Nils Buschmann and Tom Friedrich in Conversation with Florian Heilmeyer
Florian Heilmeyer: You describe the site for the Galerie Giti Nourbakhsch as “very charming with its three existing buildings.” Could you talk a bit about this charm?
Nils Buschmann: It’s a gap in a row of Gründerzeit-era buildings, closed off from the street by a brick wall and a large industrial gate. The gate opens onto a surprisingly idyllic scene with quotidian archetypical buildings: a garage shed, a commercial building dating back to the nineteenth century, and a metal box from the 1970s. A courtyard with a balanced mix of buildings and green space, an arrangement of equally important interior and exterior spaces, surrounded by the blank brick walls typically seen throughout Berlin. The heterogeneity of this accumulation makes the place rich and interesting. That’s what we meant by “charming.”
FH: How was the decision to retain the buildings reached?
NB: We were in agreement with our client, Giti Nourbakhsch, about the most important point: this was not about representation, but about creating versatile and robust gallery spaces. Spaces of opportunity for the artists. And it was precisely that which was lying dormant in the diversity of the three buildings and the exterior spaces.
Tom Friedrich: That gave us the opportunity to programmatically and typologically adapt the found to the new requirements: we decided to not demolish or rebuild anything, but expose the existing potential and think in terms of continuity. We believe in a diverse and heterogeneous city with identifiable islands and characteristic typologies, similar to the Green Archipelago envisioned by Oswald Mathias Ungers, Hans Kollhoff, and Rem Koolhaas. So it must remain recognizable, readable.
NB: In this case, it was already recognizable: built fabric from the nineteenth century, and within it, a gap of an entirely different character. The other strengthens the rule. Precisely in places like this, it is important to not conceal anything and to not tear anything down too hastily.
TF: Then there is the question of the economy of means: are we using the budget to work in opposition to the site? What would we improve by doing so?
FH: Which characteristics in particular did you take up?
NB: We drew a comprehensive plan that treats the interior and exterior spaces equally. Inside we gutted everything. Our concept was to first create simple, clear, and distinguishable spaces, and to continue from there. What resulted are robust and generous spaces that are characterized by their exposed, then re-treated structural surfaces.
FH: Did you work “step by step,” so as to be able to repeatedly decide how to proceed based on what still exists?
TF: The urban design idea of an overall framework of interior and exterior spaces was always our guiding principle, and we allocated the required functions to the existing spaces, adapting them as needed.
NB: But there was no classic construction planning. We usually made decisions on site about what the final state would be: tearing away, clearing out, evaluating, and then continuing to build. Giti Nourbakhsch was always involved.
FH: Does sustainability play a role in that?
TF: Yes—not in terms of the German “KfW 70” energy standard, but in terms of robust spaces that have a certain autonomy and that serve more than just a single function. A sustainable building structure in terms of spaces that remain usable over the long term. In other words, more a kind of cultural sustainability.
NB: An “architecture–architecture”: architecture that develops from an evolutionary understanding of architectural history, similar to the way that Helmut Lang made “fashion–fashion”: with a cultural context instead of a concept. It’s not always about the spectacular and brightly colored M & Ms. It’s more important to us that architecture allows qualities to emerge in everyday life. We don’t need ideologies for that, but identifiable, strong, and robust typologies that withstand changes in function or permit hybrid combinations. Typologies that can still be designed by the users.
FH: On other projects, such as the Berlin Weekend Club, you have also worked with rather “unwieldy” existing buildings. Do you see a connection between these projects?
NB: In the case of Weekend, we were fascinated most of all by the idea of offering a roof terrace: to be able to go out onto the roof of a high-rise building directly on Alexanderplatz and continue partying some more. It wasn’t about making that visible from the outside or placing something on top of the building. You only see the people, the activity, and sometimes you also hear the music. Sunday mornings at nine: Richie Hawtin. The railing fits in with the 1970s façade structure, and the terrace is flush with the building, as if it had always been there. Except that you can now walk out onto the roof. The added value comes through use.
FH: So, is that a connection to how you went about your work on the Giti Nourbakhsch gallery?
NB: We try to express our general attitude in every individual project. Whether that’s successful is for others to judge. What’s interesting to us is whether these strategies for conversions or additions can also be transferred to new buildings, and whether architectural or urban- planning approaches can be developed from there.
FH: And? Is it possible?
NB: We’re trying to do that now with a current project: the residential development Am Lokdepot. It lies directly adjacent to a large, derelict track field that had been used by the railroad for decades. A classic peripheral inner city site, of the kind that is still to be found very often in Berlin. It’s easy to imagine industrial architecture here, but there isn’t any. Although it wouldn’t surprise anyone if there were; the cultural references to this place would be self-evident. So we are reinventing industrial architecture, or more precisely: a typology that establishes a cultural reference to industrial architecture, but which represents a residential typology for today that is capable of being personalized. Yet we are not copying it in a historicizing way, but rather developing it further. We are making the qualities of industrial architecture usable for housing. A loft—the classic example of conversion—but a newly built loft. A clearly new architecture that builds on the genius loci, that reinvents a story with a reference to the past. We’re not concerned here about producing a collage, but about assembling the various fragments, in all their complexity, to form a new whole.
FH: Your treatment of everyday existing structures seems almost overly cautious, as if you feared removing too much. Is that because you belong to the generation of architects whose careers began in 1990s Berlin—where, more for ideological than for rational reasons, too much was demolished; where too much vanished?
TF: We are not believers in absolute truths. But that’s actually the opposite of fear. If we were afraid, we would invent a simple truth and stick to it. A general approach to solving everything.
NB: But we are convinced by the diversity and heterogeneity of a city that has evolved over time. So yes, that means not lightly throwing anything overboard. We’re not working on a blank piece of paper, but in the cultural context of Europe. Not a tabula rasa. It’s simply wrong to believe that the old must be destroyed in order to create the new.?The new can also emerge from the existing, through adaptive reuse and by developing ideas further. Yet that requires great precision and attentiveness.
TF: Our perception of the city is of course deeply influenced by our experiences while studying architecture in Berlin during the 1990s. A city of appropriation, where existing structures were converted with limited means; temporary; makeshift; here today and there tomorrow. It was about fundamental needs: good drinks and loud music. Walls with a door to go inside and a roof that doesn’t leak were good. That’s the root of our fascination with the simple, the everyday in its great complexity. But we no longer live in the 1990s.
NB: “City” emerges by means of the simplest things. Urbanity is everyday life. Architecture forms a framework for that life, for everything that takes place. Back then, a very dynamic city emerged beyond the control of official urban development policy. Naturally we understand the political and urbanistic motivations of that time; in retrospect, however, it doesn’t seem to have paid off. Too much was discarded, too much was lost. A high price for an idea.
TF: We have to do a better job: define contemporary spaces within the given circumstances. Establish references; continue to develop history—not preserving it, but bringing it up to date. It’s not a matter of styles or epochs. We’re concerned with the architectural intention, the space, and what it’s supposed to articulate.
FH: Do you thus consider these ideas to be something completely new, or isn’t it more that you are linking back again to very old, pre-modern architectural traditions? Just as the idea of a tabula rasa was above all an idea that served to clear the field for industrialized architecture.
NB: That’s correct in terms of establishing a link. But we must remember: linking up is just a starting point. What really interests us is what comes next. What new architectural opportunities arise as a result? In this sense, your motto “Reduce/Reuse/Recycle” clearly needs another term: “Reinvent.”