November 01, 2023

it’s our turn #7

… and we are looking back on 40 years of AG Stadtleben

My column regularly tells the stories of people who work at the interface of architecture and responsibility. Why? Because the built world has a major impact on the climate, the environment and society – both positive and negative. The good news is that the status quo is not set in stone.

“The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you can alter it, even by a millime-tre, the way people look at reality, then you can change it,” said the US writer James Baldwin. I came across the quote at the Architecture Biennale in Venice this summer and somehow it stuck with me, as this is not the first time I have quoted it. Baldwin, who died in 1987, mostly dealt with the themes of racism and sexism in his works; his words have experienced a revival since “Black Lives Matter”. Throughout his life, Baldwin called for change, especially in terms of mindset. Our society also needs this willingness to change with regard to another change, namely that of the climate. Since this summer at the latest, with its daily superlatives in the form of natural disasters, it should be clear to everyone that the change in weather, climate and the environment is partly man-made and has been turbo-charged by us.

Ten out of a total of 195 countries in the world are responsible for 2/3 of global CO2 emissions. Germany, which accounts for 1.7% of total global emissions, is in 7th place on the impact list. This means that 188 countries have a smaller CO2 footprint than we do. Architects 4 Future name the approximately 40 per cent share of German CO2 emissions caused by the production and operation of built structures as one of three “problems of architecture”. Engineer Werner Sobek has long been calling for a paradigm shift: “The future of architecture lies in building for more people with fewer materials and without emissions,” he says. To help us – and Sobek is explicitly not just addressing the architects among us – better grasp the impact of the construction industry, the sustainable building expert is writing a trilogy called “non nobis – on building in the future”. While volume 1, published in 2022, defines the status quo of construction and its interaction with the environment, climate and society, Werner Sobek continues his comprehensive analysis of the connections between construction and the environment with volume 2 of the series, published by av edition in October 2023. “This time, his focus is on the developments we can expect in the coming decades and on the boundary conditions within which human activity will still be possible at all,” says the press release.

“So what does an integral approach to the building of the future look like?” is the question posed by AG Stadtleben to the German pioneer of responsible and resource-conserving construction. Sobek will provide the answer on 28 November 2023 in the Hanover Pavilion. This evening will be a special event, and not just because of the honourable guest: For 40 years now, initially seven and now six people have been working under the name “AG Stadtleben” to raise the profile of building culture in Hanover. To mark the milestone anniversary of their “stage presence”, which began in November 1983 with a series of events at the Pavillon cultural centre, they are inviting someone to the birthplace of their work who has been thinking about the lifespan and processing of architecture from an early stage. Incidentally, the protagonists entered into an “official alliance” in 1985, after two years of activity, and founded the AG Stadtleben as an independent, non-profit and registered association in Hanover with seven founding members. Since then, they have organised more than 350 events and exhibitions – always striving for an informed, interdisciplinary debate about the city and culture, architecture and social development as well as the changes in urban living conditions. The range of events is broad and has often not changed fundamentally over the last four decades. Apart from the smart city and climate change, many topics have been relabelled or the emphasis has changed.

Dialogue designers in the context of building culture, Photo: Edeltraut Phillip

Although the programmes generally still deal with building culture, not all six volunteers and ‘permanent activists’ are master builders or work as such.

Achim Naujock (group photo, left), a graduate engineer, is an active employee of a local authority, while Reinhard Wolf (2nd from left), who works as an architect and urban planner as well as a lecturer at Leibniz Universität Hannover, is also on the board of AG Stadtleben. Susanne Lengner is a qualified graphic designer, head of design and has been a member of AG Stadtleben from the very beginning. Ulrich Schröder (3rd from right), a qualified educationalist, is the founder and board member of AG Stadtleben, is also on the board of the education association and brings an educational perspective to the discussion. Wolfgang Niess (2nd from right) is an architect and, as a long-standing member of AG Stadtleben, is on the board and responsible for public relations; he is also on the board of the education association. Wolfgang Müller (right) is a sociologist and brings social science aspects to the association’s activities. Ulrich Schröder remembers exactly how the working group came together 40 years ago:

“In 1983, I was working at the Pavillon, which was shifting its focus at the time – from open youth work to a political event centre. They were willing to give space to all the ideas and issues that were smouldering in Hanover at the time, above all the resistance to the expansion of the traffic and waterways. So I invited various groups and citizens’ initiatives to join us for an active debate.”

Networking and collaboration led to the project “City Life, City Experience”, which culminated in a project week with exhibitions, lectures and discussions in November 1983. As the format was very successful and there was a willingness to continue, the “City Life Working Group” was subsequently formed – in a slightly different constellation.

I recently read an appeal to the local creative scene from Gunnar Spellmeyer, who has been working as a designer since 1988 and has also been a professor at Hanover University of Applied Sciences and Arts for 23 years: “Don’t be discouraged! Hanover seems like an administrative city – but the heart beats innovatively, the spirit is creative.” I like this quote as it emphasises a side of the state capital that I really appreciate. If you go on a search in Hanover, you’ll find plenty to do.

If we allow ourselves an abbreviated ride through the most recent event history of AG Stadtleben alone, we were able to listen to Tim Rieniets, Professor of Urban and Spatial Development in a Diversified Society at Leibniz Universität Hannover, at the Laveshaus of the Lower Saxony Chamber of Architects in June 2023. Rieniets took the model of the smart city, the city of the future, off its pedestal and showed “how life in the analogue city makes us more innovative and efficient and why the friction we are exposed to there every day actually helps us to do so”.

Anyone interested in the building revolution and thus in an “adapted” understanding of building will almost automatically come across Rieniets again, this time as co-author of the book “Umbaukultur – Für eine Architektur des Veränderns”.

All good things come in threes, they say. Accordingly, I would also like to mention the exhibition “Nothing New – Building Better with Existing Buildings”, which runs until 9 November. It also bears Rieniet’s signature in parts and shows us once again that building with existing buildings not only makes sense, but can also lead to architecturally unusual solutions.

On display are 24 international projects by renowned architects, shown in a show curated by the Deutsches Architekturmuseum (DAM), as well as projects from Hanover designed by students from the Faculty of Architecture.

The exhibition also presents the Demolition Atlas of Germany for the first time (www.abriss-atlas.de). It’s hard to believe, but until now there was no register of buildings to be demolished or demolished in Germany. The fact that the idea conceived in Basel by the Countdown 2030 initiative, an association for sustainable building culture, was largely realised for Germany in cooperation with the Faculty of Architecture and Landscape at Leibniz University Hanover, means that Hanover currently still appears to be the German demolition champion. In reality, we are simply faster at database maintenance. In keeping with the theme, the exhibition is being shown in Hanover’s aufhof, a recently closed department store, that will soon have to make way for a new building.

One of the 2022 speakers of the AG Stadtleben, Constantin Alexander, is a political scientist and sustainability economist at Leuphana University Lüneburg who has researched the transformation of our cities and presented his findings relevant to the state capital to us Hanoverians, most recently in August 2023 in the context of the IDN-Blvd. organised by kreHtiv at Maschsee.

The list of exciting speakers and/or locations is long. Some of you may remember Philipp Oswalt, who spoke about Bauhaus, culture and history in 2019 – the anniversary year. In 2017, Rainer Nagel, Chairman of the Board of the Federal Foundation of Baukultur, asked “What to do?” and in 2015, Meinhard von Gerkan († 2022), founder of the renowned architecture firm gmp Architekten, spoke about architecture and quality on the 16th floor of the Bredero tower block. As the urgently needed turnaround in transport is rightly often mentioned together with climate change and the building turnaround, the Üstra-Remise should also be mentioned here as a very special venue for the lecture “Showroom or living space” by architecture and design theorist Friedrich von Borries in 2013.

Anniversary programme of the AG Stadtleben

While the AG Stadtleben is often ahead of its time in terms of the topics it sets and the people it invites, it always has Hanover’s built city history in mind and celebrates architecture on milestone anniversaries. In 2008, for example, the 80th anniversary of the Anzeiger high-rise was honoured with a film series and a tour of the terrace was made possible. In 1991, the group of volunteers drilled a really thick hole when they conceived the project “Unbuilt Hanover” on the occasion of the 750th anniversary of the city of Hanover with funding from the state of Lower Saxony. In the form of a book and an exhibition with four city models, they documented ideas and visions that were not realised in construction. Because alternative plans are also part of our building culture and can possibly inspire future building projects, according to the foreword. Walter Hiller, then Lower Saxony’s Minister of Social Affairs, also writes:

“Where are the roots of building culture and building tradition? Is it only what is actually there, what the builders call history turned to brick? It is certainly much more! The merit of the AG Stadtleben is that it has turned its attention specifically to the unbuilt, the unrealised plans, ideas and urban development concepts and has brought them back into consciousness by reappraising and compiling them. I was fascinated by this idea!”

As a little sidekick, the book “Wir konnten auch anders. A brief history of sustainability” by historian Annette Kehnel is recommended. The book shows in a surprising way how rewarding it can be to look back to the past and how much we can learn from the cultural, social and economic practices of the Middle Ages. Sustainability and architecture detective Petra Ronzani (DETEKTEI RONZANI) will be taking a closer look at what, how and why we could have done things differently at the “Literarischer Salon” on 13 November.

When asked about their wishes for the next decade, the Jubilees of AG Stadtleben answer in unison that they would like to continue organising interesting events. Of course, they will. We are looking forward to th!

Kathrin Albrecht in STADTKIND 11/2023