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The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


Collective reflections about development practice and cities


Thresholds of Liminality, Visibility, and Temporality in the Grafting of New Peripheries in Zurich: Reconnaissance from DPU summerLab

By William N Hunter, on 14 August 2012

What does it mean to transplant two inherently different demographic entities with different and debatable models of organisation against one another in what would otherwise be considered a current urban periphery? What would it imply, in regards to the expected evolution of a site, if the mechanism for transplanting these two entities was seen as definitively temporary and par the existenzminimum? And furthermore, if this be the situational urban problematic, what provocations can be found in critically interpretive readings and what measures should be taken in the form of alternative tactics that could increase their unspoken potential as urban generators?

workshop group walking in Oerlikon district residential park

These are the primary questions that formed the core investigation of the DPU summerLab Zurich held in the Swiss capital from August 6-11. The workshop, entitled Liminal Contours, under the collaboration and facilitation of the ETH Zurich, combined a series of lecture talks, exploratory city walks/site visits, and design charrette exercises. That suggestive title refers to a theme surrounding various suspect activities and alternative forms of development that, although not completely foreign or novel, still stand apart from the generally kosher character of the city and its more conservative development tendencies. It was in fact certain small divergent planning schemes that peaked particular entry points for this line of intriguing urban questioning.

No question about it, like many cities experiencing more rapid population growth, Zurich is expanding. Specifically, the western peripheral village of Altstetten has been a focus of real estate speculation since the early 90s. However, not living up to the hype, the area still retains its neighbouring village character complete with sub-urban style park-and-shop centres. Any serenity seems set to finally change as activities set in the former urban peripheries begin to transplant there along with an expanded rail and tram station.

containers for creative industry start-ups being moved onto the site in Altstetten

The most apparent of these new developments is the latest incarnation of the “Basislager” (Eng. translation – basecamp), a temporary clustering of stacked custom-designed shipping container-like modules meant to house creative industry start-ups. These compact commercial containers were original erected in the Binz district and will intend to house many of the previous tenants. The last few container clusters were being shifted as we visited the site. Already on the new site in Altstetten is another similar cluster of colourful shipping containers housing asylum seekers under a municipal scheme that allows immigrants to live there until their new papers are sorted, eventually giving way to another group of refugees. Undoubtedly the most intriguing entity that will be located near the commercial units is a “Strichplatz” (legal prostitution zone). Zurich has a healthy history of prostitution, both legal and illegal, and many such manifestations still exist throughout the city. The new-found attention, outright planning and forced juxtaposition of such a suspect and debated entity next to a temporary creative zone raises some profound questions in regard to the urban problematic.

shipping containers housing asylum seekers in Altstetten

 At the moment the site in Altstetten is in its infancy. The creative commercial containers are just now being stacked. The prostitution boxes or corrals (for a more honest label) are not yet erected. No landscaping features appear on the horizon and all indications would lead one to believe that not many will. Given the current skeleton of action on the site, the workshop participants and tutors had to look elsewhere for clues as to how these divergent activities manifest in their everyday manners. Through determined transect walks exploring various points throughout the city that contain elements of these activities, we focused primarily on two areas to provide the most generous identifiable revelations. The Langstrasse Quarter, an eclectic and diverse enclave of multicultural factions, sometimes hedonist energy, sex shops and a still apparent red light district character, was approached at different hours of the day in order to witness, in a sort of retrospective mode, how certain suspect activities have evolved and adapted over time. The Langstrasse has experienced various levels of gentrification. It’s once seedy image is wavering, yet a clear outsider reputation precedes any discussion on the area and one can easily find a healthy faction of sex workers and parallel levels of “clientele”, especially in the late hours of the night.

entrance of the Roland Kino (erotic cinema) on the Langstrasse

The most revealing observations were the dominating overlaps of programs in the area. An array of sex shops and erotic cinemas nestle somewhat seamlessly next to professional offices, galleries, clothing stores, kebab shops, and bars (some of which cater to the suspect trades). Here the concept of visibility vs. invisibility emerged as method of mapping and understanding the phenomenological character of the place. The idea of thresholds, the notion of public and private began to blur in different ways as one’s eyes moved from street level to a scanning of the facades of the buildings. A particularly intriguing observation was how the actual size of signage decreased as one moved away from the main high street. Signs and symbols of the sex industry would change as the residential quarters emerged in side streets, implying that a different level of acceptability occurred there.

spatial program analysis  in the Langstrasse Quarter

Similar former suspect areas were covered in our walks to gain further parallel understanding- including Platspitz (the former legal drug zone Needle Park) and drug/prostitution zones along the Limmat River. Although these scenes have been disbanded over 15 years ago, the historical knowledge and the layers of new activity provide interesting insight into the city’s liberal interludes. A short visit to the Binz district, the site of the former “Basislager” was a bookend to our field excursions. Here the group was able to detect a changing of the guard as the office containers were removed. What was clear is how the inhabitants of the containers had “moved in” to the site, dotting their immediate proximity with casual public amenities. This gave some hint as to how the future site in Altstetten might develop over a period of a couple of years.

model image of proposed “Strichplatz” and “Basislager” with walled partition in between

What emerged in the final days of production was a challenge of understand the Langstrasse Quarter and the Altstetten site across a package of thematic underpinnings. The notions of visibility, thresholds, juxtaposition, inheritance, temporary, and public formed the framework for mapping the phenomenological characteristics of these areas, hoping to reveal prioritized entry points that would elicit a sampled representation of the challenges facing the users of the future site. Recognizing a cross-cutting relationship of themes, especially in what was seen to be an odd tendency for the burgeoning creative industries and prostitution zones to always be located in peripheral settings, the framework allowed for clearer, if not still challenging transposition of observations from one site to the other. Without being able to see a finished transplanting of the activities in Altstetten, the speculation of interventions and strategies were limiting. However the process of understanding the phenomenal character and the spatialising of themes led to a more informed questioning of what it would mean to have these activities occupying neighbouring swaths of land and what tactics could lead to a critique of this situation.

group work at ETH’s  Werk 11

speculative critique of future activity on the Altstetten site

Ultimately the Zurich summerLab offered the opportunity to undertake a different reading of the city from alternative perspectives, and led to a critical thinking on proposals that challenge the decisions taken by current development planning schemes. The group was able to adopt alternative methods of design research and action with the charge to rethink the processes of urban practice in a dominant political economy where such processes, activities and contours might in some way regain control of the design of the urban realm.

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