Mathias Heyden

Mathias Heyden is the founder of ISPARA, a Berlin-based office and lab for strategies of participatory architecture and spatial appropriation. Current projects include a website on “vacant public properties, a potential for future commons?”, seminars and excursions on “community oriented housing and workspaces in Berlin”, the research on a “center for self-determined, cooperative education and work in a former public school, Berlin”, a long-term cooperation with an artists run project-space “trans_public” in Linz, Austria, and the organization of “EVOLVING PARTICIPATORY DESIGN: BERLIN / NEW YORK”, an American-European symposium and workshop in 2007. Mathias Heyden is also engaging in establishing sustainable methods of construction, such as earthen and straw bale techniques, into the world of design. He is a Co-founder of the cultural association Stilkamm 5 1/2 and the community project

K77, where in the context of sustainable reconstruction, he personified as community-inhabitant, cultural worker, builder, craftsman & architect (1992/2000). Mathias Heyden has taught at the Universität der Künste Berlin, Department of Architecture, (2002/2003), and at the Kunsthochschule Berlin-

Weissensee, Department of Architecture (2004). Parallel to his work as an architect he is a continuous assistant to the artist Ines Schaber i.e. in projects on master-planned communities and New Urbanism, or “picture mining”, an art project on copyright, common property, and post-industrial landscape. Mathias Heyden was Co-curator of the event and co-editor of the book “HIER ENTSTEHT – Strategien partizipativer Architektur und räumlicher Aneignung” (2002/2004 as well as “Everyday Urbanism und Participatory Design”, ARCHPLUS 2006 (with Jesko Fezer).


A report from Berlin, reaching beyond

Written for:
A Symposium on Alternative Forms of Architectural Praxis
School of Architecture, University of Sheffield, supported by AHRC , 26 – 27th November 2007

To be published in:
a free journal for architecture

Pointing at Berlins top-down/bottom-up crossroads
Berlin 2007, at Bethaniendamm/Engeldamm looking toward Köpenicker Straße/Schillingbrucke: at one time the green median on which we stand was a canal that led to the Spree River and to this day still divides neighborhoods of Kreuzberg and Mitte. Along the same median ran the Berlin wall completely severing one part of the city from the other. The nearby Spree River was continuing this detachment. That’s eighteen years ago now. The Schillingbrücke was since re-constructed and now connects the east and west almost as if nothing had happened. However, the surrounding architecture tells another story.
Directly on the left bank of the river, sit the Federal Offices of the Service Industries Union (Bundeszentrale der Dienstleistungsgewerkschaft, known as Ver.di). Red stone encases an office building very typical of Berlins recent architecture with its huge glazed foyer. On the other side of the river stands one of countless new hotels – proof of practically the only economic boom in the now almost bankrupt capital. Immediately next door, “Maria am Ostbahnhof” one the hippest clubs in the city over the past ten years, occupies, as a temporary user, the basement level of an otherwise demolished building now completely overgrown with wild city vegetation and more or less hidden from sight. Back on the Kreuzberg side, directly opposite the Ver.di: simple steel and concrete structures from the 60’s and 70’s house one or another company serving mostly the building industry. From Engeldamm, looking in the direction of former east Berlin-Mitte one sees remaining pre-war buildings from the Gründerzeit – in many cases renovated for speculative gain in recent years; behind them lie industrial GDR housing from the 70’s and 80’s. But it is the lot opposite Ver.di’s “top-down” architecture that jumps from the picture.
In a dilapidated Gründerzeit building and a neighboring impromptu trailer park, Köpi – a city-wide known squatting project – has been fighting since 1990 for user-determined development of the city. One of the central points of origin of this bottom-up culture lies right around the corner. I’m referring to a former hospital at Kreuzberger Mariannenplatz, which was squatted as the Georg-Rauch-Haus in the beginning of the 70’s, and is considered a breeding cell of the bottom-up driven city development that still marks Kreuzberg today.
Something else is irritating: directly behind the church on Mariannenplatz, exactly where the Berlin Wall stood, two lots have grew into Turkish “victory gardens” with accompanying sheds that remind one more of an Istanbul Gecekondu or shanty than a typically tidy Berlin garden cottage. This type of architecture, in Turkey built practically overnight, is still standing in 2007, eighteen years after the fall of the Berlin wall, having occupied East German territory that ran along the western side of the wall and therefore fell outside of either jurisdiction.
Such sets of examples could be extended to include many locations throughout the city, all of which support the thesis that the production and use of space in the capital, at least in most inner districts, has been determined through top-down as well as bottom-up development. It must be said that this is an ambivalent play of power and that the tendency at the moment leans away from the alternative, bottom-up potentials.
In this context it must be noted that the achievements of Berlin’s bottom-up city development are closely tied to the city’s history. Berlin has had to re-make itself (socially, politically, economically and culturally) repeatedly since the beginning of the 20´s century and so it has also had to reconsider the being of its planning and construction on a regular basis. This permanent laboratory situation “Berlin Transit” cannot be directly applied to other cities.
Assuming that Berlin’s city development is increasingly consolidating itself, in other words normalizing, one is forced to ask how one can apply the potentials springing from the various exceptional situations to the general planning. At the moment it this raises i.e. in particular the question of the relationship between the numerous experiments in temporary urban appropriation and city development that is increasingly oriented toward capital. In terms of concrete planning, how does the culture of between-use affect the general planning and building culture? To what extent is this not becoming or already part of the neo-liberal project, when, for example, the “center” of between-use, the Friedrichshain-Kreuberg Spreeraum in the context of the Media-Spree-Development is increasingly defined by profit oriented ventures which in the meanwhile cumulate the culture of so called urban pioneers into their agenda?
If one considers in this conjunction recent cultural interventions by architects (temporary structures for temporary cultural events in a progressive sense) as field research, must we not then ask how to transform such interventions into sustainable city development? If, as we can see especially in the Berlin context over recent years, architects increasingly collaborate with artists and people from other cultural fields, shouldn’t they also engage more intensively with sociology, politics, economics and ecology in order to have a sustainable impact on the city as a whole? In consequence: How do we make local-spatial commitments in a world in which time moves with speed and people change places at such a fast rate increasingly (situative urbanism vs. local commitment)? One example of architectural practice reaching out to some possible answers is the project K77 at Kastanienallee 77, Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg, which began as a temporary action, as a performance based on an expanded notion of art, but at the same time urged a sustainable, long-term and holistic approach.

From “Squatting – Art – 1. Aid” to “Art. Commune. Capital. 10 Years K77”
The fall of the Berlin wall in November 1989 marked the beginning of a process of spatial redefinition for the entire GDR: formerly nationalized property was consecutively transferred into private ownership. Alongside this major shift, the majority of planners thoroughly engaged in the capitalist takeover of previously socialist space (people’s property). The rare chance to create radical and emancipative systems for collective property (ruled by the users instead of anonymous administrations or capital) has rarely been taken advantage of.
On November 24th 1990, following a three-day street battle – after the German Unification Treaty was in full force – twelve squatted houses on Mainzerstrasse in Friedrichshain were violently evacuated by 3500 West German police and border officers. As a consequence, a policy was put into action that would immediately suppress any further attempts at occupation. In this situation, a group of students of different disciplines from the University of the Arts intervened with the “1. Mainzer Kunstausstellung: Vom Eindruck der Staatsgewalt auf die Netzhaut” (1st Mainzer Art Exhibition: From Expression of State Violence on the Retina). The ambivalent strategy made a building intentionally damaged by construction workers (in order to prevent squatters) accessible to the public, as an exhibition, for an afternoon.
Through the following “2nd Mainzer Art Exhibition – From House Squatters and other Villains” emerged long-term artistic/political collaboration. The participants founded an organized club engaging through various activities for the “establishment of joint living and working spaces as laboratories beyond Socialism and Capitalism”.
On June 20, 1992, the “NotärztInnen-Team der Vereinigten Varben Wawavox” (Emergency-Doctor-Team of the United Colors of Wawavox) performed a heart transplant in the oldest building in Prenzlauer Berg, which had been vacant for six years. Step by step, and in accordance with their expanded notion of art, the group took over Kastanienallee 77 as a location for non-speculative, self-defined, communal living and working. Against this backdrop, the Emergency-Doctors, at the closing forum of the exhibit “37 Rooms”, positioned themselves explicitly against the gentrification of Berlin-Mitte – which was facilitated in part by the art institute KunstWerke as well this very exhibition – in aid of a permanent installation of the rooms 38 to 103 of the “social sculpture K77”.
At this point the K77 buildings were not fit for habitation. Work on the “social sculpture” included construction with found materials, as well as collective living and working. In order to counteract the expectedly predominant trend of condominium apartments made out of former house-projects in the 80’s, the group worked towards a communal, non-property oriented solution. Since 1994, the building is owned by the foundation “Umverteilung! Stiftung für eine solidarische Welt” (“Redistribution! Foundation for a World of Solidarity”). The real-estate interest gained by the house goes directly into socio-political projects, both local and in the third world.
Today, the core members of the self-organized project – approximately 25 adults and children – live together “in one flat” on 6 levels in 3 buildings – with at its core the negotiation of boundaries. Every two years, the inhabitants sort out who wants to live where and in which constellation, so that the usage and interpretation of available spaces is constantly renewed.
The high degree of the K77 physical reconstruction of the old structure was only made possible through a public funding program (1994-1999), and this enormously helped the sustainability of the experiment. In the process-oriented planning and building stage, a broad variety of forms of participation and self-organization came about: the new spaces were largely laid-out through flexible and self-built wallboards. Wall partitions were accordingly fitted with omissions. Light openings, room connections, or breaks in the wall were designed so that they can be closed and reopened at any time. Overall, design decisions were left to individuals. The design of the façade, however, was developed in a collective workshop. The movie theater and communal kitchen were done through small competitions. The kitchen is the socio-spatial center of the house. On the same communal floor there is a dining room, a playroom for children, and a “bathing landscape”, with in addition a communal washing-machine room, a guestroom, a roof garden and a library.
Alongside collective property and economy, and the possibility to change internal “neighborhoods”, there was a strong attempt to overcome particular conditionings of the individual and the self, and those lead to self-organized and collective everyday practices.
In this context, the particular architecture of “negotiated boundaries” can be seen as the spatial manifestation of a much broader understanding of self-empowered space. The design of the built environment goes along with the deep conviction towards an architecture -described more precisely as radical than oppositional – which relies on the ultimate importance of collective economics in space; an architecture seen as an emancipative social sculpture.
Having been one of the founding members of the project whilst studying architecture, after some time I left school and moved over to the building site: I became an architect through practice, while initiating and experiencing a multitude of strategies of self-organization and participative design. The project was an extraordinarily opportunity, the best way to become an architect in my sense; it also drew most available energy into its interior. This is to say that we over time kind of lost the ability to look away from the project. Consequently – after the construction was done – I had the urgent desire to perceive K77 as an architect from the outside, to contextualize our experiences in a more general field of participatory design. In order to review my architectural activism, while seeking to expand such practices into the general development of Berlin and abroad (and opposing most of the official top-down driven politics of planning), a close research into the broad range of participatory design seemed necessary. And it became clear that if we want to spread the agenda of self-determination and participation into the world of planning and design, the education of architects might be the most important thing to start with. In consequence the project “UNDER CONSTRUCTION. Strategies of Participative Architecture and Spatial Appropriation” emerged – and brought me back to academia.

UNDER CONSTRUCTION. Strategies of Participative Architecture and Spatial Appropriation
Starting with teaching a seminar at the University of Arts in Berlin (with Jesko Fezer), the project unfolded into a 14-day building experiment consisting of an exhibition, a lecture series and an open space for spontaneous settlements and unpredictable activities at the Volksbühne on Rosa- Luxemburg-Platz, Berlin.
Also the German publication, which followed in 2004 focuses on the viewpoint of planners and architects in the western European context, and relates it to historical projects and discourses starting from the 60´s and extending to present-day concepts and experiments. The publication works as scientific reader as well as an easily accessible and useful handbook. It includes an introduction, 20 edited interviews with biographical notes and project illustrations, as well as related material such as texts and images, a guide on participative architecture in Western Europe (1950-1980), and an index of people, projects and material documenting the Berlin event “Hier entsteht” in June/July 2003. The main part of the book, the edited interviews held in 2003/2004 features theories, investigations and practices of urban planning, communication, design and building techniques ranging from self-building to CAD; on architects strategies of education as well as on self-empowerment, common property and community building. Unfortunately the only non-western European examples in the German edition are, until now, of an interview about informal architecture in Mexico City and another about Rural Studio in Alabama, USA.
The project’s outcome was and still is awesome. Students became colleagues as researchers, through co-designing and building the event-structure, as well as organizing the event, which evolved as an open and lively space for professionals as well as the interested general public. In a similar way, the book was and is widely acclaimed by all kinds of people. The drive to implement architectural practices such as K77 into teaching and research, and the drive to lead this emerging university work back into Berlin society and its built environment did prove not just necessary but also extremely successful.

Urban Pioneers: entrepreneurs within the neoliberal city or agents challenging a sustainable city?
During the so-called “Kritische Rekonstruktion” (“Critical Reconstruction”) of the inner city districts (mainly in the East), its actors and their projects (mainly from the West) lost popularity, and most importantly the building economy lost its speed it had previously enjoyed till the beginning of the 90’s (i.e. designs such as the redesign of Alexanderplatz didn’t happen). Simultaneously, especially in the southeast along the Spree River (Districts Mitte, Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg), an increasing number of people took over vacant lots and buildings for a variety of temporary purposes, most prominently for all kind of clubs, but also other types of self-organized purposes (social, cultural and commercial). Contrary to the time between 1989 and 1990, as countless of such spaces were squatted, now the vacant lots and buildings were taken over with legal, but short-term contracts. Until recently, this kind of situational appropriation of space was only taken serious by some of the younger generation of planners, as for example by the group Urban Catalyst (Phillip Oswalt, Klaus Overmeyer and others). Today the argument to expand the planner’s toolbox for the means of this “Berlin-type” of informal urbanism is being taken up by the Senatsverwaltung für Stadtentwicklung (administration for urban development), culminating in the publication “Urban Pioneers. Temporary Use and Urban Development in Berlin”, and is being taken up as well by neo-liberal actors, i.e. the Media-Spree-Development and its profit oriented ventures.
In regard to the politics of planning this shift can be seen as a positive turn, at least through the integration of contemporary urban realities in their language, but questions aiming at the long run, the strategies for sustainable, holistic development, remain open. One could say this unwillingness is part of a politics concerned only with getting from one election to the other. Certainly this is part of the problem, though not the main reason; it is rather to be seen in view of the general flexibilization and mobilization of our societies. It is to be seen in view of diminishing numbers of employees and a growing number of freelancers; in view of the widening gaps of income and rising prices for housing, for commercial, cultural, ultimately social spaces. And it is finally to be seen in view of a growing individualization and privatization of public goods versus increasing calls to extend our civil societies.
But despite opening up at least some parts of public lots and buildings for more sustainable and holistic developments of civil, politics worldwide follow the myth of the “creative class” and its adjacent industries as a beacon of hope. Furthermore in Berlin (which its huge amount of vacant public lots and buildings), the majority of the cultural entrepreneurs, and within them some of the emerging young Berlin architects, engage in co-operations with artist of all kind producing temporary 1:1 projects, rather than challenge themselves in long-term commitments and lager-scale developments. This is not a statement made to undermine such artist bound co-operations and temporary projects in any way, quite the opposite. The question here, is rather whether we shouldn’t challenge trends, and if so, how we could engage ourselves beyond the 1:1 (art-) projects, while still considering these fieldworks as a valuable sources of experience to be taken into long term and larger scale co-operations (i.e. with experts for alternative politics and economics, ecologists of all kind). From a broader perspective one could ask also how to bring activist and architectural practices, university work, political and economical discourse into a productive exchange around the dealings with vacant (public) properties and buildings in Berlin, as potential spaces for future commons. In relationship to these questions, the case study of a former public school in Berlin might be revealing.

Forum K 82 – center for cooperative, self-determined education and work
In 2004, and visible all over the city, more than a hundred public school buildings were vacant or about to become so. The K 82 project developed a concept and design for the future uses of a school in the Prenzlauer Berg quarter.
The particular neighborhood, formerly known for its artists’ driven but rather politically engaged residents, had transformed into an area dominated by members of the so-called “creative class”. After squatted flats and houses, and a vast number of other spaces by time occupied legally for all kinds of purposes, today multiple bars, fashion shops, “young urban professionals” (an old fashioned term which may be changed) are facing increasing rents while establishing a neighborhood which every tourist guide announces as a must-see of “alternative Berlin”. The inhabitants however, work on establishing alternative childcare and education, promote biological food and vote predominantly for the left and the green party. What they do not do to a larger extend is communicate and promote these everyday conditions, the flexible nature of their work, the economical and in the end social individualization process taking place with its questions and answers, problems and potentials regarding a common future.
Taking these and other specific aspects of the area into consideration, the design for spaces to communicate and promote the everyday conditions more commonly (in a critical and productive way) in the former public school sprang from a class at a school of architecture. The students’ design was communicated quite widely through an arts project (by students of the art of the same school) taking place in the public school building. Their design was sensitive to the neighborhood’s situation; it lead to a citizens’ initiative, developing a concept for a Berlin center for self-determined, cooperative education and work (“Forum K82 – Zentrum für selbsbsetimmte, kooperative Bildung und Arbeit”). As opposed to temporary projects and uses of space, “Forum K 82” argued for a long-term lease of public property. In doing so the design and the concept promoted more permanent and substantial modes of communication, exchange and cooperation while emphasizing the challenges and potentials of changing lifestyles to be promoted; issues which need to be discussed simultaneously with a local and international public. Finally, the design and concept argued that the reuse of the public school could function as an important platform of research by practice looking at our changing societies of today and the ones yet to come. The specific architectural approach was to insist, even when faced with the growing network-societies and their particular fragmented spatial dimensions, that building through spatial and social engagement, that is to say local commitment in a spatial sense be taken more seriously than ever.
The project failed mainly due to the district’s parliament and government; but it also failed because of a lack of awareness and responsibility of potential civic actors. This statement is not about criticizing particular individuals, but the prevalent lack of preliminary information, knowledge and discussion, and most of all (intellectual) action towards things to come. This must be seen occurring within a society, which still kind of relies on a welfare mentality in the old and paternalistic way. Self determined and participatory design in a context as such – even though it may be common ground theoretically and implemented in many institutional ways – still seems to get stuck in structures, rules and regulations, more than really take part in a society’s culture of direct-democracy, therefore active in planning. Questions about the current and future forms of our commons should be more critical and productive than previous discussions on “German society” (which are to be opposed, in my opinion) or exalted speculations on network-societies, and they seem to be just starting. In this concern one cannot yet anticipate how far the term community will help, in its Anglo-American definition. As for myself, as an architect engaged in the evolving field of participatory design, North American cultures of community design done by planners and architects, seem to offer promising ways forward worth considering.

Community Design Center
The term community design indicates how participative planning and architecture try to achieve progressive, negotiatated productions of space in the US. Emerging in the context of the grass-roots movements of the 60´s and close to Paul Davidoff’s advocacy planning, today about 100 Community Design Centers exist all over the country. Committed to serve the public good they primarily work for and with people and/or on topics marginalized though prevalent productions of space; accordingly clients are citizens and initiatives, private as well public organizations and institutions on the local, state and federal scale. Predominantly Non-Profit or Not-For Profit organizations, they operate as associations staffed by volunteers, as sociopolitically affected planning, or architecture firms or even within to schools of architecture and planning.
One of the eldest Community Design Centers is the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development in New York City. Rural Studio, in Hale County, Alabama, is known for its internationally acclaimed 1:1-student-projects and is part of a school of architecture and planning. Design Corps is primarily engaged with the underprivileged, but is active all over the county and operates as a small architectural firm. Its founder/director argues vehemently for intervention into the production of space, 98% of which in the US happens without architects. The CDC Pittsburgh focuses on direct planning and building with the citizens of the postindustrial city, characterized by decay, and vast amounts of derelict land. With the ambition to work multi-disciplinarily the Center for Urban Pedagogy in Brooklyn is engaged in all kinds of schools and universities while communicating a broad range of planning-topics into diverse urban scenes. All over the country Community Design Centers connect with each other i.e. via the umbrella group Association for Community Design.
The range of possibilities for such type of engagements can be exemplified in the Hamer Center for Community Design Assistance. Residing at the Pennsylvania State University, the work ranges from theoretical or scientific projects to on-site ones. Within so-called design-built projects, teachers and students have been making earth and straw bale constructions for a couple of years, with a community of Native Americans. Practical and scientific work also come together in a project dealing with the recycling of building materials, accumulated through different causes of destruction (like storms or floods), or building demolitions . The centre’s director, Michael Rios, who understands architecture, city-, regional- and landscape-planning as a political practice, is researching community design practices while asking to what extend they contribute to the quality and enforcement the US-democracy. His work stresses that such work shouldn’t alleviate the state of its responsibilities, but that community design must be understood as challenging, qualifying and extending the duties and potentials of public institutions (politics, administration and its services).
In the reconstruction of devastated New Orleans for example, marginalized topics as well as the needs and interests of underprivileged citizens can be brought to the surface through community design, especially in the ways that Michael Rios is engaging in the situation,- opposing top-down planning or planning exclusively driven by financial interest. In New Orleans community-design activists engage with inclusive rebuilding projects, against compulsory displacements and the demolition of flood-prone areas, especially if these are undertaken with a racist agenda or labeled ecological for promotional reasons only. Accordingly, community-design can develop as a type of progressive planning, along strong traditions of self-organization and self-responsibility, and inclusive at community scale in the US; it promises the practice of an urbanism of the marginalised, and this can work productively and critically against segregation in US-urbanism.
A careful examination of such strategies seems valuable, at least in order to reconsider the German particularities of self-determined and participatory planning and building. To begin with the preliminary concept for an event entitled “EVOLVING PARTICIPATORY DESIGN. An American-European Symposium and Workshop” has been in discussion with the co-editor of UNDER CONSTRUCTION, Jesko Fezer. Its approach is to expand the research in and discourse on participatory architecture and spatial appropriation to an international level, in order to fully grasp the multiplicity of theories and built projects, as well as their implications and potentials on both sides of the Atlantic. Such an event, as well as this essay, argue for an in-depth political and economical knowledge which would be intrinsic to our professions, and the emphasis of direct-democratic and sustainable societies yet to come.
Reaching back to Berlin, common housing is one of the many territories in need of intervention from such perspectives: alternative, progressive, sustainable and holistic planning and design; this should however be another lecture at a different time. For the time being I will leave it here, but not without mentioning that innovative housing projects can be found if you know where to look and listen to the city…

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