The Nineteenth Annual Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence 2017
Berkeley Prize 2017

[ID:1461] EMMA's Hoftour: Reclaiming The Right To The City Through Participatory Design

United Kingdom

From a distant point of view, Berlin is a city of delight and on-going change, the centre of youth urban culture and freedom of expression. Everything seems to be working perfectly, establishing Berlin as an egalitarian multicultural trend-setter of a city.

In August 2015, I moved there to begin my architecture internship. After a while I came to understand Berlin’s illusion: equality of diverse groups, yes, but at similar socioeconomic levels. One layer deeper are microcosms of low-earners and immigrant communities; equally diverse but struggling to keep up with Berlin’s constantly shifting identity. One minute the city is the historic heart of Europe, then it’s ’poor but sexy’ (and for the bohemian); all the time, it’s the capital of one of Europe’s most powerful countries. This identity crisis leaves some communities underserved: while they try to develop higher living standards, the demands of the ‘group of the moment’ drown them out. It might be considered naive to claim that architecture, on its own, is capable of confronting poverty. However, with this essay, I intend to tell the story of how ‘EMMA’, a small-scale project was able to transform life in a low income community in Berlin.

‘EMMAS Hoftour’ is a project from raumlabor, an experimental architectural practice in Berlin. Raumlabor is a collective of architects that aims to gather together diverse members of the community to realise the untapped potential of neglected spaces within the city. The reason behind this specific proposal lies in a personal belief that, through the collective inhabitation of urban space, residents can reinvent their roles as active members of the community, thus providing equal rights and opportunities for all members of the society.

David Harvey, in his work Rebel Cities, positions the city in the centre of two contradictory values: the spatial organisation of a city produced by the intersection of capital flows into land development on the one hand, and the reproduction of labor power on the other. One of the concepts Harvey investigates, under the lens of this conflict, is that of the right to the city. Yet this is one of the most neglected human rights, with the by-product of significant socioeconomic gaps and inequalities, as well as the rise of poverty, being more than evident.

Following Harvey, the answer to state repression and private interest lies in the claim of the right to the city through the motivation of the local social groups to address their living difficulties. Such problems include, among others, the lack of public space, communal activities and the commodification of social life.

EMMA addresses directly these issues. It is just one of a series of projects under the umbrella of ‘THE GENERATOR’. ‘THE GENERATOR’ is an experimental building laboratory for instant, participatory building practices in public space. Central issues of the research include: construction principles, new geometries for furniture and lightweight construction buildings, as well as new possibilities and multiple programs for people to meet and interact in public. THE GENERATOR is created by the intersection of two elements: hardware and software. The hardware consists of a workstation that contains all the necessary tools for people to work on site and is designed for mobility. The software includes a set of construction plans and instructions for easy assembly.

More specifically, EMMA ‘is a series of 7 tables: a small table, DJ/cooking table, normal table, umbrella table, bucket table, cinema/presentation table that take different forms and possibilities to use. They are built from old pallets, bamboo sticks, and empty cable rolls, that travelled through Berlin, like a train, being a structure for dinners, cinema, building an imaginary city with children, a round table and performance’ (Fig. 1). The project developed within two years, in which time it was built together with the residents of Kreuzberg’s neighbourhood, and was funded by QM Mariannenplatz and neighbourhood-based institutions. EMMA traveled along different areas of the district, whilst gradually expanding in order to transform unused spaces into ones usable for the community. EMMA was combined with another GENERATOR project, which takes the form of an inflatable bubble (Fig. 2) that creates an unusual and unique space, and serves as a weatherproof shelter for the beginning of the project. The project was the byproduct of a continuous communication and exchange of ideas within the collective, the neighbouring Heinrich Zille school, the children’s houses Waldermar and Ev. Kita St. Thomas and Kreuzberg residents, actors who were involved in the whole process of EMMA’S development.

EMMA is a project designed to investigate the qualities and possibilities of public space in Berlin through interacting with the architectural and social space and its conditions. It aims to create urban space that encourages temporary and collective use. With this concept of mobility and temporary inhabitation, the participants become an integral part of the project. Consequently, a strong community feeling was created and enhanced, bringing people from different backgrounds together (the area of Kreuzberg is an especially multicultural neighbourhood where people from different cultures (Turkey, Germany, Africa, etc.) coexist and interact daily).

This project was, therefore, an opportunity to create links between the sub-societies of Kreuzberg. EMMA’s focus on children’s activities and workshops was happily received by the community (Fig. 3). The participating children had the opportunity for a ‘hands-on’ experience for the first time: they learned how to use a drill and building tools in order to construct something by themselves. Furthermore, when the cooking event took place, the Turkish women took over the action and cooked for every one who participated in the event, including raumlabor. Most importantly, the project was positively received by its participants due to a certain poetic quality that characterised it. Whilst it was addressing a series of serious issues within the community, the outcome was something playful and intriguing to the eye: a surprising structure of movable tables.

However, EMMA created a positive impact in its vicinity as well; passers by, visitors, homeowners, they were all particularly curious to find out what was this movable intervention, leading them to participate in the project themselves, by constructing simple furniture. This is one of EMMA’s main tools: the creation of a community spirit for that particular day. More specifically, curious passers-by had the immediate opportunity to directly construct an object, choosing from a selection of simple furniture designs that could be quickly constructed (Fig. 4). Thus, visitors had the opportunity to participate in the building process by building a piece of furniture that they could then take home with them. Neighbours, shop-owners and surrounding schools also insisted on helping with the realisation of the project, through offering access to water and electricity.

The project was positively received by the city of Berlin (as well as the rest of the cities it has ‘travelled’, i.e. Geneva), with the municipality not only allowing the collective to freely occupy the selected spaces without creating restrictions or obstacles but also funding the project. The QM management that is aforementioned as the main funding source, is the city organisation responsible for supporting local small scale renovations.

EMMA received notable exposure in the local press and has been presented in different exhibitions. The Berliner Morgenpost focused particularly on the opportunity that was given to children to play music whilst coming from a background where their family is unable to afford the hire of a music teacher. It emphasised on the platform that was created through this project, in which all children, even temporarily, had the same amount of opportunities as any other around them, feeling equal, despite the different socioeconomic backgrounds they were coming from.

It can be argued that this project does not directly address the issue of poverty. However, poverty, as a term, is impossible to be defined in absolute terms; but in relation to the society and environment one is in. Raumlabor’s work focuses in Germany and Europe and it can be argued that these communities are not as poor and weak as others investigated within this competition. However, this not only does not make the collective’s work less relevant, but it emphasises the sensitive approach of the group in terms of achieving social and spatial justice within the given society. EMMA is a project that emphasises the power of the temporary. Here, the chance of failure is seen as liberating, as an opportunity to create links between the practice and the residents, and the residents amongst themselves: a platform for constant experimentation.

The achievements of this temporary intervention vary. Firstly, people from different cultural and social backgrounds came together and established better communications with one another. Furthermore, links of negotiation where created between the residents and the various local and state organisations: an open thread was created, thus providing a strong basis for future communication. This was enhanced by the initiation of new contacts and projects for the future of the district. Through a temporary use project, permanent links were created, that will exist and be enhanced after the end of the project. Additionally, temporality is now seen as an integral part of the neighbourhood’s response to regeneration.

I find raumlabor’s approach very inspiring, especially within their context, that of European architecture, with most practices focusing purely on aesthetics, form and commodified architecture. ‘Social architecture’ is a heavy term, that is commonly used yet rarely put into practice. Conventional architecture often addresses public spaces and social relations in a rather enclosed manner. In an era of client-driven design, raumlabor’s work continues to pursue the utopian spirit of the 60s counterculture, when architecture claimed that it had the power to improve social conditions outside the capitalist sphere. It is in this climate of imaginary ideas and visions of the time (i.e. Cedric Price’s Fun Palace and Archigram’s plug-in cities), that raumlabor insist on the need for an immediate and substantial approach, through local, small scale spatial proposals, with an ameliorative character. It is in this context that I position raumlabor to be unique in what they do, as well as the type of projects they undertake. I see their methodologies as an educational tool for the exertion of social architecture. The way they approach a project, by deeply investigating the site through interviews with the residents, and the way they treat the latest, as local experts, is an approach I highly admire and would repeat in personal future projects. Their projects might not be addressing the underlying structures of poverty, and permanently confronting the latest, but their approach is human and the city can finally be seen as a platform of possibilities instead of a field for capital investment and commodification.

In light of Harvey’s theories, the answer to state repression, private interests and social inequalities lies in the claim of the right to the city through the motivation of the local social groups to address their living difficulties. The creation of links and interactions between the different social groups is crucial and should be achieved with regard to the immediate surroundings, redefining the notions of ownership and everyday life. However, it would be ignorant to argue that any sort of built project can provide a particular path to permanently confront poverty and create concrete social links, without the process of trial and error. This is the reason I find raumlabor and their mobile activator EMMA successful: the local experts have such a significant impact on the development of the project each time, that there is a great chance of miscommunication, error and failure. Yet, this is not treated as a disadvantage rather as a catalyst for the evolution of the project: it is through trial and experimentation that stronger links are being created. The scope of the intervention might be modest, both socially and physically, yet its potential is notably significant.

Finally, the value of design that reflects human worth is not only seen in the built outcome, but is also very strong in the essence of how raumlabor work: as a collective, rather than a commercial practice, with no clear hierarchy between roles. This proves that the creation of a humanitarian architecture for the community, is not an option- it’s their permanent agenda. Developing the utopian ideas further, raumlabor aim to realise social projects, instead of simply discussing them. Through this study I have come to realise the impact architecture can have on the transformation of the lives of low-income communities and the architects’ own responsibility towards the design of a more socially sustainable city. EMMA is a project, in my opinion, that presents a successful way of establishing social architecture as the norm within the field, rather than it being the exception.


Harvey, D. ‘Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution’, Verso Books: London (2012)

Interviews conducted by Stefania Tsigkouni with members of raumlabor Claire Mothais, Marius Busch, Olga-Maria Hungar

Liesengang, J., Interview de Raumlabor Berlin par Bertrand Groisard,, Accessed 10 Jan. 2015

Nach der Schule Rockstar, Berliner Morgenpost, 22 Sept. 2012

Raumlaborberlin, the generator-Brno Public Stage, available at brno-public-stage/, accessed on 31 Oct. 2014

Raumlaborberlin, Space Buster, available at, accessed 31 Oct. 2014

Fig.1 EMMA's Hoftour

Fig. 2 The GENERATOR: the bubble

Fig. 3 Building workshop with children

Fig. 4 EMMA's sketchbook, construction handbook

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