The Fourteenth Annual Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectual Design Excellence 2012
Berkeley Prize 2012

Travel Fellowship Report: Dominic Mathew

The BMW-Guggenheim Lab on 'confronting comfort', berlin, Germany, June 15 - July 29 2012

As part of the Berkeley Prize Essay competition on the topic ‘Designing for the Public Good’, I had studied in depth and detail a monastery which served as the religious, social and economic space for the refugee Tibetan population in Majnu ka Tilla, New Delhi in India. Expanding the ambit of my research on this topic I proposed to attend the BMW Guggenheim Lab in Berlin in the first half of July, 2012.

The BMW Guggenheim Lab is a think tank, a mobile laboratory, a public gathering space, a community centre and an action oriented workshop all rolled in one. It is housed in a carbon fibre mobile structure designed by Tokyo architecture firm Atelier Bow-Wow and is sponsored by the BMW and Guggenheim group. The Lab launched on August 3, 2011 in New York offering an array of public talks, workshops and fieldtrips organized around the theme ‘Confronting Comfort’ that explores and implements concepts and designs for the good of the general public. Over the next six years, the BMW Guggenheim Lab will travel to nine cities around the world in three successive cycles, each with its own theme and mobile structure. The BMW Guggenheim Lab operated in Berlin from June 15th to July 29th, 2012.

Led by international interdisciplinary teams of experts in the areas of urbanism, architecture, art, design, science, technology, education and sustainability, the Lab addresses issues of contemporary urban life through programs and public discourse. Its goal is the exploration of new ideas, experimentation, and ultimately implementing the solutions in its given site which is normally a place that has fallen out of favour with the public because of facing various urban difficulties. The Lab’s aims are to review the social significance of an area and to incorporate changes in the place through discussion, debate and action.

The Berlin Lab was held in a neighbourhood named Prenzlauer Berg. Located amidst a booming construction site the Lab attempted to add more vibrancy to the surroundings. One of the aims of the Lab is also to change the environment around the chosen site, to aim for small scale intervention and to help it act as an urban magnet after the Lab moves on.

From left to right: the main mobile structure, the café and offices surrounding the Lab, a landscaped area beside the structure, the construction site at the entrance, participants in the Lab, the cycle parking area with foliage in bags and crowds throng the Lab

The Lab had innovative methods to go about the whole process, there were a wide range of programs that encouraged community engagement and offered insight about today’s dense and changing urban environments. The need for increased involvement of community groups to institute urban change, stronger personal relationships and social interaction within cities to achieve community cohesiveness and an increased focus on the reuse and revitalization of existing structures are some of the concerns that this Lab addressed. Using open sourced technology based models the Lab provided a sustainable and scientific assessment of the places visited. 

From left to right: view from a 30 floor building of Gropiusstadt, a student displays an ‘opinion’ postcard, the community square of the complex, view of an apartment complex and a rolling exercise device in the complex to keep the hands and shoulders fit

My first tour in the Berlin Lab was an unconventional one led by Professor. Jörg Stollmann of the urban complex known as the Gropiusstadt. It was designed by architect Walter Gropius, the founder of the popular Bauhaus Movement. It is an area in decline whose population majorly consists of the old and aged; and upward Turkish families moving out of gentrified Turkish boroughs. This tour gave a new dimension of the whole place, providing insights into the residential colony and the setting up of community based research and design by Prof. Stollmann and his group of architecture students in conjunction with residents of the area. Ideas included ones like putting balconies and open spaces to better use for activities that help produce food. The students took the advice of the residents using methods like printing postcards and asking the written opinion of the residents on what they would like to modify or upgrade in the complex. The tour showed how ‘need’ based design helps mediate between everyday life and city planning. 

From left to right: view of the biggest Asian market in Berlin, experiencing Vietnamese culture in the market complex, a themed room for rent in Marzahn, an audio-visual exhibition which explains the resident-building dynamics in Marzahn, the first building in Berlin constructed in 1977 using pre-fab material and a community garden in Marzahn.

Another one of the field workshops dealt with areas that aren’t really known as Berlin’s urban centres. The train, tram and bus services are more often than not restricted to the ‘A’ and ‘B’ zones in Berlin. The Lab organized a bus excursion into the unexplored areas of ‘A’ zone and areas in the C zone to explore the phenomenon of urban sprawl of Berlin's East Side on site. Maurice de Martin was the guide for this tour which included the three big East neighbourhoods: Lichtenberg, Treptow-Köpenick and Marzahn. 

Green City, Grey City, Good City: Workshop

From left to right: the participants gather in the park, handouts to write one’s present feelings, participants writing down their emotions on paper, the bucket being filled with ice cubes, a volunteer tests how long he can keep his hands in the ice, the other environment – a busy intersection and results concluded from the experiment.

Urban design alters the way we feel and think, can our buildings and altered landscapes impose different emotions in us. Through this innovative mobile workshop the participants got to be a researcher, a test subject and a psycho-geographic explorer. Two groups of participants visited different environments where they were asked to write what and how they felt about being in the particular place, if it made them happy, sad, angry or plain indifferent. Further on the groups were tested for their altruistic behaviour by being asked how much would they share with an unknown fellow participant. Another test involved testing how long two volunteers could immerse their hands in ice. These experiments gauged how people react to a certain environment, how being amongst the greens makes one more charitable or how a bustling city landscape makes one irritable and self-centred.

Weekend Warrior: Outdoor Fitness

From left to right: the participant does a round of boxing while maintaining balance on the wood, participants  sweat it out on the gym track, Arne the trainer performs, the part of the Lab area converted into the warming up patch, a mobile barbeque constructed during the Lab and the entrance to the Lab

This involved building an outdoor gym and working out a new training method based on circuit training, CrossFit, boxing, and parkour. It can help improve speed, power, endurance, coordination, and agility, and has significant preventive health benefits. In an urban landscape which sees the influx of fuel hungry transport systems and increasing problems of obesity and lethargy, this session was to get people on their feet.

Over the course of my trip I was exposed to a variety of programs that tackle the problems of urban sprawl, of migration, how our senses sway our surroundings, how the local issues influence architecture and the use of architecture and space planning to effectively improve the area. Interactive workshops, tours to the neighbourhood, design brain – storming to avoid gentrification and sessions to address problem on waste and sustainability are a few of the interesting tasks the Lab undertook. This trip helped me understand the ways to use a public space while upholding the social, environmental and architectural aspects of the place. 


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Dominic Mathew, Birla Institute of Technology, Mesra, Ranchi, India
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