Berlin Lab

Three Cities, Hundreds of Miles, One Blog

Photo: Christine McLaren

Photo: Christine McLaren

As anyone who has read Lab | Log knows, I’ve spent a lot of time traveling. However, I can’t remember the last time I made it to the end of a travel diary. On every trip I’ve ever taken, I’ve started with good intentions: my entries appear daily at first, then every few days. Eventually, they taper off to once a week, until they disappear entirely somewhere mid-trip—usually at the point where the novelty of transient living has worn off.

But if this blog is, in one sense, the travel diary of the Lab, as I described it in my very first post some two and a half years ago, then this time I’ve completed my task. This week on Lab | Log, we are sharing our final thoughts on this wild and fascinating journey, and here I am writing my second-to-last post.

In honor of this concluding moment, I decided to take one last look back over a blog that now includes hundreds of posts. Since the launch of the BMW Guggenheim Lab some years back, we’ve covered some incredible ground—I almost forgot just how much. So before we close the book for good, join me as I share a few of my favorite Lab | Log memories.

Among the most fun and rewarding parts of working at the Lab were the ties we were so lucky to make with members of the communities where the Lab landed. These people opened their hearts, minds, and neighborhoods to give the Lab a home and helped us learn from their own experience. One of the first of these people during the launch of the Lab in New York was Clayton Patterson, a Lower East Side institution in and of himself. In this profile, he opened himself and his LES archival gallery to me to show me the ropes of the neighborhood. I’m forever grateful to him for that.

Then there were the Lab Team members who, despite their dawn-til-dusk frenetic schedule at the Lab, were always ready for one more inspiring conversation, debate, or project. I remember having to wring critique of New York’s water system out of Lab Team member Olatunbosun Obayomi, the wastewater microbiologist and inventor from Nigeria, when he shared his top ten water-conservation tips for New Yorkers. Fresh from Lagos, he actually had a hard time focusing on New York’s water problems—“You think water in New York is bad, you come back to Lagos with me!” he kept saying. Meanwhile Charles Montgomery was always, er, happy to provide tips on using your city as an engine for joy—as long as brainstorming happened with plenty of friendly company from the neighborhood over dinner and drinks, as per tip Number 8.

Some of the posts triggered conversations that signaled how much people really care about the issues in their cities—like the wonderful debate that sprang up in the comment section of this piece on perceptions of ugliness and beauty in architecture, and how they shape the physical and social development of our cities. Other exchanges were more heated, even a little uncomfortable at times, but extremely productive, like those that occurred citywide around gentrification when the Lab came to Berlin. Some of my favorite posts and online debates happened then, when we dedicated a month and a half to digging into the historical, systematic, demographic, and other unique factors contributing to the monumental shifts in affordability that Berlin is seeing right now. At the end of the day, it felt like we genuinely came to a better understanding of the issue. And to boot, through it all, I even became friends with some of my harshest online critics. If that type of exchange and understanding isn’t at the core of what we were doing, I don’t know what is.

Some posts represent fundamental shifts in my own thinking. My experiences in New York, Berlin, and especially Mumbai throughout my time with the Lab have brought affordability and the formal/informal divide to the forefront of my consciousness in thinking about the future of our cities. They have laid the groundwork and given me new direction, fervor, and dedication to these issues for my future work as a journalist.

And then there were the adventures, embarked upon in pursuit of nothing other than better understanding, that went on to become the stories of a lifetime. Like the time I took a voyage across the north Atlantic on a container ship in the dead of winter to meditate on the meaning of the Lab’s theme “Confronting Comfort.” The 15-day, 4000-mile journey—which I documented live in the appropriately named series Comfort Crash Course—helped me explore everything from the complex tensions of private versus public, and physical versus psychological comfort, to how our ever-shifting notions of luxury and necessity shape our definition of comfort, and even how comfort helped make the bicycle the genuine mode-share it is today.

But the greatest adventures of all were those that took place with the fascinating people who went out of their way to help us understand the difficulties, complexities, paradoxes, and beauties of the three cities the Lab visited. There were the many days spent at Kala Nagar, the most horrifically snarled traffic junction in all of Mumbai. I was there with the ever-stoic Lab Team member Trupti Amritwar Vaitla, who showed me the ropes and literally held my hand, and with environmental psychologist Colin Ellard, who measured my stress levels as I ran through traffic. There was the eye-opening tour of old Berlin that I took with Wheelmap.org founder Raul Krauthausen, who had lived his whole life there in a wheelchair; and there was the surprising and mind-altering pilgrimage to Levittown, the real-life blueprint for the American suburb, with Greg Greene, the director of The End of Suburbia. There was that Christmas Eve in Mumbai when I walked in the seething heat from slum to slum along the Landlink pipeline with Lab Team member Neville Mars. And then there was one of the most powerful experiences I’ve had yet in my twenty-something years: a three-hour commute in a rumbling, sardine-packed train with one of Mumbai’s mystical, musical bhajan groups.

But two and a half years, more than 300 posts, and hundreds of discoveries wouldn’t have meant anything without the wonderful, loyal, thoughtful, and engaged readers who stayed with us along the way. Thank you, everyone, for being part of the story the Lab | Log has written. It’s been such a joy having you along.

Follow Lab | Log over the next two days as we share more concluding reflections from the Lab’s journey.