1 letter on Modern urbanism

After Belonging — Rooms

Dear After Belonging Agency,

1.

The Zeltzimmer, or tent room, designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel in 1826–29 for Crown Prince Friedrich-Wilhelm, is entirely wrapped with striped fabric, white and light blue (the colors of tents in the Prussian army). The fabric covers the walls and flows on top of two simple canopies hanging over the beds. The canopies are sustained by iron bars decorated as lances. Apart from the two beds, the room just contains two foldable chairs and two stools, used as bedside tables.
Similarly, the room for the Co-op exhibition in Basel, designed by Hannes Meyer in 1926, is defined by walls made of fabric. In this room, according to the only picture left of the exhibition, there is a bed with curious conic legs along with three glass shelves crowded with jars (containing Swiss drugs?), two wooden, foldable chairs (one of them closed, hanging from the wall), and a gramophone standing on a small, foldable, metallic table.

The guest room of the Crown Prince and the room for the Co-op exhibition have quite some similarities: the walls are covered with fabric, the furniture is almost entirely metallic and foldable. Both rooms display a few things wrapped in a fragile textile envelope. Both rooms combine an extremely restricted collection of elements with either delicately superfluous decoration or preciously sensual objects. The two rooms share a certain surreal tone (the gramophone, the lances). Yet the rooms are not exceptional, nor bizarre. Indeed, they are very simple. Paradoxically, it is the poorest room that shows the need for individuality and luxury inside everyday life in the most radical way. The presence of the gramophone in the naked purity of Hannes Meyer’s room declares an urgent need for the unnecessary. For Schinkel and (despite his own claims) Meyer, the reduction of the number of tools contained in the rooms does not immediately imply the adoption of a strictly functionalist method for their selection: objects still relate to wishes, affections, fears; things can be happily useless.

2.

The Crown Prince’s guest room and the room at the Co-op exhibition not only propose an idea of a room, an idea of a house; they also propose an idea of a city. Indeed, the rooms seem to float like soft, temporary bubbles exploring the buildings where they happen to be. Like balloons, they are on the point of abandoning their buildings and migrating to new ones. These rooms seem to have been conceived for temporary stays, after which the inhabitants will move and leave for another place. It is possible to abandon these rooms just by packing one’s own luggage, according to Ludwig Hilberseimer’s Großstadtarchitektur formula: “When changing place of residence, it is no longer necessary to pack the furniture van, only the luggage.”
This idea of a room presupposes an idea of a city. The lightness of these rooms indeed requires the steadiness of the city. Schinkel and Meyer each imagine soft, transitory envelopes moving inside of a fixed urban infrastructure. The rooms are many because the city is one: there is a reliable hardware allowing multiple softwares. The light, unstable collections of personal belongings need a fixed, solid city, made of spaces that are left for occupation (Städte zu vermieten—cities to rent—as in the advertisement on “ABC”). The heavy, indifferent, urban hardware is the precondition for the coexistence of the different desires converging within the city. The modern understanding of the room (privacy) is based on the classic understanding of the city (publicity). In the city hinted at by Schinkel’s and Meyer’s rooms, privacy and publicity contribute to the creation of a dialectic urban rhythm, where the slowness of the city intersects with the speed of its appropriation, defining an infinite set of possible combinations. Openness and indifference surprisingly coincide in a city with no desire to know all the details about the activities of its inhabitants.

3.

Schinkel and Meyer’s rooms were attempts to define what is private and what is public in the city of their times. Schinkel and Meyer’s rooms were attempts to make the (explicit) list of private belongings and, by doing that, (implicitly) defining the extension of the public sphere.
Borders shifted in the meantime. It could be interesting to re-do the Schinkel and Meyer’s exercise. Where do things belong? The question is simple and it is possibly the most interesting if we keep it to its basic formulation. Which are the objects that fit to the collection of the contemporary private? And falls into the public realm? Are car still part of a private sphere? And if not, when did they move into the public sphere? Will we all die in a hospital, and so in public space? And how should death change accordingly?
The redefinition of this border of public and private will change our perception of private and public. What do we own of the city? What do we not own? In cities that are getting more and more private, a new public realm is surprisingly emerging from technological changes. Did architecture notice this? And, beyond any sociological question, how can we imagine to start from this condition to imagine a possible contemporary beauty for our private and public spaces?

Pier Paolo Tamburelli