The Vacancy

The Vacancy was an exhibition placed in an old, rundown hostel in Mitte, by the Galerie Crone and ZeitMagazine. It was set out to be a temporary use of the facility before it was renovated again. 33 artist had prepared pieces specifically for this exhibition. My visit to the show evoked two questions: 1) Are we still hunting the illusion of spontanity and culture? 2) Is there still space in a modern city for unstaged experiences?

The interim uses of abandoned buildings has become an integral part of urban development. But I think they’re past their due date in terms of cultural relevance.

Interim spaces in Berlin

The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the subsequent reunifica-
tion of Germany brought about drastic changes in the governance, economy

At the turn of the twenty-first century, Berlin had a significantly larger
stock of disused and vacant sites than any other comparable European
metropolis. (…)  The plethora of ‘voids’ (Huyssen, 1997) which punctuated the city’s urban fabric was due to a number of factors: extensive bomb damage during World War II; the post-war division by a wall lined up with a no man’s land; the modernist planning paradigm adopted in both the western and eastern parts of the city from the 1950s onwards, with its associated demolitions; and, after 1990, deindustrialisation and population decline, in particular in the eastern part of the city.

You can read more about the concept of interim spaces in Berlin in The Trajectory of Berlin’s ‘Interim Spaces’: Tensions and Conflicts in the Mobilisation of ‘Temporary Uses’ of Urban Space in Local Economic Development by Claire Colomb if you’re a researcher or have access to academic papers.

In post-wall Berlin, forgotten industrial spaces were essential to the rise of a specific metropolitan culture. Think of all the illegal techno parties, exhibitions and squatted houses of the 90s: often, they were the breeding ground for what we consider the most fundamental characteristics of Berlin culture today.

At The Vacancy
At The Vacancy

As the German title Zwischennutzung suggest, these uses were always supposed to be temporary, lending something ephemeral (and thereby mysterious) to the city’s DNA. If you think back to the days of Bar25 and other, similar projects in the city, you’ll agree that part of the charm was not knowing if they’d still exist in the following season. Will there still be space for these grey area urban interventions?I’ll borrow again from the aforementioned paper to describe what these interim spaces looked like:

From the 1990s onwards, many of those vacant sites became fertile
grounds for “a new wave of uncontrolled urban practices and ideas” (Cupers and Miessen, 2002, p. 78), for example flea markets, car boot sales, beer gardens, outdoor bars, community gardens, sports grounds, open-air theatres, camping sites or spaces of artistic experimentation. The German word Zwischennutzung (‘interim’ or ‘temporary’ use) was coined to refer to such activities. Bishop and Williams (2012, p. 5) define a temporary use through “the intention of the user, developer or planners that the use should be temporary.” Till, however, proposes the term ‘interim spaces’ to grasp “the dynamic and open-ended sense of in-betweenness, interventions, and unexpected possibilities” present in such spaces (2011, p. 106), and to overcome the ‘temporary–permanent’ dichotomy which permeates the language used by scholars and planners to describe such initiatives. This dichotomy, Till and McArdle (2015) argue, suppresses critical thinking about the ‘non-visible’ advantages of such ‘interim spaces’ – those which stem from use value, healthy place-making, non-commodified forms of exchange and the creation of a different imagination of the city.

In the 00’s interim uses are still very popular, not only in Berlin. Except these uses have (from what I can attest to) been detached from their subversive roots. Rather, they’ve become staged experiences and economic commodities. The Vacancy, although in the shape of a cultural happening (an art exhibition), is through and through commercialized. In fact, its whole raison d’être seems to be the location in which it takes place: a temporary space, soon to be gone.

The use and abuse of urban transience

Gaps in the cityscape are predominantely reserved for those who can afford the aesthetics. Interim uses, today, are withheld for commercial pop-up retails, branded experiences and even permanent projects. They are simply capitalizing on the spirit of the transient space.

Many enterprises specifically seek out these “off-locations” and transform them into event locations, i.e. locations that resemble the unfinished, but are nothing but designed.

Ultimately, it makes sense to economize and utilize any space in dense urban environments, but there are consequences to the make up of the city. Where will culture go if even the undesirable spaces are already taken?

At The Vacancy