Edificio Girón – La Habana

This 17 floors brutalist complex was the first coup de foudre in La Habana. Built in 1967 in the Vedado neighbourhood., the building faces the sea on the Malecon boulevard. Corroded by salt, rusty structural iron surfacing all over, its concrete skeleton looks like a creation of the gloomiest J.G. Ballard.

Elevators are out of order since ages, the stairs lack of balustrade and steps. The two blocks are connected by long claustrophobic corridors, constantly  swept by the breeze, scoping the amazing waterfront through long embrasures worthy of a bunker.

Life sardonically sprinkles from this modernist dream turned nightmare: old ladies carrying shopping bags up the stairs, bodybuilders exercising in the corridors, children joyfully playing all over.

Renaming Hellersdorf

Recently we did a survey in the area of Hellersdorf along the last stations of the S-Bahn line 5.  One of the most recent big development areas of  former East Berlin, one of the last still adopting the prefabricated, high rise building, typical dormitory city approach. A  neighbourhood already under observation for the RCP project. This time we had a particular focus on the names given to the localities and streets, inspired by the exercise in urban reconnaissance  City of Names. “Naming spaces create places”…

Who gives a name to a place? Why?  What process influences place-naming?  Which memories are inscribed in toponyms, which removal and manipulations are disguised in them? Such questions are the starting point for a reconnaissance of Hellersdorf’s hermetic identity…

The exploration takes the cue from the station of Neue Grottkauer Straße. named after a village in Silesia, Grodków, few kilometres south of Wroclaw, that used to be Germany until 1945. The name of the station may soon disappear.  Places, toponyms, signs are constantly erased in face of new urban development. So might be silent stories, conflicts and struggles to which they are connected. Recently, part of the signage identifying the station has been removed. We discovered that the renaming of the station as “Gärten der Welt” is expected, and BVG was suggested to change the signs, but the process has been interrupted due to bureaucratic issues. The shift towards a new name is evidently connected with the relevance in terms of urban development that will be given to the place by the incoming IGA 2017 exhibition planned in the green area siding the station, which will become the gate to the International Garden Exhibition. The station, as a matter of fact, is planned to be connected through a ropeway with the entrance of the exhibition, an infrastructure built and funded by an international private investor. Here, even in the deepest periphery of the city, we unexpectedly find the prodromes of a festivalization process at work: the spectacular machine building and promoting big events as essential milestones to condense investment and trigger urban development.

After the crossroad with Eric Kästner strasse, dedicated to the german writer  famous especially for his children book Emil and the Detectives , we proceed to the Jelena Šantić friedenspark, a park created in the 1990s and planned as part of a green axes supposed to connect Ahrensfelde with Kopenick. The park is named after a Serbian classical dancer and peace activist who is told to have suggested the realisation of a peace sign on the side of the Kienberg, the artificial hill made out of construction debris in the center of the park. This is one of the highest spot in Berlin  and allows a view a surprisingly green glance at the  city from East.

Moving north along the Wuhle, small tributary river of the Spree, from the park we move towards the  generic housing blocks surrounded by green spaces, silence, with almost no human in sight. Alte Hellersdorfer strasse calls for the original existence of a dorf, a village whose first traces go back to 13th Century, but no signs of previous settlements emerges form the modern landscape.

The names of the streets in this area reference other locations,  (East) German villages and towns of ancient origin like Eisenach, Kyritz, Gotha, Ferch , Cottbus (wonderful names, aren’t they?). Obvious the question of what actually connects these places to the local context. Was the people living in these blocks originally coming from such localities? Is it rather an arbitrary choice, connecting the Berlin with a wider “national geography”? And who is actually living here, are they really all Herren Schmidt ? To what extent is the gentrification of central districts of Berlin relocating population towards the periphery? From Kottbusser Tor to Cottbusser straße?

Our trajectory suddendly flows into a more recent settlement, a place that does not  conceals its ambition to be a new urban centrality, and this is reflected again into toponyms with reference to an international cultural geography. Kurt Weill Platz is designed according to the personal and professional geography of the important German composer, with different spots dedicated to Paris, London and New York, cities where he lived and was active. From here we get to a square dedicated to Fritz Lang. Coherently a huge Multiplex movie theatre has been realised here, together with commercial arcades and facilities realised on the typical anonymous architectural style of ordinary shopping malls. Far, far from the expressionist design quality that the name would have deserved…

The cultural aspiration of this little suburban Potdsamer Platz is remarked by the toponymy dedicated to such names as Oskar Kokoschka, Peter Weiss, Lily Dagover, Lyonel Feininger. Finally we reach our last station in the Platz dedicated to Alice Salomon,  an extraordinary figure of social worker and reformer. Once again, a German forced by her ideas and belief to leave Germany, as many of the historical characters that were chosen to name this new settlement. What we found here is a geography of removal and exile, somehow representing once again the profound identity of this city as a place of transit, of regeneration, a mythological urban creature between chimera and phaenix. For sure, what clearly emerges is the perpetual conflictual dialectics of engraving  and erasing memory into the body of the city.

RCP Event & Workshop at Docucity, Milan

The first date of the  R:CP 2014 TOUR will take place  Milam  from May 12th to 15th at the Docucity festival. The event comprises a photographic exhibition and video installation, a round table and a workshop.

R:CP EXHIBITION. 12 images captured in La Habana, Moscow, Berlin, Belgrade. and a video installation based on the photographic survey of the urban landscape designed during last century by the modernist ideology. Standardised geometries and everyday life transformations, social housing, public transit spaces, propaganda,  traces of conflict and decay. The 12 high quality prints are part of a signed limited edition that will be thereafter sold as part of a crowdsourcing campaign for the realisation of next Re:centering Periphery episode in Belgrade.

12-15 May, Mediateca Santa Teresa, Via della Moscova, 28, 20121 Milano,

R:CP DISCUSSION. The round table organised in collaboration with the Fondazione Giangiacomo Feltrinelli will see urban anthropologist Franco La Cecla, architect and writer Gianni Biondillo, researcher  and artist Bertram Niessen and designer Andrea Facchetti discussing with Lorenzo Tripodi about urban centralities and peripheries, the relation between spatial production and image production, and contemporary moods of Milan facing Expo 2015…

Monday May 12th, h. 18. Fondazione Giangiacomo Feltrinelli,  via Romagnosi 3, Milano

EXERCISES IN URBAN RECONNAISSANCE workshop. The laboratory will adopt Ogino:knauss’ new anthological  project as a methodological toolbox  for an urban derive across Milan. A restricted number of participants will be invited to drift  from center to periphery reflecting on the multiple interconnected dimensions and perspectives composing  the urban complexity.

Read More (In Italian)

Stare Sajmište

The urban periphery is a field of conquest and investment. It is the frontier of the advancing city, the front of the urban growth machine. Essential modern means  to foster  urban development are exhibitions, temporary events, the use of spectacular processes as ice-breaking operations towards new investment and settlement. The invention of modernism is indissolubly entwined with  the interlacing of spatial production with image production, which is the essence of the late capitalist mode of production. Exhibition sites are the places where the ideological aspects of spatial production emerge in all their evidence and violence. It is an aspect that we have not yet directly tackled in the R:CP exploration path, but that we are increasingly crossing in our spiraling around the topic. International exhibitions, expos, fairs, Bau Austellungen, constitute a definite praxis of “recentralising peripheries”, with all their collateral effects in terms of displacement, dispossession and gentrification.  This will be an  unavoidable topic of our incidental exploration of Milan next May, a city frenzied by the expo 2015 pre-orgasmic climax. But we had already found an early example in Belgrade’s Stare Sajmište, exemplar story of an expo field that became a concentration camp.

Stare Sajmište has been the first modern settlement operation in the site that today is Novi Beograd, anticipating the operation of expanding Belgrade across the Sava river. The plot was donated by the Municipality of Belgrade to a group of entrepreneurs which had created  already in the 1920′s the Association for Organising Trade Fairs and Exhibitions. The structure was built  in 1937 and the international exhibition opened in 1938 with a set of pavillions mostly displaying propaganda for the nazi fascist allied countries. Here Phillips staged first television broadcast  in the Balkans. When in 1941 a reluctant serbia was invaded by German troops, the fair ground was transformed in one of the first concentration camps. While the majority of male jews were exterminated with a mobile gas unit, in what is known as the Semlin Camp mostly women and children where brought, together with the Roma population of Belgrade. Later  Semlin was turned into an Anhaltelager, a temporary detention camp for political prisoners, captured Partisans and forced labourers, most of whom were subsequently transported to various labour camps in Germany. Between May 1942 and July 1944, 32,000 inmates passed through the camp, of which more than 10,000 were killed or died of starvation, exposure, or disease.

After the war,  the site was slowly colonised with multiple uses, including a group of artists settling their studios in the central Yugoslav pavillion. While all around New Belgrade was raising, the old fair ground slowly transformed in a quiet, green, neglected neighbourhood, almost unnoticed until recent times. Pushed also by the debate about the integration of Serbia in the EU, the issue of the historical memory recently emerged. As one of the principal nazi lagers and a major site of genocide, Stare Sajmište remained for a long time  non commemorated and the international pressure is growing for creating some memorial space. But as often in history injustice is washed with injustice, now the issue at stake  is that of people that has been living and working on the spot, that is threatened by projects of transforming the site in a museum or a memorial.  Stare Sajmište is one of the cases presented in the  Forensic exhibition recently inaugurated at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt,  in Berlin.

Modernism In-Between

Still from "Doći i ostati", 1965

(…) then, Yugoslav culture was not entirely open either functioning inside a systemic “membrane” that filtered the exchange with the outside world. Similarly, Yugoslavia’s position between the “three worlds” of the Cold War was not symmetric either. The chief reference points of exchange shifted at first from East to West and then only slightly back East, indicating that the Modernity was still flowing predominantly from the developed West. But thanks to its non-aligned connections. Yugoslavia also had a significant presence in the Third World through its architects, planners and construction companies, establishing itself as an alternative source that channeled modern culture and technology from the “core” to the “periphery”, at the same time increasingly transcending its own “semi-peripheral” position. Whether this amounted to an alternative model of globalization  and wether it allowed greater emancipation for all the involved parties deserves to be further explored and theorized.

Vladimir Kulic, Maroje Mrduljas, Wolfgang Thaler, Modernism In-Between, p.49

The in-betweenness is an unavoidable tract of the matter we are going to explore in Belgrade. The in-betweenness of a region, as the authors of the excellent volume this post takes the cue from point out, is also a cliché. Every location lies in between other territories, conditions, borders, and its specificity and identity derive from what surrounds it. Nevertheless, both former Yugoslavia and its supposed administrative capital Novi Beograd are particularly affected by some extraordinary in-betweennesses, either in geographical, temporal or historical perspective. New Belgrade exudes an exemplar, epitomized in-betweenness.  In between eastern and western perspectives, in between imperial forces, in between clashing ideologies, in between ethnic conflicts and spinning nationalisms…

From another point of view, if we look at in-betweenness as an implicit condition of centrality, the story of Novi Beograd is also that of a sudden peripheralisation, of a place born to be central and pushed at the margins by historical turnovers and political disruptions. And such a dynamic, such a displacement from centrality to periphery, back and forth, is the essential concept of our exploratory project.

How therefore not starting from here our wandering around Novi Beograd?