Can solutions for urban life in Berlin be applied to other cities? The BMW Guggenheim Lab has a trendy Berlin street in sight to find out. But locals are worried about the impact on their historic surroundings.
Berlin's Kastanienallee is to be put under the microscope
A walk down the Kastanienallee, known to many locals as "casting alley," reveals an international breed that has increasingly come to define the German capital since reunification. Foreigners in designer sunglasses sip cocktails on the sidewalks, the freshly-washed windows of upscale boutiques glisten against the gritty buildings of the former East.
Yet as the Guggenheim sets its eyes on the street to set up an open urban think-tank, community center and gallery space entitled "Confronting Comfort: The City and You," it has tread upon the comfort zone of some locals and entered a landmine of urban tensions.
A question of identity
The action group "Stoppt-K21," comprised of residents in and around Kastanienallee who oppose the rapid transformation of the neighborhood, stepped up its protests when the city recently pushed through a controversial revamping of the street to meet the lab's deadline. Plans include widening the street, rebuilding sidewalks and moving the heavily-trafficked bike paths - all of which is scheduled for completion by next year.
"The Guggenheim Lab threw oil into the fire because construction is now being forced on its behalf," explained group member Matthias Aberle. He said that while individuals who have bought apartments along the street may be in favor of manicuring its appearance, hoteliers and restaurant workers who have lived in the area for decades strongly oppose the measure.
The group believes the plans will only make the conditions more dangerous for bikers, with additional plans to increase the speed limit. "Politicians are not acting on behalf of the city's inhabitants, but in favor of their own interests," Aberle said. "That is why the resistance has escalated."
Although the action group does not oppose the lab itself, its members believe there is no need to superimpose it upon a street that is already fighting to preserve its original identity. With a history that dates back 185 years, the Kastanienallee is older than the legendary Kurfürstendamm - Berlin's Champs-Elysee - in the western part of the city, Aberle pointed out.
"The Kastanienallee has a homegrown culture which is being replaced by an implanted culture," he said. "The Guggenheim's temporary building doesn't naturally fit into the surroundings. Given that the project is about urbanity, it is a joke."
The action group has suggested that the lab set up on the cavernous grounds of the Mauerpark in Prenzlauerberg instead; for the time being, the Guggenheim has not announced a definite location.
Plans are in place to revamp Kastanienallee ahead of the lab
Globalizing local urban concepts
Meanwhile, city councilman Jens-Holger Kirchner maintains that the museum's plans to set up along the Kastanienallee are perfectly in order.
"The street reveals a range of people whose different interests clash, just like in a lab," he said. "New ways of life and urbanity are developing. It is for this reason that we adapted our construction plan so that the lab could take place."
After the Guggenheim's first installment in downtown Manhattan this summer, the lab team will pack up a temporary building designed by the Japanese architecture firm Atelier Bow-Wow and travel to Berlin in 2012 to continue free workshops and lectures exploring comfort in an urban environment. The third stop of the lab's first trip will be a city in Asia, after which findings will be compiled and displayed in New York. Two subsequent cycles will be announced at a later date.
The lab is predicated on the concept that local solutions for developing urban comfort can be applied on a global scale. Curator Maria Nicanor hopes that questions raised at one venue will spark solutions and innovative proposals for other cities.
"Any city is built upon the interactions between all its different people, groups, and organizations," she said. "We rely on each other, and this is an important element we highlight within this collaboration. Overall, we hope that the lab can be reproduced anywhere, empowering its inhabitants."
She explained that the mobile structure should be able to weave itself into the everyday urban fabric of any city, providing locals with a platform to gather, raise questions, explore, and share ideas that prompt action. While the museum is not able to discuss location specifics at this time, Nicanor hopes that the lab in Berlin will offer the local community and visitors a new space for public interaction.
An interesting case study
The Guggenheim has not addressed protests against use of the Kastanienallee, yet Nicanor indicated in abstract terms that the lab will touch upon such issues once it arrives. "Berlin is a city that has undergone significant change in the last decades and promises us not only ample opportunities for urban analysis, but also possibilities for exploring other social and political factors that will shine a different light on the project," said Nicanor. "
Meanwhile, a visit to the website of Stoppt-K21 reveals open hostility to the kind of comfort globetrotters take for granted as easily in Prenzlauerberg as in downtown New York. The site maintains that "Bio-Egocentrism" has besieged everyone from iPhone-carrying individuals in second-hand garments to the politicians themselves. "The urban legends of Bionade-bourgeoisie and philistine mothers who send their kids to yoga lessons at the age of three are no novelty," the site states.
In principle, the BMW Guggenheim Lab should be able to address such phenomena, drawing upon the findings and experiences gathered in the nine cities total it intends to tour. Nicanor said she is sure that the lab will reach out to a variety of people in Berlin to develop collective solutions. "The city is such a vibrant place and an incubator of different types of research, organizations, and ideas," she said.
The beliefs of Stoppt-K21 could certainly add another dimension to the discussions, that is, if its members deign to set foot anywhere near Atelier Bow-Wow's temporary building. If not, the lab may end up developing large-scale plans without the input of angered locals who feel excluded from future plans for their own city.
Author: Rebecca Schmid
Editor: Kate Bowen