Space and design strategists of the University of Art and Design Linz (Austria) researched the pores of Austrian Mountains, German cities, an African village, and a small Austrian town in an educational hiking tour: a nonlinear geographic journey to discover, to improvise, and to learn from new experiences. This is the essence of performative urbanism. Through new confrontations with reality, students subjectivize the circumstances, attach new meanings to them, and thus improvise their way through the world. This is what space and design practice is about.
The idea of pores, as developed by Walter Benjamin and picked up by Sophie Wolfrum in this research, serves as the guiding reference in the following article. The journey is described as a search for new and practical philosophies in space and design strategies. The key lies in quick changes and confrontations that focus on in situ local conditions and on responsive and improvised actions. These actions can be globally inspired, as the contrast between European and African locations shows.
This text was published in Porous City: From Metaphor to Urban Agenda Sophie Wolfrum (eds.) 2018
In 2017 the faculty of space and design strategies moves across the Danube. From the laboratories in Linz Urfahr in the South the department moves to the main square in the center of Linz. The direct route over the Danube bridge would be 950 meters. We decided to go in the opposite direction: instead of crossing the bridge, we would circumnavigate the world to arrive at the new ateliers via Halle, Freiburg, Cologne (Germany), Charleroi (Belgium), South Africa, Totope (Ghana), Milan (Italy) and Marchtrenk (Austria) in the middle of Europe, at the Hauptplatz in Linz. This is a detailed summary of the journey.
On our way, we developed a view of the identity of space and strategies. The main goal is clear: a design, based on research, for a better world. This cannot be a theoretical and abstract vision: faced with the local circumstances, we adopted flexibility and applied our talent for improvisation, and we also developed strategies based on doubt and critical thinking.
Beforehand, it is good to be aware of the following; we are not urban planners who generally work in terms of structures and organization rather than in terms of daily life and personal experiences. We are not architects who often develop designs according to concepts which we adhere to even when the building does not fit the concepts anymore. We are not interior architects or designers either. We start from feelings and emotions, and designs often end up in the waste bin because they are not beautiful or do not fit in with these feelings and emotions. Are we artists? Artists work more personally, in a more autobiographical way and are therefore more like activists. They base their work on direct experiences and local conditions, and much more on the ever-changing present. The preliminary conclusion on identity politics is that probably space and design strategies can be found somewhere in between shap- ing society, ecological planning, and artists’ activism. This can only be experienced through action on location.
The Fragility of Mankind
(4–6 October 2016, Austrian mountains, Snow, stormy, and very cold)
37 space and design strategists feel the power of nature and the fragility of humans and human culture. We are neither in the classic modernist category of recreation nor in a mode of mobility. At the start of the semester, we walked into the Austrian mountains. Some students were familiar with the territory and sprang like goats over the rocks and stones. Others had less experience and wore in linen summer shoes. After a restful night in a shelter (Berghut), we headed for the mountaintop next morning. Quite soon, though, we were caught up in a snowstorm. After four hours’ climbing, in ever-heavier snow, we arrived at a cable car station. Unfortunately, it was closed because of the unexpectedly heavy weather. This meant we had to go on to the next station on the other side of the mountain, another three hours on foot, as the men at the station informed us without a trace of sympathy. Then Waleed, one of our master’s degree students, stood up. The year before he had come to Europe as a refugee on foot and over the Mediterranean in a rubber boat. “If this is the biggest problem,” he said, strapping one backpack to his stomach, another backpack to his back, and the Chinese student who it belonged to under his arm, “let’s go!” And the group went on: freezing, exhausted, and some in tears, but we made it.
This event was a significant distillation of the essence of WandererUni. It became clear that our society, our culture, acquired a different meaning high up in the mountains, where we could feel the power of the mountains, the fragility of mankind, the thinness of our cultural layer. No longer were we in the classical modernist category of recreation, nor were we in a mobility mode. We were on our own in a porous mountain chain. Order and disorder no longer existed. In contrast to the cybernetic understanding of systems by Cedric Price and Archigram, insecurity is not calculable. The world is a process and it is not under our control, but there are pores to be discovered and improvised upon with design or Gestaltung.
Design Deconstructs Old Meanings
(5–9 November 2016, Freiburg, Germany, rain, cold)
7 space and design strategists invented an instrument to view the city in a different way and from a different angle and to dismantle conventional ways of urban planning where democratic rules and laws prohibit/deny entrance to certain citizens, and to develop new enriching views and interpretations.When we passed Freiburg, we got involved in the preparations for the Dietenbacher Festspiele. A new suburb is being planned in a classical modernist style, arguments about living, working, recreation, and transport, but based on investors’ money and sales arguments of comfort. The theater wanted to research both of the neighborhoods, Rieselfeld and Weingarten, to generate a program for the new area of Dietenbach.
While making these preparations, some students were considering how to research the city in another way rather than taking the capitalist urban planning machine for granted. It seems as if urban planning is still following this functional order, as if Jane Jacobs had not asked more than half a century ago what is actually happening in our cities. We wanted to find new mapping forms to show, like Kevin Lynch, that functionalism fails adequately to take account of the city. We follow the Chicago school sys- tem using participative observations.
It is amazing what happens in our minds when our view is redirected with mirrors as shown in the work of Ayan. Suddenly the concepts of a frog’s perspective or a bird’s-eye view are realized in front of your eyes and immediately adapted by your brain. To observe the city from the perspective of a mole, an ant, a cat, a giraffe, or a drone opens another dimension of perception. The incredible volume of rules and regulations, which of course are imposed in a new suburb, are questioned in Romy’s Neulandteppich; a Euclidean space in a tabula rasa mind, which shows how quickly the pores of the city are filled with a rash of regulations: where to (not) park the cars, how high the fence adjoining the neighbors’ garden should be, how far the trees should be from the facade so the branches will not touch the windows, (whereupon a worker has to come with a ladder to trim them), and the roots of the tree should not grow into the ditch and clog the drains, when to dispose of the empty green bottles and when the brown. The Neulandteppich is a Lefebvrian attempt to make contact with the inhabitants and to understand every- day life in relation to freedom, rules, and utopia. The fear is expressed that the suburb of Dietenbach and many others are accessible only for a certain clientele, for those who can afford it, who shield themselves with democratic rules and regulations that automatically deny access to others.
Rich Empty Spaces
(24–26 November 2016, Halle / Leipzig, Sun, chilly Christmas atmosphere)
9 space and design strategists need friends with a power generator and some beers to improvise within the luxury of empty buildings. The luxury of emptiness is our next research task: what is the potential of deserted buildings? Both cities, Halle and Leipzig, are literally porous. They are full of Baulücken, Brachflächen und Bruchbuden (“empty lots, brownfield sites, and derelict buildings”). For example, behind the station, where the infrastructure is badly connected and the derelict slaughterhouse attracts attention, there is no bakery, no supermarket, but there is the old former GDR Eisdiele (ice cream parlor) with the best reputation in town. Here you see the potential of pores in their urban quality, as Walter Benjamin wrote in his notes on Naples. However sad it may seem, the potential is enormous. You only need a few friends with an electricity generator and a 6-pack of beer, and the party in some deserted building kicks off, says a philosophy student from Leipzig with a passion for improvisa- tion. A great deal has been restored in the historic center; the city administration has sold its stock of low-budget dwellings, which are much sought-after by artists and low-to-no-income groups, to affluent young families who indulge in their pricy chai lattes with soy milk. It is here that pores are not only converted into party spaces, but also clogged by investors.
Niches, Biotopes, and Pioneers
(24–30 June 2017, Cologne Mülheim, Extensive rain showers, windy and cold)
29 space and design strategists have doubts about regulations, neoliberal market behavior and the disappearance of social cultures.
How is it that theater directors have to be concerned with the future of life in the cities? Is that not the job of urban planners? Our performative, urbanistic research project in 2015 in the village of Gottsbüren, where for a month we squatted in some empty houses along with forty students, brought us an invita- tion from two theaters to do some research with them. Both the Theatre Freiburg and the Schauspiel Köln invited us to participate in the festival Die Stadt von Morgen (The City of Tomorrow).
Two more requests from other small villages stalled in the first round of talks, because of plan- ning formalities. Do traditional urban planning departments have more problems with informality and improvisation? Do they still see the city as a piece of work (Werk) in the Heideggerian sense? Or are they more sensitive to the interests of investors and their lobbyists?
Under the bridge, in the pouring rain, we have a lot of time to express our doubts about the city of tomorrow. And, as at the university, expressing doubt is exactly what we should be doing. That is our task in contemporary society, where too much commissioned research is done with the only goal being to prove the hypotheses, instead of questioning them through research.
Some students attend a course on hygiene—otherwise cooking in a public space is not allowed— and learn that you should wash your hands before dinner. There was a time, back when the bridge was being rebuilt after the bombing, when no laws were needed, and washing your hands before dinner and cooking was obvious. Today, you have to install an extra washbasin.
The law does not say that hands must be washed, but insists on the technical neoliberal requirement that you have to be able to wash your hands. The possibility of using one of the 97 washbasins in the houses around is not part of this regulation. We could even say it is suppressed. To have it yourself, rather than approaching someone to use theirs, is the mantra of neoliberalism.
Despite the demand for transparency, we buy rotten meat (Gammelfleisch), clothes made by modern slaves, coffee in plastic paper cups, manipulated VW diesels, stocks and shares of dubious origin, and so on. So contemporary politics is based on a falsehood, which Alan Greenspan, the author of neolioberal- ism, acknowledged was a lie as early as 2008, and for which he publicly made an apology: neoliberalism is, in the end, a utopian thought; the consumer being ready to buy everything, including the goods they do not want. Today you start a company instead of starting a revolution, a company of your own, finding a gap in the market (Marktlücke), an empty pore, and try to create the right life in the wrong one (Es gibt kein richtiges Leben im falschen. Theodor W. Adorno 1951).
A pore has to function as a niche, which delivers the requirements for a protected biotope and so delivers the freedom for the pioneers. So a city needs pores like under the Mülheimer Bridge, where you can kiss secretly (bild yue) or smoke your first cigarette. Or a niche behind the Turkish curtains in the Keupstraße, where you can withdraw from everything . The pores have to be discovered and recognized, for example, like the empty office buildings at night that long for human attention.
In the work Botschaft (Embassy) thousands of rules structure the 12-square-meter representative embassy and guide visitors properly through the collection of pictures of the city. The collection changes one’s perceptions continually by repeatedly resorting the pictures. It makes it immediately clear that it is subjectively based. The point of view changes continuously.
The embassy exposes the construct of efficiency, of categorization and regulation as a question- able attempt to bring order to the city. It is a perception of the city, no more, no less. It is helpful for a few things but blind to many others. (Hilfreich für einiges, aber blind für vieles.) With the instrumentalization everything is, perhaps, under control (im Griff ), but you are working inside your own constructed system, a point of view that is blind to the city and its inhabitants and its subjective experiences.
But what happens when we go under the skin and catch the city in flagrante? By continuous reinterpretation, the reality changes constantly. We should recognize this de facto as a design.
What if subjectification is so important that you have to do subjective research in a real situation? “How could we make this subjectivity accessible in a general way, without resorting to closure?” “Welche Möglichkeiten gibt es, diese zu vermittelnde Subjektivität wieder allgemeingültig zu machen, ohne sie abzu- schließen?” asks the urban philosopher and improvisational musician Christopher Dell, who we meet in a lecture in Cologne. How to achieve a fluid subjectivity is a question that we will engage with in the coming semester.
City of the Future
(13–30 April 2017, Totope, Ghana, Sun, warmth, heat, and more heat)
5 space and design strategists, their skin full of dust, meet the chief and the elders of the village, Totope. Climate change threatens the village through the rising sea level. Finding solutions for the city of the future acquires quite a different meaning here.
The porosity of the asphalted roads on our way to the village of Totope is to be taken literally. Maintain- ing the asphalt roads is much more complicated compared to sand roads. The holes are more jagged. The problem of how to slalom around them can be applied metaphorically to society. Almost everything takes place in public space; actually you only go inside the hut to sleep. Cooking, washing, and eating happen in public space. It feels like a mixture of living, working, recreation, and mobility, without it being possible to differentiate between them. Also shops and workshops are open to the street or directly situated on the roadside.
Every product offered in our supermarkets is presented on the street here, piled on the side of the road, in baskets and plates on the head or on market stalls. The saleswomen and men offer their articles in quick succession: deodorants, biscuits, facial tissues, meatballs, soap, towels, toothbrushes, cotton buds, skipping ropes, cookies, curry powder, jewelry, skirts, maize, apples, sugar cane, more biscuits, med- icine, toothpaste, bread, combs, malt beer, more deodorants, more biscuits again, kitchen rolls, body spray, headphones, shoes, ice cream, dresses, prepaid phone cards, warning triangles, eggs, coconuts, ropes, Chinese bags, shirts, avocados, sat nav holders, chewing gum, maps, Koran introductions, crisps, torches, bananas, caps, radios, steering wheel covers, sunglasses, socks, belts, high-visibility vests, black Adidas sneakers, flip-flops, women’s hats, magic trees, library books, exercise books for English grammar, toilet rolls.
The pores of the city are full of sweat and dust, like the pores of our skin. It is impossible to look at what is taking place; a clear vision of Ghanaian society seems impossible. All these global problems in one small village alone are too much to deal with, and we from space and design strategists are over- whelmed at first. It feels like a continuing blur, everything is fuzzy. Here we baulk at the externalization of the modern world. All the world’s waste seems to have been deposited here.
Our first idea, to lift the village on a pedestal like in a museum, is received with great applause at the meeting of the elderly men. But that maybe just shows the despair of the villagers and not that the idea is convincing. The proposal to explain this idea to Kofi Annan at a local dinner is received with enthusiasm. The elderly women start to immediately list what they would offer Kofi Annan for the dinner. Make Fufu not War, is printed on the T-shirt which our student Lukas bought in Ghana. We will try to do precisely this in our next semester.
The Comfort Society
(1–9 July 2017, Festival der Regionen (Festival of Regions), Marchtrenk, Sun, warmth, heat, rain showers)
All space and design strategists meet in the small Austrian town of Marchtrenk in an attempt to research local conditions, which seem to be characterized by new levels of comfort.Finally we arrive in Marchtrenk, where the summer festival of the regions took place. Urbanization there has, as in every city, reached a new level. In performative urbanism, the students not only try to discover the city of Marchtrenk in an acupunctural way, but also seek to explore its performative realities. We enter this so deeply that we not only use the toothbrushes of the inhabitants and discover the odd socks in the wash basket but even suck the bacteria out of their dirty carpets. We hawk goods on our cart with our baldachin through the streets. We collect old television sets, expired medicine, and Glücksbringer. We take photos of every house, every fence, and categorize them. We look for black-and-white pictures, interview the garden gnomes (Gartenzwerge), and analyze the character of the occupants based on the ringtones of their doorbells. We literally take the first step into a new life.