Cities in Construction

Two cultural hubs—New York and Berlin—are examined in the Center for Architecture’s most recent exhibit.

Weaving in and out of Berlin/ New York Dialogues: Building in Context, the exhibition at the Center for Architecture in New York, is a bit like weaving in and out of conversations at an opening. The structure of the exhibition allows viewers to meander between cities, subjects, and urban projects, developing a dialogue on contemporary issues around the built environment of Berlin and New York.

The success of the show lies in its ability to bring together, but not unify these two urban centers, a conscious decision made by the six curators. Co-curator Lynnette Widder explains that as the exhibition began to take shape, the broad scope was narrowed down. “We realized that to do a one-to-one comparison of the two cities without thinking through all of the complexities didn’t seem as productive.” The result is an examination of three developing areas in each city (Red Hook, South Bronx, and Chelsea in New York, and Spandauervorstradt, Spree/ Chausse, and Invaliden Strasse in Berlin), focusing on cultural and community activism, gentrification, and legislative intervention in each. Despite the wealth of textual information, the exhibition’s layout, executed by ProjectProject, is clear and engages viewers to ask not only what can we learn about this other city, but also, what can we learn from our own?

In Berlin and New York culture occurs as both creative catalyst and economic necessity, a point illustrated through a discussion of large and small-scale cultural projects such as the High Line Park in Chelsea and Arthouse Tacheles in Berlin Mitte. Viewers learn that much of the creative energy in Berlin can be attributed to the city’s dire financial situation and low rents. Although waning, the city’s debt is approximately 61 billion euros, (87 billion dollars). “Berlin as a city is bankrupt,” Widder says. “Economic development is necessary for the city to remain functional. Berlin has to sponsor culture. In essence, the thing that has the longest history, the greatest tenacity and staying power, is culture.”

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The exhibition’s opening in November coincided with Carnegie Hall’s cultural festival, Berlin in Lights, a 17-day event that celebrated aspects of contemporary Berlin through music, photography, dance, cinema, art, and public lectures. Many of New York City’s leading cultural institutions, such as MoMA, The Guggenheim, and WNYC participated in the event. While Berlin in Lights offered an opportunity to experience culture, Berlin/New York Dialogues offers a critical assessment as to why cultural is socially and economically necessary.

For Widder, one common thread between Berlin and New York is that both cities “are on the verge of a paradigm shift,” a point addressed throughout the exhibition. “New York has been in expansion and densification mode for so long,” she says, “but some kind of slowdown is inevitable.” Berlin on the other hand “is trying to come to terms with growth on a very slim budget. It is dealing with areas that are stagnating at the same time others are densifying and gaining wealth at a very rapid rate. Berlin has a much more differentiated model of how development occurs and New York could maybe learn from that.”

Berlin/ New York Dialogues: Building in Context is on view at the Center for Architecture until January 26, 2008.

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