The (in)formal City – Part 1: Berl-in-formality

In early 2013 I was offered the opportunity to apply for a professional exchange programme between Berlin and Johannesburg, The (in)formal City Programme to explore the nature of informality, which i was fortunate enough to be selected for:

The (in)formal City is a cooperation project around an interdisciplinary team from Berlin and Johannesburg of people interested in the complex phenomena of urbanisation between formality and informality. 

The project was initiated by Inpolis and the Goethe-Institut in Berlin and funded by the Robert Bosch Stiftung. The cooperation partners in Johannesburg are 26’10 SOUTH ARCHITECTS and Alexander Opper (University of Johannesburg).

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Berlin -Week 1

The programme selected 12 participants from a Johannesburg application process and 12 from Berlin,  and involved spending 2 week focussed research periods in either city exploring the nature of informality in both locations.

Day 1: what does Informal/Formal mean to you?
Berlin was introduced to the Joburger’s in a rapid and thorough fashion, starting in the city’s planning department with amazing scale models of Berlin.
City Planning Department in Berlin
Amazingly detailed models of Berlin

The introduction then quickly took us through the city’s amazing collection of memorials, starting with the haunting beauty of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe by Peter Eisenman.

Eisenman Memorial
Eisenman Memorial


Eisenman Memorial

The simplicity of arranging these columns in a grid to re-create the effect of disappearance is quite amazing.

Eisenman Memorial Effect # 1
Eisenman Memorial Effect # 2
Eisenman Memorial Effect # 3
This space is highly successful in achieving the intended effect, with a colleague sharing how a friend she brouhgt to site was so moved by the experience that he/she was brought to tears in remembrance of a family member who dissapeared  from her/.his life. 
The forms encouraged people to climb on top for reflection

While many people choose to pay their respects to the memorial in reflective silence, other choose to play – with local authorities close by to reprimand them.

…and play
The heights and forms appeal to the playful nature of attracted many people to engage with the volumetric nature of the space – which the local authorities quickly and continually had to re-enforce.


Brandenburg Gate
 Followed quickly past the Holocaust memorial were the Brandenburg Gate



Sinti Roma Victim Memorial

… the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma victims of National Socialism …

Homosexual Persecution Memorial
Day 1 wrapped up

The first day was finished in a strange experience for a South African – enjoying an afternoon in a public park…more on this was explored later in the programme

Relaxing in Public Space?
Day 2
Prinzessinnengarten, a ‘community’ garden in Berlin’s was our first stop the following day, this urban garden has been set up in the bustling suburb of Kreutzberg on the former border of Berlin’s Eastern edge. As a group we were very lucky to be shown the garden by co-founder Robert Shaw.


Nomadisch Grün (Nomadic Green) launched Prinzessinnengärten (Princess gardens) as a pilot project in the summer of 2009 at Moritzplatz in Berlin Kreuzberg, a site which had been a wasteland for over half a century. Along with friends, activists and neighbours, the group cleared away rubbish, built transportable organic vegetable plots and reaped the first fruits of their labour.

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Robert Shaw explaining Prinzessengarten

Our Berlin hosts took great care to explain in detail to us the nature of the garden and how they see it fitting into the narrative of the programme.

Berlin hosts explaining details


See fellow participants 
Héctor Carreto & Olumuyiwa Adegun’s research on Prinzessengarten:
Image: Hector & Olumuyiwa

We then made our way to Oranienplatz, where a group of ‘African refugees‘ were demonstrating against the  their inhuman treatmant by the European Union:

Refugee protest camp

The group had a set up a camp in the Berlin neighbourhood and under the support of the mayor staged their protest peacefully to:

– To abolish the law of residency obligation
– To stop deportations
– To close refugee camps
– To achieve better living conditions in dignity for us refugees in Germany

Refugee protest demonstration


See fellow participants Martin Schinagl & Tshanda Mbuyi’s research on the Refugee Protest:

Image: Tshanda & Martin’s Post

The afternoon was completed by a tour of the ‘Turkish neighbourhoods’ by local resident who explained the complex history of Turkish migrant labour and the social stigma’s around such minority groups today.


‘Turkish Neighborhood’ visit
See fellow participants Sylvana Jahre & Trusha Mitha’s research here on community organizations in Berlin:
Image: Trusha & Sylvana Post

Day 3



Visiting the famous modernist housing development of Gropiusstadt and seeing in person the structures and forms that one has studied for so long is a truly inspiring experience. 
See fellow participants Nathalia Garzón Arredondo & Nicolette Pingo’s research on Gropiustadt here:
Image: Nicollette & Nathalia Post
There is something about growing up so far from taught precedents of architecture that makes seeing such examples in person so special. 
Templehof Field

By far my favourite space in Berlin, the Templehof Field is a de-commissioned airport that has now become an integral part of the open-green public space systems in Berlin’s dense residential neighbourhoods.

We experienced the Templehof Field through a local organisation that had set up a public garden space within the large expanse of green.

Templehof Field


… and finished the day with a Berlin-styled Braai…


See fellow participants Héctor Carreto & Olumuyiwa Adegun’s  research on Templehof: 

Image: Hector & Olumiyiwa

Day 4

Ex Rota print was once a publishing facility that has now a protected and preserved iece of industrial heritage.


Ex Rotaprint Building Diagram

The space is now used a multi-function office, community and public space that serves multiple creative and social functions in it’s neighborhood.

Ex Rotaprint Explanation
Ex Rotaprint


This day was spend exploring the various re-purposed industrial buildings that represent an important era in Berlin’s development as a city.
See fellow participants Melissa Chávez & Gert van der Merwe’s research on Ex Rotaprint: 
Image: Mellisa & Gert’s Post


De-Commissioned Industrial Building
De-Commissioned Industrial Building
De-Commissioned Industrial Building
De-Commissioned Industrial Building
De-Commissioned Industrial Building – turned into dance hall

Many of these industrial spaces now serve as creative or cultural spaces such as this de-commissioned warehouse that now houses a dance studio amongst other performance spaces.

Street Art

These areas are littered with street art, that guided us through these amazing city spaces.

Street Art


Statt Swembad

This part of the programme took us to the Statt Swembadt – a re-purposed public swimming pool that housed such cultural and creative programmes.

Statt Swembad Pool – turned into music venue
Statt Swembad Pool – wall art
Statt Swembad change room – turned into creative office space

The change rooms had been conveted into a hot desking space that at the time was being used by a print artist.

Statt Swembad Pool – turned into music venue


This day concluded with a visit to RAW an industrial strip located between the Spree river and Boxhagener –  a very trendy part of residential Berlin.


RAW Street Art

This area is largely houses a mix of party venues from Gothic themed venues to Jazz and Salsa – and is such that most of the building are beautfiully expressed through painted street graphics.

RAW Street Art


RAW Street Art


RAW Street Art

The RAW precinct is part of the Anti-Media Spree Campaign that is fighting the privatisation and development of such spaces across the Spree River banks.

(in)formal City team exhausted…


See fellow participant’s Claudia Morgado and Tilman Versch’s research on Fashion:

Image: Claudia & Tilman’s Post

To see more posts from participants of Week 1:

Image: Claudia Morgado


Time Off

Following an action packed week of Berlin we were given the weekend off to explore the city un-programmed.

Stumble Stones – a city wide memorial to those who were taken by the Nazis

The residential areas of Berlin hide a beautiful and sinister memorial at various locations – these stumble stones commemorate those who were taken from their homes during the nationalist pograms and are intended to be ‘stumbled’ upon in everyday life.

Stumble Stones – a city wide memorial to those who were taken by the Nazis

Mauer Park Berlin Wall Art

Parts of the Berlin wall are commemorated all over the city. The wall in Mauer Park is constantly being re-painted and re-expressed.

Mauer Park Berlin Wall Art
Re-purposed industrial park

The weekend was spent relaxing as our hosts showed us more of the diverse artistic spaces and initiative across the city.

Re-purposed industrial park
Boxhaganer Platz

Street Art by night
Party in a boat house on the River Spree – as we came expect in Berlin this was not uncommon…
Street Art by night


Berlin Squatters – Party Time
Weekend close off

The week was beautifully closed by a Sunday sunset on a bridge with Alexanderplatz Tower in the distance.

Week 2

For this week we were to choose a tandem partner, and explore one of the sites further through a condensed research exercise.
Goerlitzer Park
I was partnered with a geography student from the Humboldt university, Hanna Niklasz.  We chose to look at perceptions of public space with a larger aim to compare how people used and expressed their perception to public space in a public park in Berlin; the Goerlitzer Park.
To see my research conducted with Hanna Niklasz on Goerlitzer Park:
Image: Hanna Kilasz & Jhono Bennett Post


The park is stigmatized with an assocaition to drug dealng and drug use – this perception did not seem too far off as I experienced very obious drug dealers who operated in plain sight and quite openly (and friendlily) offered us their services.

Stigmatized – but used public space

Even though the drug selling was quite evident, the park is still active and quite busy at most hours of the day.

For me as a South African the idea that such an element operated in the park in both open and closed public spaces was quote a shock .

These perceptions of both the tandem and park users were explored and documented thoroughly in the following post:

See participants Malve 
Jacobsen & Tebogo Ramatlo’s research on Bottle Collectors in public space:
Image: Tebogo & Malve Post

Final Presentation

Final Presentation

The ‘formal’programme concluded with tandems presenting their various process and findings in a lrage rgoup discussion where the concepts of informality/formality were discussed through the various case studies presented.


Post Programme

The programme was originally framed to explore the complexity of terms such as informal and formal and manifested into something much more discursive around these terms.
From the beginning the difficulty of this was quite evident, as our various disciplinary, geographic and cultural backgrounds brought such diverse introspection to the terms.
What we perceived as Joburger’s and were shown by our Berlin hosts was difficult for us to describe as informal, but through the process we were able to understand their perception of these terms around the counter-currents of space use, action and civil movement that exist in Berlin.
I was left asking the question, why informal, as this term from my experience only has value when coupled as prefix or suffix to describe one of the many connotations that this word holds.
As a practitioner and part time academic, this term for me is useful when attempting to understand a situation or object that is located within a complex system – with the ultimate aim of engaging with such a situation or object in order to design and act  on this understanding.
The Berlin leg of this project was highly insightful and left me appreciating many afro-pessimistic aspects of Johannesburg City that I felt were negative as things that even first world cities struggle with.
(in)formal City Programme:
Martin Schinagl &Tshanda Mbuyi, Nathalia Garzón Arredondo & Nicolette Pingo, Malve
Jacobsen & Tebogo Ramatlo, Sylvana Jahre & Trusha Mitha; Héctor Carreto & Olumuyiwa Adegun,
Hanna Niklasz & Jhono Bennett; Melissa Chávez & Gert van der Merwe, Claudia Morgado & Tilman Versch
Guy Trangos & Tomashof Hasel
Dr. Ares Kalendides, Anne Graupner, Dorethea Kolland & Alex Opper