Loose-fit city: the Holzmarkt, Berlin

The Holzmarkt development, fronting the river Spree near Berlin’s Ostabahnhof station, is an unprecedented experiment in anarchic urban planning, and which was opened in May 2017. During the 1990s, the site was an industrial wasteland, which, like many other similar sites in Berlin, was requisitioned for creative reuse – in this case by Bar25, a legendary nightclub run by Juval Dieziger and Christoph Klenzedorf. When the site was eventually earmarked for redevelopment, its holding company SpreeUrban made plans for a new luxury development of high-rise office blocks. However, in 2012 this plan was shelved and the plot of land was put out for tender. In a bold move, Dieziger and Klenzedorf reclaimed the land with the help of Swiss pension fund Abendrot, who bought the site for €10million and then leased it back to a cooperative founded by Bar25 supporters. 

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The Holzmarkt from the river Spree

Working with architects Hütten & Paläste in 2012-13, the central planning concept was for an urban village in which the structures and spaces were flexible enough to allow for a variety of possible uses and which could be extended and reworked in the future. The architects provided an ‘infrastructural backbone’ to the site – an agglomeration of several four-storey buildings made from pre-cast concrete elements that were purchased via a component catalogue. This was built for a variety of uses, including a carpentry workshop, music studios, a market and an event and practice space for a circus troupe. The rest of the site would be allowed to develop informally – self-build ‘huts’ and other structures would provide spaces for a range of small-scale uses, from artists’ studios to shops, cafes and bars. 

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The core structure of the Holzmarkt – a four-story concrete frame

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Repurposed shipping containers

Today, viewed from the other side of the river Spree in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district, the Holzmarkt presents a startling counter to what we normally expect of urban planning. Instead of the conventional order of high-rise developments, with their transparent glass façades and geometric purity, the Holzmarkt is a seemingly haphazard jumble of forms that seem to have little formal relationship to their function. Although the concrete structural frame of the core buildings can be found in almost any other multi-storey structure, here, it has been clad in a wild assortment of materials that seem deliberately anarchic in their refusal of formal and structural integrity. Brick vies with timber, corrugated metal, recycled rubber, and bare concrete painted with murals, the whole linked at different levels by metal and wooden walkways. This represents, in stark visual terms, the collision of the formal programme of architectural modernism and an emphasis on the concrete frame as a flexible container for users to fill as they wish: a fact that somewhat ironically recalls one of Le Corbusier’s earliest projects, Dom-ino House of 1914, in which the fledgling soon-to-be arch-modernist architect attempted (unsuccessfully) to make his fortune by selling two-storey concrete frames and letting buyers fill in their own walls. 

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Walkways and cladding of the core structure

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Shipping containers repurposed as artists’ studios

As envisaged by the architects, a panoply of self-built structures have sprouted around the core infrastructure. Nearby is a stack of shipping containers repurposed as artists’ studios, one of which is clad in recycled beer cans. Further down towards the river are more informal structures, including the Ding Dong Dom theatre, a building made up of a timber frame supporting an almost continuous facade of salvaged windows. Smaller structures surround the performance arts venue – wooden verandas to shelter revellers, sheds functioning as cafes or smaller bars, and a haphazard assortment of street furniture to cater for crowds. Although the site has only one entrance – an artful ‘hole’ in a timber fence fronting the busy Holzmarktstrasse – it remains fully open to all and, noticeably absent, is any security. 

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Ding Dong Dom theatre and bar

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Interior of the Ding Dong Dom

The uniqueness of the Holzmarkt development stems from the way in which it has combined more formal aspects of urban planning with the spontaneity of creative practices that have come to define cities like Berlin in recent years. Although the idea of the ‘creative city’ has been criticized by some as just another way in which neoliberal elites use artists and other creatives to pave the way for inevitable gentrification, there are crucial ways in which the Holzmarkt development counters this. First, the site cannot be sold on at a profit, a move that clearly prevents landowner Abendrot from being enticed by the standard development model (and selling the site on to any conventional property developer). Second, the architecture itself is completely at odds with the urban futures envisaged by most property developers and municipal authorities: the loose functionality of the concrete frames, the porosity of inside and outside, and the collision of the formal and informal all resist the monolithic visions of profit-driven urban development. Naturally, there are drawbacks: there is currently no permanent housing on the site, which compromises the idea of the Holzmarkt as a self-sustaining microcosm; and its continuing evolution is dependent on an idealistic vision of creative practices continuing to flourish and provide revenue. Yet, perhaps such vulnerabilities are part-and-parcel of informal ways of making cities – unlike the firm, if ultimately illusory, assurances of endless profits for investors in the neoliberal city, there are no such guarantees when one makes the city for yourself.

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Entrance to the Holzmarkt

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