Berlin was worried about a corporate invasion, so the BMW-sponsored Guggenheim Lab toned down its plans. Now those who are still interested are exploring urbanism via gadgets and crafts. And no one is fussing about it.
Part urban think tank, part community center, the idea behind the Guggenheim Lab is to inspire forward-thinking solutions for urban life through a series of hands-on outdoor workshops.
The first few days of the Lab welcomed everyone from families to students to curious doers who wanted to participate in what organizers called an "urban intervention" by tinkering with various gadgets from 3-D laser cutters to soldering irons.
"The bigger idea behind it is that you can make things by yourself," said Maria Nicanor, general curator of the Guggenheim Lab in Berlin. "You can change things yourself and essentially make your own city. So the workshops are like tools of empowerment and you can learn more by doing than sometimes by talking."
One of the themes, Making Things Move, meant using mobility technologies like bicycles, wheelchairs, strollers and walkers, and modifying them to be more rugged, intelligent and personalized.
Get your hands dirty
Another part of the project, called Empowerment Technologies, was curated by José Gómez-Márquez, the program director for the Innovations in International Health (IIH) initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston.
"We're really interested in setting up different technologies that will expose Berliners to making things with their hands," explained Anna Young, co-organizer along with Gómez-Márquez. "Sometimes that means mashing up the physical and digitals worlds with sensors and micro-controllers, and sometimes it's just very mechanical and hands-on, such as a bicycle-powered blender."
A dozen students from MIT helped lead the workshops together with Young and Gómez-Márquez. Student Emily Johnson taught a group of kids how to make robots from toothbrushes using a motor from a mobile phone and a few double-A batteries. Meanwhile, mechanical engineering student Ben Eck was building a USB charger for a bicycle using a small device that helps charge bike lights.
Europe's creative capital: Berlin
The Guggenheim Lab is not a short-term project. Over the course of six years, it is set to travel to nine cities around the world.
"We had a set of criteria for the cities we wanted to go to," said Maria Nicanor, specifically mentioning growth and density. "Basically they're examples of mega-cities of the future." Other stops on the tour include New York City and Mumbai.
"Berlin has nothing to do with that criteria, it's actually quite the opposite," added Nicanor. "But we thought, what is the city in Europe right now where there are more things happening, where there's more creativity? That is certainly Berlin, whether or not it's a mega-city. Everyone in Europe is moving to Berlin."
The road to Berlin, however, was fraught with resistance from some locals who protested against having the BMW-sponsored project stationed in the Kreuzberg district, which was once considered Berlin's alternative borough but has rapidly succumbed to gentrification.
Instead, organizers set up their outdoor work stations, tucked away in a courtyard with an unmarked entry, in Prenzlauerberg's Pfefferberg complex. Protesters' fears have not been realized: The Guggenheim Lab is so small and benign that it feels more like a grown-up daycare center than a corporate tyrant.
"For months before the Lab opened we were already having conversations about gentrification and rising rents, which is kind of the point of the Lab, to talk about these topics," explained Nicanor. She expressed understanding for the protests, but said it was in reality a "tiny project" that had been "completely blown out of proportion."
Since the opening weekend, when a handful of protestors made an appearance to harass Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit, the disruptions have subsided with the Lab carrying out its program as planned.
Testing Berlin's urban potential
On one rainy day during the Guggenheim Lab, a group of 15 Berliners followed Colin Ellard, professor of psychology at University of Waterloo in Canada, to different sites around the Mitte and Prenzlauerberg districts. They stopped to observe a dilapidated old squat next to a renovated apartment complex, or gaze out across the rushing traffic of Rosenthalerplatz.
Participants held Blackberries that prompted questions about their surroundings, asking them to reflect. Some also wore wristbands with sensors that tracked the fluctuation of their pulse in response to different urban environments.
"Environmental design means health," said Ellard, who was conducting the walkabout as part of his research. "But I'm more generally interested in how environmental design influences your feelings - where we go, our behavior, what we look at - and stress is a part of that. There are certain kinds of design where we would predict higher stress levels than others."
Compared to New York City or Mumbai, Berlin is likely to score much lower, given all the open space in the city.
Anna Young was also present to introduce other hands-on activities for the public that revolved around 'making health,' such as 3-D printers and micro controllers that can produce intelligent hardware, applications on mobile phone that track vital signs, and paper diagnostics that can be fabricated using pregnancy tests.
"We're not allowed to be co-designers, just end recipients and patients of these devices," said Young. "So we're here today to show you enabling technologies we're starting to invent, and to design these devices using technologies that are very accessible here in Berlin."
The Guggenheim Lab, which runs through July 29, has made an impression on Berlin residents, both resistive and supportive. But time will tell just how effective - and necessary - a stop in Berlin is when it comes to exploring urban potential.
For now, Anna Young is positive about the possibilities of the capital. "Berlin has a great culture in term of people expressing their opinions, culturally or politically. In order for this type of lab to be a success, you need a city where people are comfortable confronting issues and are open to these new ideas," she said.
Author: Melanie Sevcenko
Editor: Kate Bowen