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Heterotopia in Berlin: Tempelhofer Feld

To analyze the Foucaultian concept of heterotopia, in search for an answer to the question How will we live together?, means investigating new glimpses of sociality and related urban spaces. It is not enough to recognize its presence: heterotopies can be important mechanisms to radically rethink the city, to break it down, re-imagine and re-assemble it. Tempelhofer Feld, by Raumlabor, is an urban heterotopy because it carries out such processes, questioning the very idea of a built city, generating identity and appropriation of the place, often with unconventional tools for architecture.

A heterotopy is literally another space: not utopian, but real and tangible. A spontaneous production of civilization. Within it, social and spatial dynamics are radically different. Examples are libraries, cemeteries, but also prisons, colleges, trains, and ships.

Michel Foucault was the first to propose this concept as an evident moment of our experience, tangible and concrete. After all, the French philosopher is far from being distant to those themes common to architecture such as space, time, or function. In the Italian intellectual environment, the Foucaultian work is well received and assimilated, less in the architecture. One of the few organic efforts to apply some of the French philosopher’s reasoning to architecture is the “Foucault Device”¹, reports of a 1976 conference that involved also Manfredo Tafuri and George Teyssot; the purpose of the conference was to make a “spacial” story of society. The notion of heterotopy is finally assimilated with a strong poetic connotation: a memorandum of some of the core values of architecture. However, in this article we do not want to restore a poetic image of heterotypic space, whose charm is immediately evident, but to seek a poietic value: making heterotopy an agenda for the future of architecture, city and sociality.


© Raumlaborberlin, Collage, Hilberseimer at Tempelhofer Feld, Berlin.

Italo Calvino, in this sense, can transmit us an important notion. In the story “The Count of Monte Cristo” ², Calvino discusses the concepts of time, space, and consciousness. It is only through an alignment of these three parameters that Edmondo Dantes manages to escape from Château d’If. In doing so, a sort of “imaginary heterotopy” is unconsciously recreated that follows many of the characters identified by Foucault. In the sailor’s cell one abandons full compliance with the laws of time and space to make it a place of the multiplicity of possible things. We are witnessing a disintegration of the physicality of space, that becomes a cultural production of the institution that imposes a condition of segregation and asociality. In such a scenario, the Calvinian man tries to remedy himself through thought, both rational and illogical, hypertrophic, but increasingly precise and original. The result is drastic: the space before being physical turns out to be cognitive, in an infinite process of appropriation of locative matter, elaboration of it and transformation. So Dantes concludes:

“If I can think of building a fortress from which it is impossible to escape, this fictional fortress will be equal to the real -and in this case it is certain that we will not escape from there; but at least we would have reached the tranquility of those who know that it is here because it could not be elsewhere- or it will be a fortress from which escape is even more impossible than here -and then it is a sign that here a possibility of escape exists: it will be enough to identify the point where the fictional fortress does not coincide with the real one to find it”.

Italo Calvino is not just asking us a gnoseological question, but a lesson on our way of imagining the future, and with it our way of relating to the space surrounding us.

But what are the heterotopies in our contemporary city? Certainly, many of the places identified by Foucault himself answer to this question, but I will focus on an example that can give an accurate image of the potential of heterotopy in the social fabric: Tempelhofer Feld in Berlin.


© Raumlaborberlin, Pioneering at Tempelhofer Feld, Berlin.

Obviously to describe the project it’s necessary to contextualize it both geographically and historically: during the years of reunification, around the city of Berlin a strong debate developed on the architectural direction that the city should follow, the lines of thought were two: Hans Stimmann proposed the reconstruction of the Prussian fabric by abolishing the deconstructivist excesses, in fact creating a city as “normal” as possible. This vision was opposed by personalities of international calibre, including, Rem Koolhaas, with his model of city as green archipelago³, a project that sees in being “empty” the maximum potential of the German capital, not to rebuild a city like Stimmann, but to give its inhabitants places of life: “Where there is architecture nothing else is possible”⁴. In parallel to this debate, its inhabitants are appropriating the city in a different way.

The clubs are expression of a rising underground culture, which radicalized lead to the phenomenon of squatting: illegal occupation of land or buildings to create nightclubs, discos or even exhibition spaces. The phenomenon that is created is that of direct appropriation of the city, of “architectural activism”. The city is a white canvas for its inhabitants and these spaces are real heterotopies, productions of an urban culture, detached from the existing city. However, the dynamics of formation are different from the Foucaultian ones, but equally interesting: although it is for all intents a space of contestation, it is not a slow production of civilization but a rupture within it. A rupture that reaches its peak in the illegal action of the occupation: they are the inhabitants who demand the right to the city. The process is similar to what Carlo Ratti called “Urban hacking”.


© Giuliano Coppola, Sport at Tempelhofer Feld, Berlin.

Tempelhof Airport is located in a central area of Berlin, between the districts of Neukölln and Schöneberg, built in 1927, since the early years of the last decade was unsuitable for today’s needs. With its eighty years of activity it was one of the main military airports, home to important operations such as the airlift of 48-49. Closed in October 2008, Raumlabor is commissioned to elaborate a masterplan for this area. The designers in this space, abnormal in terms of size and condition, adopt a radical vision.

“For Raumlabor, designing the city means first of all redefining, structuring and guiding the processes of its transformation”.

In short, the task of architecture is not simply to design a space, but to study and investigate ways of appropriation and relation. In this context, it was essential to allocate a large part of the land to public use. However, the usability of a space is a necessary condition, but not sufficient for a high degree of appropriation of the same. For this reason Raumlabor launched an online call, called “What could happen now?”, to identify ideas, functions and potential actors: a real “market survey” on which to balance the project. One of the first strategies was that of pioneering fields, that is to lend temporarily to anyone who asked for it with a valid proposal for the small plots of the park. This has enabled Raumlabor but also its citizens to understand the potential of such a space. Tempelhofer Feld quickly enters the collective imagination of Berlin. The strength of this urban park lies in its size, over 300 hectares of lawn, never interrupted by trees or other elements that could compromise the continuity of the sky:

“Here you can see the horizon |…| there are no houses, there are no trees and therefore the light, the air, the sounds are completely different from every other part of the city”.

The choice to leave the airport facilities unchanged, as well as the tracks and signage on the asphalt contributes to strengthen the identity of the place.

Tempelhofer_Feld-Temporary structure

© Raumlaborberlin, Temporary structure on the Feld, Berlin.

Tempelhofer Feld is another space of the city, generated not so much by the design gesture of Raumlabor (just minimal, leaving all the elements “as found”), but by the appropriation of the park by the citizens, who exploit it in a thousand different ways, as a place to practice sports, conventional or not, for meetings, private and public, cultural events, markets, gardening, artistic installations, outdoor screenings, etc… often with the help of temporary structures. Obviously the process was not linear: at first this did not seem to happen and Raumlabor himself, who had already officially ended the assignment, decides to launch plug-ins: activities and events specific to the Feld able to give it an urban vocation if not international. The importance of the numerous temporary projects is their being “able to suggest new ideas of how the city could be”⁷: in this quote is evident all the heterotopic charge of Tempelhofer Feld. We must build, like the Calvinian Edmondo Dantes our castles d’if: our cities that are becoming prisons, places of segregation and inequality and then dismantle them, question them, recompose them and finally overlap with those existing, see where there is no coincidence, that is, where today’s city differs from the ideal one and act accordingly. It is essential in this path that architecture and urban planning are not imposed and exclusive, but act as catalysts for the appropriation of the city by its inhabitants. Tempelhofer Feld shows us how the first question is not “How will we live together?” but “How we want to live together?”.

Translated into English by Berk Ozturk.

Cover: © Raumlaborberlin, Project drawing.

¹ Massimo Cacciari, Francesco Rella, Manfredo Tafuri, George Teyssot, Il dispositivo Foucalt, CLUVA, Venezia.
² Italo Calvino, Il conte di Montecristo, in Ti con zero, Einaudi Torino, 1967.
³ Oswald Ungers, Rem Koolhaas, A manifesto, 1977, on :The City in the City – Berlin: A Green Archipelago, (curated by) Florian Hertweck, Sebastien Marot, 2013.
⁴ Rem Koolhaas, Immaginare il nulla, on OMA. Rem Koolhaas. Architetture 1970-1990, (curated by) Jacques Lucan, Electa, 1991.
⁵ Nicola Russi, Background, Quodlibet studio, 2019, p 92.
⁶ Benjamin Foerster-Baldenius, interview published on Background, p. 102.
⁷ ivi, p. 105.
Raumlabor’s web site, Tempelhofer project

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He was born in Naples, where he obtained the classical European diploma, which allowed him to have numerous experiences of cultural exchange, in France, England and Ireland. In 2018 he began his studies in Architectural Design at the Polytechnic of Milan. His main interests, in addition to architecture and art, are photography, reading, cinematography and philosophy. Lately he has been exploring the fields of psychology and sociology. He is attracted to the study and analysis of apparently contradictory situations, in any discipline, from historiography to economics.
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