Bouwen als instrument van verlangzaming. Hans Kollhoffs verkenningen van de tektoniek / Building as an instrument of deceleration.

The tectonic stands for the representation of the transfer of weight to the earth. It stands for the way in which a building’s appearance alludes to the underlying structural system. This allusion is not merely revelation, it is also concealment. As such the tectonic design can take two non-tectonic forms. On the one hand there is the naked skeleton: the building that, out of a mistaken notion of ‘honesty’, is determined to be nothing but its construction. On the other hand there is abstract, ‘cardboard’ architecture that professes to consist of nothing but weightless planes. Kollhoff has expressed his aversion to both extremes; to stick to the second, one might recall the abuse he levelled at the Rietveld-Schröder house.2) But in between these opposites lies a broad field that demands to further exploration.

The ‘knowing’ referred to by Richard Serra is no detached, intellectual affair. The relative lightness and heaviness, balance and imbalance, movement and direction of a load is something we know in a direct, physical manner. Kollhoff relates Serra’s words to those of Heinrich Wölfflin, who thought that we are always guided in our dealings with objects by our own physical experience: ‘We are even capable of empathizing with dead stone. For what we have in common with that dead stone is relative weight, balance, hardness and so on.’ By reason of this affinity, or analogy, the building should therefore, in a sense, also behave like a body: it should adopt a demeanor. Kollhoff himself says: ‘We are interested in a building’s demeanor: whether it stands or lies, whether it rests heavily on the ground, seems to rise up out of it or to float above it, whether it defines itself against the sky or seems gradually to evaporate, whether it is hermetically closed or has pores – qualities in other words that we can experience with our body, that afford us pleasure or arouse a sense of unease.’3)
If a building satisfies this maxim then it is broadly speaking tectonic. Although a building is not required to express its actual structural system it is expected – as volume, as mass – to convey an impression of stability. Such a ‘Tektonik der groszen Form’ (Tectonic of overall form) is totally in keeping with current architectural practice which wants the load-bearing elements to be fully shielded from the open air and wrapped in a layer of insulating material. This may prevent the structure from expressing itself on the outside, but it does not prevent the building as a whole, through its demeanour, from giving gravity its due.
At the same time, however, as he formulated this broader concept of tectonic – in itself a service – Kollhoff recorded his doubts as to whether this is really enough. Should not a building’s elements, or rather the way those elements are assembled to form a whole, also display physical sensibility? Of course, Kollhoff has always resisted the anecdotal detail that destroys the wholeness of the building.4) But is it possible, in the present state of building practice, to think of a detail that is in fact essential to that wholeness, that does not anatomize it but actually ‘makes it vibrate’?5) Kollhoff’s lecture ended with a question: ‘Can our technically perfected constructions still be a ‘structure’ in the sense of Perret or Mies, a structure that prompts tectonic expression? Or should we leave it at ‘Tektonik der groszen Form’?’6) This unresolved, questioning end sounds like the formulation of a research programme. It opened the way for a long series of experiments with tectonic in the more traditional, Semperian sense.

A house with a demeanour

At the moment when Kollhoff held his lecture, he could already consider himself, as a designer, to have mastered the ‘Tektonik der groszen Form’, although its best examples had yet to be built. They were not completed until 1994. The most impressive is the Piraeus housing block on KNSM island in Amsterdam,7) the most consummate the Ostend day-care centre near Frankfurt Zoo8) designed in collaboration with Helga Timmerman. This ‘Haus für Kinder’ that seems, with its stepped composition, to be a reduced version of Poelzig’s ‘Haus der Freundschaft’ – a grandstand for the skyline of Frankfurt rather than for the roof landscape of Istanbul – is a house with a face. The designers compare this face to a cubist Picasso portrait, in other words a portrait in which it is possible to distinguish a face even though the various parts are not where they would be in real life. But to my mind it is even more like a house with a demeanour. This demeanour can be compared with a recumbent, watchful creature – a dog or a sphinx – sprawled on the ground, limbs pressed to its sides, serrated back gleaming in the sun, head erect and peering over the wall of the Zoo but at the same time angled towards the approaching visitor.
I am not saying that the crèche looks like an animal, rather that its demeanour – repose, vigilance, exhibiting neither exuberance nor menace towards the visitor recognized as a frequent guest – seems familiar because I have already encountered it in animals. A subtle, but fundamental distinction. For this is first and foremost a house, sturdily built using solid, recognizable and lavish materials, an inexhaustible source of experience for the young occupants ‘before they are let loose in a plastic world’.9) What’s more, the large dimensions of the entrance and the correspondingly lofty foyer stamp the crèche unmistakably as a public building.
In addition to the house’s demeanour and materials, its dimensions, too, appeal to physical awareness (without the differences in size being raised to the Cyclopean scale of Piraeus): very large and very tiny squares through which to look outside; room-height french windows through which to step outside. As far as the construction is concerned, a practised eye will detect the persistent use of load-bearing walls under the terraces, but neither inside nor outside is this systematic construction in any way emphasized. Quite the reverse: much of the pleasure the crèche affords its users comes from the fact that the door to each floor conceals a surprise. Each floor differs completely in size, shape, atmosphere and plan from the previous one, even while the same simple elements – stuccoed walls and wood panelling – are used throughout. The variation is generated and at the same time bound together by geometric patterns – triangles on the street side and the stepped form on the garden side – qualities in other words that belong to the volume and are only able to come into their own because the load-bearing structure is restrained. The tectonic of the volume is so successful because the tectonic of the structure is absent.
The crèche demonstrates convincingly that heaviness does not have to be cumbersome, but can also be playful and proud; we do not, after all, have to drag the weight of our body around with us, either. Kollhoff’s preference for heaviness is, however, a preference for slowness, for the sun that tarries longer on the façades because of the obtuse angles, for the shadow that steadily overruns the terrace during play, and for longevity, too – and one imagines a man who has just visited the zoo with a child, looking out of the tram and recognizing the house where he himself went after school many years ago. This is the permanence of the city that Rossi wrote about, writes Kollhoff in his turn; but more than others – and certainly more than Rossi himself – he seems to realize that this is a question of meticulous and loving handling of materials: ‘in the end it is the detail which decides whether we think a building has urban presence or not.’10) Kollhoff prefers the unhurried time of the object, a time that ticks more slowly than history so that old, handed down things are every bit as real as things that have just been tossed onto the market. This is a viewpoint that annoys Zeitgeist adherents. They think that architecture should imitate the volatility and instability of our times and that the heart of the architect should not go out to the permanent city but to the instant, disposable city.11) But the fact that one adopts a circumspect, reserved attitude towards the lightning developments of the day, that one even experiences regret and seeks solace in long-familiar things, does not mean that one does not recognize the signs of the times. The architect, according to Kollhoff, mediates between the turbulent, uncertain time in which we live and the slow-moving time of objects. He articulates simultaneously the ‘never known before’ and the ‘always been like that’. ‘So the task of the architect might be to put the truly new, the previously unknown, into a form that makes it a part of the world of conventional things; in other words to build confidence in new things.’12)

The untimely call of the city centre

Why does Kollhoff seek out other tectonic horizons if the crèche in Frankfurt so amply satisfies Wölfflin’s postulate of corporality? Today, he responds when asked, given the same circumstances, he would very probably arrive at the same design.13) Which must mean that circumstances have changed and by this I mean the circumstances in which he develops his oeuvre. His work now takes place elsewhere: less in recent, loosely connected suburban conglomerations such as Frankfurt Ostend – a description, incidentally, that fits most of today’s urban areas – and more in the core of the metropolitan urban expanse, the historic centre. This shift is the result of a dramatic turn of events in recent history: the reunification of East and West Germany or, expressed in more physical terms: the fall of the Berlin Wall. The wound of Berlin’s absent centre, for decades held together by the Wall, has suddenly become critical and is forcing Kollhoff to shift his attention.
The problem of the centre is one that modern architecture has never really addressed. Preservation was the civilized option that enjoyed social consensus. Speculative proliferation – from centre to Downtown Business District – was the barbarian option that cities with a strong sense of self, like Paris, were able to channel harmlessly but which for cities with a weak sense of self, like Brussels, was a virtual death blow. The Zeitgemäsze architect is embarrassed by the problem of the centre. If not already firmly convinced that the city is everywhere, he has difficulty with the suggestion of hierarchy attached to the notion of ‘centre’. Kollhoff has accordingly been heavily criticized for his devotion to the centre.14)
Yet no one will catch him out in a denial of earlier stances. In his urban designs of the 1980s he exhibited a sensitivity to both the logic of the block and the spatial tension between solitary objects, a duality persuasively endorsed by his well-known housing blocks on Luisenplatz in Berlin-Charlottenburg. Behind a spectrum of intuitive, site-specific proposals, several constants can be discerned. First of all, concern for the surrounding area, for the larger context in which the design participates. And then the idea that what is inherently big should remain big – a conviction that landed him in the opposition at the height of the IBA’s mania for parcellization. Finally, the determination to use the intensity of architecture to overcome the deficiencies forced upon it by the master plan. In his recent work, Kollhoff has not deviated from these principles. Anyone who accepts that every place in the city calls for a specific response must also accept that the city centre, too, makes special demands. And what choice does the torn centre of Berlin leave an architect who consistently strives for wholeness but to restore its wholeness?
Kollhoff’s concept of the reunited capital was already apparent in his contribution to the ‘Berlin Morgen’ exhibition in 1991.15) Two groups of skyscrapers stand out, two circles of onlookers as it were, magnified to metropolitan proportions and marking the western and eastern poles of the city, Potsdamer Platz and Alexanderplatz. In between, the urban fabric has been restored, roughly in accordance with former building lines and cornice heights. The preservation – or rather restoration – of the centre is coupled with the channelling of speculative energy which is driven to eloquent heights in the groups of towers and, in an organic manner, lends the city the metropolitan grandeur it lacked when it was divided. If the latently anthropomorphic tendencies of the towers are in keeping with Kollhoff’s previously acquired expertise with the grosze Form, the restoration of the centre presents new problems. The individual volumetric articulation required for the skyscrapers would be out of place here. The art here is to occupy the empty places ‘at a table of distinguished guests’ discreetly and politely, and not like some disrespectful oaf.16)
A table full of raucous oafs: that is what the reconstructed Friedrichstrasse is gradually beginning to look like nowadays, and the worst of it is that most of these rowdies are familiar to us from the better professional journals.17) One newcomer, however, who has appeared on either side of an old piece of façade, is reserved and properly dressed in a suit of grey-green granite, the elegant cut of which is evident in the overlapping panels: narrow pleats on the narrow left-hand section, wide on the wide corner house on the right – in other words, made to measure for the buildings. Thanks to the overlaps of the stone panels, the open seams that so often mar modern garments are hidden from view. The refined micro-relief compares favourably with the crude game of massing indulged in by the other guests in their efforts to circumvent the building line and the cornice height. That the fine granite suit is festive attire is evident from the generously proportioned, bronze covered doors behind which, like a cashmere lining, a colourful marble lift housing unfurls, adorned with an art-deco-type brass chandelier – a tie pin from a curiosity shop.
Among the other guests is one hip youngster worthy of mention who is just as fond of style and who also, albeit in a very different way, seeks depth in the flat plane: Nouvel’s glass Galerie Lafayette. But the atrium of this store is clad with glass and holograms and the shower of reflections raises doubts as to whether the wares, the people, the space that one sees are real or publicity projections. Kollhoff’s stone façade is marked by fine shadow lines and one can see the veins in the granite, horizontal and vertical by turns.

A house of stone

The above example notwithstanding, Kollhoff’s most ambitious traditional tectonic realizations to date are not to be found in city centres. The houses on Malchower Weg (designed with Helga Timmermann) stand in an outlying East Berlin district that is painstakingly working its way up to the status of suburb. And the Landeszentralbank in the free states of Sachsen und Thüringen stands on a tract of land behind the Leipziger Messe, a considerable distance from the centre. The bank is the first visible result of a plan to urbanize the Messe site. An urban trade fair site? Surely Ungers already burnt his fingers on that daydream in Frankfurt? One could argue that the existing grid of streets justifies the site’s pretensions and that the bank’s few neighbours at present are long-standing, respectable trade fair clients. Here the Landeszentralbank bought a new office block that met its spatial requirements but not its need for a distinguished presentation. Kollhoff was asked to transform the new building in such a way as to lend it a discreet dignity and urbanity. A tectonic brief par excellence: the structure was already there but it had yet to find its expression.
Adolf Loos knew what a bank, and especially a branch of the Bundesbank charged with managing the community’s money, should express: ‘The bank building should say: your money is in competent and trustworthy hands here’18) – and that is precisely what this solid, square, granite-encased volume says. The elegant, cantilevered terrace that encircles the building and the sunken stone patio beside it – references to Schinkel and to Mies’s Neue Staatsgalerie – stamps it as an urban pavilion, but it could just as easily mesh with the urban fabric. With its large, tall, openable windows and the overwhelming warm, costly furnishings of the collective spaces, it seems like a pleasant place to work.
One might wonder whether this building heralds a return to classical architecture. Not if by classical one means a coded system of signs. The term Kollhoff chooses, tectonic, is more accurate. The elevational articulation speaks first of the relative thinness and large surface of the stone panels and then, only indirectly, about the size of the structure; inside, the columns are little more than stuccoed cylinders. The physicality of the building is felt most strongly in the scale of its elements. One only really appreciates the grand dimensions of the glass in the porter’s lodge and of the mahogany panels and green marble in the atrium because they are framed rather than flush-fitting.
If a peripheral location can be said to have received a city-centre injection in Leipzig, this is even more so in the case of Malchower Weg. This ensemble of two lots of eight identical ‘houses’ which form streets at the front and courtyards at the back, is a truly remarkable combination of suburban and urban qualities. The open layout with front gardens and views on the one hand, and the neutral reiteration on the other hand, seem to be prepared for every conceivable neighbour whether they be flats, office villas or bungalows in gardens. With its vigorous horizontal and vertical articulation, the ensemble invokes comparisons with Kollhoff’s first Berlin realization, the Victoria housing estate next to the Berlin Museum in Kreuzberg (with Arthur Ovaska). There the vertical and horizontal articulations were real volumes, tacked on to an apartment slab, so that the whole touched the ground in a hesitant manner and the end result was a rather contrived volumetry. How much more convincing is the articulation of cornices, lintels, plinths and pilasters at Malchower Weg, and how much stronger the sense of unity, despite the fact that the volume is divided into sixteen pieces!
At Malchower Weg the tectonic of the volume has been abandoned in order to give full rein to the tectonic of the building elements. Its limits are revealed, however, in the Landeszentralbank in Leipzig, in the atrium of that building  – although anyone who was able to appreciate Kollhoff’s subtle sense of exaggeration in the Piraeus building in Amsterdam should also enjoy this atrium. Even so, there is something wrong. Perhaps decorating the atrium walls to look like true façades is too far from the structural ‘truth’ to be convincing. But let us turn to the floor. Reproduced there, in aluminium letters, is an excerpt from Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Laokoon, interspersed with dark patches that initially look like crossings-out but which actually contain, reading in the opposite direction, significant dates and names in the history of Leipzig. It is a work by Joseph Kosuth and the picture it presents is that of history, individual and collective, rising irrepressibly out of the ground in intersecting layers. A picture, in other words, that supports and dramatizes Kollhoff’s preference for slowness and tradition. Kollhoff has more than once deplored the fact that architectural sensibility is nowadays banished from architecture to art – to Serra, Judd, Gerhard Merz.19) In the Landeszentralbank he has practised a ‘proper’ division of roles: the architecture itself courts an architectural sensibility and leaves art to its own expressive devices. But in this atrium the architect is indebted to the artist in another way. Without Kosuth’s contribution, this space would be almost entirely bereft of the contemporary, the ‘never known before’ and would succumb to an academic, complacent didactic. Kollhoff should not flirt with the anachronistic nor expose his commendable views to the risk of being discredited. The only pleasure to which this can lead is that of the polemic and the provocation, and that is a pleasure which soon wears thin.
*) The title of this article is derived from a citation from Heiner Müller: ************translate!*****************

1. The texts from this symposium have been compiled in: (ed.), Ueber Tektonik in der Baukunst, Braunschweig/Wiesbaden  (Vieweg Verlag) 1993. Kollhoff’s lecture is entitled: ‘Der Mythos der Konstruktion und das Architektonische’.

4. Kollhoff’s journey towards architectural wholeness is described by Jacques Lucan, ‘Hans Kollhoff: building the volume’ in: Hans Kollhoff, Helga Timmermann, Projects for Berlin, Antwerp, (deSingel) 1994.

7. See Hans van Dijk, ‘Rethinking the unknown. Hans Kollhoff’s housing block in Amsterdam,’ Archis no. 3, 1994, pp. 18-26.

8. Although construction of the day care centre did not begin until 1992 and was only completed in 1994, the design dates from 1988. The Piraeus building was built between 1991 and 1994; the design dates from 1989.

9. From the designers’ project description.

11. During a symposium (Münster, 1993) about the urbanized landscape Kollhoff was reprimanded by W.J. Neutelings, the prince of Suburbia and herald of the carpet metropolis. Texts compiled in: Westfälischer Kunstverein Münster (ed.), Die verstädterte Landschaft, Munich (Aries Verlag) 1995.

13. Quoted from a telephone conversation with Kollhoff.

14. In the Berlin issue of de Architect (special issue no. 54, March 1994) he was dubbed a traitor by Jannie Rodermond. Libeskind, on the other hand, was politically correct.

15. See: Carola Hein, ‘De toekomst van Berlijn’, Archis no. 3, 1991, pp. 4-5; Carola Hein, ‘Berlijn: prijsvraag Potsdamer en Leipziger Platz’, Archis no. 1, 1992, pp. 6-7; Rob Dettingmeijer, ‘History challenged. In search of a new centre for Berlin’, Archis no. 4, 1993, pp. 66-80.

17. See Peter van Assche, ‘Letter from Berlin’, in Archis no. 1, 1997, which also shows the grinning face of Philip Johnson.

Voorbij de muur. Daniel Libeskind in het NAi / Beyond the wall. Daniel Libeskind in the NAi