After the Bolsheviks secured power in Russia in the late 1910s and eventually created the Soviet Union in 1922, one of the first orders of business was a new campaign, Novyi bit (new everyday life), which sought to advance many of the most hallowed causes of their newly minted socialism. The initiative’s great success came from the bold designs of Constructivist artists such as Alexander Rodchenko, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Lyubov Popova. Using a high-contrast visual language and a combination of words and symbols, the graphics were arresting and comprehensible in a post-tsarist country that was largely illiterate, and became some of the most recognizable examples of twentieth century graphics and political propaganda.
It's hard not to see the connection between the styles of the Constructivists and the unusual graphics created by NL Architects in association with BeL (Bernhardt und Leeser) Sozietät für Architektur BDA for their competition-winning proposal for Hamburg’s St. Pauli neighborhood, consisting of an urban plan of housing and other amenities at the former site of Esso Häuser on the Spielbudenplatz. And, while this stylistic connection may not have been intentionally drawn by the architects - the inspiration for the graphics is not mentioned in the four-page project description - it is oddly appropriate for this particular development.
After years of resistance, tenants of the Esso Häuser were evicted in December 2013, at which point the fight switched to ensure that tenants were returned to a new structure on the same site. So began a highly collaborative neighborhood campaign known as PlanBude, that sought public input in the design process with nine international architectural firms. Situating the offices for the initiative next door to the proposed site, PlanBude received over 2000 contributions from stakeholders, including interviews, ideas, analysis, and opinions. Yielding “a number of innovative and artistic planning instruments,” PlanBude devised the following as a code of ethics for developing the new project:
- Diversity instead of uniformity
- Affordable instead of expensive
- Originality and tolerance
- Appropriation and vitality
- Experiment and subculture
- Public space without consumerism
St. Pauli, home to Hamburg’s red-light district, is known for its “coexistence of extremes,” eternally linking the neighborhood to social niches and counterculture. In affirmation, NL Architects principal Kamiel Klaasse said, “This area in Hamburg is still kind of PUNK! Resistance against gentrification, against inequality, racism and so on.” Known as Der Kiez (which roughly translates to "the Hood"), the area is “a unique biotope that offers room for many sub-cultures, one of the rare strongholds in the resistance against Disneyfication.” Aiming to retain this characteristic, NL Architects and BeL divided a larger plot of land (Realteilung) into small parcels (Kleinteilig), adjacent to the Spielbudenplatz, organized around a new pedestrian street. Their design was the unanimous choice of PlanBude's 17-member jury.
The project attempts to preserve and rearticulate the neighborhood’s wayward spirit, with strategies ranging from balconies as “platforms for information and communication,” a mixture of public and private roof spaces programmed “commercially, socially or ecologically,” and firewalls, structural necessities here creating “dynamic urban actors” used for art, sports or as natural habitats. Complementing this external diversity, a “cocktail of functions” inside is accessed through 42 individual doors at the ground level. Like a cabinet of curiosities, a wunderkammer at the scale of the city, the plot includes a hotel, market-rate housing, subsidized housing, a museum, a hostel, offices, retail, a cafe, nightclubs, a theater, skate park, basketball court, climbing wall, gardens, and even a “Pirate Ship.”
At the center of all of this is a new street which will be “a room for activity,” where “the numerous sub-cultures of St. Pauli: young creatives, hotel guests, residents of the apartments, families living in the Baugruppen (multifamily housing), elderly can all mix and mingle. This enlargement of the public space serves as a public living room, the street a stretched square.”
Reviewing the project's press materials the socialist undertones of the graphics seem poignant and well-meaning for a proposal that found motivation in maintaining and promoting inclusiveness, diversity, and "public space without consumerism." Speaking on this, Kamiel Klaasse affirmed:
"We chose not to use the usual glossy render techniques... but to try something new: a kind of rough pamphlet aesthetic. (Although new... perhaps old school [would be a] better word)... We thought it was very refreshing to see something beyond hyper reality. It still leaves space for the imagination (something the jury mentioned specifically as a pro, so [the graphics] served their purpose)."
The design itself calls to mind the heterogeneity of the Las Vegas Strip as depicted and subsequently dissected in Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour’s seminal Learning from Las Vegas, contrasting the collectivist subtext of its graphics with the almost anarchic sense of self-expression shared by St. Pauli and its much larger American relative in Sin City. Additionally, the panoply of signs, textures, and objects feels like a long lost descendant of James Wines’s SITE (Sculpture in the Environment) Best Products stores. In those fabled buildings, SITE took postmodern irony to its cheeky extreme with facades that were intentionally crumbling, peeling, dislodged, and sprouting trees. Although entirely dissimilar in intention and purpose, SITE’s use of bold graphics and clever subversions to the “box store” seems to possess the same balance of maverick intentions in practical parameters that are afoot in NL Architects and BeL’s Der Kiez.
Given that the proposal is still in the development phase, it may be premature to speculate on how well these design strategies will bridge the old and new St. Pauli. When a new development, cleansed of history, tries to heal itself it often becomes little more than a scarred version of what once was. Usually though this process happens off site, behind closed doors, and without the the “boots on the ground” input garnered from a well-devised strategy like PlanBude. In light of this, the project could become a case study for collaboration between communities, architects and developers. As noted by NL Architects and BeL:
"After years of sometimes vicious struggle St. Pauli will see the emergence of a truly site specific urban cluster that seems to meet the needs of local residents as well as the commercial investor. The collaboration between the Bayerische Hausbau, the local government and the local citizens has led to a proposal that seems to satisfy all parties involved."
LocationSpielbudenpl., 20359 Hamburg, Germany
Team BeLAnne-Julchen Bernhardt, Jörg Leeser, Paula Finch, Matthias Hoffmann, Conrad Kersting, Christiane Schmidt, Wolfgang Zeh
Team NLPieter Bannenberg, Walter van Dijk, Kamiel Klaasse, Kirsten Hüsig with Barbora Hlvackova, Laura Riano Lopez, Laura Nazzari, Guilia Pastore