Building with Kultur // Alex Palmer 

4/10/2015

What is culture? It is not something simply assembled by a mixture of dialect, religion, food, morals, and traditions, but rather an ever transforming accumulation of a group or area and the unique traits that set it apart. Culture can be displayed through our person via means of dialect, morals, etc. but what about the culture of our built environment? It is fair to assume one could argue culture, in terms of built environment, could be defined as context (i.e. an accumulation of surroundings which create an identity of place). As designers however, we have an urgency to not define culture of built environment solely as context, but something more. Instead we define culture as an entity that withholds intent to have an impression upon the user by crafting together a structure with purpose and care. As in any culture, the idea of a built environment culture is something that cannot abruptly be slapped together, but builds upon itself with time.

 

While reminiscing of my days abroad, I came across two articles questioning the future of Berlin and how the city’s past, the roots which create a unique culture, are quickly starting to fade as the city seems to have become swallowed into “Western” culture. Reiner de Graaf of OMA writes an article calling out divisions of the city based upon half truths that cultures may have, while the second article ties back into GDR prefabricated architecture, which is slowing being stripped of its original aesthetic as the lines of East Berlin and West Berlin dissolve away more each day. 

Berlin is a collision of identities, and seems to be ever changing and adapting through a discourse of extreme histories, radiating vibes unfamiliar to any other place I personally have experienced. I spent a limited time in the city, but to see new faces being pasted upon roots that showcase where the city has derived from, seems irresponsible. As designers we must engage and consider the perceptions and identities of cities, as well as the people, buildings, and objects that come together to form such a character. Looking beyond Berlin, and even cities, or architecture, each culture has a distinct identity, developed from its past.

 

As designers, we must not negotiate what the identity of a place is, but instead emphasize it. With advances in materials and construction methods, we no longer design or create architecture in the ways we once did, but still must be sensitive to the beginnings of what surrounds us. While we all are tied to design in relation to the existing, at least to some degree, designers must begin an investigation of place with a sense of curiosity to infuse the vernacular while using modern methodologies. 

In the Kreuzberg neighborhood of Berlin, a mural that captured the struggles of unifying East and West Germany have been painted over by the artist in retaliation to the new development of the area.

Looking into the projects taken on by Design+Make Studio this year, we have faced similar challenges of understanding culture, while simultaneously pushing in contemporary directions. The Alma City Park and Pool, in need of some revamping, challenged the studio to look at what makes Alma (pronounced AL-ma, not ALL-ma) unique, and investigations of the typology of a city pool and park. The final design became something not of radical design, simple but elegant, and plays upon the existing pool house and park, rather than taking away from it.  Along with attention to existing building culture, the community played a large role, attending several of our presentations, bringing up questions of how we were creating a space that attended to their desires.

Our first visit in Alma, I have to admit, I did not fathom the lessons we would learn, or the appreciation we would earn for this small town that so many fly past while trying to avoid speed traps on I-70. The town, the park, and most importantly, the people, all make Alma another place unique, and unfamiliar to any other place I have experienced. In the end, I realized sensitivity to the culture and context is equally important in Berlin as it is in Alma.

Written by Alex Palmer