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Brussels - a Manifesto: Towards the Capital of Europe

01 Oct 2011 | 717 words | architecture brussels culture europeana


‘Towards the west, the border is sharp because of natural conditions…’ [Brussels – a manifesto, p.27]

I have mentioned before that Bruxelles is one of my favorite cities in the world and certainly in Europe. This is in spite of (or rather because) the city is a mess: European institutions reside in buildings that most of the time look as if they have been randomly dropped from the sky and fact that the city is a nightmare to cycle in but a joy to be in a taxi since it has lots of tunnels (i ❤️ tunnels!).

In my perception Bruxelles with al its unfinishedness and it’s myriad of antagonisms has always felt like a proper capital of Europe, but i can understand why people are not perceiving it as such. With the European project under intensifying attack it is probably a really bad time to propose investing heavily into making Bruxelles a proper European capital, but that is exactly what the authors of the excellent ‘Brussels – a Manifesto: Towards the Capital of Europe’ proposed in their 2007 manifesto.

The whole manifest, from the observations on the borders of Europe that contain the above quote to architectural interventions proposed, really makes a lot of sense to me and i would love to see this realized sooner rather than later.

Of all the interventions proposed by the authors, one struck a particular chord in me: The Mundaneum complex that – according to the Manifesto’s authors – would come to house the European Central Library and a number of related Institutions. The Mundaneum gets his name from a rather fascinating post WWI attempt to build an institution that would hold all the worlds knowledge (a sort of pre-google/wikipedia if you will):

This project of culture and education in the west of Brussels refers to the Project that Paul Ortlet and Henri Lafontaine started in 1919: The creation of a Munadaneum in Brussels’ Cinquantenaire Area. The Ambition was to create a centre of centers, or a worlds database of knowledge – “a temple devoted to knowledge, education and fraternity among people”, ” a representation of the world and what it contains”. To be able to archive and this knowledge, Ortlet developed a standard classification system based on referential cards. This is the Universal Decimal Classification system that would simplify scientific research by establishing links between different forms and areas of knowledge. It is the first database , which also formed the basis for hypertext. Otlet’s and Lafontaine’s initiative was not an isolated case: At the same time Jorge Luis Borges’ imagined the Library of Babel as a place that contains “all the possible combinations of the twenty-odd orthographical symbols … the translation of every book in all languages, the interpolations of every book in all books”. [Brussels – a manifesto, p.152]

As someone spending a lot of my time working with Europeana, reading the proposal for the Mundaeum/European Central Library reminds me of the relatively sorry state of the European digitization effort. Europeana – it’s flagship and closest real world equivalent of the Manifesto’s Europeana Central Library – currently consists of a website that provides information about 20M works, many of which are only accessible in low-quality to online users. This stands in sharp contrast this with the – entirely fictional – description of the European Central Library from the manifesto:

The Central Library, cooperating with national libraries, provides the links, translations and information to be elaborated and processed. Books, cinema, newspapers, music, etcetera would be digitized and saved in one place; 260.000.000 items now stored on the shelves of 25 national libraries in 43 different languages would all be organized with the UDC system that Paul Ortlet developed. [Brussels – a manifesto, p.152]

Reading the above, it strikes me that one of the things that Europeana is missing most is an offline presence like the proposed Mundaneum :

European Central Library

This is what europeana should be looking like today [Brussels – a manifesto, p.157]

bonus: The proposed location for the Mundaneum is right next to the spot where i took this picture back in 2000 or so…

update [14.3.12]: The folks at google have discovered the mundane as well. they have also produced a nice little video honoring Ortlet as ‘the man who dreamt the internet‘.

Looking at the crisis from inside the belly of the beast

One of the more notorious/famous places in São Paulo is the boutique department store (Villa) Daslu. According to wikipedia ‘the boutique is known as the ‘fashion designers mecca’ of Brazil as it houses more than 60 labels plus 30 store-in-stores and is the place where Brazilian socialites, ranging from multi-millionaire soccer players to conglomerate bigwigs shop for the latest accessories and clothing’. Leged has it that Daslu is the only department store in the world where you can also buy helicopters (although that seems to be a bit of an exaggeration, in reality you can (could?) buy fractual ownership in helicopters operated by HeliSoultions) though the store.

Yesterday Kai and I decided to pay a visit to Villa Daslu to have a look at this icon of Brazilian upper class lifestyle. To our surprise/disappointment/excitement we found relatively little of the expected abundance. Instead large parts of the building stood empty looking as if they had been hastily abandoned and the few shoppers to be seen were easily outnumbered by the staff.

Large sections of the 2nd and the 3rd floor as well as some of the showrooms on the 1st and the 4th floor (including former Chanel, Gucci, Dolce & Gabana outlets) were completely empty, with all merchandise and most of the display-furniture missing. Strangely the management of the store did not even try to hide these empty spaces (one employe told us that they were ‘changing the concept of the store’ but in the absence of any sign of construction this seemed a bit implausible). As a result we were more or less free to stroll though the deserted parts of the building and take pictures of the emptiness (more pictures in this flickr set):

Moving through this half deserted temple of luxury shopping was easily one of the most surreal experiences i have ever had. This was reinforced by the fact that in other parts of the building the staff carried on as if everything was completely normal.

While i would certainly hope that this situation is illustrative of the effects of the economic crisis on the über-posh lifestyle of the Brazilian upper class this is probably not the case (it seems that the herd has simply moved to other pastures on the other side of the river). Instead it appears to be more likely that this situation is the result of the recent legal troubles of Eliana Tranchesi, owner and founder of Daslu who was recently sentenced to 94 years in prison and fined €434 million for tax fraud and smuggling. Apparently the aftermath of this verdict is slowly eating away this once iconic symbol of São Paulo’s immense economic inequality from the inside.

Bonus: one other option that i had considered for spending queens-day was to make a quick one day trip to brasilia (inspired by these incredible photos of the construction of brasilia by Marcel Gautherot). guess that will have to wait until next time…

Update (23.04.2012): The January 2012 edition of Time Out São Paulo contains a short article about the demise of Daslu (‘Death of a showroom‘) that uses two of the photos i took during my visit.

Dancing on the remains of the 20th century

27 Sep 2008 | 291 words | copyright germany technology architecture

I am on my way back from the still ongoing conference ‘Kreative Arbeit und Urheberecht‘ (Arbeit2.0) organized by irights.info and the HKMV in Dortmund. The conference is taking place in the phoenix-halle on the terrain of the former phönix-west iron works in Dortmund. The whole terrain is currently being developed into a nanotechnology/creative-industries/science park and this development takes place around the industrial ruin of the blast furnaces 5 & 6 of the former Phönix-west iron works, where at the hight of production in the early 20th century more than 6.200 workers produced steel.

We spend Friday’s lunch-break exploring the impressive ruin by climbing up to the top of the remaining blast furnace (most of the second one has been disassembled and shipped to china where is has been reassembled), which is quite a fantastic environment to explore as you can see from this series of beautiful black and white pictures taken within the same complex). Interestingly the construction workers that where renovating parts of the ruin did not seem to care about our presence at all (as long as we would greet them with ‘mahlzeit’ that is…).

For me the ruin provided a quite apt (and somewhat cynical) backdrop for the discussions of the conference which on the first day centered around the question how creative individuals can make a living from their work in times of ubiquitous access to creative works and a ever more repressive copyright system geared at preserving the rights of ‘big content’ and inflexible collective rights management organizations. I am sure that i was not the only person who took the ruins on the horizon as evidence that even the most established branches of industry can disappear as the result of changes that happen around them…


18 Feb 2008 | 275 words | cycling imagination new york architecture

Geoff at BLDGBLOG has a post about elevators, which reminds me of the first and only time i have been inside the empire state building: in 2000 during metropoloco one of the checkpoints of during the main race was suite 6172 (or something like that) in the Empire State Building. Never having been in a building with more than 10 floors before i somehow assumed that this meant that the suit would be on the 6th floor (taking a clue from the leading 6 ignoring that the first two characters might indicate the floor number). In the end this meant that i lost a lot of time (most of it spend in elevators):

On an only vaguely related note, meanwhile, I’d be curious to see if you could invert the expected volumetric relationship between stationary floors and moving elevators in a high-rise.

In other words, if elevators usually take up, say, one-twentieth of a building’s internal space, could you flip that ratio and end up with just one stationary floor somewhere hanging out up there inside a labyrinth of elevators?

You have a job interview on that one, lone floor in a half an hour’s time but you can’t find the place. You’re moving from elevator to elevator, going down again and stopping, then stepping across into another lift that takes you up four floors higher than you’d expected to be before you’re going down again, confused. You hear other elevators when you’re not moving, and it’s impossible to locate yourself amidst that system of moving rooms. The only floors you ever exit onto are simply other elevators.

read the rest of his post here

There is another warehouse way beyond the end of the long tail

02 Dec 2007 | 434 words | libraries architecture books copyright modernity

So the commonly used images to visualize the Long Tail are shots from inside the enormous warehouses run by the online book retailer amazon.com all over the world.

Seems like that these warehouse are not the only ones associated with the long tail. In reality (which is not properly depicted by all those fancy graphical representations of the long tail) enormous warehouses are being constructed way beyond the (imagined) end of the long tail:

The Guardian has an excellent article (‘Inside the tomb of tomes‘) that focusses on the construction of a warehouse that will house the British Library’s collection of books that no one is reading. The warehouse, currently being constructed somewhere in the cultural wastelands of the midlands, will house most of the books that the BL aquires via the legal deposit function it has for copyrighted works being published in the UK. Under this system it has to take into it’s collection a copy of every book being published in the UK which means that they are amassing a fair amount of unwanted books:

We used to build cathedrals. Now we build warehouses. [… This] warehouse is extraordinary because, unlike all those monstrous Tesco and Amazon depositories that litter the fringes of the motorways of the Midlands, it is being meticulously constructed to house things that no one wants. When it is complete next year, this warehouse will be state-of-the-art, containing 262 linear kilometres of high-density, fully automated storage in a low-oxygen environment. It will house books, journals and magazines that many of us have forgotten about or have never heard of in the first place.[…]

It is where, before this century reaches its teens, copies of books spared a quick death at the pulping plant – thanks to the grace of the provisions of the 1911 Copyright Act and later government legislation – will go to serve their life sentences in a secure environment. […] The British Library, you see, strives to live up to its self-imposed title of “the world’s knowledge”. That knowledge, though, is an odd thing. Along with the Magna Carta and the Gutenberg Bible, it includes Everybody Poos, by Taro Gomi (to help kids over toilet phobias). Not to mention Wayne Rooney’s autobiography, Jordan’s novel and a book called Do Ants Have Arseholes And 101 Other Bloody Ridiculous Questions. The MPs who in 1911 established the legal deposit principle for the five greatest libraries in the British Isles probably didn’t realise the full consequences of their decision.

Read the complete guardian article here [via BLDGblog which has a couple of amazing warehouse/library pictures in its review]

Change & rain

20 Jul 2007 | 154 words | amsterdam architecture mobile networks photos rain

It is a bit more than a month that i have left Waag Society and started working for Kennisland | Knowledgeland. Although i have not really had time to reflect it feels really good to work for a new organization (and with new colleagues!!) after almost 5 years at the Waag and there is lots of exiting stuff ahead.

However for some strange reason the time i have been at KL more or less corresponds with the period of extremely shitty weather here in Amsterdam, which is best illustrated by this picture of the building that houses KL’s offices (on the 4th floor) taken on monday evening:

Picture taken from the at5 website, where it is credited to 'Inge

Which somehow reminds me of this picture of the Waag (sorry no higher resolution available), which also explains my sisters reaction (looks like disneyland again!’) when she first saw the picture of the KL building.

Pictures from Bombay cinema halls

26 Apr 2007 | 148 words | bombay india cinema photos architecture

Sarai independent fellow Zubin Pastakiais talking pictures of old-style Bombay cinema halls, and has started posting them to his blog:

I am currently photographing cinema halls in Bombay, India, the city in which I live. Here, we still have a mix of older, single-screen halls, and modern multiplexes. I am fascinated by the cinema hall – from its built architecture and physical surfaces to the people that come to watch films and the people that work there. The project seeks to photographically explore the cultural experience of different types of cinema halls in Bombay city.

There are some really beautifully shots on the blog already and he promises that there are much more to come. I really like the ones showing projectionists next to those ancient projectors so common in indian cinema halls. I took some very similar shots two years ago in Bangalore.

Photo by Zubin Pastakiais

He wants 20 million yuan, or he'll stay till the end of the world

12 Mar 2007 | 8 words | china urbanism architecture

Gotta love the chinese! [from ananova.com via boingboing]

Helipads (!!!)

I have mentioned it before, but the thing that impressed me the most so far is the facts that people actually travel by helicopter within the city. There are lots of heli-pads on buildings in the city and if you find yourself placed high enough to oversee a bit of the city you actually see helicopters taking of somewhere and landing elsewhere on a heli-pad. Of course this is kind of sick (someone told me that you can actually commute by helicopter from the north-zone to downtown for R$ 5000 per month (the minimum income is something like R$ 500)) but it is also poetic in al its shabby futuristic-scenarions-have-come-true glory.

Heli-pad on Avenida Paulista

Heli-pad in downtown area (with helicopter landing)

The small shabby helicopter from the last image in mid-flight

Heli-pad on Avenida Paulista

Heli-pad in downtown area

meanwhile... is the personal weblog of Paul Keller. I am currently policy director at Open Future and President of the COMMUNIA Association for the Public Domain. This weblog is largely inactive but contains an archive of posts (mixing both work and personal) going back to 2005.

I also maintain a collection of cards from African mediums (which is the reason for the domain name), a collection of photos on flickr and a website collecting my professional writings and appearances.

Other things that i have made online: