Planning Means Asking What Kind of Society We Want to Live In

Elias Baumgarten
9. 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. Architects Peter Haimerl from the Bavarian Forest, Roman Hutter from Lucerne, and Sven Matt from the Benzau-based office Innauer Matt call for architects to stand up for building traditions and historical buildings and, above all, to promote far-sighted, future-oriented urban and spatial planning with a clear social and political visions.

Elias Baumgarten:  We would like to know what you think about the current architectural situation and the state of building culture in the D-A-CH region. You all know a lot about building in rural regions, so this is the topic we want to focus on today. Peter, you have made a name for yourself with your projects in the Bavarian Forest, your home region. What is it like to implement building projects there?

Peter Haimerl: I think the situation here in Germany is completely different from yours in Vorarlberg and in Switzerland. There is almost no penetration of architectural thinking — at least in the countryside. And this is even more true in the Bavarian Forest. This may sound quite vicious, but the authorities and the population have almost no architectural aspirations. In addition, there are hardly any good architects in the region; our talents migrate to nearby bigger cities like Regensburg or Passau, or they move to Munich or even abroad. 

Roman Hutter: I don't think that the general architectural awareness of the Swiss population is any greater. In my perception, a good building stands or falls — apart from the architect — with the client. If the latter does not have an affinity for the important issues of architecture, it makes little sense to waste time and energy trying to convince the other party of one's architectural stance. You really should think about who you want to work with. We always try to understand right at the beginning what actually touches people. It is important to us that the real "luxury" is to be found in the structure of a house, in the materials and the applied craftsmanship. We are not interested in purely speculative projects.

PH: Come on, there's a widespread architectural awareness in your country that you can build on. Organizations such as the Swiss Heritage Society or the Monument Preservation Authority ensure that there is a high-quality architectural culture in rural areas, too. We don't have any of that in Bavaria. Doesn't that have an effect?

RH: Of course, it does! These organizations are a great help. Nevertheless, in large parts of the population there is little understanding for the building culture, which is very rich in our country, also thanks to the influences close to the border, and which must be preserved for the sake of identity. People often don't see or appreciate what they have. I grew up in the mountains, but today I live and work in the city — it is a great privilege to be able to learn from both worlds. Time and again we experience the paradox that city dwellers are more willing to venerate rural building culture than the local population — and it's probably the same the other way around.

Sven Matt: We are lucky in Vorarlberg. The older generation of architects has left us with a feathered nest. The most important topic for us at the moment is spatial planning. How can we preserve our village centers and continue to build on our traditional settlement structures? There are no convincing concepts for this today. In general, we architects leave the initiative to others in this matter. That is fatal, housing estates with detached houses still being built everywhere. This is a catastrophe not only in terms of design, because it is not a traditional typology and the buildings disturb the evolved structures, but above all in ecological terms. I guess that this is also an issue in Germany.

Peter Haimerl, «Archiv der Zukunft» at the town square of Lichtenfels, since 2018 (Visualization: Peter Haimerl Architektur)
The shape of the structure was designed parametrically. It should be built by robots. (North view: Peter Haimerl Architektur)

PH: In my opinion, there is no longer any urban development in Germany at all. And I believe that architects are massively to blame for this. With modernism, the qualities and skills that European architects had were abandoned. Everything was packed into blocks and boxes; space no longer played a role after 1920. That is a terrible legacy! No one, neither architects nor the population, has a sense for urban space any more — for space at all. For modern architecture knows not spaces or intermediate spaces, but at best forms. And even these are negated, because everything is reduced to death — it's a complete disaster. There are no more structures to build on. Everything has to be reinvented. As an architect, you are an estate agent, a harlequin, a joker and a motivator. You not only have to convince people of projects, you have to convey how a dramaturgically designed urban space is needed (again).

SM: I agree with you fully, Peter! Due to the lack of concepts in urban development and spatial planning, many qualities are being lost in rural areas. To put it bluntly, we architects have screwed it up! The mindset that we have propagated for decades is now firing back mercilessly. No one needs to be surprised that housing estates with detached houses are being developed all over the place. Today, we are even smiled at by laymen when we draw gable roofs. "Oh, you're building in such a traditional way?" they say. That really irritates me.

RH: Building is a public matter! I think many people are not aware of that. A house is not a picture that you can just hang on your wall as you please. Building means responsibility. In Switzerland, we have the problem because the attitude is widespread that you can do whatever you want with your property and on your land. In my opinion, good architecture emerges from the place, and this includes the materials and the resulting structure. A healthy modesty benefits places.

PH: I have a different opinion, Roman. Architecture is like music. It must arouse emotions and be full of energy! We architects have to take responsibility and create strong spaces. And maybe we also have to allow people to show off. In the past, prestige was demonstrated with houses, especially in the countryside. People like that. That's why they drive flashy cars and always need the latest iPhone. Look at old Swiss farmhouses: people tried to show off their wealth with ornamentation and rich adornments. That was even the case in the Bavarian Forest, a traditionally poor region.

RH: You get me wrong. By modesty, I don't mean bland, dull and uninspired buildings. Take Peter Zumthor, for example: many of his buildings seem quite modest in their grace, and yet they are very powerful. Moreover, they perfectly blend into their respective context.

PH: That's also a misunderstanding. I'm a bit older than you, so I'll tell you why Zumthor is so brilliant: his spaces have a sophisticated dramaturgy, there are narrow, intimate areas and open, spacious ones — like in a medieval city. That is wonderful, it arouses emotions. And with such designs he came on the scene at a time when Swiss architecture was unbelievably dry and boring.

Architekten Innauer Matt, Mountain chapel «Wirmboden», Schnepfau, 2017 (Photo: Adolf Bereuter)
Photo: Adolf Bereuter
Photo: Adolf Bereuter

SM: Let's get back to music, Peter. In Vorarlberg, everyone actually sings a similar song, and I don't think that's bad at all. Maybe, Roman, that's what you mean by modesty: not everyone has to squawk at the top of their lungs.

As young architects we are often asked what we are rebelling against. But here in Vorarlberg there is very little difference to the previous generation. They created quality architecture that we can easily build on. Perhaps, Peter, this is the difference to the reality in Bavaria.

PH: In the Bavarian Forest, most historical houses have been destroyed in the last 30 years. This is tragic, because today the buildings, the feeling, the stories and, as explained earlier, the architects are missing. The Bavarian Forest is a different story compared to South Tyrol, Vorarlberg or Switzerland! And unfortunately, the region is representative of many in Germany.

That's why I would like us architects to take risks and assume responsibility. People want unique designs. Those who hide behind their ethos or in an ivory tower are not taken seriously. I just saw a documentary about Queen. They were brilliant musicians, but above all they were excellent performers. People don't just want houses, they want stories and people.

EB: Unfortunately, no university teaches you how to perform, how to communicate a design to lay people or how to convince a local council. In our studies, all we learned was how to make our designs appealing to a small, always identical group of people. Everything was soon predictable: you knew which arguments to present and which (technical) language to use. What the reality would look like afterwards, you ideally learned during your internships. I think this is where we should start. Otherwise, it will probably always remain with individual (young) architects who, as you would like, Peter, get involved and commit themselves. In Switzerland, fortunately, we have at least a few of them.

Roman Hutter Architektur, Umbau Bauernhaus, Kirchbühl, 2019 (Photo: Markus Käch)
Photo: Markus Käch
Photo: Markus Käch

PH: Let me come back to urban and spatial planning. I often notice that municipalities and cities don't have concepts, and are short-sighted and sluggish, when it comes to the future. There are no visions and goals, hardly anyone thinks about answers to the pressing questions of the future such as climate change, advancing digitalization, the profound changes in the world of work, the growing differences between rich and poor or the demographic upheavals in our society. My realization of the last few days, which have shown us how quickly everything turns into nothing and you are left alone and hopeless, is that architects have to interfere. Planning is not just about dealing with vacancies, decay and architectural quality, but about asking what kind of society and cities we want to live in. We are trained to have a holistic view of complex contexts, and we should bring that to bear. I am convinced that many experts from other fields would then like to join the debate.

RH: That's right! And I also think, like you, Elias, that education and upbringing play a very important role on this path. Positive changes are emerging among the younger generation. It seems to me that the willingness to make sacrifices for the common good and sustainability is increasing, and the fixation on performance and financial prosperity is decreasing. This can be seen in the growing acceptance of new forms of living, sharing concepts and the like.

PH: I also notice these positive trends. But the question is, can we implement them spatially? Who will shape the world of tomorrow? All red flags should have been raised a long time ago: There are currently business tycoons from the Internet sector who are gaining enormous power. Alphabet, Google's parent company, wanted to realize an entire city quarter in Toronto as a so-called "Smart City" with its subsidiary Sidewalk Labs, but the plan was thwarted and abandoned. It is time for architects to get involved together, to speak up and, above all, to work together with other stakeholders, especially politicians, right from the start — because alone we will always remain dependent on others and have little say in the matter.

Peter Haimerl studied architecture at the Munich University of Applied Sciences. Afterwards he initially worked for Günther Domenig and Raimund Abraham. From 1988 to 1990 he was involved in the research project "The Open City" with Paul Schlossbauer and Armin Lixl. In 1991 he founded his own office in Munich. His project "Birg mich, Cilli!" (2009), the conversion of a farmhouse in the Bavarian Forest, marked his international breakthrough. In 2010, together with the Bavarian State Office for the Preservation of Historical Monuments, he initiated the "Haus.Paten BayerWald" project for the protection of regional building culture and the preservation of historical building stock.
 
Roman Hutter studied architecture at the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts and at Vienna University of Technology. He worked in offices of different scales before founding his own architecture firm in 2010. The ten-member team now works on projects of a wide variety of scales — predominantly in sensitive contexts and in the area of monument preservation.
 
Sven Matt studied in Innsbruck and at Vienna University of Technology until 2007. During and after his studies he worked for Bernardo Bader Architekten in Dornbirn. After successfully passing his civil engineering examinations, he and Markus Innauer founded the office Innauer Matt Architekten in Bezau/Bregenzerwald in 2012. Between 2016 and 2019, he was a member of the board of the Vorarlberger Architektur Institut (vai). Since 2018, he has been a member of the design advisory board of the municipality of Alberschwende. 

This article originally appeared as "Planung heisst, zu fragen, in welcher Gesellschaft wir leben möchten" on Swiss-Architects. Translation by Bianca Murphy.

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