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Model cities

Models can be much more than design tools – they can be political statements, nostalgic mementoes or just plain art. Dan Borden talks about the REALSTADT exhibition taking place at the new Kraftwerk Mitte venue.

Photo by Wolfram Emter

It may be all the rage now in Hollywood, but for us architects, 3D is old hat. Designers and planners have been building models to sell their ideas, or help create them, since the pyramids. The exhibition Realstadt brings together a mesmerizing collection of Lilliputian cityscapes to show us that models can be much more than design tools – they can be political statements, nostalgic mementoes or just plain art.

Half the fun of Realstadt is the location, Kraftwerk Mitte on Köpenicker Straße, one of those creatively-reused former power plants that Berlin is famous for. The immense concrete turbine hall, a kind of architect’s wet dream, provides enough mental space to take in the dizzying array of big ideas in small packages.

Lurking behind Realstadt’s toy-town fun are Germany’s very real urban problems – shrinking cities, abandoned industrial zones, crime-ridden housing projects. The small-scale solutions here are as varied as the materials they’re built from.

The organizers of Realstadt put out an open call for ideas in the form of models and received around 300 responses from across Germany – not only from architects and city planners, but also artists, school-kids and hobbyists. There’s everything from carved wood to finger-painted cardboard to stapled sheets of vinyl. Concepts range from earnest 1970s competition entries to contemporary tongue-in-cheek provocations. The goal is to show that anyone’s dream can come true, even if only at 1:100 scale.

Berliners will find their hometown here in many shapes and sizes, from Karsten Konrad’s loving recreation of the demolished GDR landmark Ahornblatt building to Daniel Libeskind’s anarchic plan for rebuilding Potsdamer Platz, before he got to build the Jewish Museum. The anti-development ‘Mediaspree Versenken’ campaign have tossed in an agitprop depiction of two opposing futures for the banks of Berlin’s beloved river.

The star of the show may be the sprawling plastic model of Berlin Mitte as planned in the 1980s by East German visionaries. They hoped to replace the city’s historical center with a forest of concrete tower blocks – and largely succeeded. Upstairs, artist Harry Sach’s sly mini-village of GDR worker-housing actually doubles as functional bee hives.

While the show pokes fun at socialist ideals, it also reminds us that city-building is a collaborative project. Every city dweller has their own dream – whether politician, student, banker or artist – but only a select few get the chance to realize them. It’s instructive to read between the lines at Realstadt and note whose city dreams have actually seen the light of day.

The exhibition works both as brainy inspiration and family-friendly entertainment. It’s impressive to see such a diverse array of ideas – both architectural and political – from Deutschland. It’s equally impressive that the German organizers managed to resist the impulse to stick toy train tracks between the tiny buildings.

And if you can’t get your fill of mini-cities at Realstadt, check out the models showing the current official plans for Berlin’s future. They’re on permanent display at the Senate’s city-planning office near the Märkisches Museum.

REALSTADT – WÜNSCHE ALS WIRKLICHKEIT | Kraftwerk Mitte. Daily 10-20:00, Through November 28, www.realstadt.de

Berlin’s city planning models are at the Senatsverwaltung für Stadtentwicklung, Am Köllnischen Park 3, Mitte, S+U Bhf Jannowitzbrücke, Mon-Sat 10-18:00

*Not everyone at EXBERLINER thought the exhibition or the venue is that great. Check out our mini-review at the link on the left.