Oliver Elser on a postmodern mission
May 5, 2014
You don’t want to interrupt Oliver Elser while talking enthusiastically about Heinrich Klotz, whose collection and about postmodernism. Photo © Adeline Seidel, Stylepark

There’s a smell of old paper, models and carpets when I join Oliver Elser, curator at Deutsches Architekturmuseum (DAM) in Frankfurt and step into “the apartment”. Which is what the museum staff fondly term that part of the archive that was once used as an apartment. Hardly has the door closed behind us than we are facing a piece of postmodernism: the original office furniture that the DAM’s architect, Oswald Mathias Ungers, designed for the director’s room. And of course it’s all a matter of Ungers’ preferred squares: chairs, small meeting table and a desk with square drawers that are far too deep to simply house a pen or pencil. But where the square reigns practicalities are secondary. So this was the desk at which Heinrich Klotz sat, recording everything he did no tape. These tape recordings form the core of the exhibition that opens at Deutsches Architekturmuseum on May 9, 2014: “Mission: Postmodern – Heinrich Klotz and the DAM Chamber of Marvels”. Heinrich Klotz’ widow bequeathed the DAM the tape recordings (they cover the period 1979 thru 1987) for publication. And the “Klotz Tapes”, as Oliver Elser calls them, include Klotz’s account of the building of the DAM, the creation of the collection, and his encounters with the architect. Oliver Elser and I take our places at Klotz’s desk in the name of postmodernism and start talking.

Sophia Walk: Why did Heinrich Klotz make these recordings? What was his intention?

Oliver Elser: They functioned as a kind of a notebook for him. He later used quite a few of the recordings as the basis for texts. And they gave him an opportunity to record conversations he had with architects he met. As a young visiting professor he taught at Yale in 1969. He had planned to visit the “greats” of the architecture world back then, such as Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius, and interview them. But they died before he got round to it. Instead, he became acquainted with a young generation of architects who sought to draw a line between themselves and the Modernist heroes Klotz had originally been interested in. Louis Kahn, Robert Venturi and Charles Moore suddenly offered him a quite different view of architecture and he started to focus on that young generation, who back then were not yet termed “postmodern”. He interviewed them, but not in the classic sense of Q&As. He engaged in critical dialog with Philip Johnson, Charles Moore, Louis Kahn, Robert Venturi, and with the “late Modernists”, such as Kevin Roche and Paul Rudolph. His book, “Conversations with Architects” contains critical discussions conducted in a spirit of deep commitment to the discipline. Klotz recognizes that architecture has reached a point where the original power of Modernism has become dulled. In the 1970s he describes those architectures that arose like self-serving concrete mountain ranges. Today, we’re starting to find the edifices in question, such as the Boston City Hall, really good – again. Back then, these Brutalist concrete structures had the feel of a blow to the head about them.

Heinrich Klotz and the Italian architect Paolo Portoghesi in 1975 on a ship on the Berlin Wannsee. Photo © Heinrich Klotz, Image Archive, Hochschule für Gestaltung Karlsruhe

Surely Klotz didn’t just record his conversations with architects...

Elser: No, he also commented on the objects he acquired and the prices at which he purchased them. He describes his encounters with gallery owners and architects who sold him items for his collection. If you want to know what a Rem Koolhaas drawing cost back then, you can find out by consulting our archive. Normally, no one in the art market talks about such things, but we as a municipal museum here in Frankfurt are a public body and therefore have a certain obligation to account for how we spend taxpayers’ money. At the same time, it’s good research materials that we don’t want to keep secret but instead to make accessible.

How did Klotz go about assembling a collection for the museum?

Elser: In a nutshell, back then he had pots of money to spend on art objects. At the end of the 1970s, for a brief moment there was a market for architects’ drawings. Because in the course of postmodernism artistry among architects became more important again: People were back drawing and there was an attempt to introduce these drawings on the art market. Now, you can still buy an Aldo Rossi drawing from a gallery, but it’s an incredibly small niche in the art market. Back then, it was more a “market bubble”. Architects realized that their drawings were worth more if sold through a gallery. Sending prices for drawings rocketing and soon Klotz was unable to afford any new ones. So he changed his strategy.


Elser: Klotz recognized that he had to offer architects something other than money. Instead of buying ten beautiful folios, he acquired the entirety of the drawings associated with a particular project. That might be expensive, but gave the architects the feeling their work was not being broken up, but preserved for posterity. That was and is a museum’s real mission: to present the development of a project from first sketch through to the execution drawings. And that required more than just hanging well-drawn outlines on a wall.

You call Klotz’ collection the DAM’s chamber of marvels...
By now we’re a little closer to the chamber, as we enter the main archive room, which was converted by Max Dudler. It’s busy in here: Drawings are being framed and exhibits packed for transport.

Elser: The term chamber of marvels stems from the fact that in Klotz’ day a mass of highly diverse material was acquired, and only a fraction has been exhibited to date. Now we’re opening the chamber of marvels and showing items that have never gone on display before.

For example?

Elser: For example, part of the façade of Thomas Gordon Smith’s “Strada Novissima”. He was a young American architect Klotz found interesting. Klotz saw his work at the first Venice Architecture Biennial in 1980, which actually kind of helped him out, as Klotz was already planning the first exhibition for “his” architecture museum and many of the architects he was interested in were already present in Venice. He therefore decided to have the Venice exhibition meticulously photographed, almost as if on a spy mission, and the result is probably the best documentation of an architecture biennial ever. It’s to be found today in the “Photo Marburg” image archive at the Faculty of Art History at Marburg University, where Klotz was a Professor of Art History at the time.

The architect Oswald Mathias Ungers, who planned the reconstruction of the historic villa at Frankfurt’s river Main into the German Architecture Museum, also designed the office furniture for the founding director. Photo © Rosenthal interiors

Klotz didn’t intend the architecture museum as a mere vessel in which things are shown, but wanted a venue for controversy and debate.

Elser: Absolutely. And his program made certain that happened from the outset. He championed a kind of debating culture that not only supported his own position. At some points he consciously sought confrontation. On occasion he was hurt by the harsh criticism his efforts to breathe a different air into the debates on architecture attracted.

The forthcoming show on Klotz’ oeuvre is called “Mission: Postmodern”. Do you consider it your own personal mission to advocate postmodernism?

Elser: I do believe that the fact that time has passed enables us to revisit this architecture. The fundamental postmodernist stance, its intellectual openness and its pluralist architecture won out in the long run. If you consider the world of architecture today, you’ll soon see such positions again: The Dutch pavilion at the EXPO in Hanover by MVRDV, in which different themed worlds are stacked in a building, is an absolutely postmodern idea. On the other hand, there are any number of Swiss architects whose “box architecture” tends to be pigeonholed as conservative 1920s Modernism. Today, placing things next to each other is fine, whereas back then the conflicts were far fiercer – either you were “modern”, or you were out. I think postmodernism helped take the sting out of things, and I really appreciate that.
Without doubt, postmodernism produced many a stupid building. Klotz let rip many a broadside against Germany’s only postmodern campus, the University of Kassel. He felt the buildings were bereft of any intelligence as formally random. The very term ‘postmodern’ shows just how much that era was a matter of things moving back and forth – it was Charles Jencks who first applied it to architecture. Klotz was by no means immediately taken by the term, and it was not until 1984 that he finally decided to adopt it for his first exhibition, “Revision of Modernism”, which was subtitled “Postmodern Architecture 1960-80”. Like many architects he was not exactly happy with the idea. Although basically none of the architects back then termed their buildings ‘postmodern’, the buildings were more or less postmodern all the same. Ungers always said that he wanted nothing to do with that postmodernism. And yet his idea of building a house inside a house is completely postmodern, if only on account of the image itself. But he always vehemently rejected that.

So let’s stay with the concepts: Is postmodernism a misunderstood epoch in architecture? Is it even an epoch in the first place?

Elser: Postmodernism as an idea is certainly still ostracized completely from discourse. If you look at the last two issues of the journal “ARCH+”, you’ll see there’s a tendency at the moment to re-address the hard-nosed quality and stance of some of the buildings created by Ungers, and also by Rossi. It was without doubt an epoch when many taboos were cast overboard: Their architecture can now be seen as part of an historical lineage that does not focus on a rupture, on demarcation, but consciously favors history and context and in the best possible way involves the reconstruction of the urban fabric, urban repair. It does not seek confrontation, but reconciliation. At the same time, it produced architecture that was rightly derided for its insistence on quotation, its little gables and columns – especially as that can very swiftly look extremely cheap.

The collection of the DAM not only contains drawings, postcards, models and posters, but also original prefabricated parts such as this from the Woolworth Building in New York. Photo © Adeline Seidel, Stylepark

One often asks oneself whether many of the various sides of postmodernism can be addressed without opting for irony…

Elser: That’s definitely true. There’s irony back then and a new form of irony today. Only the passage of time enables us to cease to view buildings such as James Stirling’s Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart as intimidating and instead as simply a very curious contrast to everything else around back then, and thus appreciate it. In the final instance, postmodernism, like any age that can be labeled, is about setting itself off from what went immediately before. And if you view it as anti-Modernist or as protest architecture, then it makes good sense. I just visited Mönchengladbach and, 20 years after first going there, toured Hans Hollein’s Museum Abteiberg, which I really appreciate as you can see the intensity he devoted to designing it. Hollein’s Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt I mainly find persuasive in terms of its interior spaces. If you stand in the hallway and look up at the staircase that is not positioned on the central axis, but to one side... (Oliver Elser starts enthusing) – well, the building is great thanks to its surrealist elements. Now those buildings say: “I am different, read me. Grasp me, learn to understand me. Engage with me.” That can be kind of pushy, but also stimulating.

In the “Postmodernism Appreciation Society” Facebook group that you’ve founded, “Freinullvier Publizistik” wrote about an edifice at the back of the “Langer Eugen” in Bonn: “And then there’s the postmodernism you’d love to hug. To tell it: I know life is tough, but persist and believe me that at some point it will have been worth it. Even if it’s hard to imagine that now. At some point everyone will like you again. Really love you. Without that smirk of ‘so bad it’s actually good’.” What would you like to say about a po-mo building in Frankfurt?

Elser: I think the annex to the Liebieghaus in Frankfurt is just great. It was designed firmly in context, with no mirth. And there are buildings that really are “wild”: I feel nothing for any of the townhouses in Frankfurt’s Saalgasse. It’s like a zoo in which every animal is roaring to be seen. What Christian Holl of Freinullvier Publizistik means with his Facebook entry is that postmodern buildings continue to speak to us at a later date without us having to even mention the moniker postmodernism. Liebieghaus is a prime example, so pleasantly unobtrusive. Or Museum für Angewandte Kunst in Frankfurt, the brainchild of Richard Meier: There, the fragmentary plays a role in architecture – the architect does not set out to create some major solution. Richard Meier places fragments of the building in the park, as if it were an architecture in decay that no longer believes in the power of the one, single, sealed solution, that can be defined once and for all and has no ruptures, and instead declares: “Here I am, treat me as a whole!” Only if it has ruptures can a building start to speak to you! Sometimes it simply babbles, sometimes it makes a statement. The postmodern buildings want to chat, they really need to talk. They grab you and say: “Hey, I want to tell you a story.”

“Mission: Postmodern. Heinrich Klotz and the DAM Chamber of Marvels”
Deutsches Architekturmuseum Frankfurt/Main
Private view: May 9, 7 p.m.
From May 10 – Oct. 19, 2014
Tues., Thurs.-Sunday, 11 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Wed.: 11 a.m. – 8 p.m.

To coincide with the exhibition there'll be a special issue of architectural journal ARCH+. The edition will focus on the "Klotz Tapes" will be introduced and discussed by Oliver Elser, Myriam Pflugmann, Franziska Stein (DAM) and the ARCH+ editors on Saturday, May 10, 5-7 p.m. at Deutsches Architekturmuseum.

Not without irony: As a young professor in Berlin, Ungers bought this old building (front part of the drawing) and drew an annex with a swimming pool on the roof.
Photo © Adeline Seidel, Stylepark
Frankfurt’s piece of cake in the cabinet of wonder of the DAM: A drawing by Hans Hollein's design for the Museum of Modern Art. Photo © Adeline Seidel, Stylepark
Academic quotes from gables and little pillars: The University of Kassel is Germany's only post-modern campus. Photo © University of Kassel
After Klotz was unsure about the term "postmodernism", he takes it in 1984 for the first exhibition in the DAM "Revision of Modernism - Postmodernism Architecture 1960-80".
Photo © DAM, Waltraud Krase.
Postmodern thinking in pictures: Although Ungers always said that he had nothing to do with this postmodernism, his idea to build a house in the house is completely postmodern. Photo © DAM, Uwe Dettmar
The Museum Abteiberg in Mönchengladbach by Hans Hollein, who is considered the founder of postmodernism in architecture, is an outstanding example of this time for the curator Oliver Elser. Photo © Museum Abteiberg, Swapnaa Tamhane
When he talks about the interior of the Museum of Modern Art in Frankfurt am Main, Oliver Elser goes into raptures over the building’s surrealistic moments.
Photos © MMK Frankfurt, Axel Schneider
A building without any giggle: For Oliver Elser the annex of the Liebieghaus in Frankfurt is a contextual building. Photo © Liebighaus Frankfurt
Spatial diversity, which wants to be read: to Elser, Frankfurt’s Museum of Applied Art by American architect Richard Meier belongs to the buildings who want to talk and have an incredible speech need.
Photo © Museum Angewandte Kunst, Frankfurt