Defining the collective
Berlin, DE

ON/OFF is an interdisciplinary design studio based in Berlin. They work collaboratively, drawing on the diversity of skills within their group to realise cross-format projects, including mobile structures, film and projection, building workshops and writing. Aiming to challenge conventional ideas of inhabiting and sharing space, the practice explores the in-betweens and overlaps of the urban experience to engage citizens in an immediate relationship with their environment.

Taking up the identity of a collective

In the beginning, ON/OFF was forged through the notorious architecture studio hours that we are all familiar with. We were all working at the same atelier in Berlin and started organising movie nights and events which bridged the working hours into the leisure hours. Eventually we started inviting friends from outside the office. At the same time, we were reacting to the urban environment of Berlin around us; thinking up ad-busting campaigns and different street-art ideas. A few members lived together and would tinker and design on the weekends. It was in this way that Kopfkino was born. This project was eventually taken on by the Istanbul ‘adhocracy’ Triennale in 2012, which gave us an opportunity to take our identity as a collective seriously.


Blurring the legal lines

We started as politically and socially motivated designers, and it’s still imperative to us that our projects have some kind of direct public engagement. This often puts our practice at odds with the idea of architecture as a ‘service’. We were not initially very interested in private clients and had to figure out other ways of financing the practice. Our best projects are self-initiated, “for a cause” and oftentimes slip between the limits of legality. When we were renovating our studio space in Berlin in 2015, we created a fundraising project in the shape of a project we call Disco Späti (Späti is Berlin slang for corner-shop or off-license). It was a mobile disruptive bar on wheels. We built it out of decommissioned fridges and a loudspeaker we found on the street. We took to different street parties around Berlin, in particular, Berlin’s notorious May Day. We had a few run-ins with the police for selling drinks and our stop gap solution was to apply for a drinks delivery licence. The only trick was we would have to insist we were only delivering and not selling drinks, keeping us in a legal grey-area.


Embracing a diversity of setting

We have no clearly set ‘office’. Our members are spread across three cities. Working groups for projects form organically within the group. Since there are many members in the group, meetings are both important and also very time-consuming. As we are often working on different projects in different spaces, in different parts of the continent, our whole group meetings generally take the form of extended crit sessions, where we communicate what we are up to, and give each other feedback. In the best of times, our structure gets its strengths from the friction and critique we serve and receive during the design development process and also through some healthy competition among our group.

In architecture it is difficult to be a political practice because it is all-enveloping. You have to take the role of many different actors and operate across political, economic, and cultural landscapes. It takes a lot of energy and involves a lot of balancing passions with ‘what pays the bills’. Within our group, our individual daily lives reflect a huge gamut of different work-life schedules, though none would be described as traditional. Some of us have day jobs, some of us teach, some of us are fully self employed, some of us have children, some of us have cats. There is no one size fits all approach to how we work.


Entering the virtual realm

Like many people around the world at the moment we are working remotely from one another. But perhaps unlike others, the Coronavirus pandemic changed little in how we worked as ON/OFF. We were mostly already working in this way, with a dispersed studio structure. We outgrew our studio space and what it could offer us as an office or atelier. The studio was like a spaceship with a 2 sq.m. one-person kitchen and a noisy workshop in close proximity to the clean office space. Some of us still use this space extensively, but it is less an atelier than it is a laboratory and workshop.

Perhaps we not only outgrew the space in terms of size, but also in terms of the kinds of work, and ways of working, we were beginning to undertake; most of us were working in different places according to our different lifestyles. Recent events will further show that design collectives do not need a studio space to be whole.


Bridging pedagogy and practice

Most of us probably realised while studying that traditional architectural practice would not be for us. Of course there is a huge gap between our ad-hoc, direct practice and regular office work for example, collecting shopping carts from various parking lots or cycling around straddling two share-bikes like wild west horse thieves, in order to use them to make a project mobile. This is a long way from toilet details and door schedules. Having said that, one surprise might be how much our work does reflect the traditional office grind; we still spend a great deal of our time balancing spreadsheets and tending to email communication, the same as any other design practice.

Many of us teach at universities, and this has elicited another surprise - the degree to which ON/OFF has become a pedagogical platform and springboard for academic investigation. The experimentation and free exchange of ideas afforded by the university design-studio is becoming an increasingly important part of our practice.


Stirring up a global conversation

We spent the last few years codifying the ideas that motivate our work in the book Co-machines: Mobile Disruptive Architecture, which will soon be released in a second edition. The idea of the Co-machine gave us a conceptual framework for teaching activities, and in turn our work with students and universities offers great new opportunities for the direction of our practice. One objective for the coming years could be to start to collate and analyse the outcomes of our separate teaching experiences and our fruitful collaborations with students and academics.

Another objective might be to direct our work and our networks globally, to become more in tune with what is happening outside the European context. We conceived CoMachines as apparatuses for reacting against the isolating and individualising nature of urban life and our practice has always been concerned with overturning social structures that create division. In this context, it is worrying to us that the immediate effect of this year’s calamitous events have been a tendency towards barriers and xenophobia; the world feels like an increasingly fractured place. But at the same time, the pandemic has shown us how small the world actually is. If you are in lockdown, someone in the same city and someone on a different continent are suddenly the same distance away. This has the potential to be greatly liberating for a global conversation.

10 ONOFF STUDIO Photo Credit Sandra Camey instagram sandra.kme Michael Maginness
Photography © Sandra Camey

06 ONOFF Public House Photo Credit Fergus Carmichael and Mansions of the Future Michael Maginness
Photography © Fergus Carmichael and Mansions of the Future

08 ONOFF Boulevard Photo Credit Tim Van de Velde Michael Maginness
Photography © Tim Van de Velde

05 ONOFF The Great Escape Michael Maginness

02 ONOFF Rok n Roll Michael Maginness.jpeg
Images courtesy of ON/OFF

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