Liebe du Arsch!*

Can one discard a building, like an old, unwanted cuddly toy? Could it be that rubbish has less to do with a loss of value than with our knowledge, our curiosity and our prejudices? Can one overcome ignorance, greed and resignation in the process of (re-)discovering an architectural theory and practice that prevents waste? Can love help us in this respect? Bettina Köhler’s essay responds affirmatively to all of these questions. Dedicated to the idea of a meandering dialogue, it investigates the role of beauty, which has been the custodian of durability for centuries.

Since 1967, Venus has been staring at a mound of clothing. She does not need to turn her head any further to see the decorative fake entrance and curtains in the hall of the Turin Castello di Rivoli. Both, the pile of apparently discarded clothes and the illusion architecture of an open door with decoratively furled curtains, have been her horizon for over 50 years. What does she think, the goddess of love, fertility and beauty? What does she recall? What are her hopes and fears?

Memories of Venus 

According to mythological accounts, the only flaw in the beauty of Venus was the clatter of her shoes, which is why she was advised to walk barefoot. Her name implies that she comes to people, venio.1 Various narratives describe her arrival, through her parents, her conception and her birth. Produced in 1485, the most beautiful arrival is portrayed in the painting by Sandro Botticelli. Blown forward by Zephyrus, the gentle westerly breeze, she stands upon a seashell that is about to land on the coast of Cyprus. A hora passes her a gown decorated with embroidered daisies. Venus is still naked, in a completely natural pose, as if her long hair, her skin and her posture, slightly protecting her body, were already a form of attire, since water, the foam of the waves and the gentle wind are nothing to fear; on the contrary, everything bears itself and exists in a state of balance. Zephyrus holds Chloris in his arms, speaking in rose petals, the embrace transforming Chloris into Flora, the goddess of spring. Everything is in order, but everything is wind, breath, movement, growth and metamorphosis.A

 

The fears of Venus

That was a long time ago, Venus thinks as she observes the colourful pile of unwanted clothes before her. A very long time. Must one not simply accept reality? Love, beauty, daisies. Cosmic order, the metamorphoses of plants, animals and people. Who still wants to see and understand them? Who really misses Flora and who would be interested in me, were I not part of a famous Arte Povera installation? Who would prefer to speak of Zephyrus compared to a stronger west wind? And would that have any significance? Let us be honest: 

In today’s world, we have so-called trash buildings (“Schrottimmobilien”), decapitated cuddly leopardsB in front of destroyed shopping trolleys, leaning against second-hand clothes containers that are too small to store the amount of textiles surrounding it. Here and now, the gesture of discarding has assumed dimensions that were inconceivable just a few years ago. We throw away all kinds of household appliances, building rubble, insulation material, bags, suitcases, mattresses, shoes, curtains, porcelain and toys, as well as an enormous amount of clothes and buildings. Not to mention plastic bags, cigarette butts, pizza boxes, coffee cups and other packaging from the fast food industry, which find their permanent graves in parks and beside streets, or on the side strips of motorways and railway lines. Laziness? 

Actually, one cannot discard a house. It is even difficult to dispose of building rubble. You need a vehicle that you load and drive to a specific place. You need to painstakingly unload the rubble and drive away quickly. But a house is fixed to a spot and cannot be discarded overnight. It happens all the same. Buildings are being disposed of in Krefeld, in Duisburg, in Detroit and in many other places around the world. The act of throwing away begins long before the residents move out. Architectural rubbish is created because specific characteristics of the building prove to have been poor from the outset, or reveal themselves to be so over a long period of time. Or because they are declared to have poor characteristics – for instance due to changed use or a transformed environment.

 

Venus observes an example 

If for example, the poorly executed, prefabricated former student accommodation in Krefeld leads to a situation where one can lie on the floor and see through the large joints into the outside world, then, given the climate of northern Europe, that quality is poor. Jari Banas, an artist and cartoonist, as well as a former resident of the building while studying at the Werkkunstschule Krefeld, moved into the building shortly after its completion, investigated the considerable, floor-level draft and discovered such gaps in the building joints. The uninsulated water piping was in an equally poor condition, resulting in cold water being warm and hot water being cooled down. In a culture that combines the idea of privacy at home with a lack of noise from the neighbours, then the fact that first-floor residents could hear people cracking nuts on the fifth floor is very bad, even for student accommodation. Nikolaus Rüthy, an architect and another former building resident, while studying Architecture at the Werkkunstschule Krefeld, can well remember its extremely poor noise insulation. He also reports that the initial rent of 105 DM, of which 50 DM were rent and 55 DM were incidental costs, was reduced to 90 DM following student protests. Thus the actual rent was only 35 DM. It is hard to refute Rüthy’s claim that such low rent prices were perhaps a contributing factor that made it unfeasible to maintain the “difficult” building. After the owner’s bankruptcy, a student union in Wuppertal and the construction of new student accommodation, the older building was vacated — probably some time in the 1980s — marking the onset of its dilapidation. I would agree with Nikolaus Rüthy’s assumption that the student accommodation, unlike social housing in the neighbourhood, lacked the same long-term protection and support due to the constant fluctuation among its residents. Housing in the neighbourhood was built by the same architectural office, but maintained, looked after and renovated over the years by its owners. In today’s times, can we afford to allow a building to become dilapidated because it has obvious deficits from the outset? What does repair mean to us? Are we really serious about thinking of the grey energy in the buildings?

 

So Venus asks: what do we actually want to know?

Since 2003, for 19 years, the building has been empty, gradually turning into a ruin. Nevertheless, I would say it was discarded. Can one use such terms? Or is that an unfair allegation? There is something mysterious in the fact that many residents left and the building slowly became derelict. What happened? The quoted conversations with its former residents confirm that despite its many blatant flaws, the building could have survived. It is strange that articles published on its renovation plans never mention that it had already been converted into an apartment building in the 1980s, with housing units of varying sizes. They all received bathrooms and kitchens. Prasantha Alwis, a textile engineer and my third conversation partner, lived in the building after its conversion and only moved out when his job took him to Berlin. He has no idea why all the other residents left the building, since he enjoyed living there. He found the interior spatially attractive and well conceived. In fact he would have liked to take the remaining elements of the original room fittings with him. Nikolaus Rüthy also confirmed the spatial diversity due to the split levels and the very well proportioned fitted elements in the rooms (based on a ship’s cabin), as well as details such as the window frames, which develop outwards to guide rainwater away efficiently. He greatly appreciated all these architectural details.  

Despite all of the building’s the flaws and errors, one must nevertheless conclude that it certainly had its qualities, which could have been exploited and developed by further conversion measures. However, none of the numerous articles published to date on “one of the city’s greatest eyesores”2, as the Westdeutsche Zeitung called it on September 17, 2019, mention this aspect. Ignorance?

The story of the “horror building”3 does not end there. The WZ published an article on January 4, 2022 stating that the planning application by a project manager in 2019, who wanted to fit out 54 apartments and renovate the building to today’s standards, could not yet be granted, because the case was too complex, especially the reversal of old purchase contracts, while the extensive renovation measures were a Gordian knot.4 

All manner of rubbish has been deposited on the property. Homeless people live on the grounds. On the roof, adolescents play dare games. There are rats. Everything that is somehow useful has been removed. Last year, someone froze to death in the building. It must be demolished.5 Alexander Littgen, my fourth conversation partner, architect, member of the Design Council of the City of Krefeld and a long-term campaigner for the building, makes a succinct point at the end of our discussion that has not been mentioned once by media reports. We all have a responsibility to preserve the city’s assets. It is impossible to attach a monetary value to the significance of allowing an enormous property, including the developed structures upon it, to become dilapidated. They are social and cultural assets to which we – the urban community – should be dedicated. Instead, we believe the solution lies in investors, but they should be monitored much more strictly on a case-by-case level, since they are more interested in fast, high profit rather than sustainable building culture. That is why I say the building was discarded. Littgen states that as far as he knows, the few residents who remained in the building in later years naturally used much less water, leading to problems with legionnaire's disease and forcing the last residents out. Resignation?

 

One theory on the misery that Venus has long observed

In 1979, the British anthropologist and sociologist developed a theory on rubbish, much of which still applies today, as its republication in 2017 confirms. He examined and observed the way things become garbage in the first place and how they move in the cycle of production and consumption. Waste is produced through evaluation. According to the theory, there are three categories of evaluation or re-evaluation, and classification: durable things, transient things in a state between durable and worthless — which applies to most products — and things that are considered to have no more value at all, namely rubbish. The boundaries between these three fields are not fixed. What is currently rubbish and considered to have no value can even become a durable thing. “The interesting feature of this category system is that membership is not fixed for all time but is to some greater or lesser extent flexible. A member of the transient category can, and usually does, gradually transfer to the rubbish category and a member of the rubbish category can, under certain conditions, transfer to the durable category.”6 

Thompson presents many examples, including London’s real estate sector in the 1960s and 1970s, to reveal how the creation of rubbish is a social process of attributing and refuting value. “No great sociological insights are involved in pointing out that houses in the transient category tend to be inhabited by a sector of our society that is much concerned with respectability. From the viewpoint of those who do not live in them, the inhabitants of transient houses are the dull and plodding members of the lower middle class or upper working class. Houses of the durable category would seem to be the preserve of the more exalted middle class and of the remnants of the upper class. […] The rubbish houses tend to be inhabited by what is left: the lower end of the working class, perhaps criminal, shifting, or immigrant; and then those who exist on the margins of society: the non-coping families, the mentally ill and so on.”7 Thompson proves that the value of things and buildings is not primarily based on its constructive, technical and material nature. Or more precisely, he shows that the value cannot be assessed on the basis of these apparently objective qualities. His convincing argument claims that the position of things on the scale of value between zero and durable are connected to the habits of the respective social strata, their tastes, convictions, income, knowledge, education, social influence and attitude towards fashion.8 

In Thompson’s considerations, I found a surprising argument that there is a connection between discarding a building and throwing out objects of daily consumption, as they are euphemistically called. “[…] Even so major a component of the economy as housing is subject to exactly the same social dynamics as are Bakelite ashtrays.”9 Rubbish is created by a practical way of life and not so much a rational, but an emotional perception and assessment of that way of life.

Only rats live here. This is a rubbish building. It must be demolished. These clothes are worthless. Nobody wears that any more. The toy leopard looks shabby, especially since it has unfortunately been decapitated. Chuck it out.

But what exactly do those social dynamics look like? What are they based on? How can a situation come about whereby the durability of buildings depends on the fluctuating value ascribed to them, which also means: the less value one ascribes to them, the less is invested in their maintenance and upkeep. Thompson proposes assuming that buildings, like other things, can become obsolete either because their technical equipment is outdated or because their style no longer appeals to current tastes.10 Both the technical and the aesthetic obsolescence are not simply given: they develop in the above-described social and political process of evaluation: it must be interpreted, explained and communicated. Politicians, residents, journalists, experts, administration, naturally also architects, manufacturers of building materials and companies that supply the infrastructure (water, heating, sanitary facilities) all indirectly take a stance on the question: what is that actually worth (to us)?  

When the insulation industry uses careful and precise lobby work to ensure that insulating materials should be used as widely as possible, even if they might be toxic, flammable and perhaps in many cases superfluous, then a building like the student accommodation has no chance of survival. Do we investigate the alternatives? Yes! But do we use them? Furthermore: would the building have a chance of survival with the planned owner-occupied apartments? It is doubtful, because the qualities of the surrounding neighbourhood are not conducive to someone investing in owner-occupied housing there. Not least, the building’s aesthetics would probably lend itself more to different utilisation. So why do people make such plans? In view of everything we now know, one can draw the conclusion that someone primarily wants one thing – without a true analysis and study of the building and its surroundings, i.e. ultimately without any interest in the urban and structural reality, or in a building culture worth that description: to make money quickly. Greed?

 

Venus remembers 

In 1485, the same year in which Sandro Botticelli celebrated the coming of Venus in his painting, a treatise on architecture was published in Florence by Battista Alberti (1404-1472) entitled De re Aedificatoria Libri Decem.11 Among other reasons, its continued influence to this day, as well as its intellectual and emotional presence and astuteness, are based on its intensive engagement with rubbish: Alberti, an architect and humanist, observed, studied and interpreted the ruins of ancient Rome. Only on the basis of this regained knowledge on materials and construction techniques did it become possible to decisively enhance one’s own architectural culture. Alberti developed the idea of successful building culture, which remains challenging to this day, namely the inextricable connection between beauty and usability, as manifested in the wise use of building materials and their combinations. With his texts and buildings, naturally together with other architects, scholars, artisans and tool-makers, Alberti transformed apparently useless building rubble into architectural heritage, turning rubbish into something valuable.12 

Bearing in mind that Michael Thompson describes the creation of rubbish as a decision-based process, which includes the decision whether to carry out maintenance and upkeep measures on a building, so that the building can remain in or return to the “durable” category, one could perhaps revert to the following old, but nevertheless still outstanding architectural theory: until well into the 19th century, architectural theory had always also been a guideline on preventing waste. Examined and further developed in a large body of literature, knowledge on the latest technical and aesthetic practice focused on durability. Over the years, the beauty of an entity and its ornamentation as an expression of dedication, empathy and attention were varied and playfully advanced to conform to changing tastes, but they were never abandoned as aims of successful building culture.  

Beauty was regarded as the custodian of durability. Alberti’s very abstract definition of beauty is still surprising today, especially also because it stresses the extent to which beauty is determined by moderation. “The fact that beauty is based on a specific law of accordance between all parts, regardless of the field, lies in a state where one can neither add something to it, nor change it without making it less pleasing.”13 He explicitly concludes that: “Anyone wishing to discover the true, genuine beauty of a building will actually realise that it is not acquired and based on the extent of the means, but primarily on the intellectual wealth invested in it.” Thus, in addition to many chapters on building materials and their uses, Alberti dedicated an entire chapter on the mistakes of construction, which he called “errors of misdesign”.14 With respect to the never-ending story of the former student accommodation, one could say that this is how the prevention of waste begins: “Some errors consist of poor consideration or comprehension, such as judgement and selection, while others are hand-made, caused by craftsman’s work. Once they have occurred, errors of consideration and judgement should be regarded as graver due to their nature and the time at which they occur, and they are much more difficult to rectify.”15 

It is possible that the many interwoven statements in Alberti’s text that stress the primacy of moderation and thrift in the building sector, as well as demanding the extremely disciplined planning of a construction project, are an indication that one of the great problems in the urban communities of early Italian city states was, as in ancient Rome, one of relative wealth. Perhaps such relative wealth is also a key problem of the present day. Consequently, one could propose: the fact that something becomes rubbish in the first place is a luxury problem that we can no longer afford under the given circumstances. Accepting that premise, one might allow oneself to regard the former student accommodation – as well as many other abandoned or discarded buildings – from a technical, legal, urban-planning, political and social perspective, as the starting point for something new, which could look completely different. One must change laws and assign responsibility. And for example demand building orders. In that sense, this essay and the article by Mario Rinke16, concerning the potential of load-bearing structures as meta-landscapes, can be read together. They jointly point to:

 

The hopes of Venus

Mythological accounts tell us that the only flaw in the beauty of Venus was the clatter of her shoes, which is why she was advised to walk barefoot. The narrative also describes her colourfully decorated belt, “that contained all attractions, love, yearning, friendly behaviour, pleasantries and caresses, allowing her to win over the hearts of everyone.”17 Knowledge of love and beauty, as well as the relationship between wind, water, roses, seashells and people, does not just fall from the sky. One must discover, develop, spread and recall it. Why should Venus not stand in a load-bearing structure and regard a transformed landscape. Meta? 

In his blogD, Dario Mastromattei writes the following about the “Venus of the Rags”: “Thus the artist used poor materials to expresses his poetic concept. The Venus statue was initially a worthless fetish. In truth, it was a cheap copy made to decorate household gardens. […] Clothing is an everyday, ‘worthless’ object. By integrating it into his work, Pistoletto reveals how he aims to portray every aspect of art.” After reading this essay, if you pause for a moment when encountering the word “worthless”, then something has happened. Naked feet are as just as “valuable” as old, worn out clothes. Although the production of flawed textiles occurs at a speed that is mind-boggling. We are the ones who decide about value and worthlessness, so our knowledge, linguistic skills and emotions – in other words: our love – require much more training. Together with Leon Battista Alberti, we could claim: the confrontation between the cement Venus and the old clothes in the Castello room, combined with the illusion architecture and a curtain that is likewise only painted, is true beauty, because it was created with intellectual wealth and – I would like to add – love.

  

To conclude, firstly.

An idea that buoys us up, is uplifting. As strange as it may sound, it has much to do with Venus and her fears and hopes. They were formulated by the Italian philosopher Emanuele Coccia.  

“Cities must become something like museums of contemporary nature. Not just ecosystems of cohabitation. The term ‘ecosystem’ continues to depend on the notion of a natural, stable balance, which is disturbed by every human intervention and excludes all technical innovation. What has been said here about evolution as technical progress should convince us all that every ecosystem is in reality a city — in other words a space where innovation and progress are pooled — and a museum of contemporary nature, i.e. a space where such progress need not follow any predefined logic, but is instead freely available to all species. […] In a collaboration of artists, scientists, architects, farmers and cattle-breeders, the aim will be to form multispecific mergers half way between urban garden plantations and a barn, in which every single life form creates both for others and itself. In this exemplary exercise of imagination, both aesthetically and naturally, cities become practical places of implementing a collective metamorphosis of the species.”18

 

To conclude, secondly

“You would think of the Metamorphosis and Aphrodite, i.e. love, as very close together. Love is the driving force that actually achieves change. Both in the natural cycle and in the cultural world.

That is what I have just attempted.”19

photographer: Nils Koenning, Website, Instagram

Liebe du Arsch!*

11/23/2022

Bettina Köhler, Translation: Benjamin Liebelt

An essay on architecture and rubbish

Can one discard a building, like an old, unwanted cuddly toy? Could it be that rubbish has less to do with a loss of value than with our knowledge, our curiosity and our prejudices? Can one overcome ignorance, greed and resignation in the process of (re-)discovering an architectural theory and practice that prevents waste? Can love help us in this respect? Bettina Köhler’s essay responds affirmatively to all of these questions. Dedicated to the idea of a meandering dialogue, it investigates the role of beauty, which has been the custodian of durability for centuries.

* An intriguing graffiti message that literally translates as “Love you arse” (see photo)

left: Michelangeo Pistoletto, Venere degli stracci (Venus of the Rags), 1967 / right: Former student dormitory, Alte Gladbacher Straße, Krefeld, built 1969/1970 – © Photo: Paolo Pellion, Courtesy Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli-Torino / © Bettina Köhler 2022
left: Michelangeo Pistoletto, Venere degli stracci (Venus of the Rags), 1967 / right: Former student dormitory, Alte Gladbacher Straße, Krefeld, built 1969/1970 – © Photo: Paolo Pellion, Courtesy Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli-Torino / © Bettina Köhler 2022

1 Benjamin Hederich, Gründliches mythologisches Lexikon, Leipzig 1770, p. 2438-2440.

2 Werner Dohmen, “Baugenehmigung ist erteilt”, WZ, 17.09.2019.

The Birth of Venus

Cuddly leopard

Since 1967, Venus has been staring at a mound of clothing. She does not need to turn her head any further to see the decorative fake entrance and curtains in the hall of the Turin Castello di Rivoli. Both, the pile of apparently discarded clothes and the illusion architecture of an open door with decoratively furled curtains, have been her horizon for over 50 years. What does she think, the goddess of love, fertility and beauty? What does she recall? What are her hopes and fears?

Memories of Venus 

According to mythological accounts, the only flaw in the beauty of Venus was the clatter of her shoes, which is why she was advised to walk barefoot. Her name implies that she comes to people, venio.1 Various narratives describe her arrival, through her parents, her conception and her birth. Produced in 1485, the most beautiful arrival is portrayed in the painting by Sandro Botticelli. Blown forward by Zephyrus, the gentle westerly breeze, she stands upon a seashell that is about to land on the coast of Cyprus. A hora passes her a gown decorated with embroidered daisies. Venus is still naked, in a completely natural pose, as if her long hair, her skin and her posture, slightly protecting her body, were already a form of attire, since water, the foam of the waves and the gentle wind are nothing to fear; on the contrary, everything bears itself and exists in a state of balance. Zephyrus holds Chloris in his arms, speaking in rose petals, the embrace transforming Chloris into Flora, the goddess of spring. Everything is in order, but everything is wind, breath, movement, growth and metamorphosis.

 

The fears of Venus

That was a long time ago, Venus thinks as she observes the colourful pile of unwanted clothes before her. A very long time. Must one not simply accept reality? Love, beauty, daisies. Cosmic order, the metamorphoses of plants, animals and people. Who still wants to see and understand them? Who really misses Flora and who would be interested in me, were I not part of a famous Arte Povera installation? Who would prefer to speak of Zephyrus compared to a stronger west wind? And would that have any significance? Let us be honest: 

In today’s world, we have so-called trash buildings (“Schrottimmobilien”), decapitated cuddly leopards in front of destroyed shopping trolleys, leaning against second-hand clothes containers that are too small to store the amount of textiles surrounding it. Here and now, the gesture of discarding has assumed dimensions that were inconceivable just a few years ago. We throw away all kinds of household appliances, building rubble, insulation material, bags, suitcases, mattresses, shoes, curtains, porcelain and toys, as well as an enormous amount of clothes and buildings. Not to mention plastic bags, cigarette butts, pizza boxes, coffee cups and other packaging from the fast food industry, which find their permanent graves in parks and beside streets, or on the side strips of motorways and railway lines. Laziness? 

Actually, one cannot discard a house. It is even difficult to dispose of building rubble. You need a vehicle that you load and drive to a specific place. You need to painstakingly unload the rubble and drive away quickly. But a house is fixed to a spot and cannot be discarded overnight. It happens all the same. Buildings are being disposed of in Krefeld, in Duisburg, in Detroit and in many other places around the world. The act of throwing away begins long before the residents move out. Architectural rubbish is created because specific characteristics of the building prove to have been poor from the outset, or reveal themselves to be so over a long period of time. Or because they are declared to have poor characteristics – for instance due to changed use or a transformed environment.

 

Venus observes an example 

If for example, the poorly executed, prefabricated former student accommodation in Krefeld leads to a situation where one can lie on the floor and see through the large joints into the outside world, then, given the climate of northern Europe, that quality is poor. Jari Banas, an artist and cartoonist, as well as a former resident of the building while studying at the Werkkunstschule Krefeld, moved into the building shortly after its completion, investigated the considerable, floor-level draft and discovered such gaps in the building joints. The uninsulated water piping was in an equally poor condition, resulting in cold water being warm and hot water being cooled down. In a culture that combines the idea of privacy at home with a lack of noise from the neighbours, then the fact that first-floor residents could hear people cracking nuts on the fifth floor is very bad, even for student accommodation. Nikolaus Rüthy, an architect and another former building resident, while studying Architecture at the Werkkunstschule Krefeld, can well remember its extremely poor noise insulation. He also reports that the initial rent of 105 DM, of which 50 DM were rent and 55 DM were incidental costs, was reduced to 90 DM following student protests. Thus the actual rent was only 35 DM. It is hard to refute Rüthy’s claim that such low rent prices were perhaps a contributing factor that made it unfeasible to maintain the “difficult” building. After the owner’s bankruptcy, a student union in Wuppertal and the construction of new student accommodation, the older building was vacated — probably some time in the 1980s — marking the onset of its dilapidation. I would agree with Nikolaus Rüthy’s assumption that the student accommodation, unlike social housing in the neighbourhood, lacked the same long-term protection and support due to the constant fluctuation among its residents. Housing in the neighbourhood was built by the same architectural office, but maintained, looked after and renovated over the years by its owners. In today’s times, can we afford to allow a building to become dilapidated because it has obvious deficits from the outset? What does repair mean to us? Are we really serious about thinking of the grey energy in the buildings?

 

So Venus asks: what do we actually want to know?

Since 2003, for 19 years, the building has been empty, gradually turning into a ruin. Nevertheless, I would say it was discarded. Can one use such terms? Or is that an unfair allegation? There is something mysterious in the fact that many residents left and the building slowly became derelict. What happened? The quoted conversations with its former residents confirm that despite its many blatant flaws, the building could have survived. It is strange that articles published on its renovation plans never mention that it had already been converted into an apartment building in the 1980s, with housing units of varying sizes. They all received bathrooms and kitchens. Prasantha Alwis, a textile engineer and my third conversation partner, lived in the building after its conversion and only moved out when his job took him to Berlin. He has no idea why all the other residents left the building, since he enjoyed living there. He found the interior spatially attractive and well conceived. In fact he would have liked to take the remaining elements of the original room fittings with him. Nikolaus Rüthy also confirmed the spatial diversity due to the split levels and the very well proportioned fitted elements in the rooms (based on a ship’s cabin), as well as details such as the window frames, which develop outwards to guide rainwater away efficiently. He greatly appreciated all these architectural details.  

Despite all of the building’s the flaws and errors, one must nevertheless conclude that it certainly had its qualities, which could have been exploited and developed by further conversion measures. However, none of the numerous articles published to date on “one of the city’s greatest eyesores”2, as the Westdeutsche Zeitung called it on September 17, 2019, mention this aspect. Ignorance?

© Nils Koenning
© Nils Koenning
© Nils Koenning
© Nils Koenning
© Nils Koenning
© Nils Koenning
© Nils Koenning
© Nils Koenning
© Nils Koenning
© Nils Koenning
01 | 11
© Nils Koenning

3 UKW, Welle Niederrhein, 22. April 2022.

4 Werner Dohmen, "Zweifel sind angebracht", WZ, 4.01.2019.

5 Jens Voss, "Wohnstätte passt beim 'Horrorhochhaus'", RP, 28.08.2021.

6 Michael Thompson, Rubbish Theory, The Creation and Destruction of Value - New Edition, London 2017, p. 59.

7 Thompson, (2017), p. 58.

8 Cf. Pierre Bourdieu, Die feinen Unterschiede. Kritik der gesellschaftlichen Urteilskraft, Frankfurt am Main, 1991, S. 277.

9 Thompson, (2017), p. 49.

10 Ibid. p. 53.

11 Leon Battista Alberti, De re aedificatoria libri decem, Florence 1485.

12 Alberti, Zehn Bücher über die Baukunst, Max Theuer (Trans./Ed.), Darmstadt 1975, Editor's Foreword.

13 Ibid. p. 293.

14 Ibid. p. 507.

15 Ibid.

16 Daidalos 22/04: Open Meta-landscapes

17 Hederich, (1996), p. 2483, 2440.

18 Emanuele Coccia, Metamorphosen, Das Leben hat viele Formen, eine Philosophie der Verwandlung, Munich 2021, p. 175.

19 Frank M. Raddatz asks Friedrich Kittler, in: Metamorphosen der Liebe, Lettre International, Winter 2011, p. 94.

Arteworld.it

The story of the “horror building”3 does not end there. The WZ published an article on January 4, 2022 stating that the planning application by a project manager in 2019, who wanted to fit out 54 apartments and renovate the building to today’s standards, could not yet be granted, because the case was too complex, especially the reversal of old purchase contracts, while the extensive renovation measures were a Gordian knot.4 

All manner of rubbish has been deposited on the property. Homeless people live on the grounds. On the roof, adolescents play dare games. There are rats. Everything that is somehow useful has been removed. Last year, someone froze to death in the building. It must be demolished.5 Alexander Littgen, my fourth conversation partner, architect, member of the Design Council of the City of Krefeld and a long-term campaigner for the building, makes a succinct point at the end of our discussion that has not been mentioned once by media reports. We all have a responsibility to preserve the city’s assets. It is impossible to attach a monetary value to the significance of allowing an enormous property, including the developed structures upon it, to become dilapidated. They are social and cultural assets to which we – the urban community – should be dedicated. Instead, we believe the solution lies in investors, but they should be monitored much more strictly on a case-by-case level, since they are more interested in fast, high profit rather than sustainable building culture. That is why I say the building was discarded. Littgen states that as far as he knows, the few residents who remained in the building in later years naturally used much less water, leading to problems with legionnaire's disease and forcing the last residents out. Resignation?

 

One theory on the misery that Venus has long observed

In 1979, the British anthropologist and sociologist developed a theory on rubbish, much of which still applies today, as its republication in 2017 confirms. He examined and observed the way things become garbage in the first place and how they move in the cycle of production and consumption. Waste is produced through evaluation. According to the theory, there are three categories of evaluation or re-evaluation, and classification: durable things, transient things in a state between durable and worthless — which applies to most products — and things that are considered to have no more value at all, namely rubbish. The boundaries between these three fields are not fixed. What is currently rubbish and considered to have no value can even become a durable thing. “The interesting feature of this category system is that membership is not fixed for all time but is to some greater or lesser extent flexible. A member of the transient category can, and usually does, gradually transfer to the rubbish category and a member of the rubbish category can, under certain conditions, transfer to the durable category.”6 

Thompson presents many examples, including London’s real estate sector in the 1960s and 1970s, to reveal how the creation of rubbish is a social process of attributing and refuting value. “No great sociological insights are involved in pointing out that houses in the transient category tend to be inhabited by a sector of our society that is much concerned with respectability. From the viewpoint of those who do not live in them, the inhabitants of transient houses are the dull and plodding members of the lower middle class or upper working class. Houses of the durable category would seem to be the preserve of the more exalted middle class and of the remnants of the upper class. […] The rubbish houses tend to be inhabited by what is left: the lower end of the working class, perhaps criminal, shifting, or immigrant; and then those who exist on the margins of society: the non-coping families, the mentally ill and so on.”7 Thompson proves that the value of things and buildings is not primarily based on its constructive, technical and material nature. Or more precisely, he shows that the value cannot be assessed on the basis of these apparently objective qualities. His convincing argument claims that the position of things on the scale of value between zero and durable are connected to the habits of the respective social strata, their tastes, convictions, income, knowledge, education, social influence and attitude towards fashion.8 

In Thompson’s considerations, I found a surprising argument that there is a connection between discarding a building and throwing out objects of daily consumption, as they are euphemistically called. “[…] Even so major a component of the economy as housing is subject to exactly the same social dynamics as are Bakelite ashtrays.”9 Rubbish is created by a practical way of life and not so much a rational, but an emotional perception and assessment of that way of life.

Only rats live here. This is a rubbish building. It must be demolished. These clothes are worthless. Nobody wears that any more. The toy leopard looks shabby, especially since it has unfortunately been decapitated. Chuck it out.

But what exactly do those social dynamics look like? What are they based on? How can a situation come about whereby the durability of buildings depends on the fluctuating value ascribed to them, which also means: the less value one ascribes to them, the less is invested in their maintenance and upkeep. Thompson proposes assuming that buildings, like other things, can become obsolete either because their technical equipment is outdated or because their style no longer appeals to current tastes.10 Both the technical and the aesthetic obsolescence are not simply given: they develop in the above-described social and political process of evaluation: it must be interpreted, explained and communicated. Politicians, residents, journalists, experts, administration, naturally also architects, manufacturers of building materials and companies that supply the infrastructure (water, heating, sanitary facilities) all indirectly take a stance on the question: what is that actually worth (to us)?  

When the insulation industry uses careful and precise lobby work to ensure that insulating materials should be used as widely as possible, even if they might be toxic, flammable and perhaps in many cases superfluous, then a building like the student accommodation has no chance of survival. Do we investigate the alternatives? Yes! But do we use them? Furthermore: would the building have a chance of survival with the planned owner-occupied apartments? It is doubtful, because the qualities of the surrounding neighbourhood are not conducive to someone investing in owner-occupied housing there. Not least, the building’s aesthetics would probably lend itself more to different utilisation. So why do people make such plans? In view of everything we now know, one can draw the conclusion that someone primarily wants one thing – without a true analysis and study of the building and its surroundings, i.e. ultimately without any interest in the urban and structural reality, or in a building culture worth that description: to make money quickly. Greed?

 

Venus remembers 

In 1485, the same year in which Sandro Botticelli celebrated the coming of Venus in his painting, a treatise on architecture was published in Florence by Battista Alberti (1404-1472) entitled De re Aedificatoria Libri Decem.11 Among other reasons, its continued influence to this day, as well as its intellectual and emotional presence and astuteness, are based on its intensive engagement with rubbish: Alberti, an architect and humanist, observed, studied and interpreted the ruins of ancient Rome. Only on the basis of this regained knowledge on materials and construction techniques did it become possible to decisively enhance one’s own architectural culture. Alberti developed the idea of successful building culture, which remains challenging to this day, namely the inextricable connection between beauty and usability, as manifested in the wise use of building materials and their combinations. With his texts and buildings, naturally together with other architects, scholars, artisans and tool-makers, Alberti transformed apparently useless building rubble into architectural heritage, turning rubbish into something valuable.12 

Bearing in mind that Michael Thompson describes the creation of rubbish as a decision-based process, which includes the decision whether to carry out maintenance and upkeep measures on a building, so that the building can remain in or return to the “durable” category, one could perhaps revert to the following old, but nevertheless still outstanding architectural theory: until well into the 19th century, architectural theory had always also been a guideline on preventing waste. Examined and further developed in a large body of literature, knowledge on the latest technical and aesthetic practice focused on durability. Over the years, the beauty of an entity and its ornamentation as an expression of dedication, empathy and attention were varied and playfully advanced to conform to changing tastes, but they were never abandoned as aims of successful building culture.  

Beauty was regarded as the custodian of durability. Alberti’s very abstract definition of beauty is still surprising today, especially also because it stresses the extent to which beauty is determined by moderation. “The fact that beauty is based on a specific law of accordance between all parts, regardless of the field, lies in a state where one can neither add something to it, nor change it without making it less pleasing.”13 He explicitly concludes that: “Anyone wishing to discover the true, genuine beauty of a building will actually realise that it is not acquired and based on the extent of the means, but primarily on the intellectual wealth invested in it.” Thus, in addition to many chapters on building materials and their uses, Alberti dedicated an entire chapter on the mistakes of construction, which he called “errors of misdesign”.14 With respect to the never-ending story of the former student accommodation, one could say that this is how the prevention of waste begins: “Some errors consist of poor consideration or comprehension, such as judgement and selection, while others are hand-made, caused by craftsman’s work. Once they have occurred, errors of consideration and judgement should be regarded as graver due to their nature and the time at which they occur, and they are much more difficult to rectify.”15 

It is possible that the many interwoven statements in Alberti’s text that stress the primacy of moderation and thrift in the building sector, as well as demanding the extremely disciplined planning of a construction project, are an indication that one of the great problems in the urban communities of early Italian city states was, as in ancient Rome, one of relative wealth. Perhaps such relative wealth is also a key problem of the present day. Consequently, one could propose: the fact that something becomes rubbish in the first place is a luxury problem that we can no longer afford under the given circumstances. Accepting that premise, one might allow oneself to regard the former student accommodation – as well as many other abandoned or discarded buildings – from a technical, legal, urban-planning, political and social perspective, as the starting point for something new, which could look completely different. One must change laws and assign responsibility. And for example demand building orders. In that sense, this essay and the article by Mario Rinke16, concerning the potential of load-bearing structures as meta-landscapes, can be read together. They jointly point to:

 

The hopes of Venus

Mythological accounts tell us that the only flaw in the beauty of Venus was the clatter of her shoes, which is why she was advised to walk barefoot. The narrative also describes her colourfully decorated belt, “that contained all attractions, love, yearning, friendly behaviour, pleasantries and caresses, allowing her to win over the hearts of everyone.”17 Knowledge of love and beauty, as well as the relationship between wind, water, roses, seashells and people, does not just fall from the sky. One must discover, develop, spread and recall it. Why should Venus not stand in a load-bearing structure and regard a transformed landscape. Meta? 

In his blog, Dario Mastromattei writes the following about the “Venus of the Rags”: “Thus the artist used poor materials to expresses his poetic concept. The Venus statue was initially a worthless fetish. In truth, it was a cheap copy made to decorate household gardens. […] Clothing is an everyday, ‘worthless’ object. By integrating it into his work, Pistoletto reveals how he aims to portray every aspect of art.” After reading this essay, if you pause for a moment when encountering the word “worthless”, then something has happened. Naked feet are as just as “valuable” as old, worn out clothes. Although the production of flawed textiles occurs at a speed that is mind-boggling. We are the ones who decide about value and worthlessness, so our knowledge, linguistic skills and emotions – in other words: our love – require much more training. Together with Leon Battista Alberti, we could claim: the confrontation between the cement Venus and the old clothes in the Castello room, combined with the illusion architecture and a curtain that is likewise only painted, is true beauty, because it was created with intellectual wealth and – I would like to add – love.

  

To conclude, firstly.

An idea that buoys us up, is uplifting. As strange as it may sound, it has much to do with Venus and her fears and hopes. They were formulated by the Italian philosopher Emanuele Coccia.  

“Cities must become something like museums of contemporary nature. Not just ecosystems of cohabitation. The term ‘ecosystem’ continues to depend on the notion of a natural, stable balance, which is disturbed by every human intervention and excludes all technical innovation. What has been said here about evolution as technical progress should convince us all that every ecosystem is in reality a city — in other words a space where innovation and progress are pooled — and a museum of contemporary nature, i.e. a space where such progress need not follow any predefined logic, but is instead freely available to all species. […] In a collaboration of artists, scientists, architects, farmers and cattle-breeders, the aim will be to form multispecific mergers half way between urban garden plantations and a barn, in which every single life form creates both for others and itself. In this exemplary exercise of imagination, both aesthetically and naturally, cities become practical places of implementing a collective metamorphosis of the species.”18

 

To conclude, secondly

“You would think of the Metamorphosis and Aphrodite, i.e. love, as very close together. Love is the driving force that actually achieves change. Both in the natural cycle and in the cultural world.

That is what I have just attempted.”19

photographer: Nils Koenning, Website, Instagram

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