Gdansk, August 2017

Berlin – notes from the research trip

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Prinzessinnengarten – notes from research trip to Berlin

There are currently almost a hundred urban garden projects in Berlin. Among them is  Prinzessinnengärten – a garden described as a magical place, taking its visitors into another dimension. When it was established, it was one of the first and the largest initiatives of its type in the city. Located in the district of Kreuzberg, right off Moritzplatz, between the streets of Prinzen-, Oranien- and Prinzessinnenstraße, the garden was created in 2009 by two friends, Marco Clausen and Robert Shaw. Since then, every summer, the 5600 square meter area at Kreuzberg 36 becomes an urban and ecological farmland and a venue for activities related to it. The idea for such a place came to Robert Shaw during his trip to Cuba in 2008, where he had the opportunity observe the vibrant local community gardens. Upon returning to Europe, he was determined to transplant this concept to Berlin.

The main idea for the garden’s functioning was to make it mobile. All fruits and vegetables grown there, as well as elements of the garden equipment, are conceived in such a way so that the garden can be easily moved elsewhere – for example in winter season, when plants are better off indoors. The idea stems partly from the fear of contaminated soil in the area, as after World War II the rubble as well as construction elements covered in lead-containing paint, were buried in what at the time was cellars of the bombed tenement houses. As a result, the semi-compulsory plant cultivation in rice bags and boxes has also become the garden’s trademark, granting it its unusual character. On the other hand, other establishments at the venue, such as the bar or kitchen, have been placed in old oceanic containers. The only element on the premises of the garden with cement foundations is die Laube, a multifunctional structure envisioned as a module three-story/10 meter-high wooden construction built only with the help of volunteers and intended as a place for learning, exchanging experience and discussing the future of Moritzplatz.

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All of Prinzessinnengärten is open to visitors. There are two entrances leading into the garden: a gate right by the subway station exit and a gateway from the side of Prinzessinnenstraße. The garden is divided into a few larger areas used for different activities which can be accessed by sandy footpaths and which are all connected through the Acacia tree grove and planted vegetable flowerbeds. One such area is the food section, which apart from the kitchen and the bar includes a woody area with a few dozen benches and tables that are usually filled with visitors. The other distinct garden complex area is the land leased by gardener Matthias Wilkens which is surrounded by a symbolic fence. This plot of land is where young plants and saplings are cultivated and sold and where the bicycle workshop container is located. Inside the container, bikes are repaired and built.

In terms of its visual side, the garden is a very particular place; a medley of objects of different sizes that more often than not seem to have wound up there by accident. Aside from the aforementioned oceanic containers, boxes and rice bags, the garden space also features gigantic water crates for collecting rainfall as well as gigantic sacks for storing soil, upcycled furniture such as chairs made from plastic barrels and others. The space behind the kitchen is a makeshift painting studio, while along the main path through the garden stand a photo booth, a library and a “freebox”, or an open wardrobe with clothes for grabs. All these elements are enhanced by countless small artistic installations hidden among the vegetation that can be seen almost everywhere. A ceramic gnome standing on the roof of the library, an old sewing machine placed somewhere else, sculptures made from old barrels and metal elements or tiny lanterns made from old Plexiglass hanging from tree branches with candles inside – these are just examples of the innumerable small art forms, often handcrafted onsite, that remain in the garden after an art workshop. This image is completed by information boards placed along the footpaths about the upcoming events in the garden and smaller information plaques about the different types of plants sown in the sacks and some of the boxes. For example, the place where bugs are stored is signed with a label “Here live bugs”, with a funny image to boot. Visual identification of the site is funny, often accompanied by illustrations, with each site and plant having their own distinct name.

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As the garden’s founders underline, Prinzessinnengärten would not have materialized were it not for assistance provided by third parties. From the very beginning of its existence, the garden has been made possible by individuals who visit it and unselfishly devote their time to tend to vegetation or organize the different events. Founders of the garden especially appreciate those who wish to spend their time there in order to actively participate in the life of the place; it is this group of people they consider their “audience” and it is with them they wish to spend their time, working together and interacting. The garden is an open space and anyone wishing to implement a new project is always welcome. Furthermore, the site is meant to be a place for everyone; from the perspective of its founders, as long as the visitors to the garden do not disturb others, they are welcome to do anything they wish. Creators of the site are very much aware that the garden is a place for a whole range of activities, motivations and intentions. In an interview with the researchers, Marco Clausen stressed how much he enjoys the fact that people use the space of Prinzessinnengärten as their creative outlet. The individual is the garden’s most important asset, and the harvest here is counted not in tons, but in the amount of experience shared; after all, the site was intended as a space for learning, exchange and neighborly cooperation. Unfortunately, the latter is less and less visible in the garden, which has changed along with the whole district to become more touristy. Nowadays, many people visit the garden only once, as they are not residents of Berlin. As Marco Clausen admits, only 5-10% of the visitors are people living in the neighborhood. An additional challenge facing Kreuzberg is the ongoing gentrification. The garden has tried to combat its impact in a number of ways, initiating activities that would make it as accessible as possible in the public eye. To this end, for example, the food and drinks served in the garden’s bar, as well as the young plants and saplings were sold with a 50% discount to people who would regularly participate in the “Open Gardening Days” held twice a week in the garden. This initiative was meant to encourage the various groups visiting the garden to eat or spend their time in a cozy setting, to get involved in the garden’s everyday life.

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The public at the garden can be roughly divided into a few groups. These will naturally include guests of the food sector, who make up its largest part, or visitors from the nearby offices, tourists and individuals interested in the site who sit, eat, drink and spend their leisure time here. The second-largest group comprising the public of Prinzessinnengarten are visitors of the flea market, which is held in the garden every other Sunday. As founders of the garden underline, these visitors make for a more diverse group than those who visit the garden on an everyday basis. Then there is the group caring for the garden, which includes people doing maintenance work, catering employees, interns, trainees and volunteers from all around the world. One must also include here the people running the bicycle workshop, who attract their own audience, not unlike that of the flea market. The same goes for the group of people using the garden as a venue for various events, which draw specific – depending on the kind of event organized – audiences. Tour groups accompanied by guides can also be met in the garden; most often they come here on study tour visits organized for German adults with an interest in urban greenspace. Statistically speaking, the garden’s visiting public is relatively young, with most visitors falling into the 20-30 years old category and very few visitors being older than 60. Most of them are either studying or have already completed higher education, many work in the creative industry, are fluent in English and have an interest in art. Each year, the number of tourists visiting the garden increases, which is no reason to celebrate for the site’s founders. As Marco Clausen put it, it is easier fro Prinzessinnengärten to attract a visitor from New York City than a poor resident from the house next door. The garden’s public comes here referred by their close ones and they themselves recommend the site as a place to visit during a city-break stay in Berlin.

In the 8 years of the garden’s existence, a lot has changed in terms of its public. The site initially envisioned as a place for neighborly meetings is mostly visited by tourists. Founders of the garden have a strong sense of commitment to what the garden should be, yet they currently face the uncertainty connected with the end of the lease of the site, which casts a shadow on its future existence.

 

Katarzyna Wirkus-Molęda

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The research trip is part of the collaboration of LAZNIA CCA with Institute for Public Space Research at Academy of Fine Art in Warsaw, within “Artecitya” project. The effects of research trips are published in the book “Artecitya. For whom is art in public space?” summerizing the process.