Radical Rehabilitation

Thomas Knerer and Eva Lang in Conversation with Muck Petzet and Florian Heilmeyer

Muck Petzet: Aside from its size, what makes the high-rise student housing in Munich relevant? To what extent do you see something special in it?

Thomas Knerer: Günther Eckert’s design was radical. He wanted to establish a counterpoint to Werner Wirsing’s neighboring low-scale housing, the so-called Bungalow Village, where each student inhabits their own house. With Eckert’s design, however, 801 students were meant to live together in a single building. The radical nature of this approach was translated with utmost consistency in the design and its construction.

Eva Lang: It is one of the most expressive buildings in the entire Olympic Park, and we believe that to this day it remains a particularly compelling architectural document of its time.

Florian Heilmeyer: Can you describe this expressiveness more precisely?

EL: The individual apartments were depicted on the exterior by fair-faced concrete frames stacked one above the other. Together with the engineering firm SSP, Günther Eckert developed a building system with a high degree of prefabrication.

TK: The resulting “stacked walls” formed the east and west façades of the building and were connected by concrete beams spanning across its depth. The building’s interior remained column-free, and the student apartments were added using prefabricated modules. Whether the architect chose this means of construction in order to enable subsequent conversion is something we can only speculate on.

EL: In any case, the resulting overall form appears to be almost accidental but is flexible. From a distance, the silhouette is—intentionally or not—reminiscent of an Alpine panorama.

MP: What was the condition of the building when you saw it for the first time?

TK: It was clear that the entire exterior supporting structure, including the loggias, needed to be packed in a thermally insulated enclosure in order to meet the requirements of current energy-saving regulations. That meant the building’s rehabilitation also called for a radical approach: we hang a new structure of lightweight precast concrete in front of the existing. This provides a degree of plasticity that comes very close to that of the earlier building. The new windows and the metal panels with which we have now clad all the spandrels create a strong reference to the materiality of the original building and its façade articulation, but without copying it. Instead of the very tightly dimensioned apartments, we’ve inserted compact, small apartments with various, spatially differentiated functional areas.

MP: You refer to the project as a rehabilitation measure, but the changes to the external appearance make it much more than that, don’t they?

TK: To be sure, our alteration can be read in the many new details, but a connection with the building’s origins still remains—sometimes more and sometimes less subtle. Changes were necessary, but we didn’t want to destroy the special charm of the 1970s. It was especially important to preserve the building’s character when seen from a distance. After being refurbished, the building will inescapably continue to assert its prominent place in the Olympic Village ensemble.

FH: All these considerations and subtleties—and in the end, one almost can hardly distinguish the intervention from the preexisting condition. Can this “invisibility” be satisfying at all for you as architects?

EL: We’ve talked a lot about that. Our office is in Dresden, where the subject of history is dealt with very often, very emotionally, and with great controversy. We believe that buildings must be adapted to meet changed circumstances and conditions. Thus our approach for working on the student housing in Munich is not primarily one of historic preservation, but is developed from the various requirements of our mandate. Our design represents an independent solution; it’s not a restoration of the original state. That would not have been technically feasible. We view the work rather like music: as a variation and reinterpretation of a theme with similar instruments. As natives of Munich, we have always liked and admired the building. That’s why a major change to its configuration was for us absolutely out of the question.

FH: Is there something of a “new cautiousness” to be sensed in your treatment of the existing—a certain desire to discover, retain, and refine existing qualities?

EL: Exactly. It’s hopefully an affectionate approach. We examine the strengths and attempt to elaborate upon them with present-day means. This results in layers of time that deny neither history nor the present. We think that’s a sustainable approach.

High-Rise Student Housing, Munich, 2010–12.
The original bathrooms with GRP installations.
The new bathrooms were also industrially manufactured
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