Building in Germany
The world of the 113 football fields
A column by Christian Holl
Dec 17, 2014

Would anyone think that bad performances in a provincial theater are a reason to issue laws stating that plays can only be staged in the big theaters? Things are different in architecture. In our new column on “Building in Germany” by Christian Holl sets out to find out why.

There are two different architectural worlds, or should we say: at least two. One of them, the first one, is presented and discussed in specialist magazines, in Internet por-tals, in biennials and exhibitions. It is the world of glam awards, those “prizes of architectural culture” lavishly spread out over 40 pages in the current manual on the subject: Think top architects, best detached homes, Germany’s prime award for rear-ventilated curtain façades, the German Galvanizers’ Award and the like. It’s students and professors who tend to frequent this world and relate to it in what they do. Architects, on the other hand, feel pleased that their output is deemed worthy of commentary and critique in the featured pages of the papers, and are even happier when it makes an appearance in other sections, too, ideally in the form of illustrated cover-age. Because it means that non-architects will be venturing into the world of architecture once their thirst has been whetted thus.

What is key here is that the authors of such reports mention the architects by name, something that cannot be taken for granted. If no name is mentioned we can almost be certain that things have gone beyond this particular world of discourse and the struggle for good design. Those reports, by contrast, tend to concern themselves with building costs, with the numbers of pupils, the provision of residential space or a local firm – in short, their job is not to portray the design and consequently not the au-thor of that design. Welcome to the second world of architecture.

World no. 2 is that of the building documentation that is required, of those authorized to present those documents, it is the world of zoning development plans and construction work, of cost control and turnkey building projects. The world of measures, of directives, of real estate, and of property. It is the world that on every single day in 2012 arose in a new guise on an area the size of no less than 113 football fields. The plan is to reduce this “new use of land”, to employ a term that is typical of this second world, to 30 hectares per day. Mind you, 30 hectares are still the equivalent of 46 football fields, and the volume of houses that is built on them on a daily basis by far exceeds that which could ever be reflected in the no. 1 world. Acknowledging it in detail would place too great a strain on those who take a genuine interest in the discourse on our built environment.

As a consequence they prefer to concentrate on the first world, if only because they have to keep negotiating the at times blurred boundaries of what should or should not be included in it. That in itself shouldn’t be so great a problem – all you need is the simple cognitive ability of the human brain which radically filters things out in order to be efficient. The second world, then, features the kind of buildings we tend to have forgotten as soon as we have gone past them. These are the kind of structures that their users can no longer remember once they haven’t used them for a while, simply because their brain has deemed the information insignificant and consequently fil-tered it out. And perhaps it is not even a problem that the situation is likewise taxing for those whose job it is to “realize” the new use of land: the likes of authorized building project administrators or the producers of turnkey building projects, in other words, the clients or the investors. The majority of them deal with the excessive demands placed upon them by designing buildings that all look the same. That we should be able to live with, surely. There are two drawbacks. First, this strain has been identified as something problematic and that some feel responsible to do something about it. Second, and the way in which they resolve to handle things.

Nobody would ever dream about introducing regulations to ensure the quality of plays performed in the grand theaters in the city – just because performances in the smalltown theaters have not been up to scratch. But things are different in the world of architecture, for everyone is a potential suspect here: be it those wishing their homes to look just the same as a thousand others or those keen on distinguishing themselves as much as possible by building from the ones next door. Those who don’t care if their house is quickly forgotten and those wanting us to sear it into our minds, even if we long to erase it from same as soon as possible. They are all suspects. And that is why every architect has to grapple with the most absurd procedures and convoluted provisos, and is forced to adhere to grotesque by-laws and over-the-top regulations. He is expected to deal with a client who is happy to manage the flood of responsibilities by forwarding it immediately to the architect. And so it happens that a building which on the drawing board might have had all the makings of bagging a place in the first world eventually gets firmly lodged in the second. This latter world has long since stopped being a happy place. For there is nothing authentic let alone original about it.

So what does this mean? It means that in architecture, too, that which is well meant is the opposite of that which is well done. It means that occasionally it is better to make do with the second world rather than feeling compelled to fight it. It means acknowledging the absurd outcome of our endeavors to improve things and stand our ground.

We shall be taking a closer look at all of this over the coming months, embarking on an expedition to the world of the everyday, the world of struggles and eyesores. Of efforts and failures, of bizarre beauties and extraordinary blunders. Of fire protection and parking space regulations. We are set to take a trip to the world that keeps on verifying the rules and strategies of game theory ad infinitum: Why should I do something that another is able to benefit from? Let’s simply call it “Building in Germany”.
Building in Germany: those keen on distinguishing themselves as much as possible by building from the ones next door...
...and those wishing their homes to look just the same as a thousand others. All photos © Christian Holl
Christian Holl