Exhibition interior

A New Exhibition in Berlin Explores the Human Side of Architecture

HWKN’s Shape Tomorrow infuses buildings with personality and encourages audience feedback.  

Shape Tomorrow, a new exhibition at AEDES Architecture Forum in Berlin, is a reaction to both staid, self-serious architecture shows and to the staid, self-serious architecture profession. Taking the form of a miniature city, it turns buildings into named characters, encourages visitors to populate structures with miniature people, and leaves space for them to fill the room with their ideas and criticism. 

The exhibition, on view through January 13, is the brainchild of German architect Matthias Hollwich, founder of New York-based HWKN—a burgeoning firm known for both its research and its sense of whimsy. The show centers on nine, 16-foot-tall white plaster towers whose glowing bases take on the forms of some of the firm’s playful, kinetic projects from around the world. These include 25 Kent, a fractured office building in Williamsburg, and Die Macherei, a jutting and terraced mixed-use business district in Munich.

The bases of the exhibition’s “towers” take the form of some of HWKN’s real-life projects.

Wander further into the room, and you’ll discover that each tower has its own (unisex) name and personality. Blake, for instance, is an extrovert: The large awning over his/her base extends over the street, providing space for markets, concerts, and art exhibitions. Madison, on the other hand, contains rising terraces at his/her base, creating room for communal living spaces, long stay rentals, and micro apartments. 

Indeed, the otherwise pristine columns’ bottom-heavy forms suggest clever new activations for tall building bases, which are too often predictable and uncreative. But more than that, they encourage guests to get down low and experience the structures in a new way, as if they were children again. 

“Suddenly we feel like, hey we want to play. It’s a reminder of how curious we used to be when we were young,” says Hollwich, whose practice foregrounds innovation and surprise. “We need to tap into our childlike creativity to design for the future.” 

Visitors chat at the exhibition opening. The show’s structures contain tiny figures that guests can place wherever and however they choose.

Another key to the show—and the firm’s approach to architecture—is its encouragement of participation. The towers are covered in small figurines, which visitors can add and manipulate however they like. (At the opening there were only about 30 Playmobil characters, but a trove of about 2,000 wooden characters by PlanToys were on their way; literally stuck in customs.) Already show goers had organized figurines into social circles, put them into compromising positions, and in one case set the scene for an upper floor dinosaur attack. After wandering further, visitors find a cache of stickers from which they can add their comments to the buildings, or to the walls around them. At the opening, guests criticized the show’s approach to inclusivity, called for more plazas for the figurines to meet one another, and advocated for greater sustainability, affordability, art, and human scale. 

The show’s eagerness to capture feedback—Hollwich hopes to encourage more debate on social media and plans to include audience responses in the show’s catalogue and incorporate them into further research—is reflective of HWKN’s highly responsive approach, giving clients several designs to choose from, and encouraging them to engage throughout the process. 

“Suddenly they feel empowered,” says Hollwich, who likes to provide about ten options for each project. “They feel like they can respond to architecture, which normally pretends there’s just one solution. That’s not right. There are hundreds of solutions, and we have to find the right one, together.” 

Hollwich adds that such inclusivity creates better buildings, filled with more expertise and energy. 

“The client knows a lot about a place and what they need to realize,” he notes. “It’s such a fun process. You have this incredible buy in, where everyone feels ‘I kind of designed this.’ If my client feels like they designed it, and the city feels like they designed it, that is the moment when you can create excitement.” 

A rendering imagines how the show’s activated bases might look might look if realized.
A few of the show's new wooden figures, surrounded by a sea of comment bubbles.
A few of the show’s wooden figures, surrounded by a sea of comment bubbles.

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