What can be achieved by carrying plants from Marzahn to the Rollberg area of Neukölln? What can be accomplished by a project in which people from Rollberg establish and look after a garden, talk and learn something about each other? Is a participatory garden art project a good way of bringing diverse groups together? Can it help to initiate a better way of living with one another and strengthen the community?
A promenadological experiment
The idea of carrying plants from one location to another while walking through the city raises questions about an artistic project’s visibility and mode of action: in this case, plants being carried to a public garden planned for the district of Neukölln in Berlin. Walking and taking the plants through the city’s streets may seem like a cumbersome beginning for a typical urban garden project. Why not just create a garden in Rollberg, where the people intend to meet? Why organise an artistic walk with plants? What can art do in the city?
When an action is stripped of its original purpose, possibilities arise with which to shift meanings and to think in new relations. The detour that this involves, the gestures that may seem useless, the loss of one’s bearings and the experiences of architectural and atmospheric fractures in the cityscape that this produces, are essential elements in Eleni Papaioannou and Marula Di Como’s urban, performative project. Walking with plants through Berlin and the idea of establishing a public garden constitute a ‘model for action’ that can add something else to the anonymity and fragmentation of the city. What this something could be depends on a person’s point of view: a disturbance, a utopian experiment, a failure? In each of its facets, walking with plants leads to the creation of new relationships between the city and the individual. This applies as much to the people conducting the walk as to their observers. The acts involved edge the unaccustomed into the field of view and temporarily change it.
This situational production of connections is a contemporary phenomenon: in the heterogeneous city and landscapes of the 20th/21st century, relationships continually need to be (re)established. Urban areas and the countryside are characterised by topographical breaks (fissures), lack architectural and atmospheric transitions, and pit different architectural styles against one another; symbioses between architecture and nature, therefore, (such as vertical gardens) make these differences disappear. Every site in the city and countryside has a history that cross-references events that affect(ed) other people and places. In contrast, in post-modern society, people long for a homogeneous landscape that is no longer crisscrossed by motorways and cities; one that is lit up by a bright blue sky (with no aircraft vapour trails in sight), and that contains diverse plants and animals that have begun to colonise the landscape. Since industrialisation, humanity has turned town and country into sites of production in which urban planners insert the necessary arenas that enable people to meet one another.
In the 1980s, the sociologist and economist Lucius Burckhardt – the founder of the ‘science of walking’ – emphasised that a substantial break now existed between contemporary perceptions of landscape and city compared to those that were prevalent in pre-industrial times. Burckhardt made his observations during a politically and economically sensitive period. It was not until the 1980s that the effects of the (re)construction boom of the 1960s (which saw new cities and roads rise out of ruins) that the first effects of consumer culture were felt; this was a society that existed at the expense of nature and people. To counter this dystopia, Burckhardt proposed a simple yet effective method: walking. He turned the everyday act of walking into a crucial element of perception that enabled the conduction of seismographic analyses of changes and, above all, breaks in the topography of the city and landscape. He used the term ‘strolology’ to describe the experiences, analyses and results that doing so provided. Lucius Burckhardt and Annemarie Burckhardt jointly developed urban projects, wandered with students and city dwellers through neighbourhoods and landscapes and traversed urban transport hubs, crossroads and the industrial periphery. In doing so, Burckhardt raised fundamental questions such as ‘Why is landscape beautiful?’ Do gardens constitute art? How can everyday activities such as walking and detailed perceptions of the environment have an impact on the planning and construction of cities, landscapes and human relations? Burckhardt developed an answer through the praxis of walking by conducting ‘field research’ in urban and rural spaces. The ‘smallest possible intervention’ in the structure of a city or landscape, he argued, offered possibilities for change. In analogy to walking, Burckhardt described his theory in the following manner:
‘A first step in taking the smallest intervention could involve introducing the presence of a landscape or an urban situation into a viewer’s perception or strengthening an existing perception. [...] The next step could comprise of not only awakening the willingness to perceive but also altering the perception itself. We describe a series of contemporary artists and landscapers who do not seek to change the importance of a place by intervening in the landscape, but by intervening in the viewer’s perception. The smallest intervention, in this case, encompasses creating a sign or a signal.’
Eleni Papaioannous and Marula Di Como’s ‘walk and garden project’ can be understood as both a ‘smallest possible intervention’ in the urban landscape and as a ‘promenadological experiment’: the walkers taking part in the project clearly observed the urban environment while walking (with plants) through Berlin, and they reacted to the changing atmospheres when taking photographs of buildings constructed during the GDR era. What effect do the plants have when placed against this urban background? How do the walkers attract the attention of the passers-by? The walkers even pose these questions themselves during pauses at traffic lights. The contrast between the colourful lavender and hydrangea plants and the facades of the high-rise buildings that lack balconies is certainly alluring. The walk with plants underscores the fact that green spaces only ever appear at junctions: in the centre strips between streets, between the wide pavements and car parks, and between tower blocks. There is very little (protective) space for flower beds and individual garden arrangements, despite the expansive space available. ‘The private’ has been outsourced; perhaps it has a place in the gardens and weekend houses (the ‘dachas’) located in the distance?
The walk with plants along the pavement, however, appears to be conducted in vain. Some of the few passers-by turn towards the slow-moving group that is taking photographs and carrying flowerpots. This partly determines the direction taken by the walk: junctions and side routes frequently open up changing views of the prefabricated buildings. The architecture demands that the walkers look and challenges them at the same time. Still, most locals travel by car or take public transport to arrive at their chosen destinations.
Between ‘Landsberger Allee’, which leads to Alexanderplatz, the centre of eastern Berlin, and the ‘Avenue of the Cosmonauts’, the surroundings begin to change: row upon row of family houses with small gardens start to appear. Many of the side streets bear the names of animals and plants: Rebhuhnweg (Partridge Avenue), Boskoopweg (Boskoop Apple Road), Hänflingssteig (Linnet Rise), Dompfaffenweg (Bullfinch Avenue) – names that sound as if they have been drawn from poetry about nature. The roads they refer to are surrounded by garden fences and dense hedges. The other side of the road is dominated by prefabricated buildings made of cement. During a break at the end of ‘Bruno-Baum-Straße’, the plants are placed on a wild grassy area and disappear amidst masses of sorrel, dock and yarrow. A local, from a small house opposite, speaks with the group over his garden gate and explains that a circus camps here in the late summer, but that the grass is not used by the locals. While the group rests on the lawn, two fencers wearing white sports clothes stand in front of a level, graffiti-sprayed sports hall (with a typical concrete, retractable roof); they are smoking. The circus, fencers and the sports hall with its corrugated roof provide a good description of the area. The walk continues to the next train station, passes an Esso petrol garage and a Netto supermarket, the latter adding dazzling red and yellow colours to the otherwise grey-green environment. The plants could easily have been bought from the supermarket. The context shifts.
After the train ride to Ostkreuz Station and changing trains for Neukölln, the plants arrive in Rollberg and are placed together in a greened space in the courtyard to form a garden. Rollberg is characterised by a combination of tenement blocks from the early 20th century and social housing from the 1970s; the air is stiffer here than on Marzahn Promenade. The streets are bustling with pedestrians, the traffic is loud, and satellite dishes on balconies point in a heavenly direction. Life expresses itself on the street – in the bulky waste next to the road, in the (late-night) kiosks, in the smells, and in the snippets of conversations that can be heard between front doors and backyards. The plants are hardly noticeable in this environment. There are trees in many of the backyards, but they grow sparsely in the shade of the houses. The new garden adds greenery to the dense cityscape present in Neukölln, and it encourages people to re-learn the culture associated with gardens. There is no seamless integration of the plants into an – ideal – site that appears to have been made just for them. Here too, in Neukölln, the ‘smallest possible intervention’ – a walk with plants and the idea of establishing a garden – inserts a further possibility into the urban environment.