Architecture of a Thousand Pinpricks

Ulf Meyer
21. November 2015

Developers’ architecture, a crisis in ecological construction, misunderstood modernism, no stars – what are the concerns shaping contemporary German architecture at the moment? A polemic.

If you ask people – even experts – in China, the United States, Japan, Korea, and elsewhere to tell you which contemporary German architects they rate highest, you will generally be met with embarrassed grins, reddening faces and, at best, "ums" and "ahs" in which you can make out only the word "Behnisch." However, Günter Behnisch has been dead for five years – and even during his lifetime he was not a real 'starchitect' with a global reputation. The apparent inability of the German architecture scene to produce stars of any kind (for which the country’s architectural press should probably accept some of the blame) might lend it a certain charm, but it is also a huge problem, because if there is not one German architect whose name is an international brand, then there will a corresponding lack of sympathetic critical interest in German architecture on the part of the world outside.

A country with well over 100,000 architects – and not one outstanding figure among them? Mini-countries such as Switzerland and the Netherlands – even Denmark and Austria – have been showing us how it is done for years. The architectural profession in Germany can make as many excuses as it likes, be it the pampering effect of the economic boom after German reunification, or the lack of post-colonial connections: Denmark and Switzerland have never colonized large parts of the world – and they took the financial crises of recent years as opportunities to raise their international profile. So if our contemporary architecture lacks any kind of global reputation for design, doesn’t that make the much-vaunted "ecological and technical expertise" of German architects even more important? Well, the sad truth is that we are failing miserably to capitalize even on these two selling points.

A Crisis in Ecological Construction
For a country like ours, without raw materials but with a strong engineering tradition and export sector, it makes sense to want to lead in ecological construction. Yet the Americans, of all people, notorious around the world for a lifestyle that squanders energy and resources, have stolen the show in this area from German architects for many years. LEED may have questionable content and be over-commercialized, but it is nevertheless the global benchmark for (supposedly) environmentally-friendly construction. Contrast that with DGNB: the acronym alone – unpronounceable not only for foreigners – signals that here the German island mentality has combined with technology fetishism to reach levels of complexity – gladly and proudly, mind you – that can only put potential users off. It may well be superior in theory and in practice, but if a set of standards fails to attract interest in other countries, then it cannot serve the purpose of international comparison – nor can it showcase any kind of German expertise in sustainable building. It doesn’t help, either, to point out that this country’s energy-efficiency regulations lay down the world’s strictest thermal performance requirements for buildings. Most foreign architects – German ones too – can only shake their heads when they think of the shapeless, sealed and padded, thermoskin monsters that pass for environmentally friendly here, but lack any suggestion of elegance. Technology is on the rampage – the militant building services engineer has long had the last word on German building sites, which may have made his life easier, but has certainly not helped the quality of the architecture. 

The tiny proportion of open architectural competitions means that the number of entrants to those without prohibitive qualifying requirements is simply overwhelming. Hundreds of talented architects provide services worth tens of thousands of euros each, only to see the result end up in the trash. No other profession affords itself such luxury – or rather such wastage! An insidious consequence is that ever higher hurdles are set for company references: In order to clinch even a medium-sized project these days, architects must submit brochures – sometimes more than a hundred pages long – to show that they were already experienced professionals when they came into the world. It cannot promote innovation if only designers with a track record in hospital design, for example, are allowed to design hospitals. Virgins aren’t born experienced, after all, and even Meinhard von Gerkan, arguably Germany’s most famous living architect, launched his career by winning an open competition that, as a young architect today, he would not have a hope of even entering!

Four Scandal-ridden Projects: North, South, West, and East
Berlin-Brandenburg airport, Stuttgart railway station, the Elbe Philharmonic Hall in Hamburg, and the city archive in Cologne: four scandal-ridden projects that are justifiably reviled and ridiculed in the media and among the public at large – and which have thoroughly ruined the reputation of German engineers and planners as a whole. If foreign opinion already credits German architects with little creativity, then a dent in their reputation for organization, punctuality, and incorruptibility is all the more serious. The State, itself very much part of the problem, funds a "foundation for building culture" as its own, rather half-hearted, contribution to improving matters. This foundation has evidently not yet managed to bring about a change of heart – even in the innermost corridors of power – of the kind that would get politicians to appreciate the power and effectiveness of architecture. The most striking proof of this failure is the wide empty space in front of the Reichstag (the historic parliament building) in Berlin. While drab leviathans for ministries and intelligence agencies are extruded from the sands of the city in other quarters, the visionary design unifying the central government buildings remains partially implemented: a good intention diligently retouched and fiddled with by laymen. Even the approach to the renovated Reichstag is currently marred by a stack of portable cabins, but it will look even worse once it has been 'improved' in an entirely misguided tour de force of city planning. 

Hope in Cohousing?
With the State largely discredited as a qualified investor, the search for ambitious, adventurous and open-minded private clients is even more important. Fortunately recent years have seen the emergence of a new type of client-builder that can meet these criteria: the cohousing group. In today’s most important market, the housing market, cohousing groups have not only made innovation possible as clients, but in many cases have demanded and encouraged it as well. Anonymous owners in contrast, such as the housing corporations now mostly listed on the stock exchange, pressure architects to accept restrictive contractual conditions that occasionally verge on the bizarre. Pretences of luxury with the lowest of ceilings and shoe-box rooms, or facade competitions that are all about fashion statements and completely ignore the relation between a building’s exterior and the spaces inside it – once again the State is setting a bad example as a client with the so-called reconstruction of the Berlin City Palace. Facade cosmetics is certainly much in demand, but it is not part of the architect’s regular design repertoire and is not taught at university. Given the fairly regimented nature of the bachelor’s and master’s degree courses, will future generations of graduates, entering the job market each year from dozens of German universities, find it easier to play the jack of all trades that architects are expected to be? It isn’t easy to be an all-round genius who understands something of technology, physics, economics, psychology, politics, art and – just about everything! 

“How could the situation get better?” This is the question that we will examine in the next installment, "Back to the Future?"

Ulf Meyer studied architecture in Berlin and Chicago. He has worked for Shigeru Ban Architects in Tokyo and has taught at Kansas State University, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Tamkang University in Taiwan. He currently lives and works in Berlin as an architectural journalist.

Translated by Richard Toovey from the original on German-Architects.

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