The model city, as a perfect exemplar or object of imitation, has a lineage that can be traced back through modernist experiments such as Brasilia to nineteenth century social reformers and seventeenth century colonists of the New World.

In this case, however, “model” refers, primarily, to the medium: Modellstadt is an assemblage of the architectural models that have been made by BAR over the last twelve years. Modellstadt, however, is not a straightforward portfolio of the work of BAR, since the assemblage is not restricted to works authored by the group. It includes models of existing urban situations (for example, Piazza Monte Santo in Naples), and existing, canonical buildings (for example, the Narkomfin building by Moisei Ginzburg in Moscow).

BAR’s interest in the documentation of ordinary human experiences, as part of the practice of architecture, was first addressed by the 1999 publication “Shifting the View: Documentation of the Commonplace.”[1] That publication focused on the adaptation and manipulation of the conventional techniques of architectural description—photographs, plans, sections, and axonometrics—to reveal, in the words of urban theorist Margaret Crawford, “a new world of experience—a reality that everyone knows intimately but that, in the absence of adequate representational tools, was conceptually invisible to architects.”[2]

As a diverse, geographically dispersed, collection of episodes from the everyday, “Shifting the View” staked out the thematic field in which BAR intended to practice as architects. The deliberate avoidance of authored architecture in this collection was not intended to deny the potential role of the architect, but was rather a manifesto for an architecture that could embrace the everyday reality of the city. This position was, in part, a reaction to the large-scale redevelopment of Berlin after the fall of the Wall. The gigantic Berlin city model, built by the city to educate the public about the planning, was symptomatic, in BAR’s view, of a planning process divorced from the experience of the city. Modellstadt can, in one sense, be seen as a repost to the planning from above represented by this type of city model.

In “Shifting the View,” BAR proposed that:

documentation could exist on its own terms as the disinterested scrutiny of a place; disinterested in the sense that it was not necessarily motivated by an architect’s intention to change it. Documented material did not need to be immediately used in design, but could become a fund of information about our surroundings. This opened up a new perspective in which documentation and design could be (in the words of James Agee) “coequal, mutually independent, and fully collaborative.”[3]

Modellstadt, with its juxtaposition of the found, the canonical, and the invented, now offers a view into this work in progress. In “Shifting the View,” BAR suggested that the exchange between documentation and design should not take the form of direct quotation, but rather needs to take place at a more abstract level. At the level of themes there can be a cross-over, where documentation can inform design without resorting to over-simplistic formal relationships. This network of themes now extends between the projects themselves.

One such theme that can be found in the Modellstadt is spatial economy. The Durchgangsbad was developed as a prototypical solution to the problem of building a bathroom into a typical one-bedroom apartment in a Berliner Mietshaus. In the model, the DB slides out as a unit. The DB proposes an open circulation pattern within the apartment, based on the observation that the bathing area is only required for a limited time each day. The standing place in front of the bathtub can therefore double up as circulation space—space that would otherwise be “lost” for most of the day in a monofunctional bathroom.

A similar idea about the flexible use of space can be found in the case study of the Piazza Monte Santo. The model shows how the Piazza is occupied during the day by various street vendors, who carefully place their stands, always at the same locations, to take advantage of pedestrian routes across the square. The train station, adjoining one side of the square, acts not only as a passage for daily pedestrian traffic, but also as night storage for the stands, tables, and freezers of the vendors.

Leergut, or Empty Good, is a conceptual model for the city that develops the theme of spatial economy. Leergut is the generic name for a returnable, reusable container used for products such as mineral water, beer, milk, and yogurt. BAR examined the returnable bottle used for mineral water, and how the returnable bottle fits into the daily life of the city. BAR proposed that architecture could be seen as an empty good, capable of containing the full complexity of the city. Leergut became the starting point for the design of a prototypical city building, with a rational, hard-wearing primary structure, that could be refined and adjusted to changing patterns of occupation by a less permanent “second” architecture. This model is now being realized as the m3 Haus in Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg.

The degree to which the “second” architecture can be built or adapted by the user over the life of the building leads to another theme of BAR’s work: the potential, and the limits, of self-build construction. The model of the interior of Schwedter Straße 26 shows loft spaces that were built out by BAR themselves as a “second” architecture, fitting under the roof of a new “first” architecture. The model of a prototypical house built according to the self-build methods of Walter Segal links to this theme. In the models themselves, there is an element of play and of being handled, that applies both to the models themselves and to BAR’s idea of how space is produced and used.

The intent of the Modellstadt was to bring together projects that investigate such ideas into a city-like assemblage of models, both to record known correspondences, and to bring new ones to light. A large scale model of the Durchgangsbad is next to a landscape model; models of interior spaces are next to models for a city block; models of projects by BAR are next to models of canonical buildings. Each model has its own story, whether it is describing an existing situation, or marking some point in a design process. None of them are simply a representation of form.

Modellstadt suggests a city of diverse, even conflicting ideas, reflecting the complexity of the city as it is experienced. It stands in clear opposition to both the ideal model city and the Berlin city model. The clear authorship of BAR in the craft of the models—an unusual meeting of exactitude and playfulness—lends a unity to the diverse material, and reflects the consistency of BAR’s chosen path. Modellstadt is suggestive of both “the concrete diversity of a realistic order of things,” and of the complex network of meanings underlying this diversity.[4] This is a city in which the ultimate success of the work of architecture can be measured by its ability, over time, to become an integral part of that fabric.

BAR berlin, June 2004

1 Shifting the View: Documentation of the Commonplace, Pubic Access Press #34 (SCI-Arc, Los Angeles, 1999)

2 Margaret Crawford, preface to Shifting the View

3 Shifting the View, p.7

4 Claude Levi-Strauss, “Pioneer Zone” in Tristes Tropiques, trans. J. Weightman (London, 1974)