Consumerism is increasingly seen as a panacea for neglect and deterioration in our towns and cities. The belief is that, the more shoppers frequent areas that need regeneration, the more those public spaces will benefit. And sometimes it can work – the windswept, grimy central avenue of Patrick Hodgkinson’s 1960s megastructure, the Brunswick Centre in London, has been transformed by a lick of paint and the simple expedient of putting a large supermarket at the far end and lining the sides with new shops and cafes.
Whether that is the best way to improve the urban environment is open to question, however. For one thing, it adds to the voracious appetite to consume goods, which has consequences for our climate. Also, it often involves, with the aid of CCTV and security patrols, the exclusion of “less desirable” groups, who are deemed to bring an area down and to put off shoppers, and who are therefore pushed out of sight and out of mind.
Some architects—Raumlabor, Carmody Groarke and Sanjeev Shankar to name but a few—are challenging that policy, which they view as limited, short-sighted, and even dangerous given the urgency of the climate change issue. Perhaps the most radical among them is Berlin-based practice Köbberling and Kaltwasser, whose approach to public space, by contrast, is marked by real public participation—volunteers help to shape and to build the work—and the use predominantly of materials that would otherwise be thrown away. Their ideas offer a “back to basics” alternative to the official planning policies that now dominate cities such as Berlin and London.
Köbberling and Kaltwasser’s most ambitious building to date is the Jellyfish Theatre, which was erected on a school playground in Southwark, just south of the River Thames, with the towering Shard and Elephant and Castle developments in the distance. Martin Kaltwasser first discussed the project with playwrights and commissioning theatre group Red Room; and the building then went up over the summer with the help of about 100 volunteers. He provided experience as an architect and a rough vision of the design, and they developed that together. Martin comments, “The volunteers brought their skills, humour and men and women power. We invited literally everyone to take a hammer, it was so basic. We needed everyone because we did not have electricity and a lot of things on the construction side.” A “unique and special atmosphere” resulted. As usual with Köbberling and Kaltwasser’s work, the process was an important part of the message.
Simplicity and flexibility were key. Through the use of brackets, wooden pallets were attached to the steel pole structural frame. On the pallets were nailed and screwed, in a seemingly haphazard fashion, the cladding elements: unwanted doors, wood offcuts, parts of cupboards, MDF and insulation sheets. The approach is a world away from the close attention to junction details that characterises most architecture projects. However, the building had to be weather-proof and to meet building regulations—even the front, the tentacles of the Jellyfish, which looked like it had frozen in mid-collapse. The original idea was for the tentacles to be bigger than the rest of the theatre, but the project ran out of time to realise that aim. In the end, the most eye-catching part of the structure, which lends it its alien-type character, was completed in just two days. It’s amazing that some passing school pupil did not decide to test its strength with a Tarzan-like swing or two. Martin puts it down to an increasing feature of our schools: the banning of climbing frames from playgrounds: “The spirit of fear in England has got into the children. They are not doing these things anymore.” Apart from the main steel pole structure, a late addition that proved necessary for practical reasons, and that doubled as a corridor for the actors’ stage exits, everything was made from donated or salvaged materials: even the seating, cafe and box office, although to minimise waste no tickets were handed out. A wide central aisle served as the performance space, with the audience seated on both sides.
The apparent obstacle of a lack of electric tools contributed to the individuality of the design. “We tried to reduce cutting to a minimum, “ says Martin. “We used over-lapping. I was fascinated how funny it is to build without cutting as it promoted the imagination, it creates another spirit, another aesthetic. It was defining our own aesthetics and the volunteers could identify that. It was like a jazz concert, with a theme of some escapes.” On the press night for one of the plays that was staged, Protozoa by Kay Adshead , theatre-goers had their cameras out, seemingly intrigued that something as large and functional as a theatre could be built mostly from materials that were destined for the skip. I think that part of its charm stemmed from the fact that it harked back to when buildings were erected by hand and the community came together and used locally sourced materials. Strangely, though, the resulting patchwork recalled an icon of Modernist architecture, the Eames house of 1949—also a collection of ordinary components that make up something unique. After the staging of two plays on themes of climate change in September, the building was dismantled by volunteers, including me, in October, and the materials were again sorted for recycling. The total budget was £17,000, which included about £12,000 for fees and renting and £5,000 for building materials. “You can say it’s a no budget project,” says Martin: £100,000 is the average budget for a small architecture project.
Köbberling and Kaltwasser’s book Hold It! serves as a summary of their work so far. In it they stress that their role is different from the traditional one of the architect: it is to offer “examples of empowerment and the temporary popular appropriation of urban space…Architects could help to convey how to do things yourself, how to experiment, and how to harness potential.” So bicycles are built from the spare parts of a Peugeot 205; a disused bus shelter becomes a forum for community life in Linz; small shanty-type booths offer an escape from CCTV surveillance in Nottingham; a pavilion near the stock exchange in Zürich becomes a meeting place, a lecture hall and then a soup kitchen; and a family house is erected overnight on a disused meadow by the Gropiusstadt housing estate in Berlin. Residents’ reactions on waking up to find a new house on the estate are viewable on Youtube. Martin explains their enthusiasm: “It’s a basic thing in our European culture: the idea in most people’s minds that the fulfilment and success of life is given if he or she builds their own house. The single house building is still the icon of a fulfilled life. We built the house in Gropiusstadt as an ironic statement on that thinking.
“There is a deep wish of people in high rises for individuality, a place of their own. There are lots of immigrants. They remembered their childhood. It was moving, what they said.” A two-week visit to Istanbul to see the informal building techniques that are still practised in the southern hemisphere has had a strong influence on Köbberling and Kaltwasser’s work. Another influence has been Berlin at the time of the fall of the wall, when there was an unparalleled opportunity for architects such as Köbberling and Kaltwasser and Raumlabor, who are close friends, to rethink the city. “It had lots of unidentified space, it was the highest peak of freedom you can imagine. Whole quarters had no clear form of possession. Everyone went in and changed the locks! “In the 1990s we feared the Berlin Senate would turn Berlin into a more commercial city. We wanted to show the potential of non-defined space. Berlin had to redefine itself completely after the fall of the wall. We felt it was a unique chance to be respected, to be an important part of redefining the city.” Later the projects built by Köbberling and Kaltwasser, Raumlabor and others in the city were replaced by the neo-classical architecture that dominates now. Köbberling and Kaltwasser have just returned from a one-year residency in Los Angeles. Unusually, while there, they used only bikes and public transport. “Everything was so slow, Californians are not used to being confronted by bikes, so everyone stopped when they saw a bike. We were like kings!” One wonders what influence the city of quartz will have on their work. Their structures, set among heavy traffic and high-rise office and retail developments, often look fragile and hopelessly overwhelmed, a David among the Goliaths. However, the renewal of interest in localism and the “big society” suggests that their time has come and that their ideas will be increasingly taken up by communities and town hall decision makers who want to bring a more inclusive dynamic to our public spaces.