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Review — 26.07.04

Camp for Oppositional Architecture in Berlin

Knut Birkholz

There is an obvious lack of awareness today, among the public and architects, about the importance of opposition in architecture and architectural criticism. Critical approaches and critical theory are hard to find. In fact, they have no chance within the daily working routine in architectural practice, and little chance within the academic world.

Given the wider economic and social context of late capitalism and all the intensively discussed problems of globalisation today, one has to question the role that architecture and architects play and should play. Oppositional architecture must of course oppose the many uncritical architects. A telling matter is the lack of engagement among western architects in China, despite the latest report to the UN by Human Rights Watch on the terrible human-rights situation in China. There we have Rem Koolhaas, recent winner of a competition to design the headquarters of CCTV, China's state broadcaster. Doesn't this 'loop', as the architect likes to call his design, imply an absence of criticism of or opposition to the political structure within China? Isn't Koolhaas building a monument to the current system, which is responsible for everything highlighted by Human Rights Watch? Isn't it odd that so many exhibitions, publications and prizes are honouring Koolhaas and presenting him as one of the greatest architects of our time? Should we pose such questions, especially in view of the massive influence that Koolhaas the Harvard professor exerts on students and young architects all over the world?

Reflecting on such matters is essential to my work as a writer about architecture. And I therefore thought it crucial that the German architectural magazine An Architektur – a non-profit, publicly funded organ – recently staged the first 'Camp for Oppositional Architecture'. The event took place from June 25-27 in Berlin and was truly camp-like: an indoor camping site designed by students, a lot of improvisation, and little funding (presumably not much more than the monthly wage of a university professor). As we all know, lack of means can stimulate creativity, and that is exactly what happened when the participants and organisers temporarily took possession of a disused industrial complex in Berlin Wedding. The camp itself was a response to the main questions posed by An Architektur in advance. How to criticise the capitalist production of space? How to play a non-affirmative role within this powerful contiguity? It is no exaggeration to say that the camp itself was a form of oppositional architecture.

The roughly sixty international participants were invited to discuss the possibility of architectural thinking as a critical, alternative or oppositional activity. Individuals or groups could apply to attend by outlining their approach to the congress theme. Around thirty additional participants took part as guest listeners. Four key speakers were invited to present their views on the congress theme: Roemer van Toorn (Berlage Institute, Rotterdam), Bryan Bell (Architect, Raleigh/USA), Dr. Phil. Simone Hain (Art Historian, Berlin), and Professor Peter Marcuse (Columbia University, New York).

The organisers formed three main groups to discuss social engagement, design concepts, and strategies for interventions. After that, it was left to participants to find their way – a rather unsatisfying procedure in my opinion. The moderators from An Architektur failed to direct or focus the discussions sufficiently and instead allowed a high degree of freedom. This was both counterproductive and time-consuming. It took a lot of effort in the discussion groups to find agreement on proceedings. The wide range of views on the theme made further splitting into groups necessary. Surprisingly, to me at least, by far most interest centred on social issues and questions relating to opposition in architecture, while the other subjects received scant attention. American architect Bryan Bell, for example, was applauded for his presentation on low-cost housing projects for migrant workers in the US, but the implications of his design strategy weren't touched upon in the discussions. Instead, much more general and abstract questions – What is opposition? Who is the 'enemy that the architecture of opposition should oppose? – dominated. Networks and communication strategies were discussed in some groups, though only incidentally.

It is therefore difficult to assess the success of the congress. On the final day all groups gave a short presentation, and a manifesto on oppositional architecture was formulated. But the camp was more about establishing contacts and networks. As such, it was an inaugural event of great significance. Now it is important to ensure that the discussion continues in the near future. And there is a good chance that that will indeed happen. At the final meeting the architectural Group GLAS ('Glasgow Letters on Architecture + Space') offered to look into the possibility of a follow-up congress in 2005, to be held near Glasgow.