Johanna Bruckner



Script for an Assemblage-Film

A few notes.


I recently wandered along Versmannstrasse in the Baaken Quarter in Hamburg, passing large areas of wasteland occupied by sea birds, with the river beds smelling of marsh drying out in Hamburgʼs early July heat, when the street ended abruptly in front of a block of pale green shelters. Some mothers and their children were in front of the buildings, on the playground between the blocks of shelters, their temporary homes. In immediate proximity to their living space, refugees are confronted with private corporations’ aspirational new luxury enclaves, the clime of redevelopment. Most of the land is being sold to private investors; new homes are rising up and will soon change the landscape entirely.

Not far away from the refugeesʼ homes, workers live in specifically designated hotels or shelters close to, or within the confines of HafenCity, their living quarters ever-changing due to the expansion of construction work. They move as the city moves forward, yet are never bound to any one place. The lack of housing for these workers, from a social housing perspective, normalises precariousness, reformulating the housing question into a challenge; namely to envision other forms of housing, or indeed other ways of living and working together. From the outlines of future buildings as set out in  development plans, it becomes clear that the future of residential property can no longer be determined by means of conventional building policies, since this, in its present form, will not be able to meet the needs of future urban populations. The question then becomes one of the possibilities of form and organisation, since the traditional approach to building living space is, from both an economic and an ecological standpoint, incapable of meeting the current and future demand for housing.

Sérgio Ferroʼs marxist architectural criticism emphasises the socio-economic transformation of built space as the politics of the material and of social class. Several of his ideas have been discussed in workshops with the performers involved in my work, so as to substantiate my notion of housing and construction site labour as embedded in political agency, with possible forms of unionisation also being examined.

Sérgio Ferro is a Brazilian architect who was born in 1938, graduated from the University of São Paulo, where he also taught; dedicated to questions of labour and the conditions of production as he was exposed to the reality of the construction side. Jailed by the Brazilian dictatorship alongside his mentor, Vilanova Artigas and his colleague Rodrigo Lefèvre. As a member of Arquitectura Nova, a radical architecture group which he formed with Flávio Império and Rodrigo Lefèvre the group critiqued Brazil's modernist impulse, which they viewed as excluding the vast majority of Brazilians who were living in poverty. Instead they took part in urban actions and proposed strategies that would democratise access to architecture as well as the design and building process itself.

Ferro’s ideas took shape during the 1960s when he was involved in the design of Brasília, the new capital city. The disjunction between the architectural discourse of freedom and democracy that surrounded the project and the reality of the inhumane working conditions on site were formative for Ferro and his critique. He witnessed these conditions first hand; the low pay, lack of food and rampant dysentery, as well as dangerous building practices that took no account of the risks to workersʼ lives. Based on these experiences, Ferro wrote of architecture as the production of commodity, with its ʻmodernʼ practices fostering a division of labour in order to generate value. For Ferro, this attitude was encapsulated in the jargon involved in architectural drawing, which alienated and was indeed largely incomprehensible to the builders. His aim is a departure from the desired transformation of production in favour of design solutions. One of his key ideas was the ʻpopular houseʼ, which aimed to equip citizens with a support structure to enable them to build houses by themselves.

The labour force on the construction site in Hamburg’s HafenCity is grossly exploited and its management corrupt. The workers are recruited by firms before leaving their homes, and are then ʻboughtʼ by construction companies in Germany, with the whole process akin to a trade in humans. Firms compete to offer the cheapest labour force, while often simultaneously charging the workers before closing down their operation. New firms emerge but disappear equally rapidly, due to their corrupt business. Construction companies in Germany are doing business with ghost firms in the east and south-east of Europe.

Following Eyal Weizman’s reading of Giorgo Agamben, the structure of these workersʼ shelters, regarded as a ʻcampʼ, is “a space that opens up when the state of exception starts to become the rule”. In that space “power confronts nothing than pure biological life without any mediation”. The unstable relationship between the camp and the (il)legal housing and labour structures make a state of exception possible. According to Weizman (2015), “in this confinement, in the juridico-political, much seems to be in play except the camp itself ”. The first camp-like structure came into being in 2001 with the start of construction work on the HafenCity site, with political subjectivities being created amidst the production of a commercial enclave. Since construction began, the camp-like area has been in motion, in flux, with its form opening and closing and its boundaries changing. The displacement of refugees and workers about the construction site is necessary but never far-reaching. These traces never disappear and neither do the political subjectivities that have been fighting for their rights since the beginning of the construction of HafenCity and, indeed, throughout history, bearing in mind the site’s history as the terrain of former harbour workers, who are famed for achieving their collective demands through leftist struggle and strikes. The camp is a space where oppression and agency are inextricably interlinked. An augmentation of the camp can be observed in HafenCity: as more workers and migrants have moved to HafenCity in the past years, they strengthen the state of exception through their connected on-site subjectivities of solidarity. The shelter as work and home is HafenCity’s new multiplier. Are we facing a shelterization of the city as a subject of resistance?


Hamburgʼs HafenCity is emerging as a form of governance in which liberal democratic structures are mimicked for use in the organisation of residential urban space. Since its beginnings at the turn of the century, the city part has been characterised by an expansionist policy of turning former warehouse lots into luxury apartments, supplemented by shared ʻcommunityʼ spaces with amenities such as playgrounds, saunas and swimming pools. The demand for collective space beyond the publicly funded means that exclusive ʻislandsʼ of communities are created, completely detached from one another yet within the same neighbourhood.

HafenCity’s representation of business, consumer and lifestyle doctrines mixed with residential usage, as well as the imperatives of affective atmospheres as expressed through chi-chi housing, invite upper middle class individuals and families into penthouse imageries. Accordingly, city and civic life are dominated by data governance and smart homes: electronic money and virtual civic services in the form of life streams and invisible cables remodel the city into a dematerialised stream of desires.

The post-fordist saturation of urban life merges with a fordist approach: the speed with which property is physically built and the machine-led approach contradict the anthropomorphic agendas of algorithmic architectures. The possible agencies inherent to this agonism are to confront the ubiquitous processes of dematerialisation, the digital fabrication of civic and urban life and the deregulation of dwellings and built space with methods that aim to reveal materialisation to be an organisational planning practice - also called a constituent support structure - as well as to identify the processes involved. Which potential and productive articulations result from this agonistic confrontation?

Privately financed housing and affordable and/or subsidised housing are the very forms of living that, paradoxically, favour and accelerate the amplifying characteristic of finance through their interaction. The solo-living capital locked up in residential housing blocks, given that  apartments are often only sporadically in use or are left vacant for speculative purposes, serves to separate dwelling space from its social and utilizable value. This reality is mirrored in architecture’s material and physical presence and becomes perceptible and visible in housing policy. The individually occupied units, vacant or sporadically in use, inevitably inhibit the establishment of forms of social interaction, or, in short, the possibility of, as Chantal Mouffe argues, "agonistic pluralism" within society.

In the case of urban renewal, the state restricts itself to providing funds for projects primarily controlled by private firms. The government’s policies are therefore focused on private sector house building, with the aim of freeing up more sites for development. The rationale behind affordable housing is that in exchange for the right to build more market-rate housing than would be allowed under existing zoning laws, private developers construct a number of nominally ʻaffordableʼ units in addition. But when so-called housing programmes are producing apartments with a price tag that is almost identical to those not designated as ʻaffordableʼ, it is clear that the term ʻaffordableʼ is rather ideological.

One of the core features of HafenCity’s ʻurban reinventionʼ is the implementation of sustainable or mixed communities, whose emerging social capital will, it is hoped, not only attract new residents but also legitimize redevelopment as an economic propeller of value creation for the city beyond the merely situational. In particular, the relatively new and as yet unresearched concept of Social Mix is employed as a strategic instrument in urban developmental housing policy to reduce and prevent spatial and socio-economic segregation through intervention and alteration. The concept of Social Mix is implemented by HafenCity in order to avoid a concentration of particular socio-economic tenant structures. A key signifier in the creation of Social Mix are the middle class creative actors who are meant to structure social life and create atmospheric urbanities through joint activities fostering ʻrelational potential spacesʼ.

However, from its inception, the purpose of Social Mix, was not to intervene in the politics of ongoing segregation processes, which would mean tackling the root of the problem, nor was it directed at the most disadvantaged areas and actors.

The involvement of private actors as the promoters of new social housing initiatives, whether for profit or not for profit, has been presented to the public as the only feasible approach to the provision of affordable housing, reducing the public actor to a limited role as the enabler of private sector-driven projects. Thus, Social Mix creates the conditions for greater feasibility and profitability of real-estate investments through a varying combination of local and supra-local functions.


In the construction industry, scaffolds are simultaneously instructions for an algorithm, reproducing the instructions that determine the design of the whole. Houses are scaffolds of the plurality of algorithms, instructing and governing the space according to the criteria laid down by the market, governmental and investorsʼ interests.

Algorithms can be identified as the underlying structure of a scaffold. The vertical and horizontal lines of the scaffold are found on our construction sites, which essentially support the building process, correlating to the form and structure of an algorithmic instruction.

Why compare an algorithm’s digital fabrication with a construction site scaffold? Or, alternatively, why compare labour with an algorithmic instruction? The aim is to free labour from becoming a rigid and logistical cluster of instructions to be followed by an individual subject; there is life in the algorithm, instructions become subject to organically changing rules. At the same time, to disrupt an algorithmʼs uncontrollable legitimacy is to occupy a corner of digital reality, since the scaffold is defined by the agency of the association of workers and the political practices of unionisation.

A smart home is connected to the shared realities of the civic world through algorithmic instructions.The algorithmʼs scaffolding are the zero-hour workers, labour on demand, serving and reproducing the smart home. However, the algorithmʼs scaffold is porous. The labour of logistics - demand labour - is a dark, invisible and intangible scaffold. Scaffolding is the status quo in areas characterised by urban redevelopment; it is the state of labouring in logistical on-demand sectors, as well as of porous interrelationships in the absence of a unifying social support structure.

5. Future Scenarios

Amazon’s Dash Button novelty has become a block chain currency used by autonomous workers’ associations to collaborate with fellow citizens across shared fields of knowledge: workers use their hacked technology not just on the building sites, but also to connect with citizens from every walk of life in the context of ubiquitous civic demands.

The state itself has been transformed into a decentralised organisation that exists only in its plurality, with every citizen a shareholder.

The BIM technology that used to coordinate workersʼ lives has been hacked, while an extensive digital fabrication infrastructure, maintained as a public utility, uses sophisticated algorithms to dismantle the production demands dictated by real-time surveillance. Zero-hour working contracts with labour on demand, as imposed in logistical urban infrastructures, have given rise to a system in which the technologies of the working bodies signal a corporation beyond control: physical managers no longer exist because BIM technology has taken over, and a self-directed economy prevails.

The commercialisation of housing has become obsolete because the market is no longer deregulated by the corrupting financial capital that houses itself rather than human residents in empty units. The post-renewal market operates independently of both state and government, but is structured by planning movementsʼ research organisations and their collective agencies. Housing areas can be mapped out and built by groups, with their parts being printed at one of the digital 3D printing stations in the city. Amazon can no longer service the Dash Button because people have realised that they can use the printing stations around them to fabricate their desired technology and determine its functions. Goods are essentially free for the taking.

Placeless urban sprawl is overwritten by high-density algorithmic instructions. Information about how to hack the Dash Button technology is everywhere, and workshops guide citizens in building their own versions of the Buttons according to their needs. Homes can no longer be ʻsmartʼ because the technology is no longer marketable.The government crumbles and falls, its ability to sustain itself from tax revenue having been decisively undermined. A shared reality barely exists now. The stage is claimed by a group of smaller, more agile actors. The fracturing of consensus is an epidemic challenge.

Productive capacity is based in workshops at neighbourhood level, organised as cooperatives and linked by networked processes of deliberation. Economic power is exercised by loose federations formed from these cooperatives, although inter-coordination is complicated by differing values and styles of governance, as well as the realities of tendering in competing local currencies. Fabrication is cheap, widely available and as in demand as ever.

How to move on

During the course of this work we will build a support structure together with performers and labour unionists, within the scope of which we demand the following with regard to HafenCity’s development:

We demand transparency in real estate development with regard to pricing, speculation, sale and renting.

We demand transparency about future plans for housing projects and housing types.

We demand regular presentations of current research into the conception of Social Mix, clearly stating which resources are being used.

We demand transparency in the selection criteria for tenants and residency, as well as for housing cooperatives. We demand transparency of working conditions for workers on the construction sites, also with regard to their pay. Workers must only be employed under regulated and stable working conditions. A designated organisation should take special responsibility for this area. 

We demand payment for the work of local institution-generating processes, since otherwise precariousness is being transformed into value and benefiting entrepreneurial interests. Institution-building must become a regulated activity. Cooperatives should be organised into a networked structure, which must be governed by itself and its citizens rather than by private corporations. Housing cooperatives must operate independently of state regulation.

We demand a less controlling approach from the HafenCity corporation towards the housing market, meaning less state intervention in what should be a self-regulating and self-constituting scheme. In end effect, we demand the decoupling of housing from financialisation and the generation of market value, shifting towards an autonomous housing market with cooperatives at the core of a self-determining network.

We will only accept Social Mix if it is placed within the context of a social infrastructure that provides a toolkit to enable citizens to organise social planning autonomously.

We accept the claim of social pluralism of perspectives and positions only under the condition that support structures sustain residentsʼ and citizensʼ subjectivities on a stable and equal basis.

Technology has the potential to link agencies on a global scale, but it may mean the politicising of coordination.