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Berlin in search of new urban living

Finnish architects Pia Ilonen and Rosemarie Schnitzler have succeeded in designing cost-efficient, contemporary urban housing for the 21st century Berlin. Architect SAFA Tarja Nurmi writes about the Team Talli & Schnitzler’s project and the recent Berlin workshop.  

Urban Living – Neue Formen des städtischen Wohnens

A decision was made in Berlin following last autumn’s German federal election to cancel the Internationale Bauausstellung IBA that had been planned for 2020. Budget resources had, however, already been provided for the building exhibition event that has such an excellent reputation. There was a desire to make use of the available resources. Berlin’s Senatsverwaltung für Stadtentwicklung und Umwelt (the office in charge of urban development and the environment) decided instead to organise in 2013-14 an ideas workshop, harvesting new ideas for urban living under the title Urban Living – Neue Formen des städtischen Wohnens, as well as organising an exhibition linked with the results of the workshop. The project sought answers to the following questions: How can infill building be useful for the existing environment? How can one build more cost-efficiently? What kind of dwellings and ways of living respond to future needs? Interesting responses, and indeed a lot of them, were generated.

A presentation brochure about the entire ideas workshop has also been produced for the final seminar, and following the exhibition also a book and a lot of web material. However, despite the seminar having been an international event, the material and its online comments section exist only in German.

Finnish architect Pia Ilonen of Talli Ltd, who lectured at the preparatory seminar in 2013, was tipped off by the organisers to enlist for the workshop. Finnish architect Rosemarie Schnitzler in turn, as a long standing colleague of Juha Leiviskä, has participated in several projects linked to Germany. Ilonen and Schnitzler utilised the latter’s experiences and language skills and put together the necessary yet fairly easy to produce material required for the enlisting procedure and sent it to Berlin. Much to their surprise, they were among the 31 candidates invited to participate, with over 200 persons having applied.

Architects Rosemari Schnitzler and Pia Ilonen.

Architects Rosemari Schnitzler and Pia Ilonen.

The workshop dealt with eight quartiers of Berlin. Team Talli Ltd and Schnitzler were asked to analyse the parking and park area of a city quartier built during the DDR era situated along Jacobystrasse, in the vicinity of Alexanderplatz. Three other architecture firms also analysed the same location.

The Finnish architects noticed at the beginning of the year how Frank Gehry’s bold shaped proposal for a golden tower had received a lot of attention in the press. The challenges of building and housing in the 21st century in Berlin and in the vicinity of Alexanderplatz lie, however, completely elsewhere than in the production of luxury apartments and towers. The rise in prices and rents in the capital is a phenomenon with many negative consequences. Various new issues must be considered regarding compacting the urban structure, dealing with the DDR modernism, and housing that responds to completely new kinds of needs.

Team Talli & Schnitzler explained that last autumn a superbly organized so-called mid-critique workshop lasting several days took place, where all the proposals were presented and assessed in the presence of the participant group, critics and organizers. The Finns’ proposal for a loft-type affordable raw space was seen as excellently radical. The representative of the city of Berlin even stated that a thousand or even five thousand of the proposed units could be ordered, preferably immediately. The idea was seen as suitable for the spirit of Berlin, though not for everyone. The Finns’ idea was to create small raw-space units, “houses within a house”. Their proposal for the given plot was just one example of this concept.

The Berlin architects Grüntuch & Ernst designed for Berlin two-storey residential units somewhat more exclusive than the ones proposed by the Finns, and where the concept of the two-level apartments with a wide balcony in front, resembles the idea of living in an individual single-family house. These can be found, for instance, on Monbijouplatz or Marthashof in Schwedter Strasse.

The Finns’ proposed raw space concept differs from these above all in that the apartments would be considerably more economical and the residents themselves could choose what form and level of finishing they want their homes in the 50 or 100 m2 and 5-metre tall units. In the proposal the bathroom and staircase would already be included in the basic unit; the idea is that these could also be rented out and the tenants allowed further self-build input.

An exhibition of the works opened on March 5, 2014, and it continued until the end of March. Exceptionally many people attended the opening, including several important figures and organisations behind the project. The idea of communal living or Wohngemeinschaft has also spread in Berlin, as a result of which numerous affordable and unique buildings or building groups have been built.

The ideas workshop and exhibition also received publicity in the newspapers. The journalists had picked examples in particular from the proposals made by the German architecture firms, even though the workshop and the critics were very much international.

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The workshop proposals are available for closer inspection on the internet (urbanliving.berlin.de), where one can also leave comments. Each participating architecture firm received the same sum of money, 12 000 Euros, to cover the costs of working on their idea, collecting material and travelling to Berlin. Some of the architecture firms clearly have had the ambition to acquire direct commissions through this process; in other words, a larger sum of money than the 12 000 Euros has been used for working on the ideas. Due to the positive feedback they received, including from critic Jean Phillippe Vassalli, one would indeed hope that the Talli-Schnitzler team would actually receive a commission from Berlin.

In her speech at the exhibition opening, Berlin senate building director Regula Lüscher considered the workshop an excellent basis for further work and the construction of Berlin during the current millennium.

More information: urbanliving.berlin.de (in German).

Text by Tarja Nurmi.
English translation by Gareth Griffiths.

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