration, and activation of the community ‒ as an exemplary project for these kinds of shrinking cities. And we’re still doing the same ‒ this is why they asked us to think about the kind of spaces in transition and cities, to create a kind of planning idea, or master planning concept. And if it’s possible, then we do it from both sides.
In Halle it worked for a while, maybe 3 years, and due to the political changes they stopped everything – no money, no more energy, just nothing left. This was disappointing in a way, but it also initiated lot of other things, maybe not in that part of the city, but maybe somewhere else. Now there is an urban planning director, she is very proud of everything, and last year they opened a skate park inside of the city and she called us and said – ‘without our energy this would never have been possible’. It’s not what we expected, it was much slower, but it happened and one of the teenagers is now very successful – he was fifteen when we did this project, and he founded a youth club in the basement – it had been a student hostel before and with some other teenagers (it had also been a former student’s bar in the seventies) and they reinvented it and reopened it. We invited the people from the seventies, along with old people and the teenagers. Eventually they had to leave it, the owner didn’t want them to stay there, which was a pity, but they opened an event company, and it is very successful at organizing events. So this was something they learned while working with us.
You showed your bag at the beginning, saying that it’s your working space, but you still have the space in Berlin Kunstfabrik? What does your working space look like?
I would say more like an atelier of an art academy, you know a big space with tables and people sitting around working. We have a lot of computers, and, yeah, we also have to draw these normal plans for permissions ‒ sections, details, escape way plans, and all this kind of stuff. We do that ‒ we don’t present it in our presentations, but it’s also part of our work. It’s very serious in that way.
We also do this material research, because we have a very high demand for our projects, it’s not only harnessing energy, it’s also building something that we like. We also have a strict approach to the quality and the aesthetic quality of the architecture we build. We have 25 people and two offices: one is more of a laboratory, and the other one is more like a typical architects’ office, where you have to be quiet (smiling). We also do urban planning, developing strategies, and are sometimes engaged in the master planning of districts and areas in the cities.
Yes. Mostly German. The last time it was in Munich and in Berlin, and yes it’s mostly Germany, where the city is our client.
What is your working process, thinking, doing – what are the steps you go through?
Exploring, settling, designing, discussing, forming, trying, trying out, and communicating. Sometimes they change. If you take ‘House of Contamination you don’t need this really specific understanding of a neighbourhood of the city, because it’s inside of a kind of event hall. This is more an understanding of a global phenomenon, concerning trash and how art is interpreted in this moment and this kind of thing. It’s not really to do with the city, which was Turin. It had to do more with creating a discussion, but then it has to because you need to find the resources of the neighbourhood; it’s not about transported waste from Africa, it was just finding it there, and it was just forming the idea.
‘The Submarine’ is something else – it’s an image you can present, people like it and you can just build it, together, then later it will look like this, but it doesn’t matter how it looks at the end ‒ it’s just a symbol that the submarine is built. It was not a submarine, it was only a boat. It was never diving after all.
You were invited to the Venice Biennale 2010 ‘People meet an Architecture’ while participating with ‘The Kitchen Monument, and the chairs, ‘Venetian chairs’. How did you come up with the physical appearance of it, and also the chair as a structural element?
We like to build by ourselves, so we do as much as possible by ourselves in our projects, but also together with the people. Especially in relation to an exhibition or a museum, we ask ourselves how to present the idea in practice. It’s not about having images of what we’ve built or planned and it is not possible to show what we are doing. So we thought about how people can participate in these exhibition formats. First we designed a chair in our office, trying to build a prototype and out of this we made a manual on the wall. The manual was some big thing on the wall, there were also wood and drills, and a figure of how to build it. People were allowed to build chairs in the exhibition and take them home.
For Venice we thought it was a good idea to rethink this idea of the chair ‒ to think about the chair and additional possibilities of how to use it. In Venice, it was as a space where people could meet. That’s why we started to think about a mega structure ‒ the chair as a structural element for a spatial grid. We combined two strategies: one in which people can build themselves chairs, and the other one using chairs for setting up spaces ‒ like the wall. And there was a conference space inside of ‘The Kitchen Monument’, and the tribune.
There was another building workshop ‒ creating a bench with wheels. People could build a bench with wheels and carry it to where they would like to have a bench. Public space also means that in a lot of cities they get rid of benches, because they want to avoid homeless people sleeping on benches. So you don’t them find anymore, places you can sit ‒ it’s only transit, it’s not stopping and enjoying anymore.
I wonder about your connection to art. During the lecture when you were talking about ideas and aesthetics you mentioned various artists (Richard Serra, Dan Graham, and others), and then you showed a sentence by Obrist – ‘XXI century manifestos will be more like dialogues’ – meaning it as your approach. You take a lot of things from the art world, I was wondering what is your connection to it?
We use artistic strategies. People sometimes understand it better if you call it art rather than architecture. And I also think you cannot divide these two things anymore in our times. A lot of artists are working as architects – look at Olafur Eliasson, he’s just built an island in Norway, a kind of facade for the library, and I think in Denmark he has built the headquarters of the Lego family. So he started to build, and he’s an artist, not an architect. And artists are also more and more dealing with specific situations like we do. It’s becoming difficult to define ourselves ‒ I see myself as an architect, I would not say that I’m an artist, but a lot of people see what we’re doing as art, more as art than as architecture.
So where does the architecture start and where does it end?
Most contemporary architects are able to build these wonderful buildings, but what else is there than being wonderful? For me the most important things in architecture are construction and relation and then, for sure, aesthetics, these kinds of forms are important, but they depend on the tools of priorities. Without the good connection everything would fall apart. And without a relation, a building is useless.
Maybe it’s something like walking on the edge, because isn’t selling something to survive on the street also illegal? You are not paying taxes and so on.
Yes, but it’s not only about doing the illegal things, you know. For sure you are not paying taxes and you deal with the city in a way that is not controlled. You just paint a wall in a different colour.
It’s a very important question of how to identify with your city, and who belongs to the city? Who’s saying what is possible and what it’s not. So it’s a question of power. We just see that more and more of these informal activities are being reasked in North Arabia, and in North Africa. This was a kind of informal resistance, it also relates to the occupy movement, because people start understanding that politics is a kind of facade ‒ for international or global business, or for the banking system, and this is what they are complaining about. The power is with the wrong side, politics is not what politics should be. And yes, somehow it has to come together. We need both because if you only act locally, you don’t have the understanding of the whole.
You’ve said that ‘technology is the answer, but what was the question?’ So what is the question?
We don’t have that question. The question this is what you have to develop. The question comes out of the situation I would say. Because it’s very specific. It was Cedric Price who said this, he’s the creator of the Fun Palace of this idea. A friend of Archigram, he’s the guy always smoking a cigar.
What was the question?
For us the question is how to develop ideas for better cities. This is a general question for us, but behind these questions are a lot more questions and these questions are a lot more specific. To make a city – this is our responsibility as architects, and what we are able to do – to make a city a better place for our society. Because the city is how we live. Living in the countryside is kind of an exclusive thing, because the city is the future – with population growth and all that stuff. So we have to learn to live together in a city and we should also rethink our relation with our rural past because there are a lot of things that could be very advantageous about living in a city in finding ways to combine it.
Once, in Madrid, we transformed a little space in a 3 day workshop with students only using the things we found on the streets. This space was used for the whole neighbourhood after 3 months, until they were evicted to build a house there. Nice! And I think it should be simple – as simple as possible, so that people can understand that they could do it by themselves. Sometimes you only need to change the view a few degrees, and you suddenly see there are a lot of things that you never expected.
And for the last question
The last question?
I’ve borrowed this question – what do you think the future will look like?
Ah the easiest question – how do I see the future... Promising.