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Exhilarating conversations about absent colleagues: the book „architects on architects“ collects dialogues about the significant architects of the past. It proves that personal understanding is better learned by looking through another person’s lens.

By Thomas Wagner.

Architects seldom lack self-confidence. It is therefore completely fitting that Hans Kollhoff, former assistant to Oswald Mathias Ungers at Cornell University, begins his interview with Jasper Cepl, Ungers’ biographer, with a provocation. He emphasises that he would not have become what he is without Ungers, but then remarks, “When I was preparing the speech about Ungers and going through my countless slides from that era, I said to myself that I’d have to stop with a photo of an Ungers building that I found truly great. But I didn’t find one.”

The two then commence a feisty dialogue and try and find out why it is that Ungers’ ideas preoccupy them and not his buildings. Ungers, too, was not interested in how his ideas were realised. Cepl says that Ungers’ “typically modern essentialism” stood for the imposition of a “radical artification of life”. “People were inspired”, concludes Kollhoff, “to develop something new and fascinating from the broken pieces. He provided the intellectual potential and language for this. That is Ungers.”

What is needed to create something new from many broken pieces? Where do architects source the material from which they create? What role is played by role models, childhood memories and coincidences of life such as pictures, music or collected objects? How does all of this influence an architect’s personal practice? For people who themselves build, think about architecture and maybe even teach it, what is it that is fascinating about an architect who is assigned a certain position in architectural history?

“architects on architects”, Hirmer Verlag (pp. 82-83). Image: Carlo Scarpa, Olivetti Showroom Venice 1957-1958. Photo: seier+seier

Elective affinities

The conversations in “architects on architects” date back to a series of events that took place at the Technical University of Munich’s Faculty of Architecture in 2018 to celebrate the university’s 150th anniversary. As part of this series, renowned architects of our era spoke about representatives of previous generations and their influence on the speakers’ attitude to architecture, with the latter’s perspective being deepened, questioned and broadened in dialogue with a counterpart.

A glance at history and individual elective affinities is worthwhile if solely because it helps sharpen the picture that the participants make of themselves and their practice. Arno Lederer, for example, talks with Philip Ursprung about Sigurd Lewerentz; Hans Kollhoff and Jasper Cepl examine the ideas and buildings of Oswald Mathias Ungers; Tom Emerson and Monika Sosnowska look at the monument that is Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Mario Botta reflects on Louis I. Kahn together with Pippo Ciorra, while Momoyo Kaijima does likewise with Lise Juel about Jørn Utzon. Donatella Fioretti and Olaf Nicolai speak about Walter Gropius and László Moholy-Nagy; Alberto Campo Baeza studies Alejandro de la Sota, José Ortega y Gasset and T.S. Eliot; and Christian Kerez converses with Stephan Trüby about Francesco Borromini and how he was received in the 20th century.

The lively series of talks is rounded out with a presentation by Mauro Marzo about “readings of architecture”, included as the volume’s extended foreword. There is consequently no shortage of confessions, recollections, analysis, anecdotes, analogies or assessments.

Mies van der Rohe is very secretive because he makes out to be rational. However, he is in fact more mystical than rational.

Tom Emerson on Mies van der Rohe

Mies and mysticism

The conversation between Monika Sosnowska and architect Tom Emerson about Mies van der Rohe also follows a path of its own, putting the focus on a personal confrontation with the major name. Sosnowska, in one of her installations, once folded up a fragment of the curtain wall of Lake Shore Drive Apartments in Chicago “like a newspaper”, turning it into a “horizontal, collapsed tower”. In her discussion, she explains her opinion about “the end of something”, while Mies, from her perspective, “was very optimistic when he established a new world and a new order”. This statement prompts her conversation partner to find that Mies is “very secretive because he makes out to be rational. However, he is in fact more mystical than rational.”

Explaining things by hand in the lamplight

Arno Lederer and Philip Ursprung talk more about Ernst Gisel than about Sigurd Lewerentz, firstly about the connection between the mind and hand, and secondly about the fascinating aspects of the man under discussion and his way of working. During the conversation, Lederer remarks, “Ernst Gisel and also Sigurd Lewerentz were the type of architect that you wanted to become: casual clothing, smoking cigarettes at their desk in the lamplight with a bottle of port in front of them – as evidenced by a photograph of Lewerentz in his office. You feel that he is not only sitting there, but is drawing and not even noticing that he is working. He is in a kind of flow in which he explains things with his hand. This method of working is highly fascinating because the knowledge gain comes from doing. Lewerentz’s conception of space is of course also fascinating. For him, there is outward space, towards the public, and inward space – private space. The exciting thing about that is managing the transition, the targeted opening and the visual relationships between interior and exterior that are created as a result.

You feel that he is not only sitting there, but is drawing and not even noticing that he is working. He is in a kind of flow in which he explains things with his hand.

Arno Lederer on Sigurd Lewerentz

The discussions thus take the reader along into different realms of architecture for a variety of thoughts and perceptions. Personalities are sketched out, sources of inspiration provided and monuments are discussed, sometimes in a light, chatty tone, sometimes descriptively and occasionally with analytical precision. Admiration and criticism are often riddled with personal recollections and anecdotes, like when Mario Botta narrates what Carlo Scarpa once said to him about surfaces broached with a hammer and chisel when he asked the architect about work on the Olivetti showroom at St Mark’s Square in Venice.

“architects on architects”, Hirmer Verlag (pp. 106-107). Donatello Fioretti and Olaf Nicolai.

No landscapes in Germany any more

Not all the views are profound. However, anyone who attentively follows the threads connecting the present with the past will be repeatedly surprised by views, thoughts and perspectives that shine a new light on things previously believed to be familiar. Arno Lederer, when asked about the meaning of landscape, for example, posits, “There is no landscape in Germany any more. I would describe it as a factory; the forest is a factory, the fields and meadows are factories.”

Meanwhile, Donatella Fioretti, who reconstructed Walter Gropius’ Master’s House in Dessau, describes the Bauhaus founder as “having a very precise sense of the times and working with them”, only to then view him from another angle. “I see the significance of his practice more as that of a promoter or intermediary than of an architect, even though he created several complex and doubtlessly important buildings.” Conceptual artist Olaf Nicolai adds to this assessment by referring to the Bauhaus books as an advertising campaign “to establish the Bauhaus as the epitome of ‘contemporary’”.

He had a very precise sense of the times and worked with them.

Donatella Fioretti on Walter Gropius

Time and again, facets of a technicolour architectural history that glitter as though in a kaleidoscope are made tangible, eschewing a regurgitation of dead knowledge in favour of asking questions that require a lively present in order to identify its own obsessions and blind spots.

architects on architects

Dietrich Fink, Uta Graff, Nils Rostek, Julian Wagner (ed.)
160 pages. Hirmer Verlag, Munich 2019
German: ISBN 978-3-7774-3309-7
English: ISBN 978-3-7774-3308-0
EUR 24.90

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