Emotional Buildings are Needed. They Create Added Value for the General Public!

Elias Baumgarten
7. June 2021
Illustration: World-Architects.com

What do architects think about important future issues such as climate change or digitalization? How do they envision a sustainable building culture? What solutions do they have? What framework conditions do they need in order to fulfill their tasks and responsibilities in the best possible way? To address these topics, World-Architects invited three offices — one from Germany, one from Austria, one from Switzerland — to each of a series of five virtual conversations that were transcribed and published online in the second half of 2020. The architects openly discussed the issues with each other and provided deep insights into their worlds of thought. Lilitt Bollinger, Stefan Marte and the young architect Max Otto Zitzelsberger from Munich agree that we need emotionally charged buildings in our environment that people can identify with.

Elias Baumgarten: I would like to know what you think about building culture and architectural quality in the D-A-CH region. To begin with, let's talk about a complex of topics that has dominated the political discourse until now and is likely to have a strong impact on design in the future: sustainability and climate protection.

Max Otto Zitzelsberger: In Germany, many builders are technology-savvy. For them, sustainability must first of all be measurable. They are interested in insulation values, building services and so-called smart home systems.

I don't like this focus on high-tech solutions. Resource-efficient construction requires strong craftsmanship on site. And in Bavaria, as in all of Germany, this is already almost defunct. I am in favor of regional value creation and short distances. I like to see local wood being used, not spruce from Finland. For example, a few years ago I refaced a historic barn in Kneiting near Regensburg. The wood was sourced from the nearby forest. The farmers of the village cut down the trees together and they were processed in the local sawmill.

Lilitt Bollinger: If German clients are indeed fundamentally interested in sustainability, you can nevertheless consider yourself lucky. In Switzerland, there is not yet any great demand for solutions that are particularly ecologically sound. Rather, the focus is on spatial wishes and needs, and also on economic constraints. In our country, it is important to persuade people and to work tirelessly towards quality architecture. We have to promote the fact that good design represents a special value and that it pays off in the long run to invest in it — also with regard to sustainability.

Stefan Marte: In Vorarlberg, sustainable building has been a topic for many decades — to such an extent that I'm bored with it. We have a similar view to yours, Lilitt. For us, spatial compositions, atmospheres, lighting situations and the like still come first. It's about realizing quality architecture in the most environmentally friendly way possible. The most sustainable buildings are still those that are cherished and cared for over generations; they don't necessarily need thick insulation and energy optimization down to the last detail. Sometimes this attitude makes us outlaws in our own country. Where it seems appropriate, we continue to build in concrete, for example, instead of unreflectingly following the trend towards timber construction.

As far as regional value creation is concerned, which you mentioned, Max, there are ambitious clients in Vorarlberg who actively demand it with great idealism. We also have outstanding craftsmen. In smaller building projects, a lot can be achieved with this combination. However, one must not deceive oneself: Especially with large projects, the cost factor can quickly lead to contracts being awarded abroad or materials being procured from there.

lilitt bollinger studio, Residential studio building «Altes Weinlager», Nuglar, 2019 (Photo: Mark Niedermann)
Photo: Mark Niedermann
Photo: Mark Niedermann

EB: Today, there is a general attitude that, if in doubt, it is better to produce and buy abroad as soon as there are minimal savings to be made. Perhaps the coronavirus will cause some people to change their thinking — at least that's what I would like to see. After all, the shortage of medical equipment and materials everywhere in Europe is an example of where this mentality leads.

But back to architecture: it seems to me that an important contribution to a more sensible and far-sighted use of resources is to convert buildings rather than replace them. Lilitt, your portfolio includes some great conversions of old buildings that many would not have considered worthy of preservation in the past.

LB: First of all, it has to do with my acquisition strategy: My office is small and I don't take part in competitions. So it's obvious to concentrate on conversions and extensions. But it's true: There is still a throwaway mentality in the building industry that we have to break away from. It would be better to keep old buildings as long as possible and to adapt them again and again if necessary. It's great that we have some architects in Switzerland who take on this task with great zeal and come up with excellent solutions. And by the way, working with old building stock is also especially appealing from a design point of view.

Well, there is one more important thing that we have not addressed so far: Standards are too strict! They often block better, more innovative solutions.

SM: That is 100 percent true, I can fully subscribe to that! However, I believe that people in Switzerland act with better judgement in this respect than we do in Austria or even in Germany. We have learned that in building hospitals, for example. We urgently need more freedom to experiment!

Marte.Marte Architekten, art project «Masellahütte», Dafins, 2018–2019 (Photo © Marte.Marte Architekten)
Photo © Marte.Marte Architekten
Photo © Marte.Marte Architekten

MOZ:  I'm uncertain whether we architects complain too much, especially in Germany. It annoys me when I hear, "oh, it's easy in Vorarlberg or Switzerland, I could make good architecture there too." That's a victim attitude. I would like to tell a short story: In the Süddeutsche Zeitung, a major German newspaper, I read an interview by Laura Weissmüller with Jan De Vylder. In this conversation she claims that projects like his conversion of a ruin into a psychiatric clinic in Melle near Ghent are impossible in Germany because of the strict standards and regulations. De Vylder replied that in Belgium they actually were equally strict. He may have been coquetting on that point, but probably much more is possible than we often think.

SM: Consequently, the state of building culture in Germany is definitely not due to German architects! Their competition entries are world class. We have just completed a project in Berlin. Over almost ten years, in endless meetings, we learned what actually was the problem. The implementation was a continual tilting at windmills — more of an "against each other" than a "with each other." Especially in the early days, we were repeatedly confronted with negativity and mistrust. There was more than one project objector, and we received very little support in the project development.

LB: You speak sweepingly of negativity and project obstructors. What do you mean about that?

SM: Bureaucracy is very pronounced in Germany, the committees are large and the hierarchies are strict. The wishes and ambitions of politicians are sometimes at odds with the attitude of officials and decision-makers at lower levels. Many of those involved only want their peace and quiet and adhere strictly to rules and regulations instead of thinking in terms of the overall project. For every detail, one has to fight tenaciously for quality solutions. This wears down and dilutes the potential of many great projects.

However, this does not mean that there are no ambitious clients in Germany at all and that quality architecture is completely impossible. We are currently working on several projects in Germany — in Darmstadt, Badenweiler and Lindau — and things look very different there.

MOZ: But Vienna, for example, is also a difficult place for sophisticated architecture, isn't it?

SM: You're right, it's more difficult in Vienna than in Vorarlberg or Tyrol. Good craftspeople, for example, are hard to find there and have to be "imported" from other parts of the country. Nevertheless, Vienna is pretty easy in comparison.

Max Otto Zitzelsberger, bus station, Landshut, 2017 (Photo: Sebastian Schels)
Photo: Sebastian Schels
Photo: Sebastian Schels

EB: I think that we must continue to fight for a high-level building culture everywhere.

SM: Even in Vorarlberg! I have been involved as chairman of the Vorarlberg Architecture Institute (vai) for many years. Our work is communication, communication and, again, communication. Although we have reached a high level in Vorarlberg, building culture crumbles and degenerates as soon as you don't constantly stand up for it. We see, for example, that the close cooperation between craftsmen and architects that distinguishes Vorarlberg today has to be constantly fostered. Many are quick to rest on their laurels...

MOZ: Building culture — what does that actually mean? Isn't it a vague term that means everything and nothing? A horrible single-family house that the builder-owner wanted that way out of deepest conviction is a strong statement, just like a beautiful building by Marte.Marte or Lilitt Bollinger. Each is building culture, isn't it?

LB: Building culture has to do with love! It doesn't matter who designed something or what it looks like. But a lot of things are simply "spewed out", not thought through, loveless and without value. I know of examples where prefabricated houses are so carelessly placed on the plot that all the windows face north. That is simply mindless. It's less about fighting for aesthetics than about fighting against ignorance and emotional coldness.

SM: Of course, the majority has little understanding for good architecture. Nor do I want to be misunderstood to the effect that every building must meet the highest design standards. But I agree with Lilitt that emotionally charged buildings are needed. They create added value for the general public! And one should and can work towards this. That is why the vai regularly publishes articles about architecture in generally understandable language in the Vorarlberg daily press.

Lilitt Bollinger studied architecture at ETH Zurich. In 2013 she founded lilitt bollinger studio in Basel, later moving the office to Nuglar. In 2019, she won the "Goldener Hase" award for the residential studio house "Altes Weinlager" in Nuglar.

Stefan Marte attended HTL Rankweil and studied architecture at the University of Innsbruck. In 1993 he founded a joint office with his brother Bernhard in Weiler. From 1999 to 2005 he was a board member of the Central Association of Architects in Vorarlberg. He has been president of the Vorarlberger Architektur Institut (vai) since 2005.

Max Otto Zitzelsberger studied architecture at TU Munich, where he was an academic councillor at the chair of Florian Nagler from 2010 to 2017. In 2011, he founded his own office in Munich. He works as a juror and has held a junior professorship at TU Kaiserslautern since 2019.

This article originally appeared as "Es braucht emotional geladene Bauten. Sie bringen einen Mehrwert für die Allgemeinheit!" on Swiss-Architects. Translation by Bianca Murphy.

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