During an era in which mankind was setting foot on the moon for the first time, technical solutions to many urban and architectural problems appeared to be more and more feasible. The 1960s and 70s saw the rise of an almost unwavering belief in technology, and against this backdrop uncube revisits the work of Austrian architect Georg Kohlmaier, who features in the exhibition Radically Modern. Urban Planning and Architecture in 1960s Berlin. Together with his agency partner, Hungarian artist Barna von Sartory, he envisioned “backpack toilets” – colourful square capsules made of plastic to be mounted on old buildings – and “moving walkways”, an alternative infrastructure for pedestrians, allowing them to travel the length of the city through a tube system. But Kohlmair and von Sartory were certainly not uncritical when it came to technological progress. Living and working in Kreuzberg’s old housing blocks, they were very aware of the devastating effects that could result from city’s proposed traffic planning of the period and produced visualisations which helped viewers to understand the extent of the intended destruction of the existing city. Luise Rellensmann met with Kohlmaier in Berlin where he still lives and works.
Herr Kohlmaier, as a native Austrian, what led you to West Berlin in 1967?
I grew up at our family guesthouse in East Tyrol near Linz. As a child, I suffered from asthma, and one day – I was just five years old – a woman from Berlin came to visit. At the time, Berlin was regarded as a health resort. So my mother sent me with this Berliner and I landed here in 1942, in the midst of war. The impressions of the Berlin metropolis – even for a five year old – never left me. Following my architecture studies in Vienna, I first went to Paris for three years, but I always had a longing for Berlin, so in 1967 I came back.
As a young architect, how did you see Berlin?
As a city where you could realise your ideas. After all, Barna von Sartory and I won a competition in 1968 for a project worth 70 million Marks (today around 7.5 million US dollars): the mathematics building at the Technical University. We had only been working together for a year at the time, and had built neither a toilet nor a dog kennel – and then all of a sudden we had a high-rise! No one even checked if we were proper architects. “This is better than America,” I thought at the time.
Until then, you were mainly publishing your photomontages – did you intend to actually implement any of the ideas they contained?
Yes! It wasn’t a joke. All the compositions had been thought through, down to the smallest detail. As I produced the images, I always had their implementation in mind. The collages were a way to draw attention to our ideas, using artistic means. For example, the “backpack toilet” was a tangible demonstration of the physics that allowed its implementation. This sanitary cell was intended to stop the demolitions associated with widespread redevelopment. The mounted, courtyard-facing toilets would solve the problem of sanitation in old buildings and eliminate the need to vacate them. We developed various typologies and sent them to companies. A prototype was later installed in Sartory’s apartment – but not outside, because the appropriate insulation was lacking.
What was your idea behind the moving walkways you proposed for West Berlin’s city centre?
The moving walkways were an integrated transport system for local human mobility. They were conceived as a mass transport system and an alternative to individual transport. The walkways would be in constant motion, making the system energy efficient. It was a lightweight construction, needing neither heavy rails nor vehicles and could be elevated, even over rooftops, as I showed in the vision for Kurfürstendamm. We developed a network with transfer stations that were situated closer together as they progressed from the suburbs into the city centre. Since the system was less costly than the Berlin subway, there could be more stations. At 16 kilometres per hour, the speed of the urban sidewalks was about that of a brisk cyclist. We developed a plan for the rolling sidewalks in all the sub-centres of the city, from Neukölln to Steglitz.
Were there any exisiting models for this?
You are never the first – there are always precursors. What we presented was nothing new: the United States already had a moving walkway patented in 1874, with one built for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The American “stepped platform railway” was also presented at the Berlin Industrial Exposition – a small world’s fair – in Treptower Park in 1896. But collective transportation at zero cost was simply never wanted – the car industry bought up such ideas immediately, and let them disappear.
The image of the urban motorway across Oranienplatz in Kreuzberg is iconic today. How did the drawing come about?
In the 1960s I lived in Kreuzberg. It was appalling how the district was being changed through the radical renovations – entire streets were being razed. The collage is a critique of the car-friendly city. I wanted to draw attention to a scandal: the Senate had plans for the highway, but there was never an aerial view of it. To show the future devastation, I took an image of a motorway intersection in Los Angeles and transplanted it to Kreuzberg, demonstrating the level destruction it would bring to the old city structure.
At the same time that you were developing your architectural visions, Archigram in England, and the Austrians with Haus-Rucker-Co were doing the same… do you see any parallels?
Yes, of course. I studied with the Ortners and Günter Zamp Kelp in Vienna. In 1968, I also developed and built an inflatable house – only I didn’t keep it. It consisted of six-sided cushions that were designed with plastic zippers and fastenings so that the individual cells could be detached and used as seat cushions.The ideas of Haus-Rucker-Co were more playful. Their work was an aesthetic manifesto with the aim of making themselves known as artists. I, on the other hand, had the intention of establishing citizens’ initiatives. My ideas could be implemented on an industrial scale, they could effect change and they offered alternative solutions for the development of the city.
– Interview by Luise Rellensmann. Translation from German by Alisa Anh Kotmair
– Georg Kohlmaier is an Austrian architect and professor emeritus who has been based in Berlin since 1967. Together with Hungarian artist Barna von Sartory he was founding partner of the Institut für Entwurfs- und Konstruktionsmethodik in Berlin. Throughout his career Kohlmaier has specialised in technological and industrial planning in architecture: he claims that his designs for a new Reichstag Dome in Berlin, influenced the one realised by Norman Forster.
Radically Modern. Urban planning and architecture in 1960s Berlin
Until October 26, 2015
Berlinische Galerie Alte Jakobstraße 124–128
uncube are media partners of Radically Modern.