Designed by architect Ludwig Leo: the "Umlautank" of the “Versuchsanstalt für Wasserbau und Schiffbau“ in Berlin-Tiergarten, 1967-74, photo © Kilian Schmitz-Hübsch
Pink Panther on the Spree
by Thomas Edelmann
Oct 17, 2013

Architect Ludwig Leo’s built oeuvre includes comparatively few works, yet great is his reputation and influence among the specialists. Not that he was ever famous, let alone known to the broader general public. “Among his peers”, by contrast, Ludwig Leo, who died last year, “was revered with great enthusiasm, an architect who cut a fine decidedly Modernist and dignified figure in the field of functionalism,” commented Manfred Sack back in 1979 in the weekly “Die Zeit”. And now Berlin-based “BARarchitekten” (Base for Architecture and Research) and architectural historian Gregor Harbusch have compiled a truly tiny exhibition on the life and work of the designer that is well worth seeing.

Ludwig Leo was born in 1924 in Rostock. He grew up under difficult circumstances, as his father died when he was only three and his mother found no job that enabled her to feed herself or her son. Magdeburg was the key place in his childhood. In 1942, Leo took his war-time high school certificate in Frankfurt, was drafted, and so badly injured on the Eastern front just before the end of the war that one of his legs had to be amputated. After the war, Leo studied architecture, first in Hamburg and then in the early 1950s at the Berlin “Academy of Art”. There he met, among others, artist and architect Stefan Wewerka (obituary Stefan Wewerka), Hardt-Waltherr Hämer, who later moved the IBA in the direction of careful urban reconstruction, and Hans Christian Müller, the leading Director of Building in the Berlin Senate from the 1960s to the early 1980s. Leo worked with Müller on a few projects, such as the Eichkamp International Students Hostel – it boasted buildings in part designed by the students who then resided there. Among other things, he was involved in designing some of the buildings in the controversial Märkisches Viertel (1962 - 1967).

Monuments to Late Modernism

Ludwig Leo later came to fame with two spectacular buildings. The “Umlauftank” is the one – a technical functional building on stilts for research into flow physics. The building features a pipe-shaped tank, insulated by pink polyurethane foam, out of which a blue lab building arises on steel stilts and which ever since its completion has formed a monument in Berlin’s urban space visible from afar. Leo realized the project between 1967 and 1974 together with engineer Christian Boës on behalf of Berlin’s “Versuchsanstalt für Wasserbau und Schiffbau”, a formerly state institution which studied hydraulic engineering and shipbuilding. The research institute later became part of the Berlin Technical University. Since 1998 the flow tank has no longer been used, and research funds have since German Unification primarily flowed in the direction of the Schiffbau-Versuchsanstalt in nearby Potsdam. But now the “Wüstenrot Stiftung” is busy preparing to have the building modernized and has classified it as one “of the first row of post-War German buildings worthy of preservation”. The foundation likewise supported the exhibition “Ludwig Leo – Ausschnitt” as well as the accompanying documentation – and both are worthy of attention.

The second striking building Ludwig Leo designed, and like the “Umlauftank” it has a unique effect when viewed from afar, was the “Bundeslehr- und Forschungsstätte der DLRG” on the banks of Pichelssee in Berlin’s Spandau district, which was built at almost exactly the same time, namely between 1967 and 1973. The 11-story edifice with a triangular footprint and a stunning 44-degree angle to it served among other things to store lifeboats during winter – they were hauled upwards using a steel system on the west frontage and spread across specific stories. The structure also features teaching rooms with fold-out seating sections in a two-floor hall, a kitchen and cabins for overnighting.

Only shortly after their completion, both buildings were very well received above all in England and specifically in the circles of the “Architectural Association School of Architecture” in London and became the source of much euphoric debate. Archigram cofounder Peter Cook put the “Umlauftank” on the front cover of his magazine “Net” in 1975. And shortly thereafter Leon Krier wrote in the same journal that the DLRG building was truly unique. It was, he continued “the product of a specific cultural context, and moreover its heroic gesture is a response neither to the direct functional requirements nor to the institution’s wishes for self-representation.” Heinrich Klotz, founding director of “Deutsches Architektur Museum” and the “Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie” (ZKM) in Karlsruhe mentioned Ludwig Leo in the same breath as Rem Koolhaas and Haus-Rucker-Co, all of whom had worked to continue spinning the “myth of Constructivism”. Ludwig Leo himself was not especially interested in how his work was defined. “Between him and his age, that of the Cold War, there was always a kind of interstice, an insulating layer consisting of his origins, the war, German history, and the impossibilities the present dished up,” Dieter Hoffman-Axthelm wrote in 2004 on the occasion of the architect’s 80th birthday.

Myth and tenacity

The exhibition curators BARarchitekten and Leo’s biographer Gregor Harbusch carefully expound on the idiosyncrasies and contradictory elements in the architect’s oeuvre and personality. Ludwig Leo refrained from participating in the architectural discourse in the form of essays and topics, but mainly with construction drawings he largely produced himself and submitted in competitions or for project proposals. His key strategy was not unmistakable stylistic elements but a fundamental approach to the brief that construed it as a problem. Since this cut to the core of his how he worked, he refused to make any compromises even when realizing those of his competition submissions that won the day.

The exhibition and the accompanying brochure document four select projects: the DLRG HQ, Sporthalle Charlottenburg (likewise realized) and two projects that did not progress beyond the highly intense and detailed planning stage. Both were school buildings. The one was “Laborschule Bielefeld” (1971-72), developed on the basis of the didactic insights of Hartmut von Hentig, and later realized by the Berlin architects group “Planungskollektiv 1” after changes to the plans. In his proposal, Leo had critically addressed the then new type of an open-plan school and had suggested a large space with natural light and ventilation. Alongside large zones in which groups of children could be taught parallel to one another he included small spaces into which groups could withdraw.

A school of thought

The other school project, and this is the first time it has been included in a publication, was Leo’s plans for an extension to “Landschulheim am Solling” (1974-6) that have survived in the form of an entry to the competition. Instead of shared “family residences” for teachers and pupils, Leo separated the living quarters. He adopted the angle of the roof of the existing castle-like building and developed a very compact residential wing that compared to the building realized in Berlin’s Eichkamp district included premises cut diagonally in half. He envisaged linking the old and new builds with a glass roof as if placing them in a hot house.
After his most productive phase as of the mid-1960s, from 1975 to 1982 Leo was a professor at his former college, Berlin’s Academy of Art. This brought his work as an architect to an abrupt end. Leo had to abandon teaching owing to illness.

Dense spaces full of scope

Biographer Harbusch points out that Leo’s notion of structural composition hinged on his drawings of the groundplan and elevations, in which he always inserted countless little figures. As moving outlines they highlight what scope and potential uses the spaces he designed could have, especially as he deliberately rendered them so dense. These are clearly not normed structures and sizes as with Le Corbusier’s “Modulor”, and definitely not ergonomic standard beings as are defined in Ernst Neufert’s reference work on “Architects’ Data”. Rather, their many faces and relaxed character highlights a very specific notion of social coexistence that Leo wished to promote with his designs, over and above all hypotheses and manifestos.
It is stunning how the exhibition, despite covering hardly six square meters, succeeds with its sparse highlights in introducing us to the design world of Ludwig Leo. For architects, a concern with this master of the discipline is no simply historical occupation, but will bring factors to bear to change current design practice. For architectural historian Harbusch “intensive thought on alternatives to the obvious, the carefully calibrated ordering of spaces and shapes, and the creation of functional added value” is what constitutes the core of Ludwig Leo’s architectural impact. Harbusch is currently a Ph.D. student at ETH Zürich researching precisely this – so we’ll soon hear more about Leo no doubt.

The exhibition “Ludwig Leo – Ausschnitt” runs thru 27 October, daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at “die raum” gallery, Oderberger Strasse 56, 10435 Berlin, Germany.
The blog gives all the details, background and reviews.

To accompany the exhibition, a catalog has been published: Ludwig Leo – Ausschnitt (48 pages, 109 illustrations). It is not available from bookstores. It is sold on behalf of the Wüstenrot Stiftung and can only be obtained by payment in advance from the office of BARarchitekten.

Ludwig Leo (1924-2012) in front of his VW bus, photo © Ludwig-Leo-Archiv, Baukunstarchiv der Akademie der Künste in Berlin, Morag Leo
Section of the DLRG headquarters in Berlin-Spandau, 1967-73, photo © Ludwig-Leo-Archiv, Baukunstarchiv der Akademie der Künste in Berlin, Morag Leo
DLRG headquarters in Berlin-Spandau, 1967-73, photo © Ludwig-Leo-Archiv, Baukunstarchiv der Akademie der Künste in Berlin, Morag Leo
Section of the Laboratory Sciences Bielefeld (unrealized), 1971/72, photo © Ludwig-Leo-Archiv, Baukunstarchiv der Akademie der Künste in Berlin, Morag Leo
Sports Hall Charlottenburg, 1960-65, photo © Jan Windszus 2013
Section of a habitation module for the hostel at Solling in Holzminden (unrealized), 1974-76, photo © Ludwig-Leo-Archiv, Baukunstarchiv der Akademie der Künste in Berlin, Morag Leo
Exhibition Ludwig Leo (gallery "die raum“ in Berlin), 2013, photo © Jan Windszus