Tribsees to table
Culinary urban development or: how do we cook up a new town?!
Tribsees is bitterly cold in winter, heartwarmingly beautiful in summer, and always rich in stories and history. But how does the metropolis on the Trebel taste? And what will its future be like? Big questions. We started with very small ones, put to Ton Matton:
»Where can we go for a meal here in town?«
»Restaurant? There is none.«
»There isn’t one of those either.«
»Not even that.«
And since we were not allowed to nibble on the exhibits at the local potato museum either, our contribution to the overall project »Making Tribsees’s Future« was born out of our own experiences. After having a home-cooked meal in the local history society’s kitchenette, we resolved to challenge this small town’s apparent deficits through the bounties of the surrounding countryside and the skills of its inhabitants. We wanted to create a third-millennium zero-waste restaurant that would rise from the ruins of the town and face the future – to open up the place, its surrounding countryside, and even more distant regions so that they may benefit one another and celebrate together.
The ingredients for this were an empty department store, people brimming with skills and knowledge, plus everybody’s hunger for friendship, conversation, and really good food. The place for it was the best building in town: the Cooperative Department Store at Karl Marx Strasse 6, a building with palpable grandeur from the last century – date of closure and owners unknown. For us it was immediately clear, here is the spot where everything is possible! We asked the Trebel Pottery brigade, the local school, and in fact, the whole town to help us. The prospect of having a restaurant again, a place that creates community, was well received – in Tribsees, Hamburg, and even in Bad Sülze!
It was just too bad that we didn’t have the keys to the department store, nor a kitchen, chairs, or tables. But we had an idea and the ambition to design a space together with the residents that could be more than simply beautiful and functional – more of a social sculpture in the sense of Beuys, less of Rach, the Restaurant Tester. And wouldn’t there also be some local producers with whom we could transform the countryside into an edible landscape?
Questions upon questions. Just as it always is when culinary artists and innovative designers get down to work. The challenge was clear. The goal was somewhere on the horizon. But how could we get there?
Urban practice. Rural practice?
We live and operate in Hamburg. A small town like Tribsees challenges our usual methods and encourages us to question ourselves. However, we have to be honest, we are primarily children raised in small towns or are »from the village.« Our first experiences in big cities and metropolises came when we received our higher education and became of age. The »Tribsees to Table« (T2T) experiment was therefore also a journey into our own personal histories.
In an era of simultaneity and individuality, we can become anything, and indeed already have. And so our roles change from designer and teacher to innovator and host in a fraction of a second. For several years now, »urban practice« has stood for the creative license to make use of a wide range of disciplines, who operate as actors in cities, in order to transform them through their respective strategies. We, too, are only too happy to use this terminology. But how do we justify and explain our actions here, in rural areas? Is there even such a thing as a genuine »rural practice«? And if so, what distinguishes it?
We would like to clarify these questions in the following discussion, while illustrating selected approaches, formats, and objectives from our perspective.
Tribsees can do pottery – that became immediately clear to us during the first public walk in 2020. The amiable senior citizen Hilde Zinke creates cups, blue frogs, and whatever else the Tribsees woman of the world needs, during her spare time at the non-profit Trebel Pottery Club. She immediately convinced us that she lacks neither vision nor commitment. Associations like the Trebel Pottery Club form the backbone of rural civil society. In small towns, the average resident belongs to twice as many associations as those in big cities. With an accomplice like Hilde, we were statistically assured of broad access to our field of operation.
Following the example of the Granby Workshop (London), we potted together with her and her club mates using the bricks from crumbling houses to make tiles for the department store interior – for rubble as a resource was available by the house-load. And there was no lack of potential participants. Since each target group required a particular approach, we devised different media strategies and promotional methods, as well as workshop formats. A targeted press campaign and traditional mailings were the key to our success with nonaffiliated participants, whereas the experts from the pottery encouraged one another directly. In order to give something back to them as well, we invited the ceramic artist Julia Kaiser (Hamburg) to assist and direct for several days. In this way, the neighbors, local schoolchildren, and experienced potters from the association were all able to enjoy the experience in equal measure.
On two project days with the fifth-grade classes from the Recknitz-Trebeltal elementary school, we not only pottered according to the slogan »Only tiling is more fun,« but also set out on a rally through the town at the same time, so that we could talk to the next generation about the future of Tribsees. How do the young people of today imagine the restaurant of tomorrow? And what kind of food do they think will be served there? We then wove the children’s visions and favorite dishes into the final zero-waste restaurant plan.
In search of the hidden potential in seemingly obvious shortcomings, the idea of tile led us to our goal. Condensed to fifteen by fifteen centimeters, it allows everyone to grasp the concept of T2T with their own hands. The creation process behind it also symbolizes the participatory method. We were not able to accomplish the task by ourselves, nor did we want to define it on our own. Only in reciprocal negotiations with the place, its materiality, and its residents did we achieve the acceptance and coherence that we were hoping for, and that the project needed. It is only when we enable the people of Tribsees to follow and shape the process transparently and actively that there is a possibility that something will remain, even after we are long gone.
From Department Store to Restaurant
Another obvious resource in Tribsees is the vacant properties. In the historic town center alone, more than seventy buildings stand vacant, and even more plots of land, disguised as meadows and open spaces, mask the decline of the once vibrant center. The reasons for this state of affairs are historically embedded, systemic, and on top of that, homegrown. But what approaches might be used to halt and even reverse this creeping decline? Again, there was no single answer, but we did choose a concrete approach.
For us, Karl Marx Strasse 6 not only reflected the various facets of the existing problems, for in fact solutions also shone through its grimy store windows. In addition to the valuable building fabric, we also recognized the potential here for a place with a built-in sense of community. Whether in the city or in the country, spaces that create a sense of community are not something that residents take for granted in our society. What does seem normal, on the other hand, is that land is to generate monetary value, with the aim of continuously increasing it.
If, in addition to activist ideas originating from below, the assent of politicians and administrators is also forthcoming, then there is an opportunity for some unique collaborations with unexpected power. Here in Tribsees, a lot of good ideas would have been impossible without the clarity and understanding shown by the mayor, Bernhard Zieris, and Christian Pegel, the Minister for Interior, Building, and Digitalization in the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Often, unclear ownership, lack of determination, and failure to exploit the legal framework stand in the way of development in this region.
In his opening speech on June 24, 2021, Pegel surprised everyone with his unequivocal attitude toward owners who do not fulfill their duty of care, or are not even contactable. If the buildings that define the townscape are deliberately left to decay, expropriation should ultimately be an option. If these same buildings are opened up to the community, only positive effects will result. The place will be upgraded and put to use, and the building fabric will perhaps even be preserved in some cases. And if the owners become aware of this and come forward, contact and possibly even dialogue will occur, which seemed impossible before.
In our case, the »unreachable« owner was popularly known only as »the Swiss character.« Apart from this specific nationality, there were only ambiguities and rumors. However, these were not in short supply. But we were also amazed by the dwindling collective memory. For example, dates given for when the department store closed varied not by months, but by decades. So, in addition to the building fabric, memory also crumbles as a result of dereliction.
In material terms, however, we dedicated ourselves precisely to this past and went on a treasure hunt in the building. What for others was just junk or old scrap metal became for us the raw material for a new design. »Urban mining« is the name of a movement that focuses on sustainability and life cycles. Old shelves became tables, lampshades from the time before the fall of the Berlin Wall that had never been unpacked became wall decorations, and seemingly random odds and ends were transformed into harmonious displays in the store windows. Every single detail was scrutinized and carefully curated. In the end, only the ideas were new.
No building is an island. And so the old department store reflects the Tribsees of today. To symbolize this, we created an indoor rock garden from the rubble of the demolished houses, which was both a wayfinding device and a design element. This was temporarily planted with flowers from the Weber nursery. While our helpers smirked in the beginning, on the opening weekend visitors were amazed when we told them about what they were so excitedly looking at.
When interim uses like these are supported, then people begin to transform a place that has served no purpose in the urban fabric for years. They invest time and »sweat capital,« make a concrete commitment to the place, and become attached to it. Interim uses can release creative potential in unconventional ways, because they are always associated with the temporary. Due to this uncertainty, they are free from the pressure to succeed and can open up spaces for experimentation, with an uncertain outcome and a degree of naivety. This can lead to failure, but also to success. What is certain, however, is that this brings with it valuable practical experience.
T2T - The Way to the Future is Through the Stomach.
In the same manner as the gap between rich and poor, a widening delta between urban and rural areas also seems to be developing. Even the knowledge of how to grow food is fading from many urban minds. This is despite the fact that it satisfies the existential and basic need that we all have – for food. Yet land use and the state of our environment are also directly related to what we eat. According to Wendell Berry, »eating is an agricultural act.« And of course, it is also a political act.
How can we create a new closeness between the land, the food, its producers, and the places where it is consumed, as well as among consumers and one another? In a restaurant that actually isn’t one! That is a way to open a rural space for bringing people of different backgrounds closer together.
Even though Tribsees hasn’t had a restaurant in years, at T2T we didn’t just sell straightforward menus, but rather culinary experiences. However, apart from all of our love for the culinary arts and our pride in the store design, we quickly realized that the real star is the town. Together with local producers, experts, food enthusiasts, and top partners from Hamburg and Berlin, we developed a diverse program for four fantastic days at the end of July.
We played with different formats in order to build a bridge between our headquarters in Karl Marx Strasse, the old town center, and the surrounding area. Whether it’s a manor house, a fermentation plant, a baroque village, or the dream-come-true of farm ownership: in and around Tribsees there are numerous worthwhile destinations and fascinating people whose appeal extends far beyond the region.
Natural Flavor Enhancers
In big cities, his name is synonymous with the culinary avant-garde, but for most people in Tribsees, Olaf Schnell’s vegetable art is still completely unknown. In his case, the place of cultivation and the market are hundreds of kilometers apart. Operating under the name »Schnelles Grünzeug« (»quick greens«), Olaf from the picturesque village of Dorow grows vegetables for the star kitchens of this country. Through his ingredients and knowledge, completely new worlds of taste have been opened up for us.
Yannic and Susann von Krautkopf convincingly demonstrated to us that these days, it seems that real places can be effortlessly transported via virtual space. With their thousands and thousands of fans on social media, they share their experiences and adventures of life in rural Prebberede, not far from Tribsees. They joined us last evening and shared and shared their recipe for beet slices with fennel greens on rye bread.We found other partners almost by chance during our everyday conversations. Municipal employee Nicole Wenzel turned out to be a food blogger on her way to becoming a modern subsistence farmer. She is driven by her dream of her own farm with an educational purpose. Her dream was our luck and way to the best cheese in town.
The multitude and variety of our culinary compatriots may come as a surprise when you consider the number of people living in the area. But in this way not only does the history of urban-rural relations become visible, but also an already existing future of living and working for the people who reside here. For away from the metropolises, there is far more to be done than just to persevere and preserve. The countryside is not just a landscape, but a state of mind.
The Whole Town Becomes a Restaurant
It quickly became clear that we would not be able to entertain the large number of guests in one evening at one location. And so we created various formats for different audiences. But this situation also helped us to better represent the multidimensional nature of the project.
Thursday was dedicated to all the helpers and sponsors. We opened the doors of the department store to them first, expressing our thanks for their support with small tributes from the kitchen. On Friday, the action finally shifted to the street, which was closed to traffic every evening. Using various stations, we imitated a food court and rounded off the culinary experience with live music from local musicians. This way, residents and visitors could experience the small town in a different light.
On Saturday, we entirely departed from the established concept of the stationary restaurant and went on a real circuit through the town. During the day, chosen partners in the surrounding countryside opened their doors for our guests and invited everyone to a culinary outing in the country. In the evening, the whole of Tribsees was transformed into an open-air restaurant. We started guided tours in each case with a morsel of culinary art and an introductory talk in the »department store.« Then the groups of about thirty people each moved through the »cinema,« »church,« and »canoe rest area« stops, and then returned to the »department store.«
Both at the actual locations and on the move, the format practically ran itself and proved to be a communication coup. People showed each other that it does not necessarily require the architecture of a built physical space to come together. Here it was the arranged event with its coherent dramaturgy that brought about a long-lost sense of community. »Tribsees to Table« thus changed the town in a lasting way – not only materially, but above all as a collective experience in the memory of residents and visitors. A story that persists and becomes history.
The Essence of Land Making
»This is the best installation I have seen and experienced since Beuys! And I can say that. Because my friend, Petra Korte, is a salt artist and studied with him back then.«
Serious art historians might wrinkle their noses in disgust at such a comparison. But this is also the story of a passionate project beyond the hip and aloof vibe of the big city. Instead, it is at the center of small-town life. The reaction of the observer cited above left us feeling totally embarrassed Yet it also shows us once again that local residents express their opinions clearly and unambiguously and neither do they hold back with their criticisms, nor dish out praise with anything less than a big shovel.
After months of field research and hands-on work, we can say that »urban practice« can certainly be transferred to rural areas. As in any zone of cultural exchange, conflicts and frictions arise, but also productive communication and mutual learning. Thus, we may have created something new in Tribsees through our thinking and practices learned in the big city. But we were certainly amazed and enriched by the reactions, questions, and practices of the people of Tribsees.
For us, the direct routes to municipal decision-makers such as the mayor, as well as immediate access to the administration, were very practical advantages. On a personal level, we found it surprising that the sheer abundance of free space in the countryside is in inverse proportion to its absence in the city. Whereas in Hamburg the desire for a little space for self-fulfillment is increasingly pronounced, the people of Tribsees often have so much of it that the seemingly endless green backyards behind their own homes already demand their full attention. The needs of residents are different and the sites and modes of addressing them should be chosen accordingly.
Perhaps we could classify »Tribsees to Table« as a precedent for a rural practice. We served people a future vision for a place believed to be lost – as a socially disguised and inspired artistic culinary practice. During this creative process, we allowed our future audience to become accomplices, thus creating a new public sphere. But we also set up a new approach to »land making« as a whole. Through active participation and involvement in the project, participants were given the confidence that they had the power to act. And those who have experienced this also realize that they themselves can shape the future.
This is why we are calling for more precedents! For unplanned, spontaneous urban articulations. For leaving open spaces open as well. Interim uses should become an integral part of urban and rural design. What will come out of this in the future? We don’t know.
We also didn’t know at the beginning of T2T. Would people call us crazy? Would the police »evict« us? And what would that untraceable Swiss character do to us if they found out about it? Less than a year later, on April 24, 2022, we received this message at night: »As the owner of Karl Marx Strasse 6, I am delighted, and perhaps someone will contact me directly. Kind regards in the spirit of ‘Property is theft! Art is life!’
All the best,
Giovanni [Swiss phone number]«
To be continued?!