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Feature: Interview with MARKUS BADER



Markus Bader, out for a walk. The water around the Floating University is very shallow - after some rain, maybe six inches. Whenever it is time to have a conversation, you can simply pull on a pair of fishing boots, and start doing laps around the reservoir.

NK  When did you arrive in Berlin?

MB  ’89. In August. Just before everything turned upside down.

NK  Before reunification? 

MB  Yes, on Bergmannstraße - just around the corner - taking care of two cats. One was nice and one was psycho. Cats always seem to be like that.

NK  You never left since?

MB  No I did - I studied in London, and hung out in New York for a while, when I thought Berlin was boring and too brown. I dislike the color brown. 

NK  There was a lot of it here. Still a lot of it.

MB  Yes. You can see how I suffer.

NK  Who are you?

MB  My name is Markus Bader, I am one of nine Raumlabor members. 

NK  Where are we?

MB  We are in the Floating University, a temporary structure in a very in-between space of an artificial lake, that is sunken into the body of a city - an ephemeral architecture that could last at least 3-5 years. And, I feel, an amazing meeting place.


RIGHT NOW: 2018, Berlin: Floating University - A series of scaffold pavilions in a Berlin water reservoir adjacent to Tempelhofer Feld, hosting dinners, talks, seminars, workshops and performances until its planned dismantling, this September.


NK  And what is Raumlabor?

MB  Raumlabor is an architecture group working on the in-between - interested in processes, interested in transitions, interested in architecture as a temporary proposal, but in general interested in understanding that the city is co-produced by everyone, and how this process could be done collectively.

NK  How old is Raumlabor?

MB  (laughs) One Raumlabor is 19, another Raumlabor is 15, and another Raumlabor is, I would say, 10. 

NK  How did they all start?

MB  The first Raumlabor - the mythical starting - was in ’99, but then there was a phase of openness, and Raumlabor searching for itself - finding out what it wants to be. Who wants to be Raumlabor, who doesn’t. 

NK  What was that mythical moment, in 1999? 

MB  It was really 4 people sitting together and being like, “Okay, we are going to make work together.” Everyone was already part of at least three teams with different names - between project rooms, galleries, event organizers, temporary casino performers - things like that. All these names were already used, so we needed a new name. Because we were new. At least to us. And that was that. 

NK  What was that project?

MB  It was sort of an off-competition, asking just-graduated architects to look at sites along the Metro 6. Completely unsanctioned competition. And we wanted to take part in that, and make a statement about one of those sites, Moritzplatz. If you look for a mission statement, you find it in that project. A lot of the Raumlabor philosophy is in that project. It does not have one proposition but three, and it openly embraces plurality in authorship. It suggests introducing new qualities in the city and finding new typologies.


IN THE BEGINNING: 1999, Berlin: Moritzplatz - The 'mystic event' where a group of friends first worked together and called themselves "Raumlabor" was a competition entry for what to do with Moritzplatz, a major traffic circle in Kreuzberg. Raumlabor made three propositions: Merge the roads and empty lots and then 1) Cover the area with playing fields, 2) Plant a forest, or 3) Build a mountain. Each design embraced "plurality of authorship" - saw itself as a framework for civic play & engagement, rather than a finished product. For instance, for the forest, Raumlabor anticipated that, "people will begin to adapt old house typologies to this new place: the Berlin treehouse will emerge."


We suggested the trees growing out over the entire square, the road disappearing, just a crossing in the center, so it becomes a forest, and then in the forest houses appear, there would be people living there, greeting from the third floor, dwellings on long thin legs, picnics in between - 

NK  A much more compelling Moritzplatz -

MB  It was our first time saying, “We are ignoring property lines” - basically what is there spatially, this is what we are interested in, what we want to be discussing. So we could take on a much larger area of interest, develop more complex speculations.

NK  And what happened in 2003 and 2008?

MB  2003 marks the time when first projects with a modest economy were done under the name of Raumlabor, and something like a perspective emerged that this could also be something other than a volunteer movement of architects. It could also feed people. 

2008 is the second consolidation moment, where after five years, after 2003, we realized we did so many things in this field that we thought did not exist - or that we sort of discovered. 

NK  What is something you did that you thought did not exist?

MB  Originally, coming from an architecture perspective, we thought we need to find a client, this client gives us a commission, and then we could do something. This client could be a city, as a public client, and then this could go through planning into participation, and then through participation into action. Then we understood that planning offices of cities can commission planning, like large scale, urban studies, but they really could not step over their shadow to commission experimental weird, new forms of public interaction. There they are quite tied to established forms of participation and how they work. And we were not interested in them. So we found out that in the artistic or cultural sector we could gain much more freedom in defining the frameworks of our actions. And this was a discovery. 

NK  You said at the beginning everyone was part of several other groups – today we come across the same thing, where there are these shifting alliances of freelancers, people wear several different hats to represent themselves to the public - is that particular to Berlin? Our time? Did that come about in our lifetime?

MB  I see that as a specific opportunity arriving with the digital tools. When we were still students working in offices, drawings were made by hands. The fast communication was fax machines, and you needed to go to copy shops to get copies of your drawings to send them out to everybody. This gives a huge material gravity to the practice. The need to store all these drawings, and to be near fax machines. And your files - your records. With the arrival of e-mail, really, and digital cad drawings suddenly you could carry your office around. And that is what created this huge flexibility of freelancers to choose the place and open space for experimentation like shifting partnerships and new forms of cooperation. Reduce gravity for investment, for the backbone infrastructure, and that allowed for more flexible alliances, I think. So I think it came with these tools. 

NK  Do you think these flexible alliances represents the dominant strain of architecture in Berlin? 

MB  In terms of inventiveness, probably yes, in terms of economy of sheer figures, probably no. In Berlin in the arts, not so much in architecture, we have something called the “Freie Szene” - it is basically artists who work independently of a contract with an institution. In performing arts, you could be working inside a theater or an opera house, as a Freie Szene you do your dance productions project by project, or you do your artistic productions in a more independent way. In architecture I think this also exists, but less.

NK  The Freie Szene?

MB  The Free Scene. So if you want to categorize Raumlabor, you could say it is architects who are more like Freie Szene.

NK  What is keeping architects from being more like Freie Szene?

MB  Depends how you define architecture. There are a lot of interesting people working across borders, we meet them coming from the arts, or coming from theater, or coming from urban planning, and we all meet around discussing the questions: how can we relate to the city, and what can we do?

(interrupted by trumpets and a xylophone – a music rehearsal)

Wow - we are in Floating University. Here is a performance. 

Architecture can also be constructing buildings and doing competitions - I am not in that scene, but people I know try to look more reliable. I suppose because of the economic trust base. 

NK  Projecting the appearance of reliability.

MB  Yeah. You need to handle somebody’s life investment, you need to convince people to trust you with their money.

NK  The Floating University is built out of scaffolding - scaffolding has appeared in many of your projects. When was the first time you worked with it?

MB  I think the first time was 2005 in Palace of the Republic, when Raumlabor lobbied for “Let’s keep this socialist dinosaur, and use it as a fun palace” – in the Cedric Price kind of way. Because we were little and we wanted to make something very big. The story was it could be a mountain - so nature could come in - a walk-in mountain - something unheard of. 

We were looking for a material - how could you make that? How could you fulfill this promise? And we found scaffolding. It was very helpful. As a pre-existing material, that has a clear after-life, after a project finishes. So you do not have to buy custom-make and destroy it and throw it away after.

NK  From that first project, now more than a decade later, is there anything surprising you have learned about the properties of scaffolding?

MB  There are all these decisions that have already been taken. You don’t have to detail - it is like playing LEGO. You enter the world of LEGO and then you are inside. Do you take an 8 knob brick, or a 6, or a 4, or a 2? Or a single eye? 

It has something that is generic somehow - that connects it back to scaffolding in the city – and metaphorical – it is an invitation to see the design as a building site.

POLITICALLY POTENT: 2005, Berlin: Der Berg - As Berlin rushed to demolish the DDR's steel and bronze mirrored windowed former parliament / cinema / concert house / bowling venue - the Palace of the Republic - and replace it with a reconstruction of the royal palace it had replaced, the 'Schloss,' Raumlabor used scaffold and cloth to turn the Palace of the Republic into a mountain, complete with a hostel at the base.

The swirl of activity reignited a debate as to whether it should be preserved, but too late: in 2006 the city commenced demolition. Today, in 2018, the reconstructed royal palace - the Schloss - nears completion.

RAUMLABOR DER BERG LINK+ HOSTEL. Drawing by James Coleman.

NK  Moritzplatz is still a roundabout, and the Palace of the Republic was demolished and replaced with the Schloss: Are you losing?

MB  Are we losing. This is an interesting question.

None of our projects so far have had the ambition to be a never-ending story. They were placed very specifically in their time, and in a place where we felt a sense of presence, urgency, interest - this is where it is fantastic to do something. And in a changing city, of course these places also change. 

But we are questioning our approach to temporariness, and the happiness included in that. Many of our projects, like this here, has the feeling of: it is easy, it is easily accessible, it is an open structure, wouldn’t it be nice if the city were more like this? And of course, that is one way of doing open projects, and another way is to acknowledge that we are now in a time of struggle in the city - especially if you mention the Schloss - where it is about who defines the city, and what are the sort of predominant narratives that surround us, and then it is not so easy to say if we win or lose. The discussion around where we met recently - the discussion of rebuilding the Bauakademie, I think was actually a fantastic example of the mindset of architects today. If you do a competition saying, “As much Schinkel as possible,” many of your professional fellows will say, “Okay - let’s give in, let’s reconstruct this, and just be very clever - add a little spice of contemporariness to that.” Because that is competition brief.

So are we losing? I don’t know.

I feel it becomes more difficult. And I feel another way to connect is to say, we are also involved in Haus der Statistik.

NK  What is Haus der Statistik?

MB  Haus der Statistik is an empty office building on Alexanderplatz. It is overlaid by a Kollhoff-winning competition scheme, with some high rises and a huge urban development prospect that removes most to all of the GDR architecture and urbanism. And it is one of the remaining buildings from the GDR: 40,000 square meters of empty, pretty fucked-up office spaces that an initiative since 2015 claims as a space for refugees, for artistic production, for civic activities. Here are 40,000 square meters and we can use that, while we have it. And it seems quite promising, that at least 9,000 of the 40,000 square meters will be going into collective management - into a Genossenschaft. A cooperative.

A PROTECTED SPACE FOR THE TEMPORARY: 2015 -, Berlin: Haus der Statistik - Working with a coalition of Berlin initiatives, Raumlabor has postponed the planned demolition of the 'House of Statistics' - a huge DDR bureaucracy building on Alexanderplatz in the middle of Berlin. Over the coming years Raumlabor and their partners plan to renovate and add to the 60s-era office block, turning it into a co-working, co-living center for Berlin creatives, a place for education, and a home for refugees. Just as political as their other work, it might be one of the first Raumlabor projects with no expiration date - that aspires to permanence.


NK  So do you see that as the future? To create protected space - permanent spaces for the temporary to happen?

MB  That is the question of - is this a scalable example? I am not sure. For us, first of all it was not only a question of how to be not only temporary, but also long term, which is a shift in the way we operate. And I think there is a curiosity to learn what happens. 

NK  Who in history inspires you?

MB  I think we connect a lot to people like Cedric Price, the Archigrams, the 60s, 70s utopianists, in a way. For their optimism, for their straightforwardness - inherited from modernism - in being optimistic, that in architecture we can have a fundamental and, in the end, positive influence on society.

So around here in floating university you see echoes to the Archigram iconography - you would not be surprised if Yona Friedman walks up and assembles a space frame.

NK  Knowing many young architects who are starting groups and not sure where they are heading yet, is there anything looking back on your own searching process - principles or tenets that helped make that a more productive phase?

MB  Yeah, here’s advice: I can say what I am happy with in the Raumlabor way. One is not to be two or three people, but to be nine: I think it is a great number. There is a sort of fading towards a horizon inside the group. I think the figure nine is also good - at least more than five, because then you do not have to be so obsessive about everyone synchronizing. Partners can also disagree.

And the second is we have a policy of everyone does what they want inside Raumlabor. So whoever is part of the group can decide “This is what I want to be doing, and I labor at Raumlabor, and that is it.” There is no common forum, no Tribunale. No veto. And this is only possible because there is a level of trust , and respect around and between the partners. Very immaterial ways of connecting, that enable us to operate without a manifesto, 10 commandments of how to be Raumlabor, a rigid set of rules. Instead we develop the practice through the works, and the experiences gained, and everybody’s interests, and changing positions in life. 

NK  Do you ever add partners?

MB  Not so often. In the early Raumlabor stories there were two: One was we were a fixed group, which we are now, the other story was Benny’s “Raumlabor is a virus, and in 5 years there will be 1,000 Raumlabor people worldwide, and you will have a Raumlabor in every town.”

NK  And the compromise between 2 and a 1,000 is 9.

MB  (chuckles) Yes, that is what I like about it.