Ansgar and Benedikt Schulz in Conversation with Muck Petzet and Florian Heilmeyer
Florian Heilmeyer: What were your first impressions of the university building in Erlangen?
Ansgar Schulz: We’re familiar with this kind of architecture from our childhood in the Ruhr district. We’ve seen it there a thousand times, at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum, the TU [Technical University] Dortmund, and elsewhere. But we didn’t want to go to college there. Not until we had continually grappled with the act of building did our appreciation of 1970s architecture change. So the task of “continuation” in Erlangen was all the more interesting.
Benedikt Schulz: It certainly wasn’t love at first sight. To begin with, the building simply didn’t fit the objective at all. Whether the building could even be “saved” was an open question.
Muck Petzet: Was demolition discussed?
BS: No, it was always about expanding the existing structures as effectively as possible and especially about making additional space for the increasing numbers of students. Razing the department would have called the entire campus into question.
AS: Another argument against razing it was that the building really did function well. If it were to be demolished, a central building block of the university’s identity would have vanished.
MS: What was the greatest challenge in refurbishing the building?
BS: First of all, convincing the client to broaden the commission in order to be able to rework the structural weaknesses pertaining to circulation as well as dealing with the entire context.
FH: You have written that the project “mirrors the important confrontation with the architectural heritage of the 1970s.” Why do you believe this confrontation is important?
AS: The questions posed in Erlangen are transferrable; buildings like it exist all over Germany. So what response can we offer to develop this unloved architecture further and to promote its broader acceptance?
BS: Dealing with these issues is not just important, it’s unavoidable. The number of buildings from this era is much too large for us to ignore dealing with them or to simply replace all the buildings. An individual structure, such as the Technisches Rathaus in Frankfurt could perhaps be demolished. But an entire university or even an entire district cannot simply be torn down.
AS: In the 1970s, an intensive, analytical, and correct examination of the issues usually preceded planning and construction, and this is reflected in a nearly perfect building typology.
FH: To what extent do you consider the refurbishment in Erlangen as exemplary?
BS: The refurbishment demonstrates the importance of details. The building worked very well, its users were essentially happy, and the conditions for teaching and research were and still are good. The structure was good. First and foremost, the choice of materials and their workmanship were in need of improvement. Thus what was “exemplary” about the project could be defined as the precise, detailed continuation of the existing structure. Put more simply: this architecture isn’t as bad as it looks.
FH: Do you like the word “pragmatic” in this context?
AS: As long as we’re talking about typologically correct buildings, yes. Our way of designing is also based on a functional layout. Perhaps a certain affinity to the word “pragmatism” can be derived from that.
BS: I like the term inasmuch as we were able to use a targeted, relatively small—that is “pragmatic”—intervention in Erlangen to produce significant added value for the building and its users, without dogmatically calling it into question.
MS: In relation to this project, you have spoken about “structural beauty.” What do you mean by that?
BS: The aesthetics of order, to which all design elements are subordinate. This tenacity is its aesthetic charm. The consequence for our design was to stringently and “fearlessly” always use the same elements.
FH: For a project in Chemnitz carried out between 2005 and 2008, you also dealt with extremely mundane existing buildings. You integrated a new police station into a rather banal building that used to house the Volkspolizei [East German police]. Do you see links to your approach in Erlangen?
AS: Yes, because the initial task in both projects was to meticulously scrutinize the potential of the existing buildings, which was rooted in many different elements. In Chemnitz, this potential was concealed most of all by numerous additions. Once they had been removed, the main building’s presence was strengthened: suddenly, its positioning in the urban surroundings is nearly perfect.
BS: Both projects are founded on intense examination of the existing structures. Unlike in Chemnitz, the primary elements in Erlangen, like the entrance or the main staircase, were not emphasized. In Erlangen, we continued the existing grid without compromise, whereas in Chemnitz, we first made the grid visible by introducing story-high façade panels.
MS: When you are confronted with such mundane existing buildings, which criteria inform your decisions about what to demolish and what to retain? Do functional and economic considerations play the biggest role?
BS: Not exclusively. In Erlangen, we also asked what structural elements were important for the appearance and identity of the building. For us, they were the main staircase in the lobby, the flooring, and the surface and structure of the concrete elements comprising the long wall in the lobby that now connects the old building and the extension.
AS: Naturally, economic and functional considerations are of great importance in negotiations about how to deal with the existing. But often there’s also an aesthetic argument that can be decisive when it comes to retaining or demolishing buildings. In Chemnitz, the building previously used by the Volkspolizei had a massive image problem due to its appearance, which is why many people supported tearing it down. Only by precisely “liberating” this building’s strategically important position— due solely to its location at the intersection of the ring road and the main access road—were we ultimately able to retain the site and its volumetric form as a lasting icon for the public.
MS: Do you see a general change of thought in newer architecture in Germany that seems to deal more circumspectly than before with what already exists, even that which is beyond consideration as “worthy of preservation”?
BS: I do think there has been a shift in dealing with existing architecture. There’s not necessarily an attempt to form contrasts and to differentiate each new layer from the existing as distinctly as possible. What exists is now taken up and continued much more often.
AS: In continuing what already exists, the individual architect takes more of a back seat; architectural achievements increasingly become part of a greater whole. There is a greater need for communication, however, and it carries more weight with this praxis of refurbishment, in order to also make the work of an individual perceptible to those who aren’t experts in the field. It also opens up the opportunity for the wider public to fall in “love at second sight.”