Daniel Kötter

Peripheral light air and sun

4 channel video installation (with Krassimir Terziev)

Krassimir Terziev / Daniel Kötter

Peripheral light, air and sun

2016, 4 channel video installation, texts and photographs

co-produced by Goethe Institut Sofia, with the kind support of IDEAL Wohnbaugenossenschaft

Suburb, wasteland, ghetto… there are many negative categorizations by which one easily describes the urban peripheries. Yet, it is obvious that in most European cities nowadays much more people live in the peripheries than in the city cores. However, the public attention towards the peripheries is scarce compared to the icons in the center shaping the image of any city at present. 

But one can learn a lot from the peripheries about the actual forces of urban expansion at work in the contemporary metropolises. The shift from overarching, comprehensive and visionary urban planning to more project based approach tackling pragmatic problems of the day and seeking quick turn over is especially visible in those urban districts planned and built on the modernist blueprints of “light, air, and sun”. In these Plattenbau (panelki) lands precisely the archetype of rational planning - the reduced cubicle of the living block belted by the rigid orthogonal street plan - stands next to the skeleton of the new shopping mall, next to a refashioned single family house, next to a slum shack, next to a wasteland, next to a new highway, next to a waste dump. 

Administrative as well as geographical city borders divide space into inside and outside, into what belongs and what is beyond. The spatial relations on both sides of the border are not symmetrical for the city produces things, that it has to exclude from its centre, in order to guarantee the functionality of the living together: waste, dead corpses, criminals and socially marginalized. The space beyond the city limits is predetermined for storage, settlement and disposal of what is socially peripheral. On the other hand the peripheries can fulfill the need for recreation, life in the green space, better air, less density and pollution. Living in the periphery therefore can be understood equally as Stigma and privilege. As Abdumaliq Simone writes, the excessiveness of the periphery makes out of it a signification that must be denied, yet always reiterated. This is the double standard the core city has exercised over the peripheries, since they are both a threat to the internal order and a buffer zones where the products of excess from the core can be expelled and new modes exceeding the norms can be experimented.

Usually bureaucracy and spatial politics conceptualize the border as a clear cut line, while concrete geography and the social use of space don’t follow these administrative attributions. Natural borders like rivers, mountains or slopes occur next to artificial borders like streets, highways, fences or rows of houses. There, where these two typologies meet, overlay or neighbour, one can find differential spaces: between street and river, between the edge of the woods and the border fence. This type of space is characterized by a simultaneity of a no-longer (city) and a not-yet (countryside). Usually city planning does not feel responsible for this kind of space, though they are used mainly by urban people and less by rural people. A sojourn in the space „in-between“, the „Zwischenraum“.

To map the layers of sedimentation in those urban peripheries of things disposed from the centre and things entering from the outland is a voluminous effort. 

In our comparative exploration of two social housing districts of 1970’s - Gropiusstadt in Berlin, and Lyulin in Sofia, we have drawn four camera movements in four different locations, each dissecting the landscape from inside-out or outside-in. Each shot choreographed upon the principles of the plan-séquence (long take) frames dynamically disparate realities developing simultaneously in a space with no fixed definition.

Gropiusstadt, Berlin

As one of our respondents and collaborators - the amateur historian Mr. Miethke told us, ‘Gropiusstadt is too new in order to anyone be interested in its history’. Named after Walter Gropius, who drawn its plans, it was built in the course of 1962-1969 in response of the then urgent housing needs of the city of West Berlin and epitomized the modernist urban ideals for “light, air and sun”, coined by another grand modernist architect Le Corbusier. Up until 1989 the locality’s southern border was drawn by the Berlin Wall erected in 1962 right before the actual construction started. Settlement in Gropiusstadt was part of West Berlin social housing schemes. One had to obtain certain documents proving her social status in order to be able to get an apartment in the new quarter. Little has changed in the initial look and construction of the locality since its inception. Only the trees, all newly planted at the time of construction, grew significantly and covered the rigid geometry of the buildings with more oval green shapes. Many of the then young/now in retirement families who settled there in the 1960’s are still living in the neighbourhood. Nevertheless Gropiusstadt witnessed waves of immigration through the years and one often hears Russian, Polish or Turkish speech on the street. There are reports on the various stages in which the locality got more or less gethoized with increasing social problems. But even if the quarter is relatively new, its history is quite interesting, revealing many aspects of the relations between the city core and the periphery. Before becoming a settlement it was a hunting ground for the Kaiser Wilhelm II., known as “Rudower Wald”. Nowadays here is still tiny part of the old forest remaining that is named Rudower Wäldchen, shaping an arrow entering the territory of Gropiusstadt from the neighbouring agricultural land of Brandenburg, its peak inscribed nicely into the arc of Gropiushaus - a landmark of the quarter. In the beginning of 20 century the territory was planned to become a graveyard for the satellite city of Berlin - Neukölln. The graveyard remained however only a blueprint since by the time of its construction planning Neukölln became part of Berlin, and the plan was abandoned. During and between the two wars the land was populated by various marginal enterprises: army barracks, correction facilities, working class shacks and one storey houses. It became truly urbanized only after the war, when becoming part of the enclosed territory of West Berlin every inch of land contained valuable perspective to expand the ageing urban infrastructure of more inner parts of the city surrounded by newly erected borders with an alien state.

The Tower

Ideal Hochhaus is the only building in Gropiusstadt designed by Walter Gropius. The thirty one storey housing block has been until recently the highest housing location in Germany. Baugenossenschaft IDEAL — one the companies having a significant share in Gropiusstadt, kindly granted us a place to work at the top floor of the building: the Gemeinschaftsraum, designed for shared use among the building inhabitants. In return for the hospitality we invited some of the early inhabitants of the quarters for a dinner. The high-rise in its upper floors provides the rare opportunity of obtaining a marvellous view over Berlin. The Gemeinschaftsraum especially, with its windows spread on three walls, offers that strategic panoramic view above covering one hundred eighty degree in radius over the vast flat lands of the metropolis. The superior position of the eyes assuring rich visual experience however provides little in terms of social relations. The body is contained within the prescribed complex geometry of the building with its windows, doors, interior and exterior corridors, labyrinthine double staircase and numerous floors. Every reach out to the streets in order to contact the neighbours takes time and continuous descending countless stairs. But still the eyes can fly faraway, to the nearest former waste dump, present construction site, will-be-recreation-area spot in the landscape, so can the camera.

Waste Dump Großziethen 

South of Gropiusstadt, less than a kilometer away we found the former waste dump site Großziethen in a process of rehabilitation, engineered by the Hafemeister GmbH company. The waste-dump has a rather interesting history revealing the dynamics of the relations between the core city and the periphery. 

In 1950’s the site started operating as a chemical waste dump by the GDR chemical industry. In 1970’s it operated as a household dump servicing the city of West Berlin in a special agreement between FRG and GDR, that allowed the trucks carrying the waste to cross the Berlin Wall, located nearby, and reach  the site in a specially designed and securitized corridor.

In 1990’s as the Wall fell down the united city of Berlin expanded to the south of Gropiusstadt with new single family houses compounds, but the nearby waste-dump created hazard risks for the new settlements. Poisonous gasses started leaking from the cellars of the new houses. The origin of those gasses was located in the long abandoned waste dump.

Therefore since 1995 the Hafemeister company came out with a plan - to design a kind of sarcophagus in order to neutralize the pollution and poisonous gasses coming from the old unused waste dump by covering the entire site with layers of mineral waste and earth on top. The mineral mass is delivered by new construction sites across Berlin with trucks that are using the same fenced route from the 1970’s.

By 2020 the former waste dump would become a green hill in the shape of a pyramid - a significant landscape feature of the rather flat area of Berlin providing a beautiful panoramic view towards Gropiusstadt.

Lyulin, Sofia

Named “concrete jungle” in the local slang, Lyulin is the largest residential complex in Sofia. Located in the western outskirts of the city, it is built in the course of the 1970’s and 1980’s. It has been planned on the premises of former agricultural land and part of a locality built with small houses ironically named “modern suburb”. The entire complex is built on the basis of a few building models without much thought on the desired urban forms, leaving rather monotonous urban pattern. The initial plan envisioned a large central area dedicated to public services, sports facilities and culture institutions, that was left to be executed last, and due to the fall of the Eastern Block political system and the Peoples Republic of Bulgaria in 1989, was never realized. So two decades after the start of construction the heart of the complex still remained empty. The gap quickly began to be filled up by new construction projects hopping up in chaotic order under the conditions of the liberalized economy of 1990’s, sharply contrasting the rigid but already dilapidating structure of the district’s plan. The vast concrete composition has its limits in the east by the “West” Park, in the south by a vast wasteland, and in the west by the city ring road, sharply cutting the city from the surrounding land. One would expect the West Park to add a balance to the “concrete jungle” and be used by its inhabitants. Instead it is somewhat isolated from the complex due to a small creek representing a natural border. As a result the park gradually turns into a wild forest on the one side of the creek, as on the other a stripe of wasteland is partly taken over by shacks cramped between small industrial compounds and occasionally by shepherds grazing their cattle in all the unused land including some parts of the West Park. The recently renovated ring road in the south cuts the city not only from the surrounding land, but also from Filipovci - a former village, now locality mainly populated by a Roma community.

The Kiosk next to the new unfinished housing block

One of the last (in geographical and chronological terms) housing projects simultaneously at the edge of Lyulin’s left-empty central district, and its geographical edge has a history shared by many other development projects disrupted by the financial crisis of 2008. Shaped in a three wings plan, one of the wings is still standing as a concrete skeleton, documenting the collapse of the project, and its abandonment by the foreign investor. 

We used as a film location a small, almost burned down kiosk standing next to the block, probably used by the security guards in the period of construction. The small structure at the corner of the private road and open parking lot built next to the property provided a perfect 360 degrees framing of this particular edge of Lyulin, where the old panel blocks are neighboured by new housing buildings, by a Lidl supermarket, by disparate industrial facilities and storehouses, by the wasteland ending into creek into forest beyond the tangential road. Two Roma kinds from the neighbouring shacks composed in the no man’s land between the housing blocks area and the park, appeared in front of the camera.

The Horse Cart

A large number of horse carts start each morning from the mostly Roma populated village of Filipovtsi just outside the ring road in order to enter Lyulin and all other districts of Sofia, collecting everything still usable or disposable from the waste bins on the streets. One of the signs for ecological responsibility of the newly entered European state of Bulgaria was adopting the model for waste separation. Despite the large number of private companies contracted by the municipality to do the service, the separation never worked smoothly. Rumours say that all different coloured waste bins end up in the same pot at the end. Yet these horse drivers being one of the poorest and “underdeveloped” people, under constant threat to be banned to move in the urban territory seem to be the only ones capable to rightly adopt this advanced ecological method of waste management. They truly separate anything plastic, from metal, from paper, from other still usable objects, for every material has a different price at the disposal point. Yet their presence among the panel blocks - the ultimate modernist urban planning model - is striking. Going back and forth daily between the urban and non-urban the horse cart maps the peripheral territory and reveals the kind of dynamics this way of transportation, labour, and movement creates in relation to the streets, the other vehicles, the people.