studio 2010/11

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Berlin/site/program

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.

 

Category: Studio work

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