Patrick Lüth: "We should never cease to ask what difference we can make for society"

Elias Baumgarten
16. March 2021
ASI Reisen Headquarters, Natters, 2019 (Photo: Christian Flatscher)

Patrick Lüth, the managing director of Snøhetta’s Innsbruck studio, talked to Austrian-Architects about social and ecological sustainability and the digitalization of architecture.

Elias Baumgarten: Wow, two of your projects have made it into the top three in our reader’s choice for the 2020 Building of the Year on Austria-Architects. Congratulations, Patrick!

Patrick Lüth: Thank you! We are very proud. An award where everyone gets to vote is something special. But tell me, why did you think so many people voted for the headquarters we did for the tour operator ASI Reisen?

This year, our readers in Austria and Switzerland voted for projects that provide interesting answers to important future issues. At Swiss-Architects, a multi-generational house with a nursing ward, flats for the elderly, communal rooms, a day-care center and a restaurant by Liechti Graf Zumsteg won by a huge margin. With honest conviction, you have designed a climate-friendly building that impresses with a great atmosphere and is quite simply beautiful. Many people would love to work in the ASI offices. I suppose that in view of the current crisis, the social relevance of projects has become a greater focus of our voters than ever before.

We would be flattered if your analysis is correct, because the project expresses Snøhetta's basic attitude: our concern with social sustainability. Our opera house in Oslo (2008), for example, is probably hugely popular because our design opens up public spaces of great quality that can be reappropriated and reprogrammed again and again. In recent years, environmental sustainability has emerged as an additional topic. If you accept man-made climate change as a fact and consider the problematic role the construction industry plays in this, which is currently responsible for a large proportion of global CO2 emissions and waste, you realize that holistic solutions are needed. As architects, we must try to consider all aspects of sustainability in our projects, rather than focusing on individual ones, like energy efficiency, for example. We especially need to take the issue of gray energy much more seriously in the future than this is currently the case in Central Europe.

ASI Reisen Headquarters, Natters, 2019 (Photo: Christian Flatscher)
ASI Reisen Headquarters, Natters, 2019 (Photo: Christian Flatscher)

Can you name factors that are a stumbling block to a sustainable building culture?

The construction industry is sluggish and conservative.

What do you mean by that?                        

Developers know very well that their projects could and should be built more sustainably. Nonetheless, from their point of view, solid concrete buildings are still the economically most attractive solution in eighty percent of cases. They offer a price advantage and are easy to manage and execute. From decades of experience, all Austrian master builders and construction companies know how to complete such projects quickly and with virtually no disruptions.

Doesn’t the fact that climate change has been widely discussed for about two years change anything?

Hardcore developers do not care. 

One would think that the demand for sustainable buildings is increasing.

We should not be under any illusions: especially in residential construction, costs are still the top priority. Many developers are not do-gooders, but simply want to skim off as much profit as possible. In my opinion, there are no signs of a fundamental change at the moment. And yet your objection is justified. In fact, end users who demand climate-friendly buildings have started to appear lately, thus making a difference. In Germany, we recently won the competition for the redevelopment of the Heyligenstaedt site, an old industrial area in Giessen. We had proposed timber construction, but the client was hesitant: he was apprehensive of higher costs and greater effort. In the end, he was convinced by the anchor tenant, for whom a sustainably constructed office building is very important. If users and us architects stand up together for sustainable buildings, things can get moving.

Redevelopment of the Heyligenstaedt site, Giessen, Germany, 2020 competition (Visualization: moka-studio) 
Redevelopment of the Heyligenstaedt site, Giessen, Germany, 2020 competition (Visualization: moka-studio) 

Still, you don’t sound overly optimistic. What else can be done?

I think that politics has to fulfill its obligation. Unfortunately, we only have few mechanisms in Austria today that promote projects with a holistic approach to sustainability. That said, there would be many opportunities: One could, for example, start with energy certificates, development plans and building legislation. I could imagine that developers who can prove low overall CO2 emissions are allowed higher densities or are granted tax breaks. Offering financial incentives to sustainable projects seems to be a good way to start.

And what about us architects?

Some say we have to build up political pressure via the Chamber of Architects (Bundeskammer der ZiviltechnikerInnen). I’m not sure whether that is realistic and effective. As I recently said in a lecture for the Proholz initiative, I rather see our role in continuous, patient awareness-raising efforts aimed at building owners and politicians alike. Very important are successful exemplary projects, which demonstrate that climate-friendly construction and high-quality, beautiful architecture full of atmosphere are not contradictory.

Swarovski Manufaktur, Wattens, 2018 (Photo: David Schreyer) 
Swarovski Manufaktur, Wattens, 2018 (Photo: David Schreyer) 

You say that all Snøhetta studios share a basic attitude, and I understand that social and environmental sustainability are important parts of that. How is this reflected in the way you work?

We like to use the term “conceptual contextualism.” Snøhetta runs several studios around the world, like ours in Innsbruck, which are economically and design-wise independent from each other. Our projects can be very different; we do not have a particular style. Rather, we develop a concept for our buildings on the basis of the context — in other words, depending on the respective location, the requirements, the wishes of the client, and so on. We develop a concept step by step; it is coherent and logically explainable — unlike an idea that simply pops up and can either be followed or abandoned. 

Could you go into detail and explain your approach in greater depth?

We don’t believe in the all-knowing architect who sketches his designs on napkins. We do not have that one master, but many. Our substitute is the concept developed through true teamwork. Whenever possible, we rely on workshops with our team members, the client, the users and other experts. For us, this is the basis of socially sustainable architecture, of buildings that will be appreciated and cared for in the long term. The design of the ASI Headquarters is a good example: right at the beginning, we held a workshop with the CEO and employees to develop the concept idea that served as the basis for our design. Next, the company organized a survey among the staff. The findings from this were incorporated into the project. And in the further course of the project, we invited the future users to experience the spatial qualities of the new office by means of virtual reality.

Zumtobel Light Forum, Dornbirn, 2020 (Photo: Matthias Rhomberg) 
Zumtobel Light Forum, Dornbirn, 2020 (Photo: Matthias Rhomberg) 

I know you are very concerned about future issues. In addition to climate change, the digitalization of our discipline and of society as a whole is an important topic.

We no longer need to discuss new tools like BIM. They are becoming established, that’s for sure. We use them, and I am of the opinion that you have to master them so that software companies and others involved in the construction process can’t take you for a ride. That really sums it all up.
Other developments are more interesting and unsettling: Autodesk, a major software company, probably best known to all of us for its AutoCAD and Revit programs, bought the design platform Spacemaker for USD 240 million at the end of last year. Spacemaker, very simply put, uses artificial intelligence (AI) to develop the “best” urban design solution for a given site. Spacemaker was a lesson in the power of insights and automation that allows designers to create and test urban design ideas in minutes, Autodesk CEO and president Andrew Anagnost commented. It doesn’t take any great imagination to visualize what pairing the Spacemaker engine with a powerful BIM program like Revit, which is now easily possible due to this acquisition, will mean for the future of our discipline. We’ll be able to create entire neighborhoods at the touch of a button.

Bleak prospects…

Yes. I was very appalled when I read that. But after I calmed down, I came to the conclusion that this technology does not make us superfluous. Quite the opposite, in fact: Spacemaker is not a true AI application, but something I would call complex scripting. That is, local parameters such as building legislation, weather, traffic, acoustics and the like can be perfectly taken into account but space and society absolutely can’t. And that’s why real architecture will continue to be in demand — soon maybe more than ever.

As a result, we need to focus on our core competencies in particular and not lose sight of them due to all the preoccupation with new tools. This is an interesting point. In Switzerland, the Architectural Council, a body in which all Swiss architecture schools are organized, demands exactly that in its position paper on digitalization (PDF link).

We should never cease to ask what difference we can make for society. And as you already mention education, I will take the liberty of criticizing our architecture schools. Parts of the academic world in Austria have moved too far away from practice.

Please explain your criticism.

For example, we have very good and close ties with the University of Innsbruck. Many students work for us after graduating, and we greatly appreciate all the colleagues who teach there. However, a lot of what is created in the design studios is too wacky for my liking. The students work with their supervisors on fantastic projects that reach completely new dimensions, especially in terms of presentation. That’s impressive. But I wonder if this is really the right way to go. Personally, I can no longer understand what contribution such extreme digital and formalistic projects make to the architectural discourse. Against the background of the great challenges we will have to master in the coming decades, I would like to see a return to the social and ecological responsibility of our discipline, and also to topics such as space, atmosphere and materials. Young architects should be trained and encouraged accordingly.

I think that digital tools can be a great help in dealing with increasing complexity and developing sustainable architecture; that makes them interesting. However, it will not be an easy task to find the right balance in future training between teaching traditional core competencies, which we absolutely have to preserve, and pointing out new possibilities — especially since the curriculum is actually supposed to be slimmed down.

Thank you for the inspiring conversation and for sharing your thoughts.

Patrick Lüth (Photo: Thomas Schrott)
Patrick Lüth began working as an intern at Snøhetta in Oslo in 2005 after completing his architecture studies in Innsbruck. Since 2011 he has been managing the Snøhetta Studio in Innsbruck, which he has developed into an office with around 25 employees.
This interview originally appeared as "Patrick Lüth: »Wir sollten nicht nachlassen zu fragen, was wir für die Gesellschaft bewirken können«" on Austrian-Architects. Translation by Bianca Murphy.

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