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About the BMW Guggenheim Lab

Berlin can breathe a sigh of relief. The BMW Guggenheim Lab, a well-meaning project to heighten urban consciousness, has struck camp after six action-packed weeks and moved on: next stop Mumbai. When this prefabricated centre, designed to foster discussion and thought-provoking events, first came from New York to Kreuzberg, an edgy part of town, some locals resisted: they suspected creeping gentrification and condemned it as “some crappy capitalist luxury project”, and even threatened violence. So BMW Guggenheim found a more agreeable venue in already gentrified Prenzlauer Berg, at Pfefferberg, a former brewery complex containing cafes, restaurants, a gallery and a handy hostel.

Any jealous Kreuzbergers who found their way to the alternative site may have realised how unthreatening the project is. The BMW Guggenheim Lab, a joint initiative of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and the BMW automobile group, offered a programme of workshops, panel debates, film screenings, city tours (on foot, bicycle and bus), all devoted to the exploration and improvement of urban life in general and life in Berlin in particular.

The original idea for the Lab, explains Richard Armstrong, director of the Guggenheim, sprang from efforts to “present the Guggenheim Museum’s subject of architecture not only on Fifth Avenue but to a broader world.” The temporary Lab structure is designed by Atelier Bow-Wow, a firm of young architects from Tokyo. After Mumbai other young designers will design this mobile space, which is due to visit nine cities up to 2016. “Unlike the museum’s traditional treatment of architecture, by displaying models, drawings, videos etc, we wanted to address more elementary concerns that are inherent in architecture and more importantly about what is the meaning of the new city,” says Mr Armstrong. 
With “Learning by talking” the Lab’s activities in New York were more theoretical; the ambitious Berlin programme followed the guideline “Learning by doing”. Rachel Smith, a transportation planner and one member of the Berlin Lab Team, chose to explore themes of e-mobility, public space and sharing (of ideas, knowledge and transport): she organised several cycle rides to explore the quantity and quality of the city’s bike lanes. She was impressed, to a point. “Berlin is a great city for biking, which accounts for 30% of the transportation. But Amsterdam and Copenhagen show that you can still do better.” More concretely she initiated crowd-funding for a new bike lane in Berlin, a legacy that the Lab now leaves behind. 
Maurice de Martin, who describes himself as a « transdisciplinary » artist, was one of many local performers who cooperated with the Lab. He organised bus tours to two suburbs, Marzahn and Lichtenberg, in former east Berlin. With their anonymous prefabricated apartment blocks and high density of poor tenants these suburbs do not attract many visitors. Surprisingly, far more applicants than he could take were interested in his excursions. An eclectic mixture of housewives from the richer parts of the West, foreign students, university professors, lawyers, local politicians, journalists and foreign tourists were amazed by the diverse cultural and social life of these districts. The experience might have revised their opinion of areas they hadn’t set foot in before.

Other popular subjects at the Lab, which attracted more than 27,000 visitors in 33 days, included Berlin’s controversial policy of land and property sales, urban gardening and modern communication. “We have had the opportunity not only to discuss some of the key urban topics of Berlin but also to work with local groups to advance a variety of practical projects that we hope will benefit Berliners in the months and years to come,” says Maria Nicanor of Guggenheim at a well-attended farewell party on July 29th.
In mid-December the Lab will arrive in the old Victorian part of Mumbai. There, in contrast to New York and Berlin, its activities will take place in different locations, not just in the Bow-Wow construction. I asked Mr Armstrong about his expectations for this megacity: “We should not make any assumptions about public activity in Mumbai,” he said, “because the sense of space and decorum is different from ours in Europe and America. We have to tread lightly but with open arms. We have learnt important lessons in Berlin about stepping into an existing and very developed political discourse. So we will be even better participants in Mumbai and beyond.”
Some wonder just how much can be achieved by a bunch of fancy design types congregating in different cities to discuss grand ideas about urban living. Sceptics (and there are many) can have some of their curiosity satisfied in late 2013, when a special exhibition is planned at the Guggenheim Museum in New York that will explore the issues raised and the projects launched in the first three cities of the Lab’s world tour. Then there is always this online forum for the exchange of ideas.

Source : Bernd Fesel

Filed under: Analyses, Evénements, Expériences, Gouvernances, ,

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