- Counterpreservation: Architectural Decay in Berlin since 1989 by Daniela Sandler
Cornell University Press, 2016
Monuments are not finished objects. However, in everyday preservation practice they are often treated as such. Listed buildings are frequently restored to a previously documented or imagined-original state and made to appear as if just completed by their original creators. This artificial state is then strictly maintained, not allowing for any further changes or appropriations by the monument’s users. This dilemma is encapsulated by the notion of Käseglocken (meaning “cheese bell”) preservation, a polemic term that in a German context is often used by preservation critics. Once an object is put on a monuments list and restored it is considered unchangeable—it becomes decontextualized from natural life cycles, including decay, which is prevented to a point of denial. Like cheese under a glass cover protected from mice, bugs, or rot, the historical object is protected from material entropy.
Daniela Sandler confronts this type of conventional preservation practice in her book Counterpreservation: Architectural Decay in Berlin since 1989. Through a selection of case studies connected to memory, public space, and gentrification in Berlin, she explores how the intentional appropriation of decay can be “a way to represent the history of buildings and sites more truthfully than restoration” (24).
Sandler, an architect and architectural historian, currently an assistant professor of architectural and urban history in the School of Architecture at the University of Minnesota, traveled to Berlin in 2003 for a year of research. Having grown up in Brazil where “dilapidation, grime, dirt and neglect are perceived as signs of poverty,” she became interested in why Berliners’ voluntarily lived and worked in decaying and decrepit structures and even took pride in it (xii). Pursuing an understanding of this ubiquitous phenomenon, architectural and social practices originating in the first two post-wall decades in East Berlin become Sandler’s historical and geographic focus in Counterpreservation.
In the years following reunification, Berlin gained its global reputation as a dynamic city in part through its vibrant alternative scene’s appropriation of decaying structures. At the same time, extensive renovations and restorations were carried out, radically erasing testimonies of the recent past. This duality is the origin of Sandler’s useful investigations into subversive forms of preservation, a study that goes beyond [End Page 121] critique of conventional preservation practice to demonstrate the potentials of countercultural practices for preservation at a time when the field is undergoing a paradigm shift from an object-based monument thinking to an actors-based heritage thinking.
The book comprises six chapters, starting with an introduction to Sandler’s concept of “counterpreservation.” In the first chapter (“Counterpreservation as a Concept”), the author positions counterpreservation theoretically in relation to Henri Lefebvre’s “Right to the City” and John Ruskin’s affection for decay, and situates its practices specifically within the context of Berlin and the city’s post-wall planning and preservation policies. In the following five chapters, Sandler introduces East Berlin case studies, which she uses to further define the subject of counterpreservation.
Chapter 2 (“Living Projects: Collective Housing, Alternative Culture, and Spaces of Resistance”) is dedicated to private and domestic forms of counterpreservation illustrated through a discussion of housing projects. Chapter 3 (“Cultural Centers: History, Architecture, Public Space”) focuses on public places in the form of cultural centers like “Haus Schwarzenberg,” an officially listed historic complex in the district of Berlin-Mitte that houses several cultural institutions as well as studio and exhibition spaces and features a street-art-covered courtyard that is a popular tourist attraction.
Chapter 4 (“Decrepitude and Memory in the Landscape”) introduces a conceptual approach to counterpreservation through Daniel Libeskind’s unrealized 1992 competition entry for the redesign of Sachsenhausen’s SS-barracks in Oranienburg. Here, Sandler dynamically engages with memorialization, exploring Libeskind’s design concept and memorial strategy that embraced and even sought to trigger material change. Libeskind proposed a water feature at the site that would submerge the SS-barracks ruins and promote the decomposition of the existing built fabric, thus incorporating the passage of time into the architecture—an important characteristic of...