Courage to leave gaps

Miriam Scheibe

An association of young designers finds space where there seems to be none at first glance. There they create places of encounter, experience and exchange and transform the structures of their hometown.

Stuttgart. A surrounded city in Baden-Württemberg with a questionable reputation. The most traffic jams in Germany that pollute the air, a train station that could hardly be more controversial (Stuttgart21), rents that are going through the roof, a shortage of living space, no space. This image dominated the public at least a few years ago. The city was “completely privatized,” says Hanna, “there was no opportunity to shape it.” Since then, Stuttgart’s appearance has improved significantly. And Hanna was instrumental in that. As part of their master’s thesis, the architecture student and her fellow student Sebastian sat down with Urban about five years agoCommonsapart, i.e. common areas in the urban space. Where can you create this in a city so overbuilt? How can young people without a large financial budget get involved in urban design? And they found space. Albeit in a figurative sense.

Because vacant lots, at least affordable ones, hardly revealed themselves to the two students during their research. Instead, they found gaps in time, gaps in knowledge, gaps in communication, and the like. In an open discourse format, Hanna and Sebastian invited other interested parties to “collect gaps” every month. The rush was great, which was not surprising given the three architecture faculties in Stuttgart. Sarah also studied at one of these three faculties and took part in the discussion rounds at the time. “During the conversations, a mother gap quickly became apparent,” recalls the former student. This gap, which was mentioned again and again, was the Austrian square.

The square doesn’t look like a gap at first, it’s huge and central, a junction between the center and the southern part of the city. It is covered by two main roads, framed by a Catholic church and the building of a large insurance company, and also a meeting place for many homeless people. “An exciting place, very active and hybrid,” says Sarah. And yet a few years ago there was still a gap in knowledge and communication. “Everyone knew the subway station of the same name. But nobody knew the place itself,” says Hanna. That may be because Österreichischer Platz is owned by the city but was leased to a parking lot company for over thirty years. Only a small free area remained next to the parking lot. A gap from which Hanna, Sarah, Sebastian and the collective began to shake up the city life. The non-profit associationCity Gaps was born.

The aim of the association is not to fill gaps. The city is small enough as it is. On the contrary, the activists are concerned with opening up the gaps that have been found. This means making them visible and making the unused space accessible and usable for people and their needs, as stated on the association’s website. “We see it as an opportunity to create awareness for a common space and for the right to the city,” they write. The team tries to do this in an accessible way, with funny ideas, irritations – and above all with an appealing design.

“Design has something to do with appreciation,” says Hanna. And Sarah adds: “It takes careful design of processes to arouse interest. Simply placing Ikea furniture in public space and then sitting down is not enough.” In order to draw the attention of the city’s residents to Österreichischer Platz, the young designers designed and built a souvenir shop, for example. From then on, lovingly designed souvenirs such as scarves, jute bags and beer coasters helped the people of Stuttgart to remember a place that most of them had never known before.

Unlike in the usual souvenir shops, the memorabilia were not sold, but wandered over the counter for a voluntary donation. All Stadtlücke actions are basically free of charge so that they are accessible to as many people as possible. Another motto of the association: Never finish designing, but leave processes open. Idea cards were also laid out at the souvenir shop. “What could be better here?” It said, as well as a collection of suggestions for improvement for the Österreichischer Platz, which could be voted on locally and online. Within a few days, 12,000 people voted, and in the end a skate park won the race.

Beyond that, everyone was and is invited to get involved. “We have space and electricity. Who wants to do something?” Hanna summarizes the club’s approach. In the two weeks that Stadtlücken was initially on site at Österreichischer Platz, light shows and herb tours were held, and students from the neighboring high school curated an exhibition. And with the members of the Catholic St. Maria Church, who brought the active coffee, the next cooperation came about.

For two weeks in the following year, the premises of the church became the setting for a motley programme. A trampoline was set up there, a DJ put on tunes, and tango was danced. Everything one after the other, of course. “Of course there were also church services,” says Sarah. “But they were designed to be interactive, with a round table at which the future of St. Mary’s Church was discussed.”

  • "What is happening here" on the Österreichischer Platz in Stuttgart?

    close closeup
    “What is happening here” on the Österreichischer Platz in Stuttgart?
  • You could buy souvenirs, for example.

    close closeup
    You could buy souvenirs, for example.
  • Or dine together - pre-corona.

    close closeup
    Or dine together – pre-corona.
  • The gaps in the city also found space in the St. Maria Church.

    close closeup
    The gaps in the city also found space in the St. Maria Church.
  • If you didn't feel like talking, you could jump on the trampoline instead.

    close closeup
    If you didn’t feel like talking, you could jump on the trampoline instead.
  • You can also work out on the Österreichischer Platz - at the first public bouldering opportunity in Stuttgart-Mitte.

    close closeup
    You can also work out on the Österreichischer Platz – at the first public bouldering opportunity in Stuttgart-Mitte.
  • To then have the leisure to talk again. With the format "Once a month - who owns the city?". Here on the banks of the Neckar.

    close closeup
    To then have the leisure to talk again. With the format “Once a month – who owns the city?”. Here on the banks of the Neckar.

Again and again the Stadtlücken would like to invite people to see themselves as part of the public space and to get involved in its design. A concept that works and inspires, even beyond the city limits. For example, the campaign in the St. Maria Church received a positive response from the entire Catholic community in southern Germany. And the young designers and activists are also diligently networking with similar projects, Hanna and Sarah name the Platzprojekt in Hanover and the Raumstation collective with offices in Weimar, Berlin and Vienna. But back to Stuttgart. There, in its homeland, the young club has already cleaned up the dusty structures of the speculative city.

You don’t necessarily see how much at first glance. If you enter the Österreichischer Platz today, you won’t see much of the bustling experimental field that filled the square with life for at least a year and a half. At the end of 2019, the experimentation was over for the time being, two table tennis tables and the first public bouldering opportunity in Stuttgart-Mitte remain. A rather quieter place, the new Ösi. But things have been going on behind the scenes ever since. An “Office for Public Space” is to be created on the Österreichischer Platz, and the city gaps have more than one million euros in fundingfor the (further) development of your overall project. “We’ve gotten into the mainstream of urban planning,” says Sarah with a grin. In a one-year break, structures for this “interest group for public urban space” are now being developed. Some of these are quite lengthy processes, says Hanna. But the designers of public space don’t get bored – the next gap has already been found, this time in the middle of the river. On the Neckarinsel (“Yes, Stuttgart actually has a river!”), the discussion format “Once a month – Who owns the city?” Among other things, we discussed who owns the river, who should own it and how its banks can be used as spaces of opportunity. During Corona, the events will take place online on Zoominstead of. Everyone is invited – of course.