Sowing the seeds | Monocle

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Tucked into a bustling block in Berlin’s multicultural Neukölln district, Spore House manages to look simultaneously inconspicuous and inviting. At street level, vast floor-to-ceiling windows open to an airy space filled with colourful artworks, lush plants, a cosy café and plush seating.

This structure, opened in April, is the “institutional anchor” of Spore Initiative, a philanthropic organisation with a mission to care for the planet, collaborating with global communities to ensure that ancient knowledge about living in harmony with nature doesn’t get lost. “The core premise of Spore is how to create a space where culture comes in to serve priorities set by people at the forefront of environmental regeneration,” says founding director Antonia Alampi, who’s also an art curator.


The building’s sweeping, raw concrete interiors (by aff architects, which used recycled bricks for the façade) hold multiple exhibition spaces and an auditorium for concerts and events. On Spore House’s upper floors there’s a library with books, for children and grown-ups, about ecology, as well as apartments for resident artists and fellows. A large terrace overlooks a rear garden where Spore is growing crops and medicinal plants for workshops about nutrition. Everything in the house is made by craftspeople or sourced secondhand.

Spore is funded by founder Hans Schöpfin, a German entrepreneur who saw the need for promoting environmental justice. Spore’s initial activities took place in Mexico City and in the Yucatán peninsula; this new building in Berlin has allowed it to create a space where lessons from the Global South can take root elsewhere. Even before opening to the public with an event-filled weekend attracting hundreds of Berliners, Spore began holding ecological workshops with children (weekdays are still reserved for activities and school visits). Groups work in the green space headed by Marco Clausen, the founder of the beloved Prinzessinnengärten community gardens in Berlin. Until December a group exhibition called Kuxaán Súum reflects on a Mayan prophecy about repairing a “living rope” broken by Western colonisation; there’s also a programme of radio shows and panel discussions. All events are free.

And the name? Spores are “seeds” produced by fungi, ancient and vast systems that maintain life as we know it but are generally invisible to the eye. Much of Spore Initiative’s work happens similarly under the radar but will ultimately grow into a wide-reaching network linking speakers from Central America to environmental groups in Berlin to share knowledge.

Though it’s set in a densely urban neighbourhood in a European capital city, Spore House feels like a connecting point. “We think of it as a place where knowledge and practices that have been marginalised are put back in the centre,” says Alampi. “That’s why it’s so beautiful.”

Reel to Wheel

In Centre-Val de Loire, in central France, you don’t go to the cinema; the cinema comes to you. Cinémobile, a travelling screen housed in a lorry, has been serving the region’s small villages for more than 30 years. Once a month, the lorry parks up in a town centre and opens its wings, revealing a salon kitted out with plush red seats and Dolby surround sound. “We wanted it to be a real cinema, not just a projector in the town hall,” says Philippe Germain, the general director of Cicilic, the Centre-Val de Loire’s cultural agency. Over the course of the day, different people climb inside: teenagers here to catch the latest blockbuster, parents entertaining their children and enthusiasts debating the month’s movie selection. Recently, Cinémobile started leasing a truck to help a similar initiative in Scotland, where it will head to the Highlands and remote islands. 


At the project’s heart is a belief in the power of culture to bring people together. “How do we live with each other?” says Germain. “How can we be good citizens? We can learn this thanks to cinema.” Some stops on the Cinémobile tour no longer have social spaces such as bars or grocery shops, so the truck can act as a place for community-building. “It’s not a huge thing,” says Germain. “But it’s important that it exists.”

Cities with no limits 

Saskia Miller on how fictional representations of cities in films such as Metropolis and Black Panther can cast light on the issues facing the ones we actually live in.

In fictional cities, anything is possible: flying cars, abundant clean energy, housing for all. In real cities, it seems, even installing a new cycle lane can be challenging. Yet despite the wide gap between fantasy and reality, imaginary cities can still inspire urban planners to pursue a better future.

“I am deeply convinced that art and fictional thinking are valuable engines and generators of ideas,” says Annett Zinsmeister, a Berlin-based architect, artist and author of Constructing Utopia. “By creating fictional cities, you free yourself from limitations. With fiction, you can think and actually do anything in the design. And that’s just not possible in real life.”

In her work, Zinsmeister aims to create “real fiction”, an in-between space of experimentation. She also encouraged her design students at Stuttgart’s State Academy of Arts and Design to think into the future: “To design the seemingly impossible as a possibility, even if it is in small steps.”

While thinking up an ideal urban plan might sound appealing, Zinsmeister emphasises that most utopian narratives aren’t actually utopias but dystopias. The latter convey warnings rather than solutions, encouraging us to take a different path than the one we’re on. Take the harrowing vision depicted in the 1927 silent film Metropolis, upon whose dark perspective many subsequent movies have been modelled. Based on the story by German writer and actress Thea von Harbou, the vertical architecture of director Fritz Lang’s city cleaves the poor and the wealthy into sharply different realities: a downtrodden class of workers toil underground while the privileged enjoy a life of oblivious leisure above. 

Often, dystopian and utopian urban visions are simply two sides of the same coin – a deterrent against one thing, and an argument for the opposite. In the Afrofuturist urban utopia of Marvel’s Black Panther films, for example, the dynamic of privilege depicted in Metropolis is reversed. Here, global power lies in the hands of the traditionally marginalised – and its cities reflect this alternative version of reality.


In creating the cinematic architecture of Black Panther, Oscar-winning production designer Hannah Beachler drew on history, real and imagined, to dream up an African city untouched by slavery. Golden City is the capital of the once-hidden country of Wakanda, whose people use a potent metal called vibranium not to destroy rival societies but to protect their own. The capital is futuristic yet human: its emissions-free magnetic-levitation train is technologically advanced, while its bustling street markets capture the vibrant energy of a thriving, socially connected place. In an important touch, a dedicated records hall saves all the precious details of every resident’s past. In an interview at the 2018 CityLab summit, an annual gathering of city leaders, Beachler revealed why she felt so strongly about addressing a real-world wrong through a fictional right. “I felt that way because I never knew my history,” she said. “I didn’t know my ancestry, I didn’t know how far back it went. I don’t have that but I could give it here in this fantastical world.”

Whether utopian, dystopian or something in between, fictional cities prompt questions about the spaces we live in: must some people sleep on the street so that others may live indoors? Should we invest in flying cars or more mass transit? Is that new cycle lane really such a stretch? “The best science-fiction narratives in literature and film are pioneers,” says Zinsmeister. “They think ahead of current developments, events, situations and problems and project 30, 50 or 100 years hence.” Perhaps a radically different urban future isn’t that fanciful after all.

Saskia Miller is a Berlin-based journalist who works with the Bloomberg CityLab summit and ‘The New York Times’.

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