Andreas Hild in Conversation with Muck Petzet and Florian Heilmeyer
Muck Petzet: With your Klostergarten St. Anna residential complex in Munich’s Lehel district, part of the old monastery had to be demolished because it couldn’t be converted for the new function. It was important to you, as you write, to not allow the entire ensemble to degrade into a new and an old part, which would thus obscure the new building’s legibility. The courtyard façade in particular makes a strong reference to the existing building: window forms, dormers, tiled roof, and the color and articulation of the façade. The most striking elements, however, are the neo-Romanesque round, arch windows that you’ve integrated into the new building. You’re recycling building elements from what existed. . . .
Andreas Hild: We have never spoken about recycling, but always about spolia.
MP: . . . and in this context we want to speak of material recycling, even when it’s certainly more of an emotional recycling than one that is justified economically or ecologically. What do you expect from this reuse, from these spolia? Is it primarily about not being able to distinguish what is old and what is new?
AH: No, it’s certainly more than that. By using spolia, we are seeking to establish a certain iconographic continuity between the old building that was lost and the new building. You take a piece from the whole, preserve it, and use it again; the hope is to be able, so to speak, to transfer some of the magic to the new. In that sense, maybe it’s like a fetish. A connection is kept between the old and the new part, and there was a resolute decision against allowing any explicit difference in design to emerge. So we use the spolia for this urbanistic, or as we say, atmospheric idea.
MP: Is it a way of making amends for the demolition—almost a kind of reconstruction?
AH: Let’s just say, it also helped us to get everyone on board. The building conservation authorities were naturally against demolition, the client said if he has to preserve the old building, then he can only pay half as much because the alterations would be so expensive, and the people from the monastery said if they get less money, they would have to move out completely. Then the rest of the cloister would also have been empty. As the architects, we suddenly had the role of finding a solution for all that; of bringing everyone to the table. The key to this was actually reusing and reinterpreting the window arches.
Florian Heilmeyer: So was it just a design compromise for you, a political solution?
AH: It was a way to unite various interests. Like an equalization of potential, without which the project would never have built been. In German, the word “compromise” has a negative connotation. But with alterations, it’s part of the job to find compromises and to give them a good form. If “political” in this case means that a solution is negotiated and the project is realized, then I can’t see anything bad in it.
FH: Doesn’t the window arch motif become pure decoration; just ornamentation? Didn’t the reuse of the five-meter-high window arches lead to substantial problems in working out the layout plan?
AH: Yes, but it also led to new spatial qualities. Now there are apartments with five-meter-high rooms, and altogether there’s a very complex interplay of high and low spaces. So the arches are more a catalyst than ornamentation—if we hadn’t used them, we would never have been able to push through the idea of such high spaces. The reuse of what’s on hand has led to more, on many levels.
MP: Since you reinsert the existing elements as if they were prefabricated units, is it possible to speak here of form recycling—or, more likely, material recycling?
AH: As a classically trained architect, the alarm bells immediately go off when the concept of form is raised. We’re not interested in the reuse of the form itself. It merely serves as an instrument for us, in order to convey an atmosphere or a meaning. But in the way we employ these arches, we avert an affinity with pure, seemingly faithful reconstruction. We’ve inserted the arches diagonally across the new façade, in five different positions. Such a strong disassociation developed that we suddenly had immense freedom in designing all the other things. We used the same broom-finish stucco, the window surrounds in the new building are exactly the same width as in the old building, and nevertheless there’s absolutely no danger that it might seem like an attempt at reconstruction.
MP: I would like to discuss with you these parallels to waste management, especially regarding the difficult issue of recycling. Up to now it has gained virtually no acceptance in architecture; usually there are just small art projects, which are very difficult to transfer to a larger scale. On the other hand, there’s industrial recycling, where the concrete is shredded and used in road surfacing. Why aren’t there any more daring architectural approaches?
AH: I really like the idea of the construction industry looking over to waste management. But then we have to talk about something other than just the design aspects. We’d have to talk about legislation and the economy. Waste management didn’t become worthwhile and economically viable until there were legal changes. In the construction industry, recycling will remain unattractive until there are similar provisions. Let’s imagine, for instance, there was an amortization for gray energy that wouldn’t reach zero until after seventy-five years. If a company wants to demolish a building before the time period ends, then they would have to pay into a “gray energy fund” or the like. In other words, people would have to pay for the energy that was rendered by society and exists in every building. Such a measure would fundamentally shift the calculation of whether to alter something or build it anew, in favor of the alteration. I’m all for discussing that. But that’s much more than a few architects who say we’re changing our attitude.
MP: If we stay with that idea, that the reuse of building elements like the spolia in the cloister garden is a form of recycling: So how important is it still for you as an architect, whether you’re dealing with new construction or an alteration?
AH: The fact is, I’m not particularly interested in the question of whether it’s an alteration, a rehabilitation, or a new building. I also don’t find it particularly interesting to consider whether something is old or new. This distinction surely comes from the conservation doctrine of the joint and its didactic concept, which insists that a clearly formulated difference between the old and the new always needs to be established. A difference that, wherever possible, can be understood by any layperson. As architects, we would like to free ourselves from that, or at least ask if that’s the only way. We would like to reverse the reflex toward the recognizable. It’s not the difference that should be in the foreground, but the totality. Whoever seeks the difference between old and new will also find it in our work, only that it’s more hidden and can only be seen upon a second, third, or maybe fourth glance. That’s what we also do when we build from scratch. Because the existing fabric comprises not only the individual building, but also the neighbors or a certain era. Seen in this light, we always build within the existing context.
FH: Can you give an example?
AH: With Schloss Hohenkammer, we made that the dominant theme of our entire design. There’s really nothing inside that’s as it was before. But you only see that when you look very closely, or have profound expert knowledge. We’ve inserted a staircase that seems at first to be original, but previously there were no stairs at all on that spot. So we decided to convey exactly that. There are no drawings and no photos that show the before and after. We only show pictures of how it is now. Ultimately it’s about: do you like it or not? No matter what was there before. Whoever wants to know can still find that out; I have no doubt about that. But above all, the old and the new form a whole, an atmospheric unity.
FH: The question of visibility relates to alterations as a whole: how do I convey what has happened? What was added, what taken away? Or is it really only about the current condition?
AH: We called our approach for Schloss Hohenkammer “architecture as time exposure.” Like with a photographic time exposure, the boundaries defining layers of time are blurred; a new whole emerges. Especially in this castle—which was rebuilt perhaps thirty times in four hundred years—the question of what is original is completely irrelevant and cannot even be answered clearly and unambiguously. The question that concerns us instead is whether, in the end, an atmospherically harmonious construct has been created. In this particular case, I also don’t care about the Venice Charter, which stipulates, of course, that the difference between old and new must be clearly legible at every point.
MP: I agree with you entirely; I think this dogma of portraying distinctions is wrong.
AH: But I always have a certain reluctance to say, “that’s wrong.” After all, it is a possibility, and for us as architects, it’s one of the last bastions of safety.
MP: What do you mean by that?
AH: Well, the idea of clearly separating old and new is probably the last point of general consensus among architects as well as between architects and society. We never have to argue about it. These ideas of authenticity and honesty are very widespread. There are still many people who like the story of the joint. The good thing about it is that we can use the argument over and over again. Only with great reluctance would I really want to give that up completely, and in any case not prematurely.
MP: But in your work, you yourself repeatedly forsake this ability to make distinctions, and, in effect, you also forsake this desire for “honesty” and “authenticity”!
AH: That’s right, our designs are always on the cutting edge. We’ve been working on this dogma for twenty years. But imagine we now officially say: this dogma no longer interests us. That would be something we’d have to think about very carefully. With many of our projects, we have appropriated these arguments and, as a result, we were able to push through parts of our designs, or at least make them clearer to understand. The “tradition” of the joint has power, and I won’t give that up so easily . . .
MP: Of course these arguments can also be important. But it would still be interesting if we would get so far into the discussion that both are possible. Not every alteration can be compared with every other alteration or be placed on the same level. Consequently, a multitude of different strategies must therefore be possible. That would, in my opinion, strengthen the architect’s position. When we say, “only we can unravel this multitude of possibilities.” After all, according to what criteria can one still define what should be preserved and what should be torn down? Especially with the everyday structures that surround us, those beyond any categorization related to historic preservation, only a well-educated architect who is receptive to the existing fabric can figure out what is right and wrong.
AH: That’s right, and that is the problem. Alterations are extremely irrational. That’s what’s interesting, exciting, complicated, and miserable about alterations. And that’s exactly what prevents architects from willingly dealing with it. We come from a rational world; in college we learn to explain our designs rationally. The irrational, the felt and indeterminate, the contradictory—all these have no place there. It begins in architecture with the way commissions are awarded in competitions. The ones who always get the job are those who draw a bright blue flash above the existing building, ostensibly giving order to everything. That picture is easy to decipher and hence it’s accepted. But what should we draw? In our images it’s not clear what’s the preexisting condition and what is new; our interventions are often minimal. In our drawings, what you see is first of all an old building. That doesn’t excite anyone, so there’s no hope for success. With an alteration strategy like what we have in mind, we won’t win any traditional architectural competitions.
FH: In an article, you once wrote that a notion is creeping very slowly into the architectural discussion, one you call Weiterschreiben [continuation]. Instead of demolition or the joint, that would be a third position—one that places no value on recognizing the layers of time; one that leads to a “historical vagueness.” Do you also see this notion with other architects—is the idea of the auteur architect with a recognizable signature losing currency?
AH: What exactly has changed? I see a series of narratives with which the issue of building in the existing fabric is discussed. The first one is still the narrative of the tabula rasa—the idea of being able to replace one history with another, or even: having to replace it. Then there’s the narrative of the joint, which says that alongside the one history another must be placed, and that the contrast is what first enables both to fully unfold. Third, there’s the narrative of the reconstruction, which believes to be able to restore history, at least in some aspects. I don’t want to be misunderstood: I don’t want to do without any of these narratives. There’s no reason to demonize one or the other. These narratives are already very old and have been applied differently at different times. I’m merely pleading for adding another narrative, namely that of continuation. Continuation dispenses entirely with the direct recognizability of the layers of time. It relies on a kind of cross-fade, through which the edges of history become blurry and a kind of fusion results, which neither negates the old history nor makes it a part of something new. That’s not even a new narrative. Before modernism, and for practically the entire history of architecture, alterations were almost always practiced exactly in that way.
MP: Why is the strategy used so seldom today?
AH: Because continuation brings foes from all camps onto the scene. Some reject it as immoral because they don’t find the didactic model of direct recognizability within. The others reject it because they lose their authorship therein—originality and the resulting benefit of distinction are lost. With continuation, the interventions are usually almost invisible.
FH: How do you deal with that, especially with the invisibility or the vagueness you engender?
AH: The fears are probably unfounded. Continuation leads neither to an ahistorical architecture nor does the author become unimportant or invisible. On the contrary: a barely ordered field opens up for architects, provided that they have the ability to take all the loose ends and links that are to be found in the existing fabric and join them into a coherent narrative. And what emerges? An integral architecture in the proper sense. That seems to us to be highly desirable.