July 25, 2021

Vacancies in the cities: the ruins of the future

BIn major crises there are always two camps – some say nothing will be the same as before, and others consider this hysterical and point out that habits, needs and rituals of such impacts are ultimately changed at most gradually. After the attacks on September 11, 2001, it was prophesied that the age of the skyscraper was over; But then the money, which was looking for new investment places after the collapse of the New Economy, was pumped into the construction industry, and in the following years so many high-rises were built as never before, even in New York suddenly provocatively high, ridiculously thin luxury apartment towers loomed like sprawling ones Middle finger in the sky over Manhattan. The big French daily Sud Ouest feared in the summer of 2020 that Covid would put an end to the French bisou, the ritual greeting kiss, a year later you can see that the need for kissing has apparently survived the virus very robustly.

What about the city? At first it looks like it did before the pandemic: cafes open, crowds at the bars. Still, something is different. Anyone walking across the Zeil in Frankfurt, Mönckebergstrasse in Hamburg or Friedrichstrasse in Berlin will see empty shops. In the past ten years, department stores have already lost over 40 percent of their sales, and online trading is transforming department stores in city centers into ruins, and not just because of Corona.

Office towers are empty

At the same time, real estate specialist Jones Lang LaSalle reports that, measured in terms of area, demand for office properties in the seven major German cities fell by 30 percent in 2020, in Stuttgart by more than 50 percent, and the market is only recovering slightly. The time when office towers were built out of the ground – in 2019 alone there were 1,800 new buildings in the seven largest German cities – is over. In Paris, London and Barcelona the declines were more than 40 percent, in Frankfurt there is almost a million square meters of empty office space. Of course, real estate service providers say that the space requirement is not shrinking that much because in the future people will work more from home, but more meeting and retreat rooms would be needed in the remaining office buildings – but maybe that is also the famous whistling in the forest: Nobody at the office developers (and nobody at Deutsche Bank or Volkswagen) will say, sorry, that’s it, we’re out.

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Despite everything, the smart city planners and the car companies stand by the wayside like unrepentant salespeople and stubbornly calculate how much time and energy can be saved with their networked apps and devices and fully electric and autonomous solutions on the way from home to the city center – but no one asks what one could actually want in the city center when what made it up for thousands of years disappears: When people no longer work there because the factories are being robotized and the offices are being relocated to the home office; if you no longer shop there because everything is ordered online; when nobody goes to the cinema there because everyone is watching Netflix. The crisis has also shown the weak point of the smart city visions: They only asked how the status quo can be made more efficient and economical using technology, and not what one could actually want instead of the status quo.

There is a lack of living space

What will happen to the ruins of the future, the empty shopping malls, the empty office towers, the empty cinemas? They can be converted: there is a lack of living space, and when the office and the cinema come home, you actually need a bit more space there. Is it really a shame when chains like H&M can no longer be found in the pedestrian zones, when saleswomen no longer have to cash in on the piece, when the tired family fathers who work in the towers no longer honk their horns in the morning and spend an hour in the commuter traffic jam with unhealthy blood pressure stand? Perhaps capitalism, of all things, which caused office towers and shopping centers to grow and the prices for the scarce living space remaining in the city center to skyrocket, through increased digital efficiency, through the invention of online trading and home office, the withdrawal of all these functions from the physical space in the inner city means that it becomes a ruin, loses its economic value and can therefore be settled again and more relaxed and without exaggerated profit expectations, just as the Colosseum in Rome and palaces were converted into residential complexes in the Middle Ages. The vacancy comes as if called at a time when, for reasons of climate protection, not so much new buildings are to be built.

Perhaps one has to imagine the city as a kaleidoscope of empty offices and shopping buildings and overcrowded living boxes, in which the stones will soon be jumbled together and offices and workshops and living will collapse into new, relaxed mixed forms in which working and living and living and producing and consuming be re-sorted. So far the modern city has looked like a German lunch, everything was finely separated from each other – here the central meat, there a settlement of potatoes, a suburb of Brussels sprouts. A little more Mediterranean mix, overgrowth, amalgamation, and yes: chaos could be good for both of them.