Resolving to design the city bottom-up

Dan Dorocic of ON/OFF – an architecture collective named after the group’s precarious working hours and projects – revisits one of the collective’s most extraordinary projects, Co-machines, in a call to move towards a bottom-up approach to the designing of our cities.
words – dan dorocic
location – berlin, germany
cover photography – ralph roelse

Some days we had projects, and we were ON. Some days we didn’t and, for all intents and purposes, we were OFF. This way of working led to our collective’s name, however we also appreciated the playful sound it alluded to – like flipping the switch or pushing a button to turn on a magical machine that transforms the everyday into something special. Practising in the grey area between art and architecture during shaky economic times, we had the necessary resources of time, cheap rent and youth which allowed us to experiment with tinkering the city bottom-up. We created a number of mobile, pop-up, political interventions that were funded by the city of Berlin or cultural agencies. These projects emerged from our own personal interests, stemming from the beginning of my practice in architecture and with ON/OFF. Like many others before us, ON/OFF rejected what we saw as mainstream architecture practice to embrace our own designbuild approach. After designing and creating continuously during our early years, we decided we needed to reflect and document not just our work, but the whole mess of bottom-up movements around us. Within this frame of practice we ran an Open Call under the name “Co-machines: Mobile Disruptive Architecture” in February 2016, with plans to document the movement on a global scale. We wanted to take a break from the years of uninterrupted making, to reflect on the forces behind our processes, to communicate widely and to be critical of our actions as makers. The Co-machines handbook is the outcome of that desire and the response to the open call.

The idea was to create a DIY guide which was also a legal rulebook and a how-to manual for inserting illegal, or semilegal, micro-architectures within a city. But it quickly became clear that the complexities of each site and project meant that it would be very hard to transplant them. Such is the nature of these local initiatives: they are akin to exotic plants that cannot simply be re-potted and expected to survive. Similarly, these kinds of projects do not perform well in a gallery, or even in a catalogue. They need to be experienced in their context, in motion, amidst their actions of disruption or subversion of public space. But the concepts they embody have a global tendency.

ralph roelse 2

Images by Ralph Roelse

The open call aimed to “capture and explain how to make DIY, ad hoc, hackable, movable, micro-architectures” for the future “Co-city.” The resultant Co-machines do this, but they also represent the important notions of collaboration, commons and community. The community around each Co-machine provides the social agenda and urgency for its design. We have to remember that the Co-machines are not stand-alone objects, but the physical part of ‘projects’ – while many act as ‘projectiles’ to express a movement or thought. The original Co-machines book came out of a need to reflect on this specific “disruptive” DIY approach, and to look to other cities and contexts for parallel practices. And as one question led to another, so our book is meant to lead to more.

So what are Co-machines? Are they public art? What makes them architecture? Is it the mobility that defines them? Is it their illegality? Is it the fact that they’re part of a larger political movement? There are no clear answers to these questions. The Co-machines project has become a research project cataloguing specific interventions around the world, to show that the local does have a connection to the global. It paints a movement that is still in its infancy. Co-machines are low-budget, often analogue, cheaply built, re-appropriating ready-mades such as shopping carts, bikes, and even irrigation systems, often incorporating very low-tech solutions. Yet they have to be clever in their design, sturdy, and easy to use and understand. They are, in many ways, the antithesis to the surveillance state, to the post-modern parametric surfaces and façades utilised by contemporary architects.

governments and developers have become accustomed to relying on artists and designers to take on social, cultural and educational work that would otherwise be assumed by the welfare state.

The idea of taking to the streets with your soapbox and megaphone to hustle for a buck, or to make a living by ad hoc means, is not new. Protestors, food-vendors, subsistence workers, street performers, musicians, travelling theatres, circuses, carpenters and others have operated in this manner for millennia. What’s of interest now is that many creative workers, especially in Berlin, are choosing this as a preferable way of living. The flip side to this is that the movement is also becoming rapidly normalised and used by the state. Since the financial crisis of 2008, governments and developers have become accustomed to relying on artists and designers to take on social, cultural and educational work that would otherwise be assumed by the welfare state. Many of these kinds of projects are presented as social work done voluntarily by a creative, often underfunded, group.

One particular aspect that has defined and moulded ON/ OFF’s work is the context of our local neighbourhoods in Berlin – especially those of Kreuzberg and Neukölln with their punk attitudes and socialist politics. Living in these places and witnessing the city change over the years has defined the way we operate within it. For the entire time ON/OFF has functioned in Berlin, it has been a city on the edge: the edge of becoming the lucrative German capital it was always meant to be.

Image by ON/OFF

The disappearance of the squats and the increasing rents; the opening of the fancy vegan restaurants on every corner; the increasing real estate speculation – when combined with the prevailing young, creative, anti-neoliberal attitude so rife in the city, this makes room for dreaming about the possible alternatives of inhabiting our city, and not repeating the historic patterns of gentrification. Berlin’s unique character and its anti-establishment stance have rubbed off on us and shaped our way of doing things. Berlin is itself a very disruptive city. Its complicated history of broken timelines has left scars and potential spaces around the city for us to dream up alternatives. But where we see change, developers see dollar signs.

Our way of inhabiting these neighbourhoods is by adapting to the existing unregulated street culture prevalent around Sonnenallee, and by promoting and bringing in new concepts of how to activate life on the streets that are anti-regulation. The physical Co-machines are just one of the more visible parts of this way of living and being. They are the outcome of many long conversations and invisible processes – some that challenged gentrification, some that fought for the rights of a community, and some for an alternative and sustainable existence. Our often self-initiated mobile approach was, for us, the best way to interact with our adopted home city of Berlin. We got our inspiration not by designing homes, studios, and cafes for our creative friends, but by becoming active and responsive to predatory top-down city planning.

Having come out of school and started our practice in the crisis after the economic recession in 2008, and with another recession looming, we know the future crises will need more bottom-up movements and more Co-machines. They are an architecture of Crisis. They are powerful tools to take things into your own hands when the systems around you are not working. They are the resolve to do better.

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