Stealth Architecture

Frankfurt, DE
Type: Research

In cooperation with Städelschule, Weltkulturen Museum and Theatrum Mundi/Global Street.

With the assistance of Dr. Clementine Deliss, Dr. Yvette Mutumba, Prof. Richard Sennett, Prof. Saskia Sassen, Prof. Nikolaus Hirsch, and Matthias Görlich.

    • With contributions and positions by Iva Baljkas, Christoph Esser, Matthias Görlich, Flaka Haliti, Armin Linke and Joel Roy.
    • Photography by Armin Linke.
    • Devised and curated by Markus Miessen.

Within the framework of “Theatrum Mundi/Global Street”, initiated and led by Prof. Richard Sennett and Prof. Saskia Sassen, the Weltkulturen Museum invited Markus Miessen and his Architecture & Critical Spatial Practice (ACSP) class of the Städelschule to contextualize their research on the spatialization of (in)formal trade in Frankfurt basing their inquiries on the history of the museum and its complex connections to local and global commerce. This research involved mapping the various locations of the museum’s collections within Frankfurt. The outcomes of these investigations were showcased in the exhibition “Stealth Architecture” presented in the museum’s project space, the Green Room. The research and exhibition of the Architecture & Critical Spatial Practice Class fed back into the development of the next major exhibition at the Weltkulturen Museum: “Ware und Wissen / Gift, Legacy, Acquisition, Exchange” (2013 – 2014). Analysing the diverse relationships that have determined different strategies of acquisition and appropriation, as well as methods employed in the administration of ‘foreign’ objects, the exhibition aimed to recast the history of the museum’s ethnographic collection. It sought to raise critical awareness of the contexts, access to, and re-organisation of knowledge based on artefacts gathered from different parts of the world.


Historically, Frankfurt is home to the “Messe Frankfurt”, one of the largest trade fairs in the world, which – in its current legal and operational framework – was established in 1907. However, the actual trade fair dates back to 1152, when Frankfurt was first mentioned as a major port for international trade. One of the central advantages of Frankfurt as a historically interregional and later global city is owed to its highly convenient geopolitical location: next to or close to two major rivers (Main and Rhein), and well connected to major pan-European trade routes and road networks. Today, Frankfurt hosts the ninth busiest airport globally, and is home to the Lufthansa fleet. In 1785 the first recorded manned flight in Germany took place in Frankfurt when a hydrogen-balloon was launched as part of the trade fair. Lufthansa was founded two years after the Messe Frankfurt.

Hidden Infrastructures: the enabling space for trade

Since Frankfurt is such an important centre for trade, it bursts with two very different sets of infrastructure: at first, it necessitates a formal infrastructure, which supports, benefits from, and enables official trade. Examples include the trade fair, the stock exchange, the European Central Bank, all major international banks, the airport, the train station, the motorways, business centres, and hotels.

Further, the above phenomenon produces a fertile ground for alternative forms of markets and trade, but also relies on a second-layer infrastructure, which allows for a trade-capital to operate on a daily basis, an infrastructure, which is often not visible and may not have a clearly recognizable and specifically designed facade or face to it. Examples of this phenomenon include Internet service hubs, server warehouses, the Commerzbank trading floor (Bahnhofsviertel), the largest Internet hub in the world (De-Cix Management GmbH, Ostend & Gallus), Central Data Centres (i.e. on Hanauer Landstrasse & Kleyerstrasse), Deutsche Börse Rechenzentrum Eschborn, call centres, (unofficial) detention centres, informal sex work, sterile environments, and second layer markets.


As part of the larger project Theatrum Mundi/Global Street, this yearlong research project at the Städelschule investigated the question and phenomenon of (informal) trade, spaces of infrastructure, and – more specifically – practices and buildings without a Face/ade. Theatrum Mundi/Global Street was a project that aimed to bring architects, urban planners, and visual artists together in order to re-imagine questions of the public, publicness, and everyday street culture of 21st century cities. In New York, Theatrum Mundi was working on questions of choreography and public speaking, while the London group was working on questions of space, sound and light, the Städelschule Architecture Class (SAC) project investigated the urban reality and potentials of exchange and trade, as well as the objects and spaces that these elements produced, both in relation to the city and to its spatial setting: meeting points, public and otherwise, in the shadow, so to speak.

As a starting point, the group inquired questions of trade and how those practices spatialized within urban environments: what determines those processes, how are they ‘designed’, and at which moment do they become ‘architectural’?

Attempting to map and visualize the invisible, the studio started by studying spatial histories of global trade on a local scale. We used the city of Frankfurt as a central European case that exemplifies how material and immaterial goods are being circulated, ranging from formal to informal, from financial transactions to passenger flows and the urban infrastructure of physical products, from migrant communities (geo-political background) to the Elderly (age), from illegal practices to forms and formats of night labour, from spaces of financial infrastructure and information flows to control rooms, where decisions are being made. The fact that many of those practices were taking place as often unwanted but tolerated invisible practices also pointed at the question of what kind of urban culture is being promoted today.

While focusing on the local, Frankfurt – as an international city – by default reveals global implications and therefore the project attempted to unpack relevant questions of geopolitics. As the studio dealt with the question of the invisible, one of the aims of this ‘de-stealthing’ project was to x-ray the city that we inhabited, to ‘make presence’ (Saskia Sassen): from informal trade to histories of hidden spaces, from programs without facade to faceless buildings – architectural scale projects that disappear in the city’s fabric.

Dealing with such questions of trade and urban practices ‘below the radar’ (Saskia Sassen) also entailed to study, understood, and speculated on the constructions of identities and communities in the contemporary city. To speculate on this further raised the question of ‘urban capabilities’ (Saskia Sassen), in other words: why does a particular city lend itself to a specific, localized and customized set of practices?

In the context of this project, the notion of exchange and trade were interpreted and tested as ‘soft encounters’ (Siobhan Davis), everyday practices that embody and reveal different notions of presence, awareness and perception. While some phenomena that investigated took place in physically remote neighbourhoods and sites within the urban environment, others claimed and occupied spaces, which change on a 24hr timetable: activities that only take place after sunset (specific kinds of markets, sexual services, gambling, drug trading et al.), activities that illustrate the relationship between practices that ‘contaminate and decontaminate’ (Saskia Sassen), being open and accessible at times and hermetic at other times. When they accumulate they generate a rupture in the often-homogeneous daily life of the city.

These ruptures produced by the invisible were based on a very specific and alternative interpretation and practice of ownership: one, which tends to often not be based on legal, but temporary ownership, in other words: presence as a result of occupation, creating presence not by “owning” (a specific section of) the public space, but producing presence by inhabiting. What constitutes the thresholds and borders of such practices and architecture? What would such space look like today?

This endeavour entailed site-specific and research-based investigations and projects. In the Weltkulturen Museum we have, for instance, organized research-based sessions, workshops and displays open to the public, where we took various and specifically scouted and produced mappings and objects as triggers for an understanding of trade & presence, in particular an urban political presence. The Weltkulturen Museum dedicated several exhibitions and events to the overall theme of “Trading Perceptions” over the following years. The diverse relationships that determined the ways in which artefacts have been circulated and traded, the connections of the museum to global commerce and to changing political and economic incentives were all aspects of the inquiry.

Green Room

The Green Room on the upper floor of the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt is a laboratory space, which has been explored as a temporary production-in-residence in which the team has worked on an installation and display of process(es). The studio has been invited by the museum to undertake research in this laboratory-like condition, formulating new interpretations and creating original artworks based on the findings, superimposition and conflicts generated by the contemporary condition of Frankfurt (our findings) and the historic depth of the museum’s existing and outstanding collection. The space has been used as an archive of mapping and research work on stealth spaces and objects relating to formal and informal modes of trade, based on our ongoing investigation in the city of Frankfurt. In order to enhance the historic contextualization of the project, we have also worked with architectural photographs from the image archive as well as with selected architectural artefacts and objects of the collection of the Weltkulturen Museum.