Brandenburg Spezial
The escape helper
In conversation:

Der Architekt Thomas Kröger

Feb 27, 2015
The Berlin architekt Thomas Kröger. Foto © TKA and Thomas Heimann

The architect’s office of Thomas Kröger in an old apartment block is so centrally located in Berlin, you feel tempted to say: you can’t get more urban than that. From the bay windows of his meeting room you look at the Neue Nationalgalerie on the other side of the Landwehrkanal. Not only is his office rather chic and urban, the same goes for Thomas Kröger – who is the exact opposite of a country boy, and instead is a soft-spoken man of slim build with slender hands. Yet in recent years it is primarily the residences and vacation homes he has designed in the Uckermark that have drawn attention to his architecture. And when he speaks about the landscape there his fingers move to lightly sketch hills, forests, and lakes. He is able to talk about materials, their properties and how they are worked, and describe the houses down to the smallest detail. Indeed, his voice reflects his devotion to the landscape of the Uckermark, a devotion that evidently matches his feelings for the city.

The Werkhaus in Gerswalde is a plain house using a lot of relatively untreated materials such as a poured asphalt floor or visible corrugated nails. Photo © Thomas Heimann

Florian Heilmeyer: Herr Kröger, are you in the business of helping people escape?

Thomas Kröger: (laughs) I don’t think so. What do you mean?

I mean to escape to the country. You build exceptionally beautiful houses in Brandenburg – supporting the trend to leave the city – for a weekend or for good.

(grins) Well, if you put it that way I’ll take it as a compliment on our work, although I would like to point out that we also have beautiful projects in the city.

But your projects in the country, or more precisely in Uckermark, are better known. Although most of the buildings you have realized fall within a radius of three kilometers: in Gerswalde, Fergitz and Pinnow. How did you end up there?

It might seem hard to believe, but I ended up there by pure chance. Our three owners did not know each other at all, but each bought a plot of land independently and in the same year in these tiny places – and then approached me.

That sounds like a pretty tall story. How come the three chose you?

First of all there was Gerhard Schütze, who had done carpentry work for me on another project. He is an extraordinary carpenter and creator of wooden products. His father was a cembalo maker and Gerhard had studied art and fashion. We’d stayed in touch, I was keen to involve him in other projects again, and then he calls me and says he wants to buy the metal workshop that belonged to a state-owned firm in Gerswalde, and could I come and look at it.

The former VEB locksmith hall in Gerswalde is now a workshop with a living area. Photo © Thomas Heimann

And what was your impression of the building?

That it was incredibly ugly and very poor quality. But in a magnificent position in the village outskirts on a small hill kissed by gentle breezes. He wanted to live and work there, which meant converting and tearing down parts of the existing building.

You clad the old and new parts of the house with a striking shell of untreated boards and rounded sheet metal. What made you choose these materials?

We wanted a uniform appearance for the house. We didn’t want there to be any visible differences between the old building, and we were ultimately only able to use a little part of it, and the new sections. Weathering will turn the larch boards gray, and the barns in this region are often built this way. The shapes of the building’s body were to develop from the surroundings; the Uckermark is terminal morain landscape, very soft and undulating with almost erotic curves. Simultaneously, it was to remain a plain house using a lot of relatively untreated materials such as a poured asphalt floor or visible corrugated nails. The wood, the simple materials and the dark surfaces inside make you look outside at the landscape.

But why this metal facade?

The building was to reveal its purpose, have a raw quality to it, yet simultaneously stand out from the agricultural structures in the region. The perforated sheet metal offered us a material that we could wrap softly around the entire building, including in front of the workshop windows and doors. Both from inside and outside the metal in front of the windows looks amazingly delicate, more like a light curtain. It is a little experimental, because we decided not to use protection for the sheet edges, although the metalworker had pointed out that it would be better. In fact, so far the sheets have proved sturdier than we expected, not even the tall panels in front of the doors have dents. Gerhard Schütze is thrilled that whenever it rains or snow melts on the metal you get a veritable play of water around the house, and he’s already considered whether he should invoice me for the loss of working hours when he and his employees stand and stare at this liquid show instead of working.

The "Black House" in Pinnow is another building designed by Kröger: a holiday home for a family. Photo © Ina Steiner

How do you finance such a house?

First of all through the amazing efforts of everyone involved. At any rate, none of us has made much money on it. Gerhard Schütze did all the fitting work himself, we almost had to restrain him and keep saying ‘OK, you can do that later on’. Then the house is heated entirely using the wood shavings that are natural by-product of his work. He has special collecting devices that send the shavings straight down into the cellar. And finally EU funds are available when jobs are created in regions with poorly developed infrastructures – and in this regard the Uckermark very definitely has a very poorly developed infrastructure.

Does such funding also play a role in other projects?

We often receive funding for our projects. Either to support new jobs or the improvement of the tourist infrastructure in the Uckermark, because the region still has very little in the way of accommodation.

The passage in the "black house" around the house core allows a generous eye contact with the landscape. Photo © Ina Steiner

Had you also worked with the other owners previously?

Yes, we had. Johanna Michel and Dirk Preuss built the “Schwarze Haus” in Pinnow – and Dirk was the site manager on one of my earlier projects. The two live in Berlin with their kids, they rent out the house and use it themselves as a holiday home. But in the long term, maybe once the children have left home they’re thinking of moving there for good. Which is why it was important that the house is large enough to also accommodate guests. They have an active social life and didn’t want to be out there on their own.

The building really does seem somewhat isolated.

They had the opportunity to buy a large plot on a road with very little traffic. It was a field on which only a disused pylon stood. You look across the fields at a few hills topped by wind-bent pines, an almost Japanese motif. On the other side poplars line a small stream – it is really beautiful. So we developed a building 24 meters long and 6 meters wide that opens up to the landscape. As there’s so little traffic on the road we were able to open it up on both of the long sides. The closed section houses the tool shed.

In architectural terms the most remarkable thing about it is the side view. A closed gable wall of wood, which flirts with the typology of saddle roofs and lends the building an evolved, converted look although it’s a completely new building.

It’s from that side that you normally approach the building. It references the landscape and local building typologies. In terms of scale, materials and forms it cites the barns and smallholder houses, which are typical here. But we wanted to develop something new and original on that basis. The conspicuous shape of this frontage is the result of our having installed the chimney here and this has distorted the ridge somewhat. From this we developed the idea of the three dormer windows. The aim is to use less noticeable elements to create a certain eccentricity for the house; an identity, which makes it memorable, perhaps even strange. But it must never appear forced. That’s why it’s so important to develop this positive eccentricity out of the characteristics of the place and the region.

With a lot of architectural sensibility Kroger has a barn in Fergitz rebuilt. The large room in the center of the building serves both as indoor and outdoor space, when the doors are open. Photo © Thomas Heimann

Why is it called the “Black House"?

Because originally it really was to be black, the wooden facades were to be stained black. But the owners decided it was too expensive, they wanted to get it finished and over time pinewood turns almost black anyway as happened in Gerswalde. I was still disappointed at first by their decision. But now I really do think it was better like that. Letting it turn gray is the natural version, staining it black might have made it look a little too fashionable.

Unlike the two buildings we’ve talked about the conversion in Fergitz is something completely different, isn’t it?

Oh yes, because here we were dealing with what you might call a strong-willed architecture. It was a barn and a cowshed, an extremely sturdy building with thick stone walls, small windows on the top floor and a large wooden door opening out onto the street. The owner is a long-time friend, she had fallen in love with this barn, and I advised her against it. The wood inside was completely rotten and I told her it’s very difficult to estimate how expensive such a conversion will be. A week later she called me and told me euphorically: We’ve bought it, we’ve bought it!

Large glass windows allow the view to the central room. Photo © Thomas Heimann

What was your reaction?

I was happy for her. As an architect you can warn and advise, but ultimately the owners have to decide. We kept the construction costs as transparent as possible and often checked the alternatives and their costs. In the end we had replace 70 percent of the timber; that makes it impossible for a project with so much floor space to be cost-efficient.

You worked a long time for Max Dudler, who in turn worked a long time for Oswald Mathias Ungers and was greatly influenced by him. In your work with the context, surroundings and typologies certain connections to their projects?

My position is more moderate than that of Ungers or Dudler. I’m not concerned with archetypal forms or basic rules. I become involved in the context and take the liberty of responding differently to it each time. Unger’s archetypes are very forceful, but sometimes a sensible landscape requires something different, perhaps something cheerful or festive. I don’t adhere to a specific attitude. Or put differently, my attitude is each time to take a fresh approach to a place and its characteristics – and to advance this location in the same way typologies of buildings have always been evolved over the centuries.

Are there differences between building in the country and building in the town?

I don’t think so. Our projects always refer strongly to their setting, be it a dense downtown or a more open location in the countryside. That said, I do sense a different respect in the country for the contexts I’m intervening in with my architecture and the landscapes, some of which have managed for a very long time without architectural interventions. The city has a totally different history of interventions and alterations, conversions and building over things. And I feel much less respect regarding interventions.

Arround the central barn space the living quarters are arranged. Photo @ Thomas Heimann
The barn before the conversion. Photo © TGA
Floor plan barn Fergitz – ground level. Drawing © TGA
Section Fergitz barn. Drawing © TGA
The work-house in Gerswalde before the conversion. Photo © TGA
"The perforated sheet metal offered us a material that we could wrap softly around the entire building, including in front of the workshop windows and doors." Photo © Thomas Heimann
The dark floor and dark ceiling let the wood of the walls particularly shine. Photo © Thomas Heimann
The large window in the work house frames the environment as a picture. Photo © Thomas Heimann
Exciting visual connections are a design feature of the architect Kröger. Photo © Thomas Heimann
The sleeping area in the work house in Gerswalde is like a bunk. Photo © Thomas Heimann
The "Black House" looks inviting, even at night. Photo © Ina Steiner
Different levels on the ground floor of the "Black House" create the areas for living and cooking. Photo © Ina Steiner
Floor plan first level "Black House". Drawing © TGA
Ground level floor plan "Black House". Drawing © TGA
Sections "Black House". Drawing © TGA
A sleeping area upstairs in the "Black House". Photo © Ina Steiner
The wonderful countryside of Brandenburg. Photo © Thomas Heimann