The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:2707] Redesigning Leipzig - How Urban Actions Solve Social Issues


Another busy afternoon at school. We are working on our projects to meet the approaching deadlines. We have run out of model-making supplies and for that reason I am taking a bus to Plagwitz, in Western Leipzig. As I walk down the Spinnerei Street, I approach a group of brick buildings behind an old brick wall. Passing through the gate of the old cotton mill, I feel that something has changed. Asphalt, commercial buildings, and commuter cars suddenly disappear. The noise seems to be left outside the entrance gate. I am standing on a stone pavement rugged with the remains of disused tracks hiding between the stones. To my left there is a three-story building from the 1880s with a typical but nice sandstone facade. The signs on the door indicate lawyers’ and architects’ offices. On the ground floor there is a small café with an outdoor terrace and people enjoying their drinks in the laid-back atmosphere. Here you can escape from the urban hustle and bustle and relax. As I walk further, huge old factory buildings come into view. They are made of red brick and have big steel-framed rectangular windows that remind me of some industrial sites of Manchester. Cut out pieces of railway tracks crisscross the ground between these buildings. It is easy to imagine that the place used to be busy some time ago. While walking towards the art supply store, which occupies one of the factory halls with big glass fronts facing the street, I see many people strolling, cycling and sitting on the pavement. Judging by their outfits, most of the passers-by are creative people or students as well as white-collar workers who come here to relax. 

What I am describing are the premises of a former cotton mill from the period of industrialization at the end of the 19th century. Due to the excellent transport connection and favorable trade conditions, many factories including this one settled down in Leipzig. The “Baumwollspinnerei“, founded in 1884, soon became one of the biggest of its kind providing employment and increasing demand to sustain a working-class district around it. At the time, the population growth rate of Leipzig skyrocketed. Within a seven decades it grew from about 80.000 in 1864 to more than 700.000 in 1930. However, things changed in the 20th century. First, World Wars I and II left their marks, preventing growth. Then the Socialist regime was established and the cotton mill was expropriated, like any other industry in Eastern Germany. In the absence of competition, the production became inefficient and at the time of German reunification in 1990, factories and businesses in Eastern Germany were not competitive enough compared with the ones in Western Germany. When this happened, tens of thousands of Leipzig inhabitants lost their jobs within days. The cotton mill was no exception. Once the biggest cotton production site in Europe, it became a wasteland. It seemed to be forever forgotten and doomed to rot and collapse under the pressure of time.

However, things were about to change. Leipzig had always been a hotspot for the local art scene and artists were looking for creative space. The city offered plenty of vacant factory halls and buildings which where affordable and spacious enough to meet the needs of creative minds. Recognizing the demand, some investors bought up empty factory halls at the site of the former cotton mill. In the past decade, many refurbishment and rebuilding projects were implemented. Now that the old buildings started to look very aesthetic, new tenants and many artist groups were attracted and began to move in.

Very soon, the location became a crucible of alternative culture because of its atmosphere of creativity, freedom and diversity. Like a magnet, the place increasingly attracted young people not only from Leipzig and surroundings but also from all around the country. Housing in many German cities started to become almost unaffordable at the time and for that reason, people started to move to Leipzig. Local artists developed their skills in their ateliers at the cotton mill. The advent of the new platform for self-expression contributed to the establishment of many great and world-famous artists, such as Neo Rauch who has been working in his studio at the cotton mill for ages. The regeneration of the site, which brought the abandoned buildings back to the people, helped to create a powerful and extremely diverse local art scene.

In the years following the reunification, industry was not the only sector which underwent radical changes. The University of Leipzig, the city’s main institution of higher education, was also going through tough times and faced, perhaps, the hardest years in its history. Founded in 1409, it is one of the oldest German universities and boasts a number of outstanding alumni like J.W. von Goethe and the present chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel. However, during the 1990s the infrastructure suffered from lack of funding. Classrooms and auditoria were in poor condition, campus buildings looked like dull concrete blocks - a demotivating sight. As was the case for the industry, the University was not able to compete with Western universities designed by world-famous architects. As a result, not that many high school graduates applied to the University of Leipzig. It was necessary to take steps to prevent a complete decline of the traditionally strong higher education in the city. For that reason, the decision was made to rebuild the main campus radically.

The design competition, which was launched to give the University a new image, was won by a Dutch architect, Erik van Egeraat. According to his vision, the main University’s building, located in the Augustus square, plays a primary role in the architectural integrity of the whole city center. In his design, van Egeraat successfully combined some shapes of the former university church, destroyed during Socialism, with a contemporary facade, consisting of striped windows and panels. The arch of the old church is located asymmetrically, which is reminiscent of the destruction on the one hand and brings dynamic and visual rhythm on the other. As seen on the picture, the walls and the roof are designed to be made of a homogenous surface, allowing the building to sustain a certain uniformity despite its polygonal shapes. If you watch close enough, you can see that the roofs, despite being folded in many places, are saddle roofs. This shows an important connection to the existing medieval architecture of the city center. Despite being innovative, it does not distort the existing surroundings.. From the inside, the architects created spacious, well-lighted auditoria and corridors to fit in the 30K students who are studying there today. Something unique about the project is that the „Paulinum“, the hall of the once destroyed Gothic church, was rebuild as part of the new building.. The mixed-used concept encompasses church services, cultural events, and university lectures. By that, the building does not only improve the quality of higher education in the city, it also recreates a once missing part of local culture and spirituality, improving the quality of life for many more people.

It may seem that the above-mentioned buildings do not have much in common. They are connected neither in the architectural design nor in their purpose. Nevertheless, there is a major aspect that connects them: the role they have played in the city’s development. Both of them have created new centers of attraction. They have managed to earn recognition and validity among the city community, and that is actually the essential criterion for architecture to be good. Only if people care about a building or space you design, it is worth the effort. It does not have to be something enormously big, tremendously costly, or ambitious. It should be a place people could enjoy to use, walk past or observe in their every-day life. Thus, the central thesis, which brings us to the main part of my essay, is that architecture is about attracting people.

As mentioned earlier, Leipzig went through tough times at the end of the last century and encountered serious difficulties. With the industrial breakdown, finding a job became extremely complicated and people started to leave. This, in turn, produced a chain reaction – the infrastructure became harder to sustain, meaning that in many places it had to deal with cutbacks. Shops were forced to close down due to lack of customers, schools closed because parents seeking employment took their children with them. Even the tram service was curtailed, as it was no longer needed that much. Ironically, the population decline made even more people flee the city, because entertainment facilities, services and transportation hardly operated. Reduction in the number of tax payers resulted in the inability of the city to solve the crisis. A good example of the possible future of the city is the American city of Detroit. Detroit had also risen during the industrial revolution but experienced massive shrinkage and stagnation after many automobile companies relocated their manufacturing sites. What is special about cities and architecture in general, is that they function as a mirror to our society. They represent changes, both positive and negative. All changes happening to the local community had an impact on Leipzig. The number of abandoned buildings all around the city started to increase, whole neighborhoods, like the cotton mill, turned into huge desolated wastelands. In conjunction with the increasing poverty it led to higher crime rates and some parts of the city became unsafe compared to the average national crime rates. Economic challenges therefore did not only make people leave but also disrupted the infrastructure of the city, making it uncomfortable and inconvenient for those who decided to stay.

This was the time when the cotton mill and the University building became important. The cotton mill, seen as a new art center of Leipzig, was not open only for artists. Many students viewed it as a pleasant place to spend their time. Even those who were not really into art, enjoyed the energy and the atmosphere within those brick walls. At the same time, the new University campus took the shape of what it is today. Suddenly, it became a place you wanted to hang out at after school. Spacious halls, crowded lobbies – everything was brand new and shiny and the contemporary facade was an open-minded statement. This is what attracts young people - innovation and personal freedom. In addition to the development of modern infrastructure, recreational places got established, letting many more students apply to the University. Even people from Western Germany preferred the newly structured university to the established ones because of its brand new image. With the influx of young people, cafés and bars opened up, stores were reopened and expanded, infrastructure became sustainable, new jobs appeared. After a while, the budget resources provided refurbishing old buildings and expanding existing libraries, hospitals, schools and many other public services. Streets were enlivened, they became clean and safe as before. Leipzig wasn't an abandoned city with decreasing population, low incomes and acute social problems anymore. Unlike many regions in Eastern Germany, which are still struggling to fight this issues, it is now the fastest-growing city in Germany. In just a couple of years Leipzg went from being stuck in an economic and demographic crisis to becoming a booming hotspot, called “Hypezig” by the media.

The two buildings I chose may not seem extremely important at first sight, but they embody the main principle of architecture. They function as public space, which makes people feel comfortable. That sounds simple and this is exactly the point. For us architects it is a must to create environments, which provide meaning to people and make them consciously enjoy their sojourn. Without going into details, this environment should be designed, depending on the very special circumstances, to create a feeling of either coziness to strengthen the intimacy and privacy, or spaciousness to represent coherence and freedom or any of the other effects that architecture has to have. Just think back to your own experiences, whether you got enlightened by paintings, presented in a clean museum exhibition hall, fell in love with books in your brand new contemporary university library or just had a lovely afternoon in a café with dimmed lights and a feeling of home comfort. No matter what type of building it is, it should make people feel better inside. When people feel good in a certain place, they care about it and, consequently, about the surrounding environment in general, and that makes them stay and support the local communities, allowing it to be further sustained. This is the single most important aspect of architecture which separates it from art: Any architectural object can be of great importance and utmost influence to the enclosing space and all people will be subject to that.

In my opinion, the social art of architecture is to create an environment worth living in by creating new or reorganizing existing structures. Architecture cannot be an end in itself, because it inevitably affects people around it. So, when designing, always think about how exactly your work is going to change the environment. Think how you can make it better; think which opportunities your buildings would provide to the local community and which consequences you would like to see as a result of the embodiment of your concept. My examples, though they are quite different, clearly demonstrate how a single building is able to change not only its neighborhood but even a whole city. It means that whether your project is tiny or global, you should think of its impact on those who will use it and those who will not. As seen from the examples, it is not evident who exactly will be influenced by a single building. To contribute to the well-being of a community, you must develop a design which will make people feel good. When creating architecture, we hold the reins of power. Let us use this power wisely and unveil the social art of architecture.

People are going with their children for a walk after work.

One of the exhibition halls in a former factory.

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