The idea that architecture could be, or even should be, an empty good may seem at first surprising.1 Many architects, after all, would claim the opposite, that it is the role of architecture to give the emptiness of modern building some meaning through their creative understanding of form.
The creation of empty space is inseparable from the process of contemporary city production. What is needed now is a shift of view, to stop pretending that this emptiness does not exist and see it as a "good" which is capable of containing the full complexity of the city. Once seen in this way, it might be possible to make the buildings better suited for this task.
Our example is the bottle made by the Deutsche Brunnen, which is used by many brands, not just for mineral water, but also for tonic water, lemonade etc.. The label is the only distinguishing mark between them.
This bottle has pleasing visual and tactile qualities. The constricted waist is inviting to the hand, further textural interest is provided by the embossed lettering and the bumps, which symbolize the efforvescant nature of the contents. Slightly thicker rings in the bottle, above and below the label, act as buffers which protect the surface of the bottle from getting scratched: the surface wear is concentrated at the rings in the form of a matt-ground line. The returnable bottle is made with thicker glass than a throw-away bottle, and this heaviness lends it a certain quality, the quality that comes from being more expensive to produce.
The Leihflasche seems, as an object, to present itself as a model for a possible architecture: the ablility to reused and contain varying contents, the separation of container and label, the tactile quality of the material - these are all things which one could hope to find in a good building.
The throw-away bottle, in comparison, seems to represent much of what we find inadequate about contemporary building: its inflexibility and short life-span, the invention of an eye-catching visual form to sell its content, the empty space it contains.
Leergut / Empty Good
The full potential of the model is only discovered when we set aside the object, and consider Leergut as a system: a micro-system which works in the contemporary city.By this we mean not only that it is economically viable (existing without state subsidy), but that it is socially inclusive (used by the whole city), and ecologically sound.
The principal of Leergut - to borrow the container against a deposit, rather than buying it along with the contents - is simple. This is one of the strengths of the system: it is transparent, understandable by everyone. It is also deeply embedded in the habits of trading, far deeper than that relative new-comer, the throw-away container; it goes back in principal to a pre-modern time, when containers were valuable, not mass- produced, disposable objects. That the system survives, in an age of cheap containers, is attributable to a memory of this earlier frugality and the survival of small local breweries and water bottlers, overlaid by contemporary feelings of environmental responsibility. There is a will in society that the system should work: this common will is one of the conditions for the successful functioning of such a system in the city, including architecture.
Although the principal of Leergut is simple,transparent, the result is complex, which includes, as in the case of a good building, spacial and social complexity. It is in this respect exactly the opposite of the Grüne Punkt recycling system, a complicated system with simple consequences: the same amount of rubbish is produced, it is simply thrown into different containers, as different categories of rubbish. The lack of tranparency leads to the well-founded suspicion that the packaging cannot be recycled and will end up with the other rubbish after all.
The complexity of the Leergut system can be measured through the network of movements which it sets up within a local field; in comparison, the throw-away system is a simple one-way flow. While the transportation of goods over long distances needs to be questioned on ecological grounds, movement (by foot or cycle) within the local field is nothing less than the life or bustle of the city. With movement comes the chance of social contact.
The crossing points of these movements become events in the city. Such a place is the pavement outside "500 Sorten Bier" in Schillerstrasse. As there is insufficient space within the shop for sorting out the empty bottles, it expands its business outside onto the pavement. They park a truck at the curb, cases of empty bottles are stacked on the wide pavement, the bottles are sorted: the space between shopfront and truck becomes an extension of the shop. Customers can leave their empty bottles there too, saving the trouble of taking them inside. In this modest and unspectacular pocket of activity we have a sense of what the city could be.