URBED were recently invited to take part in the Architektursommer Rhein-Main Lab involving 8 architecture and design practices from across Europe*. This culminated in a week long residency in a temporary pavilion in Goetheplatz in the centre of Frankfurt. The film of the installation can be seen here.
Frankfurt is actually a conurbation of six cities and, on the southern bank of the River Main, lies the City of Offenbach. This once the focus of the city’s Jewish community and is now home to a large Arab community. People in Frankfurt told us that we should be careful when walking its streets but, as people who have lived all of our lives in the cities of Northern England it didn’t seem very threatening.
We became fascinated by the large urban blocks of Offenbach enclosed by a grid of streets but retaining the older geometry of field boundaries and plot divisions from a time when the area was rural. These messy urban blocks stood in contrast to the looming presence of the European Central Bank being constructed over the river. The Offenbach blocks were full of life, ringed with shops and cafes below apartments housing a wide range of people. Deep within the blocks could be found all manner of activities, workshops and garages, artists studios and warehouses all alongside more housing. It seemed to us, as outsiders, that this was the interesting part of the city, and was likely to be where new ideas, creativity and start-up businesses would emerge, rather than the shiny towers of the banks and corporate offices. The Offenbach Block was the building-block of the creative city.
In her book the Death and Life of Great American Cities Jane Jacobs said something like ‘you can only have new ideas in old buildings’. New buildings are too expensive and tightly controlled, you have to sign up to long leases and you can’t make a noise or a mess. Old buildings, by contrast, paid for themselves years ago, they are cheap, flexible, relaxed and you can occupy them on easy in-out terms if your idea doesn’t quite work out.
This is true in Frankfurt/Offenbach as it is in our home town of Manchester and particularly the city’s Northern Quarter where URBED has its studio. The block structure of Manchester, made up of former textile mills and is very different to Offenbach but it serves a similar function. Old building provide cheap, low-commitments space for people and businesses trying new ideas and the old warehouses have filled with architects, designers and other creatives alongside the remaining wholesale clothing retailers and scores of bars and cafes at street level. The problem in Manchester as with Frankfurt, is that there is precious little of this type of space left. It has been squeezed out by the corporate city centre, new residential schemes, fancy refurbishments and suburban areas of industry and housing.
In the modern world of tech start-ups and the weightless economy cities have become reliant on their creative class. Those that can foster a strong counterculture and a diverse economy of creative business will become magnets of young people, energy and investment. This has profound implications for the way that we plan cities, places that were once dismissed as ghettos or backwaters could become more important than shiny business parks and office blocks. The Offenbach block or the Northern Quarter block could be the building block of a whole new economy.
* Recently in this context is a relative term – we were initially involved in ASRM In 2014 and the installation took place in December 2105. It just takes me a long time to put things up on this blog.