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Type is Not a Static

Personal reflection of type based on Katharina Borsi’s “Drawing and Disputes” on Berlin’s nineteenth-century block and Rob Krier’s Winning IBA 84/87 Proposal at Berlin Ritterstrasse Nord

The nineteenth-century blocks of Berlin have re-emerged lately in a lot of new master plans around Europe. This happening brings about the questions surrounding the block in itself but also as a type: what are the qualities that are deemed valuable, how much of those could be brought back to the present, whether doing so may offer the same impact as what the original blocks were attributed with, and eventually, whether the action is plausible at all.

Nineteenth-century blocks and the rise of the ‘urban’

Borsi (2009) observed this phenomenon and traced back the origins of nineteenth-century block in Berlin, which mirrors the logic of the city’s urban planning at that time. Berlin’s extension plan of 1862 by James Hochbrecht, the first comprehensive attempt to map territories that build up the urban entity of ‘Berlin’, conceived the city as a unified system of interrelated spaces. Its composing elements – the Berlin blocks – were equivalently undifferentiated in their plans, making adaptation and variety of uses possible. For a developing city with a fluctuating population, the mix of functions allowing diverse programs from life to work was no less than beneficial. The smooth flow from the exterior to interior also enabled a vibrant street life and a distinct neighborhood atmosphere.

Modernist apartments against nineteenth-century blocks: Is the Siedlung a complete departure from the other?      

Borsi, however, noted that many architectural historians were nonetheless thinking of the nineteenth-century block less charitably, as “a relic that embodies the failures of nineteenth-century city, failures that modernist typologies were explicitly intended to address.” Alan Colquhoun, she wrote, criticized the block for being too dense, while Peter Rowe emphasized its lack of flexibility and permeability.

While it was true that the undifferentiated blocks and its elements became a constant subject of endless discussions, the proposed modern solution of differentiated spaces was no less of a source of criticism for its proponents. Delineating a clear demarcation of internal/external spaces and live/work was partly the government’s attempt to control and permeate its citizens’ lives through a clear definition of the domestic realm.

Borsi thus concluded that Berlin’s nineteenth-century block was a prelude to the modernist housing, that “the modernist Siedlung was not so much a ‘solution’ to the nineteenth-century block, or a break from the past, as Rowe’s and Colquhoun’s comments imply. Rather, it can be understood as simply a subsequent stage of the process of reasoning about space and government that the block itself initiated and defined.”

Despite the lack of concluding remarks about type in general, Borsi implied that the Berlin block as a type is not a standalone object that is free from context and discussions, but rather a point in a never-ending line of process. Therefore, a seemingly contrasting progression of type is still very much related with- and even enabled by its previous conditions. In this sense, one should not strive to reach a ‘perfect’ type and eternalize it into something that is always going to function with no regard to external circumstances.

Internationale Bauausstellung (IBA) 1984/1987 in Berlin

Interestingly enough, in the 1970s, a discontentment towards modernity appeared in Berlin and many other places, in a similar way that modernists despised the nineteenth-century block. It is said to be absent from historical continuity in architectural and urban form. According to Borsi et al. (2016), anonymity from living in modernist slabs and tower blocks was paralleled with the fragmentation of the city fabric. The IBA/International Building Exhibition of 1984/87 therefore explicitly wished for departure from modernism and searched for new housing forms and solutions.

Under Josef Paul Kleihues, the Neubau thematic stream of IBA adopted a context-specific approach to, mostly, housing developments. The projects were developed through a design approach resonating formal aspects of nineteenth-century urban structure, titled ‘Critical Reconstruction’. Among the goals of IBA as quoted by Alan Colquhoun were: seeing the city with its perimeter blocks and streets as solid, anonymous fabric which should contain a variety of functions; reinstating the street and public square as places of unprogrammed public enjoyment and congregation; and seeing the city as historically and spatially continuous, capable of being read as a palimpsest.

Rob Krier’s Ritterstrasse Nord Project

Rob Krier and his winning IBA proposal at Ritterstrasse Nord (1982-1987) showed an attempt to bring back formal qualities of the nineteenth-century block into a parcel in the twentieth-century.Krier supported the restoration of urban structure that was proposed in the IBA and argued that the instrument of postmodern urbanism is ‘urban repair’, a break from the ruptured past.

Borsi et al. (2016) noted that Krier’s urban vision proposed that the city is a sequence of buildings defining bounded urban spaces, particularly clearly articulated squares and streets, similar to nineteenth-century blocks which were built in such terms out of necessity. His urban plan for the development of Ritterstrasse aimed at three main points: restoring historical morphological qualities, creating internal streets and courtyards that serve as flexible definable spaces, and bringing in quotations from the past.

In his project, he restored the structure of the nineteenth century urban plan by inserting perimeter blocks lining the street, yet further subdivided the block with four (instead of one) internal courtyards, equipped with open-to-public pedestrian streets. By doing so he created a clear hierarchy as the street of the urban grid, the perimeter blocks, the internal streets and the courtyards clearly demarcate public, semi-public and private spaces. Krier also wanted his block to be similar to nineteenth-century structure of the area with varying looking buildings. In total 16 architects were working on different buildings at the block. As of the historical components, he reconstructed the Feilner House by Karl Friedrich Schinkel at the center of the block and extended components of historic facades of the house to the surrounding buildings.

Despite this formal appropriation to the nineteenth-century block, Krier’s block created space quite differently and is not able to return to the former’s admired simplicity. While his treatment of the publicly accessible outdoor spaces is remarkable and relevant in the present-day, his design still showed precisely defined instead of undefined spaces. The insertion of historic façade components without context was also questionable concerning his initial objective of an ‘urban repair’. The strength of nineteenth-century block lies in its multiplicity, therefore replicating formal aspects of the block morphology on only one block does not convey the power it holds in its original context. Thus, it implies that it is impossible to just diminish the present day complexity that the nineteenth-century block also helped to establish by altering the formal qualities.

Conclusion

Giulio Argan concluded in his essay “On The Typology of Architecture” that “… the typological and inventive aspect of the creative process are continuous and interlaced … “. We have seen in both the cases of criticism towards the Berlin block by the modernists and reversely, an attempt to return to the nineteenth-century block that type is not a sterile, static formal object. It is a movement that is influencing as much as it is influenced and exists rather as a discourse to be learned from and discussed with.

References

Giulio Carlo Argan, “On The Typology of Architecture”, in Theorizing A New Agenda for Architecture: An Anthology of Architectural Theory 1965-1995 (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996), 246.

Katharina Borsi, “Drawing and Dispute: The Strategies of the Berlin Block”, in Intimate Metropolis (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2009), 132-152.

Katharina Borsi, Nicole Porter, and Megan Nottingham, “The Typology of the Berlin Block: History, Continuity and Spatial Performance”, Athens Journal of Architecture, Volume 2, Issue 1: 45-64.

Marina Bereri, “Wohnanlage Ritterstrasse-Nord“, Forschungsinitiative IBA 87, http://f-iba.de/wohnanlage-ritterstrasse-nord/#more-1059

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