Get with the Program

An innovative project space in Berlin pushes the boundaries between architecture and art.

Not quite two years ago, Hong Kong-born, Canadian-bred Carson Chan realized he preferred thinking about architecture to practicing it. The now 27-year-old had worked in a Berlin architecture firm, then in the architectural department of the city’s New National Gallery, when he had a bit of an aha-moment. Why not open an exhibition space in Berlin—a hotbed of artistic production with abundant and cheap real-estate—that explores how architecture connects to and interacts with other artistic disciplines?

After discussing the idea with fellow Harvard Graduate School of Design program alum Fotini Lazaridou-Hatzigoga, things went quickly. Only two months after securing a space near the northern boundaries of Berlin’s Mitte district, the two founded Program: Initiative for Art + Architectural Collaborations and mounted their first group show in September 2006.

Program has since become a solid fixture in the thinking hipster’s Berlin gallery landscape. But it differs from the usual showroom model—as well as from most architectural exhibition spaces—for reasons that go beyond its nonprofit status. “The only mission of Program is to test the boundaries of architecture and other formats,” says Chan. “Most architectural exhibits are static, but we’re inherently interdisciplinary.”

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The sprawling street-level exhibition space has featured a rapidly-rotating series of shows whose works challenge conventional architectural notions. The exhibitions (featured in the photo show at right) are often eclectic and always thought provoking, even if they are not immediately “architectural” to the casual observer or gallery hopper. Says Chan: “We’re striving to create a new understanding of architecture beyond buildings; we want people to realize that architecture and buildings are not necessarily the same thing.”

This understanding is expanded upon via topical readings, concerts, performances, and workshops featuring thinkers and performers gleaned from Chan and Lazaridou-Hatzigoga’s sizable network in Berlin and beyond. Even Program’s physical space possesses more depth than is at first obvious: freelance architects, artists, and other creatives rent desk spaces in an airy office in the hall behind the gallery, a situation that not only offsets operating costs but fosters a working community. Even further back is a spacious reading room, leading to an additional studio area for Program’s artists-in-residence. It all adds up to a layered, international, and truly multidisciplinary endeavor that perhaps takes the architectural term “program” to its very limits. “What happens in the space is as architectural as how the space works,” says Chan. “That’s why we call it Program.”

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