Conversation with Christoph Heinemann, Momoyo Kaijima, Leonie Kümpers, Björge Köhler, Mona Mahall and Dominique Peck


Leonie Kümpers: We are happy to welcome a few new guests. Björge Köhler, Christoph Heinemann and Mona Mahall are with us now. We would like to start with a question – I‘ll ask Christoph first: What was your first impression when you entered through the atrium?

Christoph Heinemann: When I arrived here, my fist impression was: »empty«. It was basically empty and not in use. I thought it was because there were some vacations. I am here for a year now and most of the time it seems to be empty because it‘s not really appropriated. On the other hand, there is a nice idea behind it. I think it was conceived as a semi-public space. So, you notice that there is something missing and then you ask yourself, why is this the case? What‘s going on? It‘s a strange space to me.

Mona Mahall: My first impression was that it seems very new and polished. Then I started thinking about the typology of a university. It‘s because of this building … I thought, this is not a university, this is an office building. But then I asked myself, if this is an office building, what is the typology of a university building? That is also what we are asking in our seminar [Testing University]. Can we identify and define and characterise a university as a building, as an architectural structure and where do we have to look for it in the history of architecture? So, it‘s also inspiring, this building, you know … [laughs]

Momoyo Kaijima: This is the third time for me to come here. Always when I came it was summertime, and I thought that is why all the students are gone. It was emptier then normally. With a university it is always like this. When the semester starts, it‘s always busy, and when there is a vacation, it‘s very, very empty. I don‘t know if this canteen complains about the income of the lunch business, sometimes it must be very difficult to run the business.

Björge Köhler: I think it‘s exactly in between these two fields, being empty and being somehow appropriated. I am studying here for quite some years and I remember, when I came here the first time, this building was very new and everything was completely empty. There was nothing, no furniture, no posters, nothing in this atrium. But then, now, I think it did get appropriated, there are things happening here. Sometimes events, sometimes, like in this spring, the protest, the summer school, and that also changed how I think about this atrium. It is a different space for me now because these appropriations also change the reception of the space.

Leonie Kümpers: I quickly want to answer on that point because for me this also has become a political space now with the protests and actions that are taken in here. People think of it differently than they did before. What I also find interesting is what you said about the typologies of universities. When I first came here I didn‘t recognise the building. On my first day I wasn‘t quite sure where to go. There was no sign saying »HafenCity University« and it didn‘t look like a university. It is very similar to other buildings, it doesn‘t stand out as a university and I think that‘s what other university buildings actually do. What about you, Dominique?

Dominique Peck: My first time here was two or three months before the building actually opened. Alexa Färber, who until recently was a professor here, had early access. The professors could have a look at their future offices to say what kind of office furniture they‘d need. And then she called a few students and asked if we wanted to come around. And we were like: »Yes, cool, let‘s go and have a look.« Before that we were situated in the northern part of Hamburg near the Fine Arts School in an old school building. It was a classical typology of school buildings with huge hallways that we often used as presentation rooms. There it was quite fun. The main difference was that in the old building we had classrooms. So as students you could be there, we sometimes slept there, we cooked food there, we had parties there, it was just a space that you could occupy. And then at the opening ceremony of this place they invited Ricky Burdett from London School of Economics and Political Science to say why it is so important to have a university in this new urban district. He would say something like this, »looking at students, you can never tell if they go to work, if they go to the disco, if they go home. They just bring life to these new spaces.« But then we figured out, that the new university had closing hours from seven to eight. So, what Ricky envisioned, was not happening here. That was very strange to me, this opening ceremony, this new place, and there were so many hopes in this university. But through different regulations it‘s hard to actually achieve. You can see students are doing this sometimes, like to party around in front of the building. But you always have to work with these regulations. That really changed my first visual impression.

Christoph Heinemann: Just to comment on what the students did during the summer school with this space: I think the most important is that you acted in the space. We‘ve been talking about inhabitation, that it‘s very important for an urban space to be an inhabited space. That means it must be a space that can be appropriated, that can be used properly, where different forms of events can take place etc. To me during the summer school, where I was not involved but was seeing what was happening, what fascinated me was that you had breakfast on the terrace, which is a completely obvious space to have breakfast – the sun is shining … it‘s completely obvious. And that‘s what I also meant here about the ambivalence in this space. In fact, I understand the architectural concept, it‘s meant as a public space and so it‘s meant also as a space where you meet, which should be chaotic, noisy, fed by all sides. In fact, when you look at the plants, it‘s evident, but some things really obstruct this, rules, standards and regulations. Also, always only one of the doors is open. There are several things that just don‘t work because they are hindered by, I would say fears of the users which you will find in many new buildings, the fear to touch the new thing etc. What I want to say, what I really appreciate in this installation is two things: One is that it‘s really occupying in space, inhabiting the space and second that it‘s not finished. To me, it‘s super important that this is an unfinished work. This is a great result because it is an attempt to really activate things, which are in fact already there. But they really need do come to the surface.

Björge Köhler: I think this discussion will continue. The appropriation of the space is also raising the question about if this is still a public space or if we are starting to privatise it or if it‘s ok that one installation is using the space and others don‘t have the option anymore – which is a very important discussion. Because if this is just a public space and no one really identifies with it and no one thinks, »this is my space, I have to do something here.« If no one starts to inhabit it because it is too public, that‘s also a problem for a space.

Momoyo Kaijima: During this summer school we spent almost five days from morning to evening in here. We saw differences from time to time. You mentioned the sun coming to this side or this side. Or here it is very hot, the window on the roof is open. Also, always if someone was coming in, the wind also came in together and every paper flew around. It is a small climate happening.
Maybe this kind of effection, this kind of small detail of the behavior … if we didn‘t spend a relatively long period of time in the space we couldn‘t have observed these aspects, like the echo. Today we hear many sounds within the atrium. It is really noisy. If we just walk through, we don‘t care about the echo. That means that our body or ourselves also, is part of the elements, part of the space, already integrated as nature … as a member of the atrium. The membership issue is important because how can we prepare the role from a professional standpoint, but also simply as a human? For example, if you are a student or if you are teaching here, you need to be partly responsible for the condition of this space. If we start to believe like that, you feel for the space. »Ah, this is my space«, we need to think about how to clean and how to manage and so on. But if we don‘t touch the sense of responsibility or membership of the space we just don‘t care about what it is or what it should be. Nowadays everything is prepared or planned by someone in our environment. In one hand that is also very good. Because we don‘t need to take care for the space. But when we believe that this is our home, our house, we need to play some role in the space. That‘s why my habitation, or when I spend my time in the space it is also a chance to start to think about: Ah, this is my space. I am also part of the space. I am also a member of the space.

Dominique Peck: I have a question for Leonie and Björge, because you are both from ASTA [Allgemeiner Studierendenausschuss, Students‘ Union Executive Committee] or have done work in relation to it. Leonie worked with the organising committee of the summer school. We did order the plants around us before organising their care. A few weeks before the summer school green posters appeared on the grey university walls calling for plants. We were ok with the idea of figuring out all things about care during the summer school. Leonie, can you report to us how things go now?

Leonie Kümpers: It actually turned out to be more work than I thought. [laughs] You talked about inhabiting space and I think when you take care of the plants it certainly feels a bit like home. I don‘t know what to make of this feeling. But there are a lot of people helping. We are actually a group of ten people now watering the plants, and it works out quite well. If some people are occupied with other issues, others will take care of the plants. Now the bananas are growing little baby bananas and we have to take them out. I have to learn that. So far I only watched a YouTube tutorial, so we‘ll see how that goes.

Dominique Peck: I‘ll use this metaphor of cultivation quite cheaply here, but… I guess it was like two or three months ago where we had this big demonstration here at the Holcim auditorium. You can actually open the wall of the auditorium to allow for more people to stand in the atrium and see the auditorium. I guess it was sometime around that time that you guys had the idea to have the HafenCity lectures transformed into the format of Testing University. This will start in a few weeks, at the beginning of the semester. Björge told me about some guests you have already invited or are going to invite. Can either Mona or Björge tell me a little bit more about this?

Mona Mahall: Yes. It is a multi-disciplinary seminar, a collective engagement. We are trying to »test the university«. We want to question not just the university as an architectural form or typology as I said before, but also as an organisation, as a hierarchy, as a form of institution that has to find or retrieve it‘s responsibility also as a public institution, that has to provide a public platform for discussions. At least to me that‘s the most important thing, that the university is not just an »edu-factory«, like a factory to educate people, but an important democratic institution in a society that needs these institutions more than ever. That is part of the seminar. How can we discuss the university beyond just education but also in a very broad sense as a social institution? Then combining this with reflections on the building itself, as a typology. Not just this building, but in general. What is a university? What does it look like? What is the program? What is its organisation? Can we somehow also identify characteristics and means ... I don‘t know exactly now, therefore we invite interdisciplinary guests. There are architects, but also sociologists, political theorists, artists… it is a very widely mixed group and we hope that especially, and that‘s the moment when I just pass the microphone to Björge, we hope that students can find their positions in this course.

Björge Köhler: It was also one of our main ideas to create an open format where everyone is able to contribute. We also didn‘t decide on the output yet, we did not really decide what we are going to do this semester, because this is something we want to develop together with the guests and together with the students. Of course, you mentioned the protests and I think the protests were related to very concrete things people criticise, like the opening hours, like some of the teacher’s working conditions. But all this is connected to bigger questions. I believe that there are questions around this about the working conditions in universities. Or in general how knowledge is produced in universities. Because all this contributes to the situation of how this university in particular is run or organised. Therefore it is a similar approach, how you worked in this atrium, where you had a look at the space to see how it is used and tried to see it in a different light or to use it or to re-appropriate it. I think we want to do something similar with the university in general. In the end we also want to develop ideas how universities could be different or how alternative universities could be organised. I believe that was one of the main driving factors in these protests. And I think it‘s something why people where so interested in things we criticised.

Momoyo Kaijima: Universities nowadays are a really big question. In the industrial society in the 20th century they brought a lot of names to the profession and structure to society. And that was very good. But on the other hand, it gave us more strict rules. What should architects do? What role does architecture play? But in fact, what is the most interesting thing is the question »how to create?« Creativity is an important part of universities. If we want to create something, we need skills, we need knowledge or methods.
On the other hand, we should find out how we can make creative things for the society. I believe all these things could evolve around the same platform.

Dominique Peck: If there are no more pending questions, I think this is it for today. What has been started by the masterclass, is now being handed over to the people organising Testing University. What I think remains interesting to me personally and maybe also for the other people organising the school is what was mentioned before about that we actually had breakfast in the place that was meant to have breakfast in. But it‘s kind of also not meant to have breakfast there ... So I think we did test this and in order to do that we were quite happy to use furniture and scaffoldings from previous projects that we managed to store with the help of different actors around the city. What I think we can offer to Testing University is the infrastructure we have. The furniture will stay here, some of it has moved to the students work spaces and is in use there and the plants will obviously stay here. We will definitely call for all of our students to join and attend the seminar.