A group of city planners and architects called raumlaborberlin demonstrated with its Eichbaumoper project how high arts like the opera can show a brighter future for a run-down public space. Helsinki´s architectural agencies and cultural institutions could learn a lot from them.
The Ruhr area on the German-French border is a European beacon of the industrial age. Its coal and steel production was the center of the German post-war Wirtschaftswunder. but as the European steel industry lost its competitiveness in the 1970s, the area was pushed into heavy decline. In just two years, between 1973 and 1975 the area´s unemployment more than tripled. For the last decades Germany has been pouring heavy structural subsidies into the area to help the area adapt to the change.
The tightly knit ten cities of the area are connected to each other with a subway. As the economy of the Ruhrgebiet has been struggling, many of the metro stations have turned into unwelcoming – and in the worst case – unsafe places. One of these is the Eichbaum station in Müllheim. The government was trying to stop the growing violence and unruliness by increasing surveillance and stripping the place as bare as possible – without much success. This is where raumlaborberlin stepped in.
One of the agency´s founders, architect Jan Liesegang, told the Low2No Campers that they felt that slight improvement would not be sufficient. One would need to switch scales and think B-I-G, to do something the citizens were not expecting. They also did not want to do something that would not connect to the community – temporary projects often actually end up emphasising the lack of options as the caravan continues to the next location.
Raumlaborberlin succeeded in their ambitions. Many eyes were rolled as they introduced their plans: to turn the metro station into an opera house. The installed a sign on the roof of the station saying ´Eichbaumoper´ and built a center out of containers. They started working with the locals by organising storytelling workshops to collect material for the libretto. The architects moved on-site and started interacting with local young people. They organised music workshops and possibilities for graffitis, yet maintaining the quality standards needed for a production. They built a partnership with near-by opera ensemble as well as theatres and started practising at the metro station.
Jan Liesegang says that it was essential that the locals on their way to work could see the building being built up. Volunteers were invited to join the production as extras. The metro kept running so the residents could witness the set being built or the orchestra practising. The piece was composed so that it took into consideration the timetables of the metro. The first part of the opera was performed on the metro.
Liesegang admits that there was a lot of skepticism towards the project. A lot of people would not believe that the opera – a full orchestra and professional singers –would actually come into their neighbourhood.
Eichbaumoper was not a cheap project. “With the costs of one ticket, we could have probably bought a car for every visitor”, Liesegang laughs. But the true value of the Eichbaumoper is in providing hope. It showed that we can change urban places and we can build alliances across disciplines. The opera production has been followed by everything from boxing matches to wood building workshops. The metro station has become a place, not just a space.
So what can Helsinki learn from Müllheim? We can learn that to see the full potential of creativity and culture, we need to pose more difficult questions for it to solve. Instead of parachuting and purely focusing on end results, we need to include the community in shaping up the stories. But at the same time we need to keep the quality standards high. In order to nudge an area into a more communal future, we need to take our thinking in local interventions to a national or even European level.