Spotlight on Women Architects – Regine Leibinger
Cosmopolitan and yet down-to-earth, Berlin architect Regine Leibinger spends just as much time at universities in the United States, international symposia and lectures as she does in her Swabian homeland. Although born with a silver spoon in her mouth, she received both a demanding and supportive upbringing in her pietistic Leibinger (Trumpf) family of manufacturers. Diligence, pragmatism, modesty and empathy were highly valued, as was an eye for the big picture and for the world beyond the borders of the Ländle. And of course, with such an upbringing, it's quite natural to develop an air of self-confidence and unflappability.
Joining her parents' company was never an option for her, and Regine Leibinger initially wanted to become an actress. Her parents' affinity for art and architecture brought her closer to building, however. Several stays in Paris influenced her in this respect as well, and after graduating from high school she decided to study architecture. She studied in Berlin under Otto Steidle and Benedikt Tonon. In 1989 she completed her Master's degree at Harvard, where she met the American Frank Barkow, with whom she shares both her life and her professional career. After a year spent in Rome, they founded their office in Berlin in 1993 and entered several design competitions. They initially won two competitions for daycare centres in Berlin, but their radical concept for the Biosphere project in Potsdam proved to be the breakthrough. Their exhibition building with its tropical hall, part of the 2001 Federal Garden Show, is integrated between walls of earth on the site of a former military barracks. Her father wanted Leibinger and Barkow to come back to Stuttgart, but the name Leibinger would have been too prominent there, and the two wanted to build their own life in Berlin instead. In 1998 the office started working for Trumpf after all, however, becoming the company's “house architects”. In the Swabian dialect, it's often said that direct commissions have a certain G'schmäckle, i.e. are somewhat disreputable or shady, but Regine Leibinger sees it as her contribution to the family business, and incidentally all of the projects she's worked on have been subject to the same policies of austerity that everything else is in the company. Leibinger built the company's headquarters in Ditzingen near Stuttgart, as well as branch offices and agencies in Europe and overseas, while factory facilities, administration buildings, research facilities and day-care centres, multi-storey car parks and casinos have been built in Freiburg, in Hengelo in the Netherlands, in Grüsch in Switzerland, and in Chicago and in Seoul, to name just a few locations.
You won't find modernism as a stylistic statement in Barkow Leibinger's portfolio. Building typological forms or specific architectural archetypes as models for her architecture is not what she wants to do. The term “style” doesn't get you anywhere, she says. The formal expression of her company's buildings, as with many modernist architects, results from functional contexts and their sober spatial concretisation; in this respect, they are in the succession of “form follows function” modernism. But Barkow Leibinger, unlike many colleagues in the modern mainstream, are not fundamentally averse to special forms, even if the unusual forms mean she has to do a bit of explaining, for they always originate from her special interest in sophisticated load-bearing structures. When special construction methods lead to special forms, they go with it. For example, the hexagonal building of the Trumpf Education Center in Ditzingen. Or the polygonal casino there, which is characterised by its honeycomb-shaped, wooden ceiling structure. Incidentally, the buildings they design often find their formal statement through the unclad materials and in the way they are used. Ultimately, “form follows construction”.
The interest in new construction methods and materials may also have come from her parents' company, a global leader in laser technology and laser material processing. What could be more fitting than to use this technology in the construction of new buildings as well? The gatehouse building in Ditzingen, with its amazing 20-metre-long cantilever roof, which is only 50 centimetres thick, was built with laser-cut steel sheets. New construction methods as a contribution to more sustainable, material-saving buildings is the direction she's heading in. That this interest also has its artistic and poetic aspects was shown by the exhibition Revolutions of Choice in 2020 at Berlin's Haus am Waldsee, where Barkow Leibinger presented material samples and production test results like exhibits in an art exhibition, including a pavilion made of intertwined stainless steel sheet strips in the garden. Innovative building construction can only be mastered in close cooperation with structural engineers. There are many points of intersection with the work of Achim Menges, and of course there's collaboration with the most innovative and renowned engineers, first and foremost Werner Sobek and sbp schlaich bergermann partner. The intention to both optimise and minimise load-bearing structures and wall construction in order to save resources is in the tradition of Richard Buckminster Fuller and Frei Otto, from whose sphere of influence the engineers come.
Barkow Leibinger have also recently joined the ranks of the high-rise architects. The TourTotal building next to Berlin's main railway station is 70 metres high, and the Berlin height record will soon be held by the Estrel Tower, a multifunctional tower currently under construction in a commercial area of Berlin's Neukölln district. The tower, an extension of the existing congress centre and hotel with an additional 525 hotel rooms, spa area, office floors and a panorama restaurant, will reach a height of 175 metres with its 44 storeys. The principle of the Tour Total's folded façade will be further developed at the Estrel and will enliven both the atrium's façade as well as those of the tower. Vertical wooden fins also characterise the image of the green city hotel Stadthaus M1 in Freiburg's Vauban eco-district, which meets all the sustainable parameters required in the Vauban model city. Residential construction also looks different than usual at Barkow Leibinger. They took the rigid setback regulations in one of Prenzlauer Berg's inner courtyards as an opportunity to develop a structure that looks like a child's drawing: a single-storey base with a steeply sloping three-storey roof, all wrapped in a multi-coloured brick skin.
A residential building in Berlin-Karlshorst, in a neighbourhood of one hundred-year-old single-family houses, has a shifted footprint, a warped gable roof over the corner and scattered window openings of various formats, which means that the individual storeys are not recognisable on the outside. But of course the position and shape of the windows is functional, i.e. from inside the house they make perfect sense. A twelve-storey residential building with 70 flats shall arise with sbp schlaich bergermann partner in Berlin's Friedrichshain district – again using unusual construction techniques, namely 60-centimetre-thick external walls made of Infra-Lightweight concrete, which allows for a single-shell wall structure and thus a considerably simplified way of building the structure.
It's not something that's discussed, but when viewed from the outside, Barkow and Leibinger appear to have an equal share in the design and development of their projects. Both have high standards for their work and for themselves, complementing and correcting each other symbiotically. All of their projects are done together and they have also often taught together at various universities. When it comes to managing the 80 staff members, she takes a more resolute stance, while he cultivates a more relaxed American manner, which the staff find cool. Since the office now has a dependency in the USA, but its headquarters are in Germany and it is mainly active here, Regine Leibinger is the majority of the office's external representatives. She is also increasingly present in terms of her communicative nature, simply because of her entrepreneurial disposition, although she hasn't always found it easy to be a woman in this profession: “Especially when it comes to juries, you have to be doubly good as a woman in order to hold your own”. This is a social and cultural problem that's only slowly being addressed. She also attributes her standing to her upbringing. Her parents encouraged and challenged their daughters and son to an equal degree. The children developed a sense of authority, but “we weren't showered with praise”. There was no traditional female role in the family; everyone was expected to perform at the same level. The family's credo was very much that because “you are so privileged, you have to make something of yourselves and contribute to society as well”.