Professor Nikolaus Hafermaas, managing partner of Graft Brandlab, talking about the future of mobility at Berlin Tegel airport, Berlin questions 2021. Courtesy Kevin McElvaney

In Sites Around Berlin, a Conference Raises Questions About the Future of Cities

A hybrid symposium, Berlin Questions addressed the urban impacts of our current ecological, social, and economic turmoil.

Nowadays, a conference is a novelty in itself, but what struck me at Berlin Questions, a symposium about the future of cities run by the Berlin’s mayor Michael Müller, was how urgent its themes felt. Subjects such as urban mobility, sustainable development, health, equality, and social cohesion have been endlessly debated against a backdrop of complacency and political sluggishness. Now, the ground is shifting beneath our feet—as a result of the pandemic, an escalating environmental crisis, and vocal demands for global social justice—and so we’re presented with unavoidable questions: Has the pandemic put an end to what we assumed was the ‘urban age’, as people balk at crowds and embrace digital interaction? Should we continue to erect new buildings in the face of irrefutable evidence of the ecological costs of construction? And how can city-makers tackle the inequalities and social conflicts that have become so starkly apparent in recent years?

Space is fundamentally public, and our job as citizens and architects is to defend and reclaim that space.

Elizabeth Diller

To address these issues, the conference brought together a range of speakers—architects, researchers, mayors, scientists, artists, activists, technologists, businesspeople, and philanthropists— in a combination of live talks and remote appearances, all of which were live-streamed. The event was titled “Metropolis: The New Now,” but bears no relationship to this publication. Physical attendees were rewarded with entry to intriguing sites across the city, including an abandoned theme park, a former state-owned graphite factory, and the GDR’s gargantuan Department for Statistics. Several of the locales are confronting questions about their own redevelopment and acted as vehicles to address wider questions about how cities could and should be made and remade.

Berlin questions Deep Dive program at San Gimignano Lichtenberg. Courtesy Kevin McElvaney

A thoughtful range of discussions made it clear that the answers to all these questions are interconnected. Lesley Lokko, architect and co-founder of the African Futures Institute in Accra, spoke to Caroline Nevejan, Amsterdam’s chief science officer, about how the restoration of shared daily rhythms and opportunities for interaction in the urban realm could help resolve some of the tensions that have emerged in this contradictory era of extreme isolation and digital interconnectedness, helping revive the appeal of city life. Copenhagen-based Dorte Mandrup, who is creating a new Museum of Exile in Berlin, and Johannesburg-based Sumayya Vally, whose design for this summer’s Serpentine Pavilion in London draws on structures used by migrants to the city, discussed the importance of public space that is inclusive in both obvious and less tangible ways – not just officially public but actively welcoming to all. A panel led by Charlotte Malterre-Barthes, assistant professor of urban design at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, debated the idea of a global moratorium on new construction while we work out what to do with the structures that already exist. Architect Elizabeth Diller argued that: “Space is fundamentally public, and our job as citizens and architects is to defend and reclaim that space.”

Panel discussion at San Gimignano Lichtenberg with Angelika Hinterbrandner, Manuel Ehlers, Saskia Hebert, Deane Simpson, Andrijana Ivanda, Tobias Hönig, Sabine Oberhuber and Charlotte Malterre Barthes at San Gimignano Lichtenberg. Courtesy Kevin McElvaney

More frustrating were the contributions made by city mayors. Leaders of cities from as far afield as LA, Jakarta, Seoul, Buenos Aires, Nairobi, and Freetown, and as near as London and Zurich, provided almost exclusively anodyne statements with no fresh insights or room for challenge or critique. Their uniform lack of new ideas only demonstrates the barriers a conservative political establishment wedded to media-friendly soundbites poses to solutions around the world. The absence of contrarian views—experts in construction, finance, retail, logistics, energy, and resource distribution, for example—was also conspicuous, as working towards a sustainable, equitable future will undoubtedly require broad engagement across all sectors.

After all, the challenges we face are not merely technical, but political. My brief discussion behind the scenes with Michał Andrzej Olszewski, the deputy mayor of Warsaw— the only politician apart from Müller speaking in person—highlighted a familiar schism between the city’s authorities and Poland’s national government when it comes to matters ranging from COVID to the environment. The question remains not whether the metropolis itself can hold, but whether society as a whole can hold firm while acting swiftly, decisively, and collaboratively to tackle the threats ahead.

Video statement from Professor Dr. Christian Drosten at Berlin questions 2021. Courtesy Kevin McElvaney

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