BMW Guggenheim Lab opens in Berlin – the great gentrification debate continues

BMW Guggenheim Lab
BMW Guggenheim Lab

BMW Guggenheim Lab
The BMW Guggenheim Lab is officially open for art and play in Berlin, hosting a day of digital-themed workshops at the weekend following its controversial opening on Friday. So what’s all the fuss about?

“It’s a box to explore ideas about cities,” curator Maria Nicanor (pictured below) told VentureVillage. The lab started up three years ago as a way to transplant themes such as this from the Guggenheim Museum into urban streets. Berlin is the second spot in the lab’s nine-city, six-year tour, after New York and before Mumbai this December.

Over 100 events, projects, workshops, films and lectures are planned for Berlin, including skill-share workshops, bike tours and forums to explore themes such as city transformation and social inequality. On “making things digital” Sunday, a family-heavy crowd gathered to play with Arduinos, Cubelets and a laser cutter, alongside a basic circuit-making workshop for kids.

Maria Nicanor

The lab is much more accessible to the general public (free admission and hands-on activities) than your average museum or art gallery. Some Berlin residents, though, still view it as an unwelcome symbol of gentrification. Others take issue with corporate sponsor BMW’s role during Nazi-era Germany and question whether a car company is an appropriate sponsor for a project exploring sustainable urban living.

Earlier this year, the lab switched from a planned open space site in Kreuzberg to its current site, the backyard of former brewery Pfefferberg in Prenzlauer Berg, after what Nicanor calls a “strong reaction” from some Kreuzberg residents. There were two police vans parked outside Pfefferberg just before Friday’s opening and Der Spiegel reports a small protest took place later that afternoon, with slogans including “We don’t need New York to teach us how to talk”.

Addressing the “G” word – do we really need a solar-powered coffee roaster?

According to expat magazine Exberliner, average rents in Berlin have risen by €2.14 per square metre over the last ten years, to €6.49 per square metre in 2012. That may still be cheap by expat’s standards but is a serious worry for some long-term residents.

Willi MaurerPrenzlauer Berg community association Leute am Teute, whose work includes keeping an eye on rent rises and voluntarily looking after the green space and children’s park directly opposite Pfefferberg, published an open protest letter back in March laying out its opposition to the BMW Guggenheim Lab.

Willi Maurer, a Leute am Teute member who has lived in the same Prenzlauer Berg flat since 1999, argues the lab is trying to take charge of a debate about urban futures that should be led by city residents – and definitely without BMW sponsorship. He points to one of the projects in the lab programme – “build your own solar coffee-bean roaster using cheap household materials” – as a sign the lab is out of touch with those community members struggling to pay rent and fill their fridges.

Katrin DüringOthers see the lab as a chance for the community to show off its skills. “Young people who make art get a chance to come here and show their projects, promote what they do,” Katrin Düring told VentureVillage. “What’s wrong with that?” Like Maurer, Düring – who manages a nearby fabric store and provided materials to make bicycle accessories on day one of the lab – has lived in Prenzlauer Berg for at least a decade. “We can’t stop things changing here and we’re the not the first city where it has happened, so what can you do?”

The BMW Guggenheim Lab’s Maria Nicanova agreed residents’ concerns about gentrification were legitimate but argued the Lab can help with the discussion. For example, in a project designed by Berliner Corinne Rose, the lab will send a bright red “Freespace Berlin Mobile” to identify empty public spaces destined for development, whether they sold for the highest price and whether they’ll be used for a social purpose. Questions about BMW, she said, are out of context. “There are a lot of issues in Berlin that have nothing to do with the lab.”

What does this mean for Berlin’s startup community?

What Berlin will look like in 10 or 15 years time matters to those who want to help build a sustainable startup community, not least because cheap living costs are a major drawcard for promising startups. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below or ping us on Twitter @VentureVillage.

To check out the BMW Guggenheim Lab’s programme of events, visit the lab event and workshop calendar.

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