I don’t know whether there are any other architectural practices in Germany with a similar record of achievements, but there can’t be many. There is no doubt about it: Von Gerkan, Marg + Partner (gmp) is one of the most successful architectural offices of recent years.
The number of competitions won or buildings realized is not even that significant. There are obscure architectural practices that without attracting publicity, win commissions worldwide and have a far bigger turnover than gmp. No, what really counts is the way in which these successes are achieved. What counts is the architecture produced.
In Germany, success in architecture (and in other fields) is regarded with some suspicion, particularly when not underpinned by a theory (preferably one which is high-flown and incomprehensible). For years, then, gmp’s success aroused resentment; their architecture was deemed too streamlined, too market-oriented, too commercial. Their ‘flying start’ in particular was resented: first prize in a competition was followed by a commission for the construction of an entire airport. Indeed, gmp never experienced the uphill struggle of the architect who modestly begins his or her career with ‘a house for mother’, which then does the obligatory rounds of the professional journals.
Considering the success some architectural offices are enjoying in Berlin at the moment the accusation of being ‘too commercial’ is simply absurd. Nevertheless, gmp were always regarded as being weak on theory. A distinction was always made between practices which were small but good and had a theoretical underpinning (even when these had grown into large practices) and other practices which chiefly built. The latter smacked too much of ‘vulgar reality’. Better to have a principled design published in the world’s architectural journals than to deliver a sound, respectable building!
Today, however, even in Germany, gmp is no longer regarded exclusively as an office of ‘Macher’ (makers), presumably because projects such as the Neue Messe in Leipzig, the music and conference centre in Lübeck, the airport in Hamburg and the Zürichhaus in Zurich cannot be ignored. They are too important as commissions, and too eye-catching as architectural tours de force – theory or no theory. Gmp now heads Germany’s league table of major architectural practices, a position it has held for some years. When Werner Oechslin, renowned art historian at Zurich’s Technische Hochschule, was asked to write a portrait of the architects for the almost equally renowned Jahrbuch Architektur in Hamburg 1993, he chose as its title ‘Bauprobleme, keine Stilprobleme!’ (A question of building, not of style), underlining this affirmation with an exclamation mark. So Oechslin, too, was initially concerned with the question as to whether gmp were perhaps more ‘Macher’ than ‘Vordenker’ (thinker). (It remains a moot point whether every architect should be a ‘Vordenker’. This may be important for the journals, but when confronted with built reality one wishes there were more high-quality ‘Macher’!)
Whereas the (superb!) buildings of Günter Behnisch are regarded as ‘democratic’ architecture, Josef Paul Kleihues and Hans Kollhoff are able to pass off their, let’s say, straightforward buildings as ‘Berlin architecture’, Daniel Libeskind’s zigzag lines are canonized by a fairly inaccessible theory, and the early work of Gottfried Böhm is still regarded as ‘Faustian’ (because there is still no theoretical underpinning), gmp’s work is evidently too simple to have any real depth. ‘It lacks excitement, it’s not magical or unique’, wrote the Austrian architectural historian Dietmar Steiner (an assertion he himself later refuted).
But the critics are mistaken. For there is no law which states that ‘uniqueness’ is superior to ‘simplicity’. If architecture is comprehensible then this is a sign of strength, not of weakness, because it then fulfils the prime requirement of all architecture: usefulness.
This brings us, with due reverence, to Vitruvius’ classical trinity, which has got out of balance in the twentieth century: utilitas lost its position back in the ‘classic’ modern architecture of the twenties, even though with its concept of ‘functionalism’ this architecture had emphasized utility. This has to do with the mediatizing of society (and of architecture), which values image more highly than substance. A critic’s review of a new building is published at the very latest on the day the building is opened, when its utility value cannot yet be judged. Which is why utility fails to feature in the review. The usability of a staircase, the position of an entrance, the quality of a workspace, the logical layout of a building volume with a view to the production process – these are not subjects for architectural criticism in the journals. Somebody builds four glass towers, fills then with books and protects then from light by barricading the glass facades with panels. The critic will interpret the space between the towers as a form which symbolizes ‘receptivity to the spiritual’, and the floor plan of the towers as ‘opened books’. No critic will when reviewing Paris’ new Bibliothèque Nationale, having listed its functional defects, interrupt the review to say that a building which is so poorly organized is not worthy of further discussion (I admit: this critic didn’t either!)
Let us, however, take a look at Leipzig’s Neue-Messe. Completed in 1996, this new building for the old Messestadt with its rich tradition of trade fairs was designed with the aim of creating a new landmark ‘in the open field’. The trade fair centre presented a logistical problem. Goods have to be delivered without hindering the public, and the latter has to be able to wander through spaces of varying size (for different trade fairs) throughout the entire complex, without the various concurrent fairs getting in each other’s way. A public zone has to be separated from a private zone.
The solution? In gmp’s design the arrangement of the various buildings is extremely simple: two rows of halls are situated opposite each other and can be supplied on the exterior. The interior is reserved for the public. Here, on two storeys, are the foyers and restaurants which connect to a lower level, a middle zone for pedestrians situated one storey below. Along one side of the length of the complex are parking spaces, with on the other side public transport stops. All visitors to the Messe can understand this arrangement if they think about it (which they don’t, precisely because it is so simple, so there is no need to).
Solving a functional problem does not, however, produce architecture. And this is where the Neue Messe demonstrates its unique quality (a quality it shares with many of gmp’s projects, particularly the large ones). It is no accident that gmp began their career with the construction of a new type of airport, that is to say, a major construction project in which dealing with traffic flows is an essential part of the solution to the problem. Indeed, the trade fair complex derives its identity from the routing system described above. On a nondescript site surrounded by vacant industrial estates a Land-Art object has been created by scooping out a two-kilometre-long valley (landscape architects: Wehberg, Eppinger and Schmidtke of Hamburg); a traversable artificial landscape with a glass hall in the middle. Both the landscape and the hall (which has the spatial quality of a late twentieth-century Crystal Palace) make it clear to the visitor: here I stand in the midst of something new, something big. In terms of functional processes, the trade fair complex (which has not been incorporated, as used to be the case, in the city’s fabric) fulfils all the requirements such a building calls for.
This description could give rise to misunderstandings. Gmp’s architecture is not ‘functionalistic’; form does not follow function as in Sullivan’s bon mot. It merely (merely?) orders all functions and processes in the simplest possible way. This principle has proved effective in large projects such as trade fair centres, airports and stations. It is one of the basic principles of gmp’s architecture.
Logical clarity is manifest in every detail. This work is now, fifteen years on, recognizable, has its own identity. This is because gmp has developed a canon of building elements in which only the smallest details are varied. In virtually all their buildings, handrails, lamps and windows look the same; these have, as it were, matured and appear to have found their definitive form.
In this connection I must draw attention to another misunderstanding. In the period 1993-1994 there was a heated debate in Germany about a so-called ‘new simplicity’, a debate which soon developed into a controversy about what came to be regarded as a ‘Prussian’ architecture for the new, old capital city of Berlin. This new simplicity related to the German-Swiss architecture of practices such as Herzog and Meuron, Peter Zumthor, and Diener and Diener – handcrafted work of Swiss watchmakers’ quality and of a simplicity that is the hallmark of extreme refinement. Gmp’s architecture has nothing to do with this tendency, although it, too, seeks reduction. The difference lies in what Adolf Behne, Germany’s foremost architectural critic of the twenties, described as the difference between the ‘rationalist’ and the ‘romantic’: the romantic who seeks harmony with nature and therefore oneness, and the rationalist who seeks the universal in the ‘collective consciousness of humankind’. So gmp seek to establish a record, as Behne, taking his cue from Le Corbusier, put it. Establishing a record for Behne meant ‘utilizing all practical, rational possibilities, deriving a type which meets all the functional requirements of maximum performance, maximum economy, minimum number of artifices, minimum use of material: words, tones, colours and forms.’
Is this quest for the ‘universal’ type not the secret longing of every architect to produce work that is not time-bound? In buildings such as the TWA Terminal in New York and the headquarters of General Motors in Detroit, Eero Saarinen sought the solution in the form, which is derived entirely from function. Le Corbusier by contrast gave function shape in his early villas using prefabricated forms. Von Gerkan and Marg’s method lies somewhere in between. Their forms develop over a period of many years. They are not an end in themselves but markers along the way.
When examining the work of this architectural practice over a longer period, two aspects strike the eye; aspects which underline the search for the universal and which go beyond the task of the moment. The two aspects appear to contradict one another, but this is not the case. The first is an approach to historically determined elements (I do not use the word ‘forms’, because these are not historicizing forms, but rather structural elements with a historical background). This is particularly evident in the Musikhalle in Lübeck (which also provided the vocabulary for other, similar projects). The floor plan is a simple rectangle, half of which is occupied by the auditorium and the other half by the cylinder-shaped glass foyer. This layout is a contemporary response to a historically determined topos, which ultimately harks back to Palladio’s Villa Rotonda, but is more closely related to Schinkel’s Altes Museum in Berlin, and which has preoccupied architects in numerous variants ranging from Le Corbusier’s parliament building in Chandigarh to Stirling’s extension to the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart. We see it in the floor plan: the circle in relation to the square.
In the Musikhalle, the two parts have been separated and placed next to each other, while at the same time they are subtly linked, on the one hand by the functional connection between auditorium and foyer, on the other by the square roof with the cylinder in the middle.
Tying in with this – conscious or unconscious? – insertion in a historical series is the second theme, which also has a time-honoured tradition: that of the freestanding column and the problem this presents at the corners. The Greeks struggled with this as Mies van der Rohe did with the set-back corners of the Seagram Building. In the Musikhalle the problem is solved by means of a double column. The solution is not a new one, but by doubling the columns on the corners as well it is an extremely logical solution (one that can be used for both inside and outside corners).
However, one must not seek to turn every row of columns into a ‘colonnade’, or every arch into a ‘vault’, or every roof supported by columns into a ‘temple’. The question is not whether one is referring to historical topoi, but rather what is the meaning expressed. I think (and I write it with some hesitation) that the gradual tendency towards ‘classical’ forms has to do with the quest for the universal, as described above. It is a sort of maturing process whereby the architects, having examined all possibilities, return to simplicity. This supposition seems to be borne out by the fact that the two owners of the firm often come up with similar solutions, even though over the years their work has become appreciably individualized and distinct. (In earlier volumes of their collected works, the name of the designer of a particular project was never given). Paradoxically, the more they work individually, the more their designs resemble each other.
From Tegel Airport (1965), their first major competition success, via the European Patent Office in Munich (1971), the Hansepassage in Hamburg (1974), the corner building on Grindelalle in Hamburg (1982), Hamburg Airport (1986), to their most recent projects, gmp’s architecture is increasingly simple, more concise, more ‘classical’.
This tendency towards a canon of building elements developed from a long historical tradition is now, however, being cut through by another tendency, one which impacts on the individual forms and is directed towards an aesthetics of technique. I don’t mean a high-tech architecture in which the expression of technical efficiency is an end in itself. The aim rather is to find the most compact and elegant solution to a technical problem. It is no accident that increasingly the architects are collaborating with the ground-breaking German engineering firm Schlaich Bergermann and Partner of Stuttgart. This is clearly evident in projects such as the extraordinarily complex yet simple-looking new central station in Berlin (Lehrter Bahnhof), the Neue Messe in Leipzig, and the simple oversailing of an inner courtyard (Museum für Hamburgische Geschichte). This architecture is not about statics, or transferring vertical pressure to the ground; rather it is about creating lightness with wafer-thin constructions. (Incidentally, clients often point out that the lightest possible construction is by no means always the cheapest solution to a problem, although, of course, it does save material. In these unecological times one-off constructions are deemed too expensive because of the higher design and labour costs involved.)
Architecture of such a consistently high quality and with such a lasting success can only be realized with the help of a first-class design team and an organization based on years of experience. But that is not all; ‘the practice’ does not make the architecture by simply turning out off-the-peg solutions, from details to entire designs. On the contrary, the two partners themselves determine many aspects of a design, starting with the fundamental concepts for every new competition. Only then is the project passed on to an efficient hierarchical organization, in which the – usually young – design team stays together until the building has been completed. (Most of gmp’s projects develop from competitions. The same clients do not often give new commissions because the two partners are known as stubborn and difficult negotiators who fiercely defend their vision of architecture).
The fact remains that gmp’s work has been of a consistently high quality in recent years – and that is no mean feat. I have been unable to discover quite what their secret is; it is not only the organization of the practice (other architectural practices have a similar set-up) or the experience – which of course must never become mindless routine. One major reason is undoubtedly the passion with which both partners work. The question as to why they do it, why they voluntarily subject themselves to the stress involved in producing good architecture in these increasingly difficult times, is almost impossible to answer. Is it missionary zeal? Vanity? Is it an attempt to heal the wounds inflicted by the ugliness and chaos of our living environment? Or is it merely (merely?) the Benedictine principle that whatever one starts one should finish to the best of one’s ability? The certainty that one understands one’s profession at any rate gives – and this could be part of the answer – the assurance that in dealings with clients one can determine boundaries and turn down commissions if these boundaries are ignored.
Gmp’s architecture is successful, straightforward, lucid and sometimes spectacular, due to well-thought-out constructions, (such as, for instance, the Lehrter Bahnhof and the Neue Messe) but not because of any flashy design. Perhaps we should read Behne more often. Towards the end of his survey of modern architecture, entitled Der moderne Zweckbau (1923 – published in English in 1996 as The Modern Functional Building), Behne writes: ‘We find that German architecture is somewhat inclined to devote itself to an extreme that changes fairly frequently and then gives way to the opposite extreme – the consequence of inner uncertainty. It is all too rarely recognized that the aim should be to stabilize the strong dynamic tensions that living architecture must absorb in order not to become aesthetic [Behne’s synonym for formalist] … It is erroneous to think that dynamism can only be expressed in the elevation, in the animated ‘form” – Behne is evidently referring to the deconstructivists – ‘… And it is just as erroneous to believe that structural requirements are assured by a quadrature of the plan, which often enough remains a drawing-board ornament.’
I think that Behne would have approved of gmp’s architecture.