Circulating Borders: The BMW Guggenheim Lab

September 14, 2015

Essay by Marina Otero Verzier.


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BMW Guggenheim Lab Mumbai (manipulated: background removed), January 2013. © Marina Otero Verzier.

It is a beautiful sequence of images. Breaking trough raising arms and placards, a young woman reaches the police barrier. Opens her jacket, lean backwards, and reveals a message on a self made white T-shirt: “We don’t need New York to teach us how to talk.”

In 2011, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation inaugurated—together with car-maker BMW—The BMW Guggenheim Lab. Rather than taking the form of a museum, the Lab was, instead, a “combination of think tank, public forum, and community center,” intended to bring programming out of the institutional space and to a wider audience.1 To this end, it was designed not only as a temporary and mobile structure, but also as a “Major New Global Initiative” stretching out over New York, Berlin, and Mumbai from 2011 to 2013.2

Whereas museums in previous decades brought a new sense of relevance to architecture concerning its role in intervening in urban space to produce financial and cultural growth—what has been called the “Bilbao Effect”—in the Lab the aim was no longer to transform the space, but rather the subject. “We felt the need for a project that was more about people, about experiences, and about new ideas on how to make city life better in a variety of contexts,” co-curator David van der Leer explained. Thus, following a series of experiments on social engagement developed by museums in recent years, the Lab encouraged citizens “to acquire the skills to live in cities comfortably and responsibly.”3 Some of them, however, asked: “Why do we need a Lab to conduct such discussions?”4

The architecture of the Lab did not have doors, windows or walls, protection against natural forces, or climate control systems. It voluntarily renounced those features that generally define a traditional architectural interior space. The ambition of the Lab was to become a piece of stage machinery capable of magically transforming an urban void into a gathering space. Its architects, Atelier Bow-Wow, following the concept of behaviorology, designed the Lab as an infrastructure that can be used and transformed, “giving back a sense of autonomy of spatial practice to citizens.”5 It aimed to foster accessibility, and to construct an institution in constant flux that would be able to span across three continents and democratic systems—something that its “naked, unassuming aesthetic” was meant to facilitate.6 Paradoxically, inside its interior-without-walls, the practices of architecture were confined within political boundaries; enclosures of an unstable and yet material condition that erect an institutional space.

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BMW Guggenheim Lab Mumbai, metal control checkpoint (manipulated: background removed), January 2013. © Marina Otero Verzier.

In that moment, it was the police barrier what seemed to be the last threshold leading to a complex of galleries, bars, and artist studios in the Pfefferberg complex at the Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg, where the Lab had just landed. Inside, workshops, conferences, and even meditation classes, were free and open for all those wishing to participate. Images of people performing in outdoor events, doing fitness, cycling, making prototypes, robots, or solar coffee-bean roasters were suddenly confronted by scenes of political disagreement. “Protests are a symptom of a healthy and equitable society,” argued Atelier Bow-Wow Yoshiharu Tsukamoto, after being asked about the demonstrations.7 Intended to create a platform for active participation and to produce a spectator with a more complex engagement, the Lab succeeded in involuntarily conceiving a place in which protests by uninvited critical voices, threats of violence, and vigorous debate took place. When, in front of the police barrier, the protesters started to congregate, the institutional territory and its bounded spaces—the architecture and the conversations that take place within and around it—suddenly materialized.

It was not the first time the Lab had encountered opposition. Residents and activist groups prevented its previous installment in Kreuzberg, where it was seen a subterfuge to speed-up gentrification processes. Alleging the existence of threats against the project, The Guggenheim Foundation decided to withdraw, prompting Berlin mayor, Klaus Woweriet, to publicly promise the development of a “protection plan.” “Criticism and demonstrations are part of our democracy,” claimed Police President Margarete Koppers in Berlin’s Parliament when announcing that police would protect the Lab in its next site as much as the demonstrators protesting it; “Berlin hada reputation as a city of diversity and freedom that must be protected,” she continued.8 Two months before her intervention in the Parliament, and this time at the Brandenburg Gate, Koppers would accept a symbolic key from a BMW Plant Manager Hermann Bohre in front of twenty BMW R900RT “Authority” motorcycles—a model especially designed for authority use—given as a present to the Berlin Police by the company.9 The friction between the scene in the Parliament and that in the street enacts the circulating borders of contemporary institutions as they extend beyond the limits of the architectural objects to the sponsored structures and mechanisms of social order governing the space.

From cultural complexes, urban laboratories, and Parliament houses, to social media or media campaigns, the architectures designed for debate normalize the space of agreement and disagreement, consensus and dispute. As the high walls of cultural institutions seem to further loosen up with yet another initiative for public participation and citizen empowerment, other spatial arrangements emerge for the appropriation of the political and the public character of the urban space; other forms of control and consumption appear on the public sphere, which, in turn, define the spaces and possibilities of debate. Meanwhile, the bodies of the uninvited carry a message: “We don’t need you to teach us how to talk.”

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Police van at Pfefferberg’s complex entrance, where the BMW Guggenheim Berlin was installed (manipulated: background removed), June 2012. © Marina Otero Verzier.


This text is based on Marina Otero Verzier’s Master thesis developed within the framework of the CCCP program at GSAPP (Columbia University) and advised by Professor Felicity D. Scott. Fragments of this thesis have been previously published in CIRCO 180. Aterrizajes (CIRCO M.R.T. Cooperativa de ideas: Madrid, 2012).

1 Guggenheim, “BMW Guggenheim Lab Opens Aug 3 in New York, Launching Six-Year Worldwide Tour,” press release, August 2, 2011,
2 As David van der Leer, curator of the project, stated, “It is more and more essential for museums to bring their architecture and design programming out of the confines of the gallery’s white box and into the realities of everyday urban life.” Guggenheim, “Guggenheim Foundation and BMW Group Announce a Major New Global Initiative. BMW Guggenheim Lab,” press release, October 1, 2010,
3 BMW Guggenheim Lab website, accessed September 21, 2012, Also see BMW Guggenheim Lab website, accessed September 21, 2012,
4 Hannah Pilarczyk, “BMW Guggenheim Lab eröffnet: Viel Ärger um eine Bastelecke,” Spiegel online, accessed July 27, 2015,
5 “Yoshiharu Tsukamoto,” BMW Guggenheim Lab website, accessed July 22, 2015,
6 McLaren, “Less Talking, more making as the Lab takes its next step,” BMW Guggenheim Lab Blog, November 14, 2011,
7 Yoshiharu Tsukamoto, in an interview conducted by the author in New York on April 18, 2012.
8 Alexander Forbes, “Further Police Protection for Guggenheim Lab,” Blouin Artinfo, March 28, 2012, accessed September 3, 2012,
9 ”BMW Gives 20 R900RT Motorcycles to Berlin Police,” BMW Motorcycle Magazine, March 29, 2012, accessed January 20, 2013,