When I began studying in Berlin in 1977, the dismantling of modern architecture and planning was well under way at the universities. The architect was equated with the master planner, who arrogantly disregarded users’ wishes and needs, ruined entire towns and tracts of land with his buildings in a dictatorial and diagrammatic manner, and plunged his fellow human beings into misery with his so-called „visions“. In Berlin, housing developments such as the Märkische Viertel and Gropiusstadt were the enemy; the citizens’ groups, such as squatters and the campaigners against Berlin’s western tangent motorway, were the heroes.
Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, for instance, were the epitomes of blind bourgeois planning culture, which had failed at every level. Mies’ buildings were considered to be egocentric, the products of a dogmatic insistence on form, inhuman and dumb – or, as Charles Jencks, Tom Wolfe and others demonstrated eloquently, semiotically misdirected.
Among my immediate acquaintances, Ludwig Leo, a potent modern architect, had retreated into a kind of „participationism“, which seemed especially degrading measured against his powerful and heroic buildings, although he had retained his clear way of thinking and his refreshingly subversive spirit. We marvelled at the fact that he led journalists from Casabella, who were interested in new projects, into a basement in Kreuzberg, where he and some squatters had just installed a self-built communal bathroom.
We had to read Jane Jacobs and Alexander Mitscherlich back then, of course, and as young, ambitious architects we felt ourselves being pushed into a role that was hopelessly loaded with negative attributes and offered hardly any prospect of worthwhile activity without straying into “forbidden” territory. For somebody who was enthusiastic about architecture, and who enjoyed designing and form-giving, intelligent construction and spatial beauty, every way seemed blocked. Everything that was fun was either inhuman, unethical, or politically incorrect. […]
When I received a scholarship to go to England in 1981, I was glad to escape what I held to be the thoroughly ideology-ridden and philistine atmosphere of Berlin and to immerse myself in the world of the AA, which I absorbed to the full, as a dried-out sponge does water. In England, the technological enthusiasm of modernism had arrived, led by Buckminster Fuller, Prouvé and Chareau – in projects such as the Pompidou Centre, the Lloyd’s Building and the ofﬁce building for Willis, Faber + Dumas amongst others. Naturally, the modernist motive, „to get the present to function,“ was the central concern of the high-tech generation, too, but this motto was implemented very literally in the form of quasi-technological functionalism. […]
Our own architecture developed – put theoretically – in this area of conﬂict between the tradition of Modernism and its revision. The GSW ofﬁce block, our most important project to date, stands – very practically – in a direct relationship to at least one piece of modern architecture.
The competition took place in the magic moment after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the potential of the future was stronger than all of the present. We saw the site on Kochstrasse as a palimpsest of the urban visions of Berlin’s citizens since the 18th century, and we developed the building on the basis of this interpretation. In taking into consideration various elements of the townscape around the existing high-rise ofﬁce block from the 1950s, the present naturally had to be represented too, and it was the question of the future of city-based jobs that led us to examine low-energy concepts. Working together with English engineers, who in the early 1990s were still much more advanced in this respect than their German counterparts, we arrived at an architecture that embodied ecological requirements as much as it emphasised its urban nature – a combination that, back then, we had not seen before.
The GSW project may be a result of our training, as described previously. It is a project that demonstrates awareness of the site’s historical nature and develops its solutions from that speciﬁc situation in Berlin’s history as a city. This history includes the modernist town planning of the 1950s and the associated architecture, although the project actually has the criticism of this same town planning to thank for its existence, since it constitutes part of the reversal of a scheme to widen Kochstrasse for through trafﬁc.
Our concept, however, also tries to continue the story of the Modernist city; it relates to the context of the 1950s in a correc-tive, synergetic way, rather than as a didactic antithesis. It makes use, at least in part, of the language of classical Modernism, whereby its pictorial nature obviously deviates from the former’s abstract plasticity.
In its commitment to saving energy, the GSW headquarters building is, on the one hand, wholly a child of the late 20th century. On the other hand, it clearly differs from the typical post-modern urban buildings of post-communist Berlin. In general, I rather tend to see the project as being in the spirit of Modern-ism. Reﬂexive Modernism, a term coined by Ulrich Beck, may seem appropriate. The attitude is one of trusting ultimately in the present and the future, but working out solutions with an awareness of the limitations of progress, and being willing to reﬂect upon and revise one’s own approach. The architecture expresses a clear position, without of necessity succumbing to a dogma. […]
We ﬁnd ourselves at the end of industrial society, and we have, justiﬁably, a far more critical relationship to technology and progress than was the case at the beginning of the twentieth century. We no longer operate against the background of a more or less active bourgeois society, but in an environment that is increasingly fragmented in social terms as well. Furthermore – and perhaps most dramatically – we are confronted by climate change and by a dwindling supply of natural resources. It is obvious that, if they were working today, Gropius and his staff would also react to these phenomena.
Furthermore, the connection between rationality (in manufacturing technology and planning) and sensuality (in materials and production), as much as the integration of the whole spectrum of means of aesthetic expression, that still can be seen at the Bauhaus today, remains – for us, at least – exemplary. This dimension of real integration constitutes a quality that has more or less been lost in the meantime and which our generation ﬁrst has to re-acquire. […]
Lecture given in July 2002 on the occasion of the UIA World Architecture conference [excerpt]. Full text published in Sauerbruch Hutton. Archive. Baden: Lars Müller Publishers, 2006