Researching the International Building Exhibition of 1987 in West Berlin, usually referred to by its German acronym, IBA, is a challenge. The municipally sponsored event that bolstered Berlin's “return to the inner city” kick-started postmodern architecture in Germany and focused international media attention on West Berlin for nearly a decade. It generated not only scores of residential buildings but also mountainous archives and a flurry of publications by the organizers, some of which are considerably biased. Analyzing these traces from an independent perspective is as hard as giving voice to the inhabitants of the newly erected and renovated buildings, who are usually left out of the picture. With both of these challenges, Esra Akcan does a fabulous job.
The merit of her book lies in its combination of familiar and unfamiliar perspectives. Akcan provides a well-researched account of the IBA's history, as well as a balanced critique of the works of many well-known architects connected with the event, including Aldo Rossi, Josef Paul Kleihues, Rob Krier, John Hejduk, Peter Eisenman, Oswald Mathias Ungers, and Álvaro Siza. She also highlights the contributions of many lesser-known architects and activists, such as Cihan Arın, Bahri Düleç, and Heide Moldenhauer. Focusing on West Berlin's Kreuzberg district, the IBA's main area of activity, she discusses the genesis of postmodern architecture as well as the different solutions for inner-city living that were developed during the 1970s and 1980s.
Most important, Akcan also offers “alternative histories.” She complements her archival research with an impressive number of interviews with residents, most of them immigrants from Turkey, whom she met by “ringing the bell of almost every door in Kreuzberg” (37). The book is thus a unique product of the author's fluency in both Turkish and German, her intimate knowledge of architectural discourse, and her persistent fieldwork over many years.
Akcan structures her book along seven “strolls” through the district, combining a flaneur's vantage point with those of an ethnographer and an architectural historian. Her book is superbly illustrated with both archival drawings and her own photographs documenting almost every building in the area in extraordinary detail. Her observations about how various buildings transformed over time are among the book's greatest strengths.
At the same time, given the author's claim that her “overarching theme is international immigration and the ongoing human rights regime that impaired guest workers' and refugees' right to have rights” (6), it is somewhat surprising that the immigrant-focused portions are not only smaller but also methodologically weaker than the book's discussions of canonical architecture. Statements from interviews with residents often stand without comment, and more attention could have been paid to analyzing the social and political structures that help to shape immigrant inhabitants' everyday lives.
The reader is largely left unsure about what, according to Akcan's findings, lies at the bottom of the feeling of exclusion and marginalization that many of her interview subjects report. She mentions, among others, architectural design, legislation regarding foreigners, municipal policies, and xenophobia by German neighbors and landlords, as well as Turkish patriarchal traditions and the marginalization of women. However, none of these threads are undergirded with the same level of factual information that Akcan applies to her archival research on well-known architects. When it comes to residents' opinions about their buildings, she points to diverse views rather than offering pointed analysis. For Ungers's Köthener Straße Building, for example, where large apartments were specifically designed for larger Turkish families and which subsequently acquired the derogatory nickname Asihaus (house of asocials), her interviews merely suggest that the design was liked by some and criticized by others (183–85).
The underlying hypothesis seems to be that the IBA failed to provide what Akcan describes as “open architecture” and therefore contributed to the marginalization of Turkish immigrants in West Berlin. This hypothesis is not consistently traced throughout the book, nor does the author provide a clear definition of “open architecture,” other than observing that it “can be actualized when a new ethics of hospitality … includes the refugee or stateless person” (71), and that it makes “the inhabitants' voices audible” (167). Readers are thus left wondering what exactly is being criticized. While the existence of racism and xenophobia in Germany is a fact, Akcan gives little evidence to support the seeming contention that these factors were instrumental in the IBA's design.
Given the wealth of materials that Akcan covers, it is understandable that she dedicates only a limited number of pages to debates about controversial social policies and their impacts, including citizenship legislation, “desegregation” laws, and social housing provision. The reader thus stumbles over passages in which she harshly criticizes these policies, but then offers relatively patchy information. For example, she claims that for the West Berlin government, “ghetto making had been an efficient way to start a large architectural development from scratch” (33), and that “Ungers ignored his building's role in the discriminatory integration policies” (180), but she does not elucidate the broader context surrounding such statements.
At other points, however, Akcan commends the “IBA's role in delaying Kreuzberg's gentrification by virtue of the subsidized housing status given to the renovated buildings” (226), and she praises the IBA's many initiatives for citizen participation (215–20). The reader also learns that the IBA was probably unique at the time in sponsoring high-class architecture for the city's most disadvantaged and that the resulting buildings helped to make Kreuzberg the attractive neighborhood it is today.
What then, one might ask, was wrong with the IBA, in the author's opinion? Was the program as such the problem, or was it specific architectural designs? Were the IBA's shortcomings due to the insufficient participation of immigrants in the IBA administration, or the attempts of architects such as Krier or Ungers to “design for foreigners”? Was the culprit the concentration of Turkish immigrants in a single neighborhood, or the West Berlin government's “desegregation” laws that were aimed at preventing such concentrations? Should we fault the German “dialogue culture,” which, says Akcan, “had become an overused trope of multiculturalism” (258), or rather the ongoing xenophobia of many German neighbors? The book points to all of these factors as being possibly damaging, without singling out any one of them for sustained analysis. In this respect, the book raises more questions than it answers.
In her commendable attempt to give voice to traditionally marginalized groups, Akcan also overstates the immigrant presence in the Kreuzberg district in general and the IBA buildings in particular. Across the district, Turks accounted for 23 percent of the population, according to the source quoted by Akcan, and “half of the residents” in some (small) areas (33). That means that, on average, only about one in every five Kreuzberg residents was a Turkish immigrant. Recurrent references to Kreuzberg as “Berlin's immigrant neighborhood” (6) or a “noncitizen district” (192) thus provide a limited picture. In the worst case, these characterizations echo how the neighborhood has been portrayed by some German newspapers as the “exotic other,” a move that Akcan vehemently criticizes throughout the book, and one that poorly aligns with her otherwise convincing goal to unmask Orientalism and exclusionary mind-sets in German discourse.
To be fair, Akcan is aware of the limitations of her approach, particularly in terms of the groups that are not part of her analysis, such as ethnic Germans and non-Turkish immigrants (36). Privileging the category of immigrant and giving a voice specifically to Turkish immigrants within architectural discourse is one of her book's main aims. But readers are still left asking what happened to the category of class, especially given that the urban renewal programs on which the IBA was founded were specifically designed to improve working-class housing (for both Germans and immigrants), and that the book addresses the period of West Berlin's industrial decline, when the working classes suffered most. As Akcan accurately points out, the Turkish community in West Berlin during the 1980s was formed not only by former “guest workers” but also, to a smaller extent, by middle-class immigrants.
Given these dynamics, Akcan's use of the word “noncitizen” as a synonym for “Turkish citizen living in Germany” is not helpful, especially since it suggests that the marginalization of Turkish immigrants was first and foremost a matter of their citizenship status. It also detracts from the author's own account of many subtler forms of exclusion.
Following the many fascinating narratives offered in Open Architecture, one gets the feeling that the author attempted too much at once: giving marginalized residents a voice while providing a canonical history of well-known architecture; offering a collage-like description of diverse neighborhoods while denouncing mechanisms of social marginalization, ethnic segregation, and domestic violence; addressing the IBA as a whole while describing nearly every single building and the people it houses in minute detail. These insufficiencies notwithstanding, the book will be a valuable resource for anyone interested in this important chapter of late twentieth-century architectural history, in particular for those fascinated by the complex relationships among municipal planning, architectural design, and the everyday life of a building's inhabitants.