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11 May 2006
by Joni Taylor

There's a particular word being thrown about with verve here in Berlin, Germany. Zwischennutzung. Directly translated, it means "between use" and describes the temporary uses for spaces where their future is as yet undecided. These range from urban green areas to large East German housing blocks. It is a contentious issue due to the historically charged landscape of Germany's capital city.

Urban Green

Berlin is a city of gaps. Memory spaces left over from a destruction. Years of forgotten ghosts lie dormant in the grass. On one street, the grey, peeling facade of a pre-war building stands next to a freshly painted yellow apartment block, and between this and the neighbouring building - which is hidden by scaffolding - is a gap. A place where a building once stood, was then either bombed to oblivion or destroyed so badly it had to be demolished, and then forgotten. In all 48000 buildings were destroyed in WW2.
Architects Kenny Cupers and Marcus Miessen calls them "spaces of uncertainty". Architect Phillip Oswald refers to them as "the residual".

Empty weedy lots stand waiting to be sold, or bought, or thought about. In the meantime, temporary uses are created. On one green strip running along-side the canal, ponies graze peacefully. On another roadside block, saggy men sun-bathe nude. Some locals have turned a former East Berlin rubbish dump into an open air café and cinema for the summer. The graffiti scrawled on the building above the Lungo Lungo Lounge reads "all good comes from above" and for 5 months each year it becomes a public garden for the community that live around it. They plant trees, have parties, and built a mini golf course from the brocken TVS and other junk they found there.

Of course the biggest gap is the one left by the Berlin Wall. All 155 kilometres of it and dividing West Berlin from the rest of East Germany.
If one chooses to walk the historic trail that the wall took, one would be surprised at the attempts to remember and the attempts to forget.
At historic Bernauer Street, where the Wall divided the road into West and East, a museum has been built, and a large memorial dedicated to those that lost their lives trying to cross it. Along the street itself, a thin copper line marks the old division. On the East side, a straight line of windowless walls continues all the way to the horizon. A green scar runs alongside these houses, trees and unkept shrubs and flocks of birds live in this empty space, this belt of nothingness. Overgrown vines climb up the sides of the houses, some painted bright colours, others the original grey they had deteriorated to.
On one corner a funfair has been set up for the weekend, making use of this un-owned land. Reminiscent of Wender's "Wings of Desire", there are no angels or white horses here, but the music sends carney vibes over to the other side of the road.

The former no-mans land between Prenzlauerberg in the East and Wedding in the West - where the grass was always kept short for accurate firing range and riddled with land mines - is now one of the largest open spaces in the area.
To some this is an ugly reminder of what was once there, but to the young locals and summer visitors, it's the "Mauerpark", one of Berlin's many green oases within the city. In summer punks, dogs, drug dealers and an amazing escalating toddler population take over this space. On the night before the annual Mayday riots the park is particularly active. Thousands gather for the "Wahlpurgesnacht" celebrating the release of purged spirits with huge bonfires and an even huger police presence.
It is a true public space, without any monuments, memorials, and without any shops. It is not aimed at the consumer, unless you count the odd mobile beer seller. It is a rhizomic entity, growing according to the needs and desires of the community that use it.


It's not just the gaps between being used, but un-used buildings as well. The utopia of squatting has dissipated in Berlin's current real estate market, but many buildings still stand empty.
One of the most exciting examples of recent urban Zwischennutzung has been the "Palastes der Republic" and also one of the city's biggest controversies.
Berlin's original castle was badly damaged in World War 2 and then demolished under the GDR.
On the same site, the party built the "Palastes der Republic", the People's Palace to be used for state meetings and parties. Apparently the sound system was un-surpassed. Following the fall of the Wall, the building was discovered to be choked full of asbestos, and millions of Deutschmark spent on it's removal.
Now after years of debate, the federal Government - in a move pungent of the Disney concept of "imagineering" - has decided to rebuild a "new" castle on the original site, in the former style and glory of the past. Chancellor Schroeder has called it a choice of the "beautiful over the ugly".
Thanks to the work of Think Tank Urban Catalyst, this in-between stage has been given to cultural organisations who have breathed new life into the structure by using it for events, parties and seminars. Even letting the river flow into the lower floors for a theatre performance.

Other projects have meant that the large East German housing blocks on the outskirts of the city, which are rapidly becoming obsolete and empty, have been taken over by artists and students in temporary experiments. The "dostoprimetschatjelnosti" project involved 55 young architects, designers and students from 17 countries moving into an eleven story building for 3 months.

So while Berlin battles with the financial burden of being the Capital, and the desire to build and upgrade is seen on every corner, there seems to be a never ending supply of forgotten and empty sites.
Berlin is still not finished, it's not new and the cranes will remain for a long time more, but the feeling of possibilities here is infectious.

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