STADTSCHAUM research – Berlin, Istanbul, Mumbai



The informal city, do-it-yourself urbanism, the spontaneous city and similar labels appear rather frequently in the contemporary discussion of cities and urbanism. Noticeably, they are commonly described as being opposed to the city and its formal and highly regulated structures. Yet, these dualisms are hardly sufficient to behold and comprehend current urban situations in their entire complexity and diversity. The city is neither a black-and-white scenario, nor is it divisible into formal and informal, it is rather an accumulation of a variety of at times contradictory actors, practices, spaces and meanings. The term foam, derived from Peter Sloterdijk’s theory of spheres, allows for a perception and understanding of the city as something in motion. Social, economical, ecological and cultural urban crises have in recent years forced an ever-increasing amount of people to draw on informal networks to ensure their survival in the city, both in terms of labour and housing. These developments lead to informal and improvised urban practices, spaces and structures. The increasing complexity of the city has prompted even wealthy people to realize that their needs are oftentimes better and quicker served if they resort to informal conducts. All of these informal and improvised practices and spaces of the city, with the variety of their causes and origins, are part and parcel of the city’s meshwork – they are bubbles of foam. We name them URBAN FOAM. Our project endeavours to trace and explore URBAN FOAM in the complex urban meshes of Berlin, Istanbul and Mumbai and identify their multifarious relations in the production of urban space. Many of these informal and improvised practices and spaces evolve when people, whether voluntarily or out of necessity, actively engage in shaping and creating urban space.

These phenomena, with all their problems and potentials, are hereby not perceived as threat or menace to, but as an integral part of the city. The exhibition URBAN FOAM is the result of our observations and findings and shall provide insights into the experiences, questions and conclusions, which this project has unveiled. The different levels of illustration in the exhibition allow visitors to explore the variety of aspects involved in the project and let them immerse in the universe of URBAN FOAM.

Urban crisis – generator of the informal city ?

The unbridled growth of cities and the vastly expanding urbanisation of society in the 21st century contribute to the emergence of social, economical, ecological and cultural urban crises. Migration from rural areas to conurbation, natural catastrophes and the growing effects of climate change as well as the ever more frenetic operations of the global economy are exacerbating these urban crises. Figures published by renowned institutions, such as the Urban Age Institute, are hardly ambiguous: By 2050, approximately 75% of the global population will live in cities. Large segments of the population of metropolis already stay in constantly expanding, self-constructed townships.

While the fast-paced growth applies particularly to southern Megacities, rural and post-industrial regions are shrinking. Strikingly, both extreme expansion as well as decline and shrinking are commonly accompanied by the same phenomenon – the growth of URBAN FOAM. The experiences of our research trip have proven that politicians and real-estate managers often perceive URBAN FOAM as a threat to the city they envision: a city, which functions according to legislative periods and the principle of maximum profit. Architectural endeavours as well as urban renewal and transformation projects flowing from such mindset are guided by a capitalistic, economic value system and most commonly aim to remove or bowdlerise informal and improvised urban practices and spaces. We could witness in all cities and their diverse settings how such projects have oftentimes triggered new urban crises. Opposing these policies, we call for a sensible and conscious handling of URBAN FOAM, for an alternative to destruction and tabula-rasa followed by a reconstruction aiming solely at profits, under the disguise of slogans such as “clean city”, “pretty city” or “save city”. Efforts to create an exclusively clean, pretty and save city undermine the very principle of urbanity and ultimately lead to what can be called an anti-urban city. Only for whom such city would be built, remains unanswered.

Learning from … ?

These transformations lead to an ever more complex and unmanageable city and render it increasingly difficult to fully grasp its substance and ambits with traditional scientific methods. The city wants to be explored and experienced, so it can divulge information about itself and its URBAN FOAM and tell us about its multifaceted urban conditions. Against this background, the research journey across Berlin, Istanbul and Mumbai included over 50 so-called UrbanExplorations, which aimed to explore and scrutinize the above cities, their specific characteristics and their URBAN FOAM. Urban dynamics and their implications were examined, documented and complemented by approximately 100 interviews with local experts and their insights. Our subjective and selective method is premised on the conviction that we cannot comprehend the city as a closed unit. We have, for this reason, refrained from using maps or traditional representations (other than text and pictures) in the processual diagrams, which mirror the documentations and experiences of the research journey in the exhibition. Such illustration shall highlight that URBAN FOAM is not a sealed system in itself, but part and parcel of the open and dynamic mesh of actors, spaces and relations responsible for the production of urban space as defined by Lefèbvres and shall foster a perception of an active and productive component of the city. The processual diagrams do not aim to evaluate URBAN FOAM, but to explore and understand its intrinsic dynamics and its interrelations with urban crises. This will allow visitors to compare the de facto significantly differing contexts of Berlin, Istanbul and Mumbai.

Processual diagram Berlin


Processual diagram Istanbul


Processual diagram Mumbai


More information about the processual diagrams can be found –> here.

We would like to encourage you to get to know and better understand your own urban surroundings by looking at, instead of overlooking them, to explore connections, interrelations, urban dynamics, their actors and implications and your own opportunities to engage and contribute. Only the concurrence of recognizing, understanding and acting in light of and in accordance with the above by every individual enables diverse, participatory and holistically sustainable urban development based on creative and locally adapted solutions. As such, the city is a process of constant evolution and re-creation.

The STADTSCHAUM | URBAN FOAM | ECUMES DES VILLES research project was conducted by ISSSresearch from March 2010 till November 2012 and the results were published in the  –> STADTSCHAUM exhibition, which was running from November 2012 till January 2013 in Berlin and is still open to the public at the Senatsverwaltung für Stadtentwicklung und Umwelt of the city of Berlin, more information can be found –> here.

A short documentation about the exhibition can be downloaded –> here.


At the core of the research was a one year field research trip through Berlin, Istanbul and Mumbai. ISSSresearch was practicing UrbanExplorations and ExpertTalks, to question the role of the informal in the megapolis of the 21st century. More information about the background of the project can be found –> here.


>>> 11/10/2011 – 13/01/2012



>>> 01/07/2011 – 10/10/2011



>>> 08/03/2011 – 09/06/2011



The project was awarded the following prices and fundings:
> “Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky Stipendium” from the BMUKK, AT since 28/03/11.
> “Jeune Aventure”  from the city of Paris since  01/07/10.
> “Envie d’Agir” from the region Rhône Alpes since 12/10/10.
> “CreAvenir” from the bank Credit Mutuel since 15/11/10.
> Projektteilförderung by the Senatsverwaltung für Stadtentwicklung der Stadt Berlin.

The project was further promoted by:
by the association architects without borders, France.
by the association Anthroposphere – association for creative spatial research.

Thank you very much | Merci beaucoup | Vielen Dank