Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Green Zone

Last weekend some friends here in Berlin organised "The Green Zone," a social occupation of the old Iraqi Embassy in what used to be DDR's East Berlin. Lasting from 3 till dark, a generator powered DJ played minimal techno as a large crowd explored the ruins, beer in hand, and mused about this strange but surprisingly common remnant from Berlin's past.

The building had clearly been thoroughly looted, most windows smashed, and severe fire damage made you wonder about the structural integrity of the stairs and roof. There were still masses of Iraqi books and documents littering the floors which made it clear that for some reason this building had been abandoned in a hurry. Gifted to Iraq by the DDR in the 60's, and abandoned in favour of a new home in the west after the reunification of Germany in 1990, this building is of confused legal status. According to conversation at the event, German police are unable to enter the property without gaining permission from the Iraqi Government - it is still officially Iraqi soil.

In attempting to find the event, we had biked to the wrong end of the street, only to discover another abandoned embassy of some unknown nation. This was made clear by the array of flagpoles on the front lawn, now conspicuously flag-less. This district of northern Berlin is littered with similarly abandoned buildings, (presumably stuck in a similar legal conundrum to Iraq's) while the rest are large stately homes that are well looked after - this is an affluent neighborhood. Despite this, the neighbors didn't even look twice as we entered the property, struggling up a broken staircase before entering through the open front door.

Urban reclamation of this kind is common in Berlin. Squatting has been prevalent since the war, and jumped to new heights when the wall fell, as thousands of people from the East literally fled their homes for the West leaving completely furnished apartments ready for the taking. And there are still thousands of empty buildings and building lots all across the city. Considering the population of Berlin reached 4.5 million during World War II, it is currently 1 million people under capacity, which means lots of empty space and no need to fill it.
Furthermore, I believe Berlin's history of successful protest has had a lasting effect on how the Police force approach situations. It is common to see excessive police presence, but they seem to be very reluctant to take action, and while they are quick to respond to complaints about noise, acts of trespassing don't often attract a response.

While I've attended a few social events in abandoned lots and buildings now, I've yet to see an artistic or architectural installation or intervention using these abandoned spaces (other than graffiti and murals). Perhaps there's potential to use this active social scene to aid in pulling off a large scale urban intervention.

As for The Green Zone, it successfully finished up at dark, transforming into a giant bike gang carrying away various Iraqi treasures including some giant portraits in gilded frames. Riding through the local volkspark we discovered a small campfire that had been left burning and so reclaimed it as our own for the rest of the evening.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Architects Sketches & Storytelling_02

As the second entry to the series 'Architects Sketches & Storytelling_02', we're posting up an all time favorite of ours... MAXWAN. Maxwan is an Architecture and Urbanism Practice based in the Netherlands. Maxwan first burst onto the international scene with it's innovative proposal for the new town Leidsche Rijn. Michael Speaks raked up a good rant about them in the A+U series 'design intelligence', and had initially brought them to light at the 'big soft orange' exhibition in 1995. Speaks heralded maxwan as a practice that refreshingly broke away from the 'aestheticized form generation that dominated architecture in the 1980s and early 1990s', and instead refocused the agenda for architecture towards 'a renewed emphasis on the analysis' of social, economic and cultural content. The catalyst that prompted maxwan to refocus on such content, emerged as a response to the political will that drove 'BIG' developments in the Netherlands at the time. The Dutch government had mandated that '1,100,000 new dwellings be built by the year 2005 ' and maxwan's Leidsche Rijn project was a development for 30,000 houses. (Yes, absolutely massive.) Maxwan's story telling approach does occasionally lightly dapple with some 'informatic' type diagrams, but these almost seem to sit as a quick flick that merely wraps up some background dialogue. The real selling point for maxwan sits within their reductive hand drawn sketches and visionary cityscapes. It is through this technique of soft hand drawn sketches that maxwan communicate design propositions and implications. The drawings often seem to be almost out of a childrens story book. They are simple, legible and potent. Enjoy:

image source: MAXWAN.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Architects Sketches and Storytelling_01

If you're one of those people who frequently flick through architecture projects that are emerging from avant garde 'ideas' competitions, you would have noticed the trend towards people utilising tight, slick, digitally constructed 'diagrams' to communicate seemingly complex ordeals and design processes.

(images above are of the 3rd prize winner from the white house redux competition that took place last year, run by the Storefront for Art and Architecture)

They are beautiful, energetic, and reflective of our ever expanding and interconnecting global society. I have to admit that I have been somewhat possessed by this mode of communication, and gain much satisfaction in laboring away at such constructions. But I've also come to realise the excessive exhaustion of the whole process, and it's limitations in story telling. The reason I say this is because the whole infatuation is a relatively isolated mode of communication. When it comes down to it, the only people that are really going to appreciate one's efforts of drawing up pages of complex diagrams are architects and architecture students, and not the lay person. Thus perhaps complex diagrams are almost as esoteric and egotistical as an architect trying to use Deleuzian philosophy to design a building. (and I say almost because I appreciate the value of good diagrams that inherently attempt to represent a rigorous design process/ line of thought, as opposed to irrelevant representations of differential geometry).

The whole diagram pandemic really took off when OMA/REX did the proposal for the Seattle Library, and was presented at 'TED talks'. But the development of this application within the architecture profession has mutated into something that has lost sight of it's fundamental purpose. Which is to tell a simple story.

When it comes down to it, if you want to sell an idea, and more relevantly, sell it to a wider public audience, you've basically got to communicate it in 30 seconds. For this reason, perhaps a more relevant medium lies within the age old wobbly hand of the architect, the hand drawn sketch. Obviously, it's nothing new, and it was probably how mankind first communicated instructions for building, but there is a relatively new trend of architects mainly in the Netherlands and Japan that are pushing sketches in a new direction. These drawings speak of activity, inherently present a spatial implication, and most importantly are as user friendly as a toaster.

What's more is that 'sketches' are a 'soft' medium for selling an idea. When presenting an idea to a client, a hand drawn sketch will portray a sense of flexibility and openness, that leaves the door open for clients to access, give feedback, and comfortably engage with a proposal. The details of 'things' are no longer scrutinized and instead, the essence of an idea becomes central to the conversation.

So with that overly exhaustive preamble... we're going to do a series of posts on simple, playful and punchy architecture sketches. First up are the sketches of SANAA.

The image above is a drawing by Ryue Nishizawa that was part of a proposal for De Kunstlinie’ Theatre and Cultural Centre. According to the drawings was

"part of a process toward discovering and illustrating a continuous set of rooms where there is no hierarchy and no apparent structure. There is no difference between structure and partition or circulation and program. The differences come not from spatial characteristics but from proximity to water, light and adjacent rooms"

(Sanaa images from 'Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa/Sanaa: Works 1995-2003')

These drawings are startlingly simple, but perhaps what's even more impressive is how the built realities of these sketches are really not 100 miles away from the original conception. There is a mind boggling purity in the transition from drawing to building that underlies Sanaa's philosophy.

(image from

p.s I'll never stop diagramming....

Proposal for HK+SZ Biennale gets a little closer!

Our 'Guerrila Signage' proposal for the Hong Kong & Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture is now in early negotiation! Below are some images from our spread.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Drawings from the studio



So we've all heard about...

When prospects of Auckland's 'Party Central' on the Queens Wharf hit front page some few weeks ago, it got the public stirring on a hoopla. For many, we felt the euphoria of possibilities for a revived waterfront, but for some others, a latent antipathy sat about in reaction to Mr.Moller's name bobbing about in the text. So when the big dogs got their voices loud enough, and news that the project would be open to the public via competition leaked out, people of the architecture community perked up with a wagging tale.
So the question is, when is it going to happen? Or is it still even happening?
Nevertheless, I'm sure just like many of you, when news of this 'ideas competition' flashed onto the periphery, it got our imagination racing around. So anywho, we thought we'd just post up some early drawings/mindmaps that slipped out of our sketchpads.
At Studio Unité, we conceive Queens Wharf's Party Central as an event/space capable of simultaneously hosting a vast multitude of possibilities and activites. Moreover, we feel that this situation can be best captured through the notion of the LOOP.

Ghost Structures 01


(image source:

(image source:

'VACANCY VACANCY' were the lyrics that riddled our previous post. Digressing on this, we're dropping down a series of posts that explore further examples of urban abandonment, and the resurgence that unpredictable parties can inject into these spaces.

First up are the metropolitan carcass's. As obscene as it may seem, the abandonment of a building, mid construction is a relatively common occurrence. The context of this story is Bangkok and the effects that the 1997 Asian financial crisis had on it's urban structure.

In the midst of an over inflated economic bubble, Thailand's economy was obliterated by the crisis, and business's and savings accounts vanished. Subsequently, half built fields of sky towers, and miles of concrete skytrain tracks were abandoned, and remain so 12 years on. Many of these ghost structures lie in central city hubs on prime real estate, and are slowly deteriorating as it continues to be exposed to the elements. So the question is, what's been happening to them?

Well, it turns out that in some cases, communities of squatters have been secretly hiding in them.

Francoise Roche describes this type of phenomenon as a 'city necros'.

"It’s the first city in the world that has introduced the necros of the building – exactly like a forest, where when the trees die, the trees die, and other trees could grow over the trees that died. Bangkok is like that...The city is an ectoplasm which is growing over itself, without the idea of preservation, and without the idea of propaganda, or of controlling the design."

In a hop scotch out to a neighboring suburb, an abandoned half-built housing community has become home to 1500 squatters, and 10 domesticated elephants. So it turns out that the lost dreams of a developer, turned out be an 'unexpected opportunity for some of Thailand's poorest'.


Picture 3

(image source: by photographer Brent Lewin)

With the full impacts of the current global economic crisis arguably yet to come, there has been a prolific increase in the number of building projects that have gone on hold. Many of which are located in highly desirable urban locations, and Auckland certainly has no shortage of such opportunities. We're not saying lets build a squatter village in a high rise in Auckland, we're in a different context. But is it possible in our society to engineer a solution of a related thread?




source: c-lab

Ghost Town Rejuvination


So apparently we're in a recession, and if you haven't noticed, there's a shit load of street front shops emptying out. Infiltrated by leasing signs, our city hubs are in danger of becoming vacant, invariably locking people into their homes. According to the Guardian, an estimated 70,000 retail outlets will close this year in Britain. And so, in an attempt to revive the crisis struck urban vacancy, the communities secretary will announce a £3m plan to make grants to "people who find creative reuse for vacant shops". In addition, "Planning rules will be relaxed to allow changes of use which go against local guidelines."

So with a bit of google powered searching, we've managed to find some people that are actively doing exactly this. Chashama, a non-profit organization based in NYC, transforms temporarily vacant properties into thriving 'arts-focused hubs'. From theaters, gallery spaces, and studios, Chashama supports artists by providing them an exposed space to create. In fact, Chashama have been at it since 1995, and have converted "40 locations, giving 7,500 artists access to subsidized space, which supported approximately 10,000 public presentations for over 500,000 viewers." It's a staggering amount of work and it's all documented on their flickr stream here.



But here's the thing. We, in the creative community cannot wait for the government and organizations to come and swoop down to the rescue. The opportunity is out there right now. It's viable for us to team up with like minds to form collectives, and to muscle out a property bargain. In Auckland, a team of graduates have set up a studio at ohnosumo, and cross street is filled with artists residence/gallery spaces. The precedence exists, it's time to capitalize. See you on the other side.

Inflatables by 'spatial effects'


Inflatable architecture took off in a big way in the 60's. It's become to some extent a cliche now, but think again, they're back. Berlins Raumlabor produced the space buster and installed it in New York earlier this year, and it turns out that the Netherlands based practice 'spatial effects' who started pumping out the inflatables in the 60's, is still pumping them out now. Whats most fascinating about them is the effect they have on public spaces. The density and level of activity and interaction that these objects can accommodate are inspiring. Why not make one for Auckland Architecture week this year?



Check out spatial effects' to see the many more inflatable objects they'v built.

Source: pop up city

Recycled Tyres_Urban parks


Milligomme describe themselves as an 'international collective of tire crafters'.

Thus forth, their philosophy is straight forward, to utilize used car tires to design.

From seating in urban parks, benches in bus stops, to swings, Milligomme has designed and built a whole series of innovative objects for communities in third world countries.


Nomadic Stealth Flat - R & Sie


A great little project by R&Sie done back in 1998.

R & Sie proposed for this to be an experimental dwelling unit of 2msq. It's skin is formed by a deformed mirrored surface, and is transported around town to well.... mess with you. Choice, we need more stuff like this.

Alsops Supercity proposal



'Imagine a future in which the vast M62 corridor is a singular entity, a huge coast to coast 'SuperCity', 80 miles long and 15 miles wide. Here city limits are blurred, its inhabitants live in Liverpool, shop in Leeds and go clubbing in Manchester. Using the latest forms of advanced transportation, SuperCity residents could wake up by the Mersey and commute to an office overlooking the Humber. Air travel from a central hub puts the world on our doorstep. What impact will this have on the traditional definition of a city and the people who work, rest and play in this radical new landscape?'

Back in 2005, Alsop produced an exhibition at urbis that proposed a 'supercity' that united Doncaster, Bradford, Manchester and Leeds. The key issue that Alsop saw was that to some extent people were using these cities like it was one city. The trouble was however, that people were getting into their cars, and driving along the M62 motorway because these different cities offered different necessities. "Bradford for an Indian meal, Manchester for a bit of a thrash about, Leeds for shopping." It was an exhibition that received mixed responses, the most common was perhaps, 'I think it's an idea that might work, but the buildings that Alsop designed... not so much'. More to the point however, Auckland's city council has accepted the conception of 'supercity' at a level of governance. What the city is lacking however, is a vision for it's built environment. Moreover, what strikes me are the similarities in the urban problems that this 'North' faces, and Auckland's city faces. Come on then! Who's gonna dish it out?

Picture 18

For Alsop, supercity means a new model of urbanism, or in his terms, a strategy for dealing with post-suburbia. Central to the scheme is an attempt to build a strategy for future growth that will "avoid sprawl and... make the places that you build have identity and uniqueness." In other words, Alsop's scheme investigates ways in which to increase the density of a city.

The strategy that Alsop adopts in this scheme is to "put new settlements spread along the M62 within a landscape and trying not to destroy the landscape that's there." These 'new settlements' are estimated to house 2000-5000 people and each would have a distinctive town center, and not only are these settlements connected by the M62 Motorway, the scheme also proposes to ban all private cars from the M62 and for it to be replaced by a bus system.

Another key feature in this scheme is to place a 'string of service stations' along the M62 that people would actually want to go to. Alsop describes the new M62 as a " that you could go to with a good park and ride, where you could meet a friend, have a haircut perhaps, do a variety of different things" and that one would simply "get on a bus which would go up and down the M62" in order to satisfy these needs.

Picture 14

Picture 11

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For more information on the scheme check out this interview done by the bbc here