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A portrait: GRAFT

With projects like the Urban Nation Museum, residential buildings like Paragon or Villa M, and the ice stadium in Schierke, GRAFT have made a name for themselves outside architectural circles too. They are currently curating the German pavilion at the 16th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice. Together with former Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Records, Marianne Birthler, and using the example of the division of Germany, the architectural practice is making an intelligent contribution to the current debate about nations, division and protectionism.

The decision of the judging panel headed by Matthias Sauerbruch to appoint GRAFT and the politician Marianne Birthler as the curators of the German pavilion last September was certainly a surprise at first. After all, the practice with offices in Berlin, Los Angeles and Beijing founded by Thomas Willemeit, Wolfram Putz and Lars Krückeberg has so far primarily made its mark, alongside the collaboration with the German Future Institute, with spectacular projects featuring exciting and dynamic shapes. Good examples of this include the two KU64 dental practices in Berlin (2008 – 2010) where patients are immersed in organically flowing worlds, the conversion of an old mill into a hotel in Belgrade (2014) and the two expressive Berlin villas in Grunewald and on the island of Schwanenwerder on the Wannsee (2017). But these projects only paint a picture of the rather more boisterous side of GRAFT’s work. On the other hand, together with Brad Pitt the architects are among the founders of the Make it Right foundation, for which they designed flood-proof and environmentally friendly Cradle-to-Cradle houses pro bono for flood victims in New Orleans (2009). And with their Solarkiosk in 2012 they introduced a flexible module that provides a communal business model for rural areas around the world. Small business can use it to offer various services like charging mobile phones or accessing the internet. It has been a success: well over 100 solar kiosks in 10 countries have been set up so far.

A contrasting example is the Iron Curtain Trail cycle route along the old western border of the Warsaw Pact countries, which runs for 10 000 kilometres from the Barents Sea on the border between Norway and Russia down to the Black Sea on the Bulgarian and Turkish border, crossing 20 countries in the process. And the abandoned village project documents the history of the village of Schmerbach, where cloak-and-dagger operations in 1952 and 1961 at the order of the SED with no legal basis saw over 11000 people from villages in the immediate vicinity of the border forcibly resettled. After the Wall fell, the land was quickly reclaimed by nature and in 2003 a piece of the border fence and the site of the old village was given listed status. There are no physical remnants left there, however.

In parallel to this German perspective, contemporary border debates about Israel and Palestine, Mexico and the USA, and North and South Korea are also investigated by a team of journalists in the exhibition and presented in the pavilion. Proving that the topic of division has still not been resolved, even after the much-invoked »end of history«.

Solar kiosk

No less committed – and also political like the »Making Heimat « exhibition two years ago by DAM – is this year’s Biennale contribution »Unbuilding Walls«, jointly developed by GRAFT and former Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Records Marianne Birthler. The starting point for the work, which is impressive in terms of its aesthetics and form as well as its content, is the trend observed across the world that increasing mobility and digitalisation is encouraging global convergence in previously unimaginable ways, while at the same time spreading ever more nationalism and isolationism. »As the world grows together, walls are increasingly being discussed and built that divide people from one another,« is the architects’ rather sober assessment.

Based on this finding and embedded in the overarching Biennale theme of »Freespace« chosen by the two curators from Irish architectural practice Grafton, the designers are showcasing outstanding urban and architectural projects which deal with the topics of division and integration. The central reference point here is the Berlin Wall (1961–1989), which has now been gone for as long as it once stood, and whose »existence and deconstruction became a symbol for the failure of dialogue and its overcoming,« as the architects put it.

Checkpoint Charlie, Photo by: Friedhelm Denkeler

As evidence of the convergence of east and west, the exhibition has 28 (!) widely varying projects which reflect in widely varying ways on the space that has become free where the Wall once stood, 28 years after it came down. One of these successful spatial transformations is the new Axel Springer building by Rotterdam architects OMA. Currently under construction between the Kreuzberg and Mitte districts, it addresses the former course of the wall as a void running diagonally through the building. Another central project of Unbuilding Walls is the old Checkpoint Charlie border crossing, which, alongside the Brandenburg Gate, has become one of the most important symbolic locations of the Cold War and which is currently the subject of a competition to find a new perspective for it.

Axel-Springer-Campus, Picture by: OMA

A contrasting example is the Iron Curtain Trail cycle route along the old western border of the Warsaw Pact countries, which runs for 10 000 kilometres from the Barents Sea on the border between Norway and Russia down to the Black Sea on the Bulgarian and Turkish border, crossing 20 countries in the process. And the abandoned village project documents the history of the village of Schmerbach, where cloak-and-dagger operations in 1952 and 1961 at the order of the SED with no legal basis saw over 11000 people from villages in the immediate vicinity of the border forcibly resettled. After the Wall fell, the land was quickly reclaimed by nature and in 2003 a piece of the border fence and the site of the old village was given listed status. There are no physical remnants left there, however.

In parallel to this German perspective, contemporary border debates about Israel and Palestine, Mexico and the USA, and North and South Korea are also investigated by a team of journalists in the exhibition and presented in the pavilion. Proving that the topic of division has still not been resolved, even after the much-invoked »end of history«.

Text: Robert Uhde

The “Bridge of Unity” towards Vacha, Photo by: Jürgen Ritter