studio 2010/11


site plan with sections







Everywhere in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin are traces of urban forces acting upon physical infrastructure – traces of movement, opinion, and activity made physical in the city through graffiti, art installations (now seemingly neglected, in some cases), bicycles, junk on the street, neglected sculptures, ruined walls.

I was in Berlin for two weeks this past October, focusing on the Kreuzberg area with the intention of finding a site through which to suggest an architectural project. My observations and search were nuanced by earlier explorations of the phenomenon of sound and vibration at doorways.

As a visitor, I spent much time simply walking or cycling down the streets, people-watching and taking in the quirky elements of the city, for example, bike paths winding through street and sidewalk-ways, the small doorways leading below grade from the streetscape, colourful graffiti scrawled across broad old doorways and on the shop roller doors, visible only when pulled down after shop hours. Experiencing a city is not just a visual exercise, but multi-sensory: much can be revealed and deduced from ambient sound and smells and other phenomena of the immaterial environment that together characterize the culture of a place (the atmosphere of a restaurant leaking onto the street as someone else enters or leaves, opening the door; the smell of kebab wafting through the cool fall air…).

Bookended by loud one-story 24-hour Turkish doner restaurants at one end of the block and Alvaro Siza’s curvilinear Bonjour Tristesse mixed-use project at the other (originally a plan for the block, not realized), is a stretch of streetscape (along Schlesiches Strasse) consisting of restaurants, alleyways, doors up to the apartments above, a corner store, a hair salon, a bakery, and a kindergarten. The wide street has a bike path on the street itself, and then a raised curb defines the block, interrupted occasionally with alleyways leading from the street across the sidewalk paving deeper into the block. Cars park along the curb and up into the block in the alleyway space as well. There is a bus stop on the block, near the curb, and then green spaces (patches of grass with trees, bordered by a short fence), then sidewalk paving, then the building facades and interiors. Most restaurants and shops have a step or two up from the sidewalk level. The block has a similar mixed-use condition all the way around, with entrances at various points further into the interior where there are some courts and play areas for children. There are gates that are open during the day and close at night, and in some alleys there are doors out from the restaurant kitchens, where staff can come out to take a smoke break or a phone call. Across the street is a park space with sculptures, a restaurant with more apartments above, and a club.

Schlesiches Strasse runs in the North-West and South-East directions. Nearby landmarks include, to the North-West, the Schlesisches Tor station (on the U1 U-bahn line, a raised subway), the River Spree to the North-East, framed through the Human Landscape sculpture project that spans from the riverbank to the edge of the park across from the kindergarten, and Gorlitzer park, a couple of blocks to the South-West.

The facades of the buildings are generally aligned parallel to the sidewalk paving and to the street, however, at one point in this stretch of Schlesiches Strasse, the facades of the buildings (the kindergarten) retreat at an angle from the sidewalk; and then the neighboring buildings are again aligned parallel to the street. What is aligned to the street here, however, is a remnant doorway that stands right beside the sidewalk, leading to nothing but the small parking space for the kindergarten vans. The doorway is brick, of an industrial scale, very much out of proportion with any of the other doorways on the street. It stands alone, with just a few traces of its former context: steel rails attached underneath to form a lintel, some metal ties into the brick, concrete casing at the base of the doorway and part way up, and grating at the centre of the frame in the ground. A teacher that I met in passing thought that there was a station at this location at an earlier time, and pointed out an old wall (lined with rails from an art installation) that separates the kindergarten from the doner kebab area within the block.

To add to the contrast with the rest of the streetscape, the kindergarten buildings have just one door to the street, which is locked. This creates a sort of ‘pause’ in the activity of the doors at the rest of the streetscape, and soundscape (there are no doors to hear, and no interiors with which to exchange sound waves). Here the block is very poorly lit at night, and so the optical effect is of a void in the streetscape. There is a gateway in Siza’s project that is perhaps an echo of this doorway here, positioned in front of one of the apartment entrances, framing the door. Also of interest are the rhythms and alignments of the architecture in general, and in the connections between the buildings and the street, and between the buildings themselves, since most of the buildings are built with walls flush to the next. How is the context of other buildings acknowledged, perhaps in the alignment of windows with neighboring buildings?

I’m interested in the ways that the immaterial and physical rhythms of the street and its inhabitants are manifest at the doorway condition (that is, the threshold between the exterior and interior). The doorway is a passageway and a means of communication; sound escapes from interior to exterior, and enters from exterior to interior (can the interior be considered as the exterior of the streetscape?). People act upon the door, and each door has a unique aural and physical response to this force, heard in the mechanical sound of its vibration and the friction between materials (at the hinge). There is an enormous range of sound made by doors, sometimes a hush, sometimes a squeal, a groan, a clatter, a resonant slam, a chatter. The sound of the door is tempered by ambient sound on either side of it, and the sound of the opening or closing of a door is a sensor, e.g. alerting shopkeepers of entry or confirming the secure closure of an interior space (the subconscious listening to the sound of the door closing behind as one walks further into a space).

I took recordings of the vibration of the doors of the block opening and closing (with piezo mics), as well as audio recordings of the sound of entering the interior from the street (the motion of the door can often be heard). Making note of which doors along the streetscape were active throughout the day (I recorded the data every three hours for a period of 24 hours), I made a composition of the ‘chiming’ of doors over the course of a day, each ‘chime’ being a ‘chord’ of the doors that were active at that time of day (for example, at 0300, two doors were active – those of the Turkish restaurants), while at 6 pm most of the doors on the block were in use.


Berlin work

Berlin observations:

Audio recordings of the vibrations of doors opening/closing with piezo microphones.

Audio recordings of the passing from the streetscape through the door into the interior along one block of Schlesisches Strasse; taken every three hours over a 24-hour period. Noted which doors were ‘active’ at different times of the day (e.g. at 3 a.m., only the two Turkish restaurants were open; all other doors locked).

PDF (below) shows the observed block, and included notations of the ‘activity’ of the doors across a 24-hour period:

Composition: ‘chimes’ of door vibrations (chiming layers of active doors, in chronology of a day):
Piezo cuckoo by jayne.e

Composition: Door sounds along the street.
9pm thresholds by jayne.e

The Infernal Machine

My machine is *finally* working and doing its thing: modulating light and space.  Why was it not working?  Well, everyone knows that the first rule of mechanical engineering is to lubricate your surface-mounted bearings and castors! Silly me.




The New Machine

After my failure to resolve my machine problems in Berlin, I had to come back and create a new one that actually works.  Thankfully, I was able to do it, and here’s the proof!

Light Space Modulator

Alternate Title: Why I (Still) Hate Gravity

Once my site was selected and we moved into Martin’s studio, it was time to get down to work and make my machine come to life and take it out to my site for some Light Space Modulation.

As it turns out, though, that was completely impossible.  In all my years making weird machines and odd contraptions, I’ve never had my ass kicked quite like that, and this week was humbling to say the least.  For the first few days, I tried my best to get the machine up and running, but it just never came together.

The mounting plate secured to a tripod.

A lasercut sprocket held onto a brass shaft using a Jaw Coupling.

The beginnings of the machine on the tripod.

The gears sitting in their bearings, awaiting the chains.

You can see how this got really complicated, really fast.

After messing around with this machine and exhausting every angle I could, I finally had to accept the fact that I wasn’t going to be able to take my machine onto the site.  The reason I wanted to create the machine in the first place is partly because it tied into my research about Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, but also because I wanted to use it to measure and affect my site using light, reflection, transparency, and motion.  My machine is supposed to mimic Nagy’s “Light Space Modulator”, but in this case it wasn’t going to do a damned thing.

Had everything gone according to plan (ha!), the grad idea was that I would be able to take my machine out to the site I chose, and record images and video of the reflections and refractions caused by the machine in motion and how they affected my site at night.  I had hoped to get it out there by Thursday night, so that I could take my findings back to the studio and then create a second set of spinning pieces to sit on top of the machine. The second set of pieces would highlight areas that I felt were important or cancel out certain pieces of the site.  This second set of reflective and transparent pieces would be an impression of my site that I could take home to Winnipeg and work with in some way to capture a memory of Berlin without the use of traditional photography.

Of course, that’s not how it worked out, and so I had to make some last minute modifications to the machine to at least get something out of it.

Some of the pieces inspired by the original Light Space Modulator

The final version of the machine

Light modulation!

Site Selection

During the first week of our trip, we ended up traveling all over Berlin and looking for sites in Kreuzberg, but nothing really sung to me in terms of my project.  I was looking for a site that somehow related both to Moholy-Nagy and to the machine that I had created, and until Saturday, I hadn’t really had any luck.  There was one site that was at least intriguing, but something told me I would have to look elsewhere.

On our trip to the Bauhaus, I bought a book about Moholy-Nagy, called Moholy-Nagy: The Photograms. The book has amazing reproductions of Nagy’s photograms, as well as some really interesting and enlightening essays about Moholy-Nagy, but most importantly, at the back of the book was a reference list of all of Moholy-Nagy’s residences since 1921.  Once I found this, I wrote them down and decided to do a little bit of touring on Sunday.

Coincidentally, the first residence I found was actually close to where I had been the day before, but this time I actually meant to go there.  Just one block North of Kurfurstenstrasse is Lutzowstrasse, the street where Moholy-Nagy first lived in Berlin after he came from Hungary to be an artist there.  I located what I thought was his apartment building, but what I didn’t know was that his apartment building had been blown up during the second world war.  What was even more interesting, though, was what I found  near his old apartment, which is what’s called “Der Pumpe”.

Looking at the Pump near the park.

At first, I thought Der Pumpe was the park located near this particular pump.  What I found out later is that “Alte Pumpe” is actually a restaurant.  The pump itself is part of the “Radial VII” system that Berlin completed in 1883.  The pumps are used to pump wastewater from the city and the surrounding suburbs uphill and away from the city.  The site was an integral part of Berlin’s infrastructure before the war, and its proximity to Gleisdreick, as well as to the headquarters of the SS, made it a good target for the bombing raids carried out by the RAF during the war.  In my research, I was able to pinpoint the date when this site was bombed, and it turns out that on November 23rd, 1943, this site was the target of Britain’s first ever successful bombing, which devastated Berlin’s infrastructure and my eventual site.  The building that is currently located at the address of 76 Lutzowstrasse is now a Bergman and Franz, but now that I know some of the history of the site, I feel like it’s a pretty good place to start my exploration.

Moholy-Nagy's old place, but not really.

Der Pumpe

The Park

2010.11.30- Notational Drawings

What is in a recording?

- Vibrations (wind, friction, breaking strings, interaction with existing structures and the string/piezo/device)

- Radio Signals, conversations

- What is the source? sound? events (breaking strings, temporality)? resonance (i.e., feedback, sound waves, check Alvin Lucier “I am in a room” recording stuck in feedback purgatory until it “collapses/explodes”), Phil Niblock, La Monte Young-Dream House)? Amplifications? Tonality? Length? Mitigate sound through architecture.

- Start with existing/tangible things on the site (i.e., locations of wires, devices, piezos, buildings, etc.)

What is your strategic point of view for building?

2010.11.15.Figuring out size of model

Here is a plan of the site. There are 2 yellow rectangles on the site, displaying the boundaries that would fit on my desk in studio. The small rectangle is the boundary for a 1:100 model. However, I would not be able to fit the bridge (which is an important attribute to my site) in this model. I think that I will need to create a model at 1:200 (which is the larger yellow rectangle boundary) in order to display the relationship between the bridge, the Universal Music Building, and the Granary Building. I also want to be able to present the access to the site in the model. For instance, the Bridge, the UBohn, Stralauer Allee, and the sidewalk are the different access routes to my site.


2010.11.14.Thoughts on program

What do I want from the site? What does the site need? I want to amplify the site’s character. The site’s real character and history, including its richness and layered personality that will tell its life story (which is being covered up by the surrounding buildings). How can the program be connected to the present, while still connect to its past? Will it be some kind of instrument that reveals the site’s personality through a modulation of wind? Will the site amplify a piece of the site that has been around all along, throughout its lifetime (i.e., the wind). Something that is still around to tell the story of the site.

Let people experience what the site is saying, to reveal the intangible.

Will the architecture be suspended in between the two buildings at the site? This would relate to the aeolian harp as an instrument, modulating the wind. Will the space isolate inhabitants from the futuristic media, allowing a sort of meditation with the site? It should allow for the experience of the site, and make the real site’s character come alive again.


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