Open Architecture: Migration, Citizenship and the Urban Renewal of Berlin-Kreuzberg by IBA-1984/87

By Esra Akcan

As I was writing this book on the relation between migration, citizenship and urbanism, the world’s biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War came about. In the United States, my country of residence, individuals from certain countries have been subject to travel bans, and immigrants have been stripped off their long established lives and families. The history of migrations between Germany and Turkey, the topic of the book, entered a new phase as well, due to the violations of academic freedom and civil liberties in Turkey, which forced countless opposition journalists, intellectuals, and academics into obligatory or self-chosen exiles in many countries including in Germany. Due to these recent global developments, I was often confronted while writing with the fact that the forces that had shaped the histories recorded in this book are continuing today with little or no improvement, such as rightlessness of the stateless, crises of citizenship categories, state brutality, lack of decent housing, and hostility toward immigrants.

Esra Akcan, Open Architecture: Migration, Citizenship and the Urban Renewal of Berlin-Kreuzberg by IBA-1984/87, DeGruyter/Birkhäuser, 2018

This book makes a plea for what it calls “open architecture” to come. It asks what would have happened if the architectural discipline and profession were shaped by a new ethics of hospitality toward the immigrant, and calls this open architecture. It brings together historical projects and thought experiments toward open architecture (or the lack thereof), and conceptualizes latent open architecture’s various types with terms such as flexibility and adaptability of form, unfinished and unfinalizabile design, collectivity and collaboration, participatory and democratic design process, and multiplicity of meaning. Open architecture is predicated on the welcoming of a distinctly other mind or group of minds into the process of architectural design. It seeks for the expansion of human rights and social citizenship, and transnational solidarity, but it goes against the grain of the neoliberal ethos of the open market that closes boundaries for the majority. It supports open-sourceable design and collaboration between non-hierarchically positioned individuals, but it is not synonymous with closed networks. In this book the concept of openness is related more to open borders than the open market, collectivity than individuality, the openness of society than the free circulation of consumer products, user participation in architecture than author-architect, and the collaborative than the single-handed designer.

I look particularly at the urban renewal of Berlin-Kreuzberg to bring this concept and its contradictions alive. This extensive building and renovation practice was carried out by IBA-1984/87, an international building exhibition, which was justifiably one of the most important architectural events of its time and a microcosm of international architectural debates from the mid-1960s till the early 1990s. An astonishingly large number of cutting-edge and established architects from Europe and the United States were invited to contribute to design public housing for IBA-1984/87, including Peter Eisenman, Vittorio Gregotti, Zaha Hadid, John Hejduk, Herman Hertzberger, Hans Kollhoff, Rem Koolhaas, Rob Krier, Aldo Rossi, Álvaro Siza, Oswald Mathias Ungers, and many other important but understudied professionals whose due acknowledgment is hopefully given with this book.

The major area of IBA-1984/87 was the Kreuzberg borough, along the Berlin Wall, heavily bombed during the Second World War and left to decay afterwards. At the time, the run-down Kreuzberg, “the German Harlem” as sometimes called, had a population composed of almost fifty percent noncitizens in some areas, predominantly from Turkey, who had arrived as “guest workers” since 1961—the same year the Berlin wall was constructed—, and as refugees due to the coup d’etat and subsequent violence since 1980.

IBA-1984/87 differed from its precedents by treating public housing as an urban renewal. Rather than emptying the site off the run-down structures to make room for new buildings, or rather than building mega projects as in the immediate past, IBA-1984/87 advocated a policy that would “critically reconstruct” and “gently renew” Berlin’s historical urban fabric made up of perimeter blocks. It was a street-courtyard (Hof) based housing scheme, rather than other residential types such as freestanding multi-family buildings in green areas, or single-family houses causing sprawl.  As a result, the building exhibition produced a good number of variations of the perimeter block to demonstrate the potentials and livability of the street-courtyard based urban fabric.

IBA-1984/87 was divided into Neubau (New Building) and Altbau (Old Building) sections, which differed not only geographically—one was in West the other in East Kreuzberg— and the nature of their architectural work—one constructed new buildings, the other renovated existing ones—, but also—as it becomes clear when the book unfolds–with respect to their approaches to noncitizens.

What is particularly striking about this urban renewal is that it happened in the context of the discriminatory housing laws and regulations instituted by the Berlin Senate. Between 1975 and 1978, the Berlin Senate passed a series of housing laws and regulations with serious consequences for noncitizens. The “ban on entry and settlement” (Zuzugssperre, 1975), prohibited the movement of additional “foreign” families to Kreuzberg, Wedding, and Tiergarten (3 of the 12 boroughs in the city). The “desegregation regulations” (1978) mandated that only ten percent of residential units be rented to noncitizens all over West Berlin. Justified as an “integration of foreigners” into German society by their forced dispersal evenly throughout the city, these restrictions were seen as attempts to prevent noncitizen families from inhabiting dwellings close to their relatives. In mid-way during IBA’s realization, the rule in the Senate shifted to the Christian Democrats who additionally mobilized anti-immigration policies. Namely, the Berlin Senate, IBA’s employer, had assessed that there were too many noncitizens from Turkey living in the IBA’s areas, and the new urban renewal project would regulate what they named as desegregation. In addition, it is possible to argue that these housing laws were transposed into the functional program of the IBA-Neubau buildings, in the form of the percentage of big flats which would be fitting for the stereotypical big migrant family. Even though the percentage of noncitizens reached 50% in many areas of Kreuzberg, the Senate mandated that only 5–10% of new units would be big (4 or more bedroom) apartments. This program would either diminish noncitizen families’ chances to move into the IBA-Neubau buildings or welcome them only after they changed their lives to fit the German family size standards.

My book discusses how architects responded with varying degrees of submission and subversion, of ignorance and irony to these discriminatory housing regulations.

My overarching theme is international immigration and the current human rights regime that impaired guest workers’ and refugees’ right to have rights, and therefore exposed the very limits of these past forms of open architecture. Taking Hannah Arendt and Giorgio Agamben as intellectual sources, the book conceptualizes the refugee or the stateless as a limit condition that exposes the insufficiencies of the ongoing human rights regime, given the fact that the definition of human rights is preconditioned on being a citizen of a nation-state.

Methodologically, the book extends its theme to its format and explores an open form of writing, through a genre inspired by oral history and storytelling. Unlike conventional architectural histories, this topic requires giving voice not only to architects and policymakers but also to noncitizen residents. I propose to configure the individual resident voices as an oral historian who does not have claims to representability, but may rely on one witness, and who admits the necessarily partial and contingent nature of oral history; and as a storyteller who acknowledges that the fabric of everyday life unfolding in an individual’s experience of a space is also part of a building’s history. Architectural history does not end when the building leaves the hand of the architect. This also fits the feminist aspirations of the book. It was not my original intention, but most of the characters of the book who participated in oral history were first generation migrant women. I call these immigrant users resident-architects, and by honoring their stories as much as those of the architects, I propose to contest the view of Architecture as an occupation historically practiced by men alone, and open the definition of architecture to residents’ appropriation. Additionally, the book gives voice to the woman professional architects of IBA—however few in number—such as Heide Modenhauer, Zaha Hadid, Myra Warhaftig and Christine Jachmann.

Structurally, the book is composed of seven stops in Kreuzberg, each of which concentrate on a single urban block and a distinct idea of open architecture, and six strolls in between these stops, which are composed of shorter passages and copious images. While the seven Stops discuss the buildings in the context of a much longer historical span and a broader geographical area in order to define and analyze a different type of open architecture, the six Strolls bring other aspects of IBA-1984/87 that did not fit the logic of the book’s chapters, such as ecological planning, squatters’ struggle, handicapped units, self-help, and other examples of open architecture. This structure reflects the character of IBA-1984/87 as both a microcosm of the broad international debates of its time and a collection of projects in the same neighbourhood that are in walking distance of each other.

Esra Akcan

Esra Akcan is an Associate Professor in the Department of Architecture and the Director of the Cornell Institute for European Studies. Her scholarly work on a geopolitically conscious global history of architecture inspires her teaching. Akcan’s research on modern and contemporary architecture and urbanism foregrounds the intertwined histories of Europe and West Asia. Her book Architecture in Translation: Germany, Turkey and the Modern House offers a new way to understand the global movement of architecture that extends the notion of translation beyond language to visual fields. It advocates a commitment to a new culture of translatability from below and in multiple directions for truly cosmopolitan ethics and global justice. Her book Turkey: Modern Architectures in History (with Sibel Bozdoğan) is part of a series that aims at an inclusive survey of modern world architecture and is the first volume in any language to cover the entire 20th century in Turkey. Akcan’s new book Open Architecture: Migration, Citizenship and the Urban Renewal of Berlin-Kreuzberg by IBA-1984/87 (2018) defines open architecture as the translation of a new ethics of hospitality into design process. It exemplifies different inclinations towards open architecture (or the lack thereof) during the urban renewal of Berlin’s immigrant neighborhood, by giving voice not only to the established and understudied architects who were invited to build public housing here, but also to noncitizen residents.

Akcan has also authored over a hundred articles in scholarly books and professional journals of multiple languages on critical and postcolonial theory, modern and contemporary architecture in West Asia and its diasporas in Europe, architectural photography, immigration, translation, globalization and global history. Akcan received awards and fellowships from the Graham Foundation, American Academy in Berlin, UIC, Forum Transregionale Studien Berlin, Clark Institute, Getty Research Institute, Canadian Center for Architecture, CAA, Mellon Foundation, DAAD, KRESS/ARIT and Columbia University.  Before coming to Cornell, she taught at UI-Chicago, Humboldt University in Berlin, Columbia University, New School, and Pratt Institute in New York, and METU in Ankara. She has also participated in exhibitions as an artist by carrying her research beyond writing to visual media. Akcan was educated as an architect in Turkey and received her Ph.D. from Columbia University.


Citation: Esra Akcan, Open Architecture: Migration, Citizenship and the Urban Renewal of Berlin-Kreuzberg by IBA-1984/87, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 05.07.2018,




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