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Spaces of Uncertainty

review

By Kenny Cupers and Markus Miessen. Verlag Müller + Busmann, 2002. 192pp. £17.95. Available from Triangle bookshop 020 7631 1381

Back in 1990, soon after the Wall came down, Alan Balfour's Berlin: The Politics of Order 1737-1989 appeared. Its focus was the huge void then at the heart of the city: the desolate expanse of Potsdamer Platz and Leipziger Platz. 'Fifty years ago this was a centre of world power; now, in the twilight, there is a sense of standing on the edge of existence, ' wrote Balfour. His analysis of two centuries' worth of schemes for the site - whether built, left on paper, or destroyed - was highly cautionary. It showed how full of ghosts this vacancy was and how complex any question of rebuilding would be (AJ 8.5.91).

No one would claim that the commercially driven reconstruction we see at Potsdamer Platz now is a remotely adequate response. But while, despite the downturn in the German economy, Berlin still has a skyline of cranes, it also still has many less conspicuous voids; leftover areas, or 'spaces of uncertainty', as Kenny Cupers and Markus Miessen call them. And one message of their book, as far as architects are concerned, is - for goodness' sake, tread gently.

In defining these marginal zones in relation to 'public space' as it has been understood historically and is today - the gentrified, consumerist, exclusionary model that currently prevails - the text sometimes seems like a name-checking PhD thesis, if an agreeably lucid one. But the authors know Berlin quite intimately - both were in Libeskind's office for a time - and their discussion is not just theoretical. Halfway through the book, for instance, and clearly based on close observation, is a four-page description of such spaces, attentive to their disparate nature and uses (often ephemeral):

parking lots, marketplaces, gay rendezvous, gypsy camps, 'informal wild parks', and much else.

Illuminating though this catalogue of activities is, such instrumental emphasis rather underplays the aesthetic value of these leftover spaces - their charm, even, as colourful weeds sprout, grass is left untended and a scarred brick wall remains the backdrop. Fortunately, this quality emerges in some of the book's many photographs, when the 'wild park' element predominates; while one waterside scene could be an update of that National Gallery staple, Seurat's Bathers at Asnières.

'The functional units, the highly structured, programmed and controlled spaces in the contemporary city, mean to threaten the city's crucial characteristics, namely openness and unpredictability, ' say Cupers and Miessen. Past a certain point, design can become a straitjacket; hence the importance of these marginal spaces, which are 'both a relief and a promise' and 'as undefined as we are'.

So the authors call for 'an increased sensitivity of the professionals involved in our urban environments towards the hidden possibilities that lie within the margin' - and who would argue with that? Berlin may have such 'spaces of uncertainty' in profusion, but every city needs them, and this timely little book helps to demonstrate why.

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