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Sociologists Rather than Signature Architects: Q&A with Behnisch Architekten Partners

They pull no punches in discussing the challenges of urban planning, the differences working in Europe and the U.S., architects' social and ethical responsibilities, and what their dream projects would be.

By Alexander Gutzmer
July 31, 2014

Editor’s note: Behnisch Architekten celebrated its 25th anniversary in its Stuttgart office last week. We were sorry we couldn’t be there, but are delighted to present an excerpt from the just-released Behnisch Architekten Magazine #02, published by FMO Publishers. Included is this extensive, engaging – and often provocative – conversation with the firm’s four partners.


How is architecture changing? And how much social far-sightedness can and must one entrust architects with? A substantial amount, say Stefan Behnisch, Robert Hösle, Robert Matthew Noblett, and Stefan Rappold in this conversation with Alexander Gutzmer, editor-in-chief of the architectural magazine Baumeister.


Alexander Gutzmer: At this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, Rem Koolhaas is concerned with the “fundamentals” of architecture, in other words, the things that persist. At the same time, it is often said that there is scarcely an industry that is subject to greater changes than architecture. Which transformations do you consider to be the most important?


Stefan Behnisch: I don’t know if the world of architecture is really exposed to such fundamental changes as is often claimed. Other industries, for example biotechnology, are undergoing much more rapid changes. What is certainly changing is our perception of architecture. Here, a paradigm shift is occurring. This is very evident in the large planning intervals. To be specific: Even the day a new building is inaugurated, we often ascertain what we would do differently today. The expectations of the user and the client also play a role. Take school buildings for example. Due to the open format of lessons, the requirements today are very different from five years ago.


AG: These social changes happen sooner rather than later nowadays. Does that also mean that architects must step up their learning pace?


Stefan Rappold: Yes. Nowadays, as architects we are called on to a very different degree to respond to new topics and challenges, and to find solutions. Here the same thing applies: If we engage in new social tasks, not only does the architecture change but also the role of the building itself.


AG: Which would bring us to the political role of building...


Behnisch: ...and the role of politics. We believe that politics changes society. That is not true. Society changes politics. Changes in politics are always powered by changes in society. These changes are often not recognized by politics until it is too late. The same could be applied to us as architects. We observe society and allow these observations to flow into our work – at least ideally. Reality is often quite different. Due to working conditions and the way the system operates, most architects are too lethargic to respond to changes in society. They do not listen properly.


AG: Is that because of the five-year cycles in which they think?


Behnisch: In urban planning we even talk about 20-year cycles. Some planning, when it is implemented, is completely outdated and out of touch with reality. For example, in the suburbs of Munich, bedroom communities are still being built, which correspond to the scale of the 1980s. We are still not planning the urban mix that makes our inner cities attractive. Although everyone wants to live in the inner cities.


Robert Hösle: Yet I must say that we at least ask the right questions. Hence, the architects working on living spaces are currently discussing demographic change in great depth. One thing is clear: we must adapt to the different forms of living, as the structure of the population is changing. Families are changing. Is it possible to make a two-room apartment into a five-room apartment? How do patchwork families live? These are questions that directly concern us in our work. Here we are, of course, thinking on a different scale to that of urban planning.


Rappold: This is precisely where the difficulty lies. Urban planning has a different timing. In order to be visionary, one must make more effort with urban planning.


AG: What is visionary nowadays in terms of urban planning?


Behnisch: Above all, wise approaches to redensification. How can I manage to cater for the critical mass of people in the cities, who enjoy living there, and generate real city life? How can public space be vitalized and made usable? There is one simple rule that applies here: the thing that appeals to people most is other people. Public space into which as many stores as possible can be pressed is not appealing. An attractive space is one that provides a wide range of different social activities, and brings as many people as possible together. The weekly farmer’s market or the Munich Victuals Market are much more interesting than the stores next door.


Rappold: Italy is still a good example of this. The vitalization of the streets in the public space functions there. However, we are also constantly confronted with the fact that urban development can be a complete failure.


AG: What exactly are you thinking about? The bedroom communities mentioned previously? The segregation caused by urban planning?


Rappold: I’m thinking about quarters in town that do not allow for any community interaction. The quality of the public space takes a back seat. Our clients are finally recognizing this problem. We have noticed this in current projects in Hamburg and Stuttgart. There, the clients have clearly specified that the public space should be vitalized.


Behnisch: Another good example is Pittsburgh. There, the task was to redensify an existing yet completely run-down city district and make it habitable again. A fascinating task. Unfortunately the project fell victim to the financial crisis and a mediocre developer.


AG: The way you explain it, it sounds as though architects should almost perceive themselves as sociologists.


Behnisch: Architecture must support sociological processes. Two aspects of the project in Pittsburgh were particularly interesting. First of all, there were no height restrictions, which meant we could take a cumulative approach and create high residential buildings. Secondly, all generations were clearly represented in the city quarter. Here we ascertained that restaurants and shops are not the decisive factor when it comes to vitalizing a city. The decisive factor is the horizontal mix of all social strata and age groups.


AG: It is interesting that your office is very active in the U.S. You almost have a second domestic market there. What are the differences between the States and Germany?


Robert Matthew Noblett: There are, in fact, a few very fundamental differences. The relationship between the architect and construction is not as close, and our construction workers are often technically somewhat more limited.


Behnisch: The relationship between the client and the architect is also different, because in the U.S. architecture is considered more of a commodity, or merchandise. Investment is the driving force. Hence the inside and the outside of the building, its envelope and structure, often have very little to do with each other. The Americans have a very tailor-based way of thinking. Furthermore, in the U.S. it is less common that one knows the end user than in Germany, where the division between the building owner, client, and user is far more determined.


AG: What does that mean for your office?


Behnisch: In the U.S. we are privileged to be working a great deal for universities; in other words, for clients who are also the owners and who use the building itself.


AG: There was, however, a developer for the Genzyme Center project [in Cambridge, MA].


Behnisch: That’s true. However, that was an exception because it simply worked really well. The project manager David Clem had studied social sciences and urban planning. We have been friends since the project. Our former direct contact person, Dan Winny, is an architect. In addition to the good collaboration, there was a competition for this project and, therefore, it was already clear who the end users were. They then commissioned us with the interior fittings so we were able to plan everything from one source.


AG: What about the competitions in the U.S.?


Behnisch: We are a competition office, and here in Germany the architectural office is usually selected via a competition. In the U.S. the selection is normally made at the golf club. However, we also take part in competitions there because they enable us to set up a good relationship with the clients.


AG: It is interesting that you are successful in the U.S. in particular. Most German offices orient themselves more towards Asia. What skills does one need to possess in order to be successful in the U.S.?


Behnisch: I have worked in the U.S. myself and I like the Americans. For me, the country was a new business segment to be conquered; it is a pleasure to work there. Also, an architect must always engage with the local – technical and characteristic – idiosyncrasies. And, of course, it also helps that our head of the office, Matt Noblett, is American.But we consciously present ourselves as a European office in the U.S. The Americans are seeking an outside perspective. Other Europeans, for example Snøhetta, are also very successful in the U.S.


Rappold: What was also important was the broader impact of our first project, Genzyme. With this project we were able to quickly prove that we could implement our ideas and thoughts in the U.S. We have not turned into an American office, but follow our convictions in the U.S., too. We seek contact with the clients and do not shy away from confrontation as long as it serves the cause.


AG: There are several parallels between the Genzyme project and the Law Center in Baltimore. In both projects there is a box-logic and a playful implementation of cubical forms. Is that what the clients in Baltimore were seeking?


Noblett: That is more due to specific site conditions. In the case of both projects, the inner-city site was not ideal for what we were attempting to achieve in terms of daylight. Furthermore, in both cases the site was too small for the building we wanted to construct. This led to compact volumes. We had to find a way to reduce the depth of the building in order to create a place in which people can communicate with one another. This resulted in the respective architectural forms.


Behnisch: Both projects were driven by European convictions: Daylight, communication, low building heights. However, the U.S. block structure dictates something different. We tried to break up the block structure. Hence the play with the cubes developed. There are also very different projects in the U.S. We are currently struggling with a new institute building in Portland. Neither we nor the client want a block to be built there.


AG: The U.S. block structure seems to be quite a challenge...


Behnisch: Of course. In Europe we have organically-evolved cities. Americans live in drawing-board cities. If one takes a closer look, it is possible to see the old Roman colonial city in the basic structure. We are experiencing difficulties in particular in our project for the Department of Economics in Portland. There, we have to add an extension to an existing building. We have to deal with the existing structures; However, we should not allow ourselves to be monopolized.


Noblett: An important difference between Germany and the U.S. is the difference in the energy costs. Energy is three times as expensive in Germany. For this reason, there is less investment in efficient energy systems in the U.S.


Behnisch: As energy does not cost much in the U.S., Americans have difficulties understanding why we value daylight so much. There is not so much emphasis on a sustainable approach, and it is not the standard.


AG: However the mood is changing in the U.S. Is there not more interest in sustainable cities now?


Noblett: The mood is only changing in particular circles, in a kind of altruistic elite. As long as no political structures force people to live more sustainably, not much will change in the country as a whole. And there are regional differences. The coastal regions take a more sustainable approach.


Behnisch: That’s true. Cities such as Portland, Seattle, Chicago, Boston, and New York impose strict restrictions. They are, in fact, much more advanced than German cities in this regard, and should be an example to us.


AG: It is evident that you are very familiar with the States. Are there other markets you would like to expand to?


Behnisch: We are interested in Canada. Personally, I would like to build in South America. Otherwise, we have never seen expansion as an end in itself. It is always the specific task that appeals to us. And we do have a negative list – in other words, countries that we have no interest in at all.


AG: Which ones are those?


Behnisch: There are certain basic rules. The first rule: we only work in countries that we can send all of our employees to, regardless of their religion, skin color, or sexual orientation. As a result, about a third of the world’s countries do not come into question.


AG: Saudi Arabia and Qatar are out then...


Rappold: We discussed precisely this issue two years ago with our employees. Saudi Arabia should actually be on the negative list. However, we have already built something there.


Behnisch: And that was a mistake.


Rappold: It was a tough experience.


Behnisch: We did it against our own better judgment and let ourselves be talked into it. In retrospect it did us more damage than good.


AG: What is, if I may be so provocative, the problem with building in Saudi Arabia?


Behnisch: Our architecture only functions in open societies. We plan around the user. How should that function in a society that is not open?


AG: Can architecture not change these societies?


Behnisch: Perhaps. I have nothing against building for Doctors without Borders in Somalia. It depends on the task and the client. I would also build a women’s refuge in Saudi Arabia. But building some investment there, simply to provide a leg-up for careerists – that’s not our thing. Our employee who led the project in Saudi Arabia – and we purposely put a woman in the managing position – had to dress in a black burka on the plane. That kind of thing is unacceptable.


AG: That brings us to a current topic that is widely debated: Is architecture political? Patrik Schumacher thinks that it is not. And Zaha Hadid believes that the working conditions on her building sites have nothing to do with her.


Behnisch: I believe that architecture is extremely political. If you read Zaha Hadid’s statements about the workers in Qatar carefully, you will discover that she also considers architecture to be very political. Otherwise she would not have compared her building sites to the Iraq war. Zaha’s statement that it is

dreadful that people are dying on her building sites, but then qualifying it with the fact that more people died in the Iraq war, is an awful argumentative blunder, in my opinion. History has taught us that architecture is very political. The difference between the 1936 Olympics and 1972 Olympics was, in addition to the events, very evidently defined by the architecture. The plenary hall in Bonn stands for a community. In Berlin, this path has now been abandoned, as in Germany there are once again more nationalistic tendencies. However here there is also a round-table form of government, rather than the confrontational arrangement of the constitutional monarchies. I believe that the symbolic nature of architecture in particular is extremely political.


AG: Do architects always understand this? Do they not allow themselves to be too instrumentalized?


Rappold: I understood Zaha’s statement to mean that she cannot change the circumstances. That is wrong. If we maintain a dialogue with the clients, we also see the deficiencies. We are very concerned with addressing these deficiencies.


Behnisch: We should not plan any buildings that sacrifice the life of humans in order to realize them. When I was a school pupil, I was horrified when I found out how many lives the pyramids in Egypt had cost. What is happening in Qatar is even worse.


AG: So now we know what you don’t want to build. But what would you like to build at all costs? What is your ideal construction task?


Noblett: For me, the building type is not the decisive factor. The important thing is the client. Good communication with the client and the possibility to create something outstanding make every project “ideal.”


Behnisch: Although I am not particularly religious, I would like build a church. Or a concert hall.


Rappold: There is no second-class project in our office. We do not have, as many big offices do, “bread-and-butter” projects, and then in addition some highlights. Because we take part in competitions in which we are constantly able to generate something new, in the end every project is interesting for us. We also try to find something “special” in each project.


Behnisch: If there something that internally we consider to be a B-project, then it is simply because, from our point of view, something went wrong.


AG: So there are projects that are not successful?


Behnisch: Of course. There are always those. We have struggled very much with some, not realizing or realizing too late what the “special” aspect of the project would have been.


Hösle: Or we have struggled with the wrong aspect.


Behnisch: In the case of two projects, it bothers me that they were never built. The laboratory building in Amherst was architecturally unique. And I would like to build something like the concert hall in Bristol. Not any old concert hall, but one in an absurd setting like in Bristol: A harbor site that is much too small. Our best buildings were always created when we had a problem – a site that is too small, an annex on a strange building&hellip


Rappold: : ...or a client with too little money.


AG: I would like to talk to you about the theme “signature architecture.” Hans Hollein, one of the best-known signature architects, died recently. Maybe you are not a signature architecture office, but you do have a clearly distinguishable style. Has this topic come to an end or will it return?


Behnisch: History repeats itself in different forms. I fear that even tapered pants will be back.


Hösle: And shoulder pads.


Behnisch: But the famous signature architects are dinosaurs. Like Peter Cachola Schmal and Rem Koolhaas, I also believe that we can only continue to realize the very bombastic, magnificent, signature architecture in absolutist systems. The days of cathedral construction are gone. Nowadays, in a democratic-enlightened society, signature architects are perceived to be complacent.


AG: What about the symbolic nature of architecture?


Behnisch: I believe that is still necessary. A weakness of sustainable building is the lack of symbolism or exemplary icons.


AG: My final question refers to the future of the profession itself. Why should one still become an architect today?


Rappold: In my opinion, it is a fantastic profession. Before studying, I had the pleasure of training as a craftsman. I always knew that I wanted to create a concrete product. For us as an office it is important to accompany all the working phases. The fascinating thing about the profession of architect is that it is possible to design creatively. And in the end one has created a building – in other words, a product, which is public and can be judged by everyone. In this way one receives feedback for the work one has done – wonderful!


AG: Even if the feedback is sometimes negative?


Hösle: That is all part of it.


Behnisch: I would also recommend the profession. As architects we are a bit like voyeurs. Whole universes open up for us if we are prepared to communicate with the people we are building for. For me, the most interesting thing is that as architects we constantly gain insight into different worlds and encounter new people. Due to our educational background, as architects we are generalists. We know a little bit about many things.

(click on pictures to enlarge)

Adam Mørk

Unilever Headquarters, Hamburg, Germany: Southwest view from the Strandkai district of the surrounding waters and parks of HafenCity.

David Matthiessen

University of Baltimore John and Frances Angelos Law Center, Baltimore, MD: The 192,000-square-foot building unites classrooms, faculty offices, administrative space, and the law library under one roof.

Brad Feinknopf

University of Baltimore John and Frances Angelos Law Center: A narrow atrium rises up through the heart of the building.

Anton Grassl

Genzyme Center, Cambridge, MA: The building’s exterior is composed entirely of glass.

Anton Grassl

Genzyme Center: Entrance garden, which is one of the center’s 18 interior gardens.

David Matthiessen

City of Santa Monica Parking Structure #6, Santa Monica, CA: The highly sustainable structure has exterior staircases and metal façade panels that reflect light into the interior.

Roland Halbe

Norddeutsche Landesbank, Hannover, Germany: View of the interior courtyard at dawn.

Roland Halbe

Ozeaneum, Stralsund, Germany: View of the Oceanographic Museum from Stralsund’s historic harbor.

Tom Arban

Terrence Donnelly Center for Cellular and Biomolecular Research, Toronto, Canada: View from the main entrance plaza of the University of Toronto’s research center.

David Cook

Terrence Donnelly Center for Cellular and Biomolecular Research: View of the glass atrium and its multi-colored skylights.

Mark Ostow

Partners (l-r): Stefan Behnisch, Stefan Rappold, Robert Hösle, and Robert Matthew Noblett.

Tami Hausman

Behnisch celebrating the firm’s 25th anniversary with a green roof-topped cake of the Dorotheen Quartier in Stuttgart.

Tami Hausman

A good time was had by all at Behnisch Architekten’s 25th anniversary fete.

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