Familiar and yet unusual

Matthias Alexander

Ah, Europe! In Zone C, in that part of the Expo site in Shanghai reserved for the old continent, a confusion of aesthetic arbitrariness rules. Not just here, of course, but here particularly. No unity, not anywhere. With its pavilion named “Happy Street,” the Netherlands is relying on an ironic collage of architecture: little houses along an elevated pedestrian passage, the top crowned with a flower. The Swiss have let themselves become infected with this lack of seriousness; they are playing with clichés, letting visitors climb up onto the roof and take chair lift trips with them up there. The Italians, in contrast, present a deadly serious cube of stone and glass, split and disjointed, which can’t decide between monumentalism and modernism. And the British have folded a hilly landscape around a big acrylic dandelion clock of light diodes.

A house at last, the visitor to the Expo site on the Huangpu River will think on reaching Luxembourg. The pavilion of the Grand Duchy stands sharp-edged, dark, and solid between its bright neighbors. The archetype of a house, with gables and a wall around it. The guest country’s message is already obvious in the shell, in the architecture. What can an extremely wealthy nation, whose largest city numbers barely 70,000 inhabitants and that primarily makes its money with solid agricultural and abstract financial products, contribute to the Expo motto of “Better City, Better Life?” Europe’s green heart, as Luxembourg refers to itself, knows almost entirely by hearsay the social and ecological diseases of the megacities, whose chances for healing in planning, technological, and economic terms are being negotiated in Shanghai.

That’s why it’s popular with tourists. The Grand Duchy can in fact do no more than provide counterpoint in Shanghai, where rapid growth is currently expanding horizontally and vertically as in no other city in the world. So it was a good idea, right from the start, to remember the nucleus of the city—the individual house. “Small is also beautiful,” as the inscription says on the side of the pavilion; it is cut into the steel surface in Chinese characters. It is a self-confident message, though one with limited applicability. The European city with its human-friendly scale may remain the place many planners long for, but as a role model for an overcrowded world it is no longer useful. The pavilion is therefore primarily a self-portrait, devised for his country by the architect François Valentiny, co-founder of the Hermann & Valentiny and Partner practice, who comes from Luxembourg. “A house with a garden and a fence. The way people live in Luxembourg.” Private houses, according to Valentiny, are the places where his compatriots prefer to interact with one another.

“This is where people prefer to meet, not in restaurants and not in public squares.” Now the Luxembourg house that Valentiny has designed is not just simply a house. It is distorted, folded, stretched, compressed. The shape has been alienated to the last possible point of recognition. The familiar and the uncanny go hand in hand, as if in an almost-forgotten childhood fairy tale. Mechanisms of association are set in motion in the eye of the beholder. Looking at the angular front with its dramatically extended windows—two small ones below, two larger ones above—observers may find themselves reminded of Hans Poelzig’s expressionist architecture of the ghetto in Paul Wegener’s film Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam. If your mind likes to digress further, you may, when looking at the house from other angles—for instance at the compact neck, where the complex geometry thickens to give a hermetic look—find echoes of the image of an American stealth plane; that paradox shape that looks so striking to the human eye, but can become invisible to radar.

It is not least the multiple meanings of these associations that make up the quality of the design. Luxembourg may be small, but this house, almost completely filling a 3,000-square-meter site, is not. At twenty-one meters in height, sculp which makes full use of the height limit for Expo pavilions (the Chinese have evidently granted themselves a generous exception for their own building), and the surrounding wall, which is a good five meters high, the pavilion also presents the image of a medieval castle. The Chinese visitors to the pavilion will not perceive this as a distancing gesture by their guests; on the contrary, this is an architectural courtesy. In Chinese, the word for Luxembourg is “lusen bao,” a phonetic imitation of the name, and it means “fortress and forest.” The corresponding characters are on two sides of the pavilion. Valentiny, for his part, has transferred the game of deriving an individual meaning from the sound of a foreign word into the language of architecture. You could call the process transformation or indeed translation, carrying across. It is a method familiar to the architect and not only to him from his home country. The little state of Luxembourg has had to be able to assert its independence and identity with and sometimes against the cultural influences of its much larger neighbors, France and Germany. There is plenty of mingling there, and none of it should lead to the arbitrary. This experience is shown even more in Valentiny’s CV. The boy from the country moved to the metropolis of Vienna to become an architect. And then returned to his home country, which he has now helped to shape—to a not inconsiderable extent—with his world-renowned buildings. Valentiny has also let himself be influenced by Chinese features in his design, but not in a clichéd folklore manner. It is rather derivations of ancient images of China that the architect has incorporated into his model. The variously sized, large, circular islands of steel in the courtyard, partly surrounded by gravel and partly by water, are a homage to Buddhist gardens. The box shapes in the angular outer wall quote pagodas. Valentiny deliberately did not look at modern Shanghai before starting work on his design. He probably guessed that the images of contemporary, expansive, occasionally gigantomanic China would otherwise have become overpowering. The high-rise towers stretching to ever new record heights up into the hazy skies of the city, after whole city districts have been demolished to build them; the massive urban highways, pushing their way on banal stilts through the ocean of buildings, without their engineers having developed any pride in design; the bright lights of the mighty advertisements. The steel Valentiny has selected for the façades of his pavilion is another nod to his home country, namely to the third important factor in its economy, the steel industry. This at any rate is the opinion of the manufacturer of the steel panels used in Shanghai, the Arcelor Mittal company, which as expected also stresses that the steel used in Shanghai can be completely recycled, quite in accordance with the idea of sustainability that everyone there is talking about. As can the wood used for paneling the walls inside the pavilion and which helps to reduce the use of air conditioning, as it can absorb moisture. Though the fact that it had to travel the whole way from Central Europe to China does upset the balance of climate slightly. The architect’s thoughts are not quite so simply concerned with patriotism and the economy as the steel manufacturers would like. Valentiny, born in 1953, had discovered Cor-Ten steel, which weathers quickly but is particularly corrosion resistant, a long time ago. Near Valentiny’s home town of Remerschen, a ship has been lying on the banks of the Moselle for decades. Liesbeth Waechter-Böhm, in her 2001 appraisal of the H&V partnership, pointed out its importance. Propped up on land, its steel has long since become a kind of sculpture, more or less overgrown according to the season. For the architects, this is a kind of

dream ship, symbolizing the harmonious coexistence of shapes made by nature and human beings. The partnership’s active concern with steel as a material must have begun in the nineteen-nineties. At first, steel began to appear in

sculptures by Hermann and Valentiny, later they used it for art as part of their buildings. A transformer station in front of residential buildings on the Kirchberg in Luxembourg was given a crowned cone. This is decorated with a quotation from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. Hermann & Valentiny, therefore, were already forming written messages before Shanghai. Valentiny first used Cor-Ten as a façade material on a large scale in the “Tower of Dreams and Longing,” a lookout tower in the shape of a huge triangular plate, situated since 2004 in the vicinity of Trier.

The tower is a sculpture that people can walk about in and does not reflect any traditional types of buildings. By comparison, the Expo pavilion is more physical and concrete, halfway from sculpture to house. The temporary nature of Expo possibly encouraged him to choose a material that aged quickly. Even at the opening of the exhibition, the pavilion will already be displaying the dignity that otherwise only accompanies time experienced and suffered. If Valentiny himself describes the impression of the pavilion as “brute,” however, he does at the same time also mean its opposite. The architect is most definitely concerned with beauty. He is not defining his idea of beauty using the regularity of the classical school, but from an inner strength to which he is trying to give expression. As a wrinkled face can be beautiful, the weathered skin of his house must have the potential for beauty too. The delight in the rough material was, however, not to be an excuse for a slapdash finish. Enormous trouble, time, and expense were taken in the arrangement of the steel components. More than 3,000 plans were needed for the panels alone—due to the complex geometry, the irregular window openings, and the three inscriptions in the façade. The panels were then cut with a laser to ensure a flush surface. In other matters, Valentiny has not allowed himself to be influenced in his design by the short life of his structure. The reverse is true: his

Sculptural approach is particularly suited to a world exhibition. A strong image is evoked that will long remain in the visitor’s memory, like a work of art in a museum one might be able to visit only once in a lifetime. The Germans have gone down the opposite route. It is really not possible to speak of architecture with regard to the deconstructively tattered formation they call their pavilion. To compensate, it is stuffed with sophisticated presentations. There is no question that visitors will leave the building knowing more than when they came in, but memories of this pavilion will fade quickly.

Just as a sculptor cannot choose the neighbors a museum curator might set next to his works, Valentiny is trying not to be annoyed by the arbitrariness of the Expo organizers, who have without consultation filled the planned space between the Italian, Netherlands, and Luxembourg pavilions with infrastructural buildings. It must be said that this bad luck has struck an architect who has long lost his belief in urban planning’s power for design. It would be rather unlikely that he should regain it in Shanghai, of all places. And anyway, it is the case that Valentiny, who in earlier years could hardly bear to look at his own buildings because he suffered from his own mistakes and the unreasonable demands of others, has become more forbearing with himself and the world. Visitors enter the pavilion through a wide and heavy but easily opened

door under a projecting roof. They are now in the wall-shaped base. The cave-like room that contains the actual exhibition area is paneled with pine plank elements in a traditional board stacking fashion. It is a comparatively short route along which the Grand Duchy and the sponsors of the pavilion are able to communicate their messages via screens. Much to the architect’s regret, he was not commissioned to design the fitting out of the interior; that was the responsibility of agencies. The result has been that exterior and content do not quite harmonize with one another. It was brought home to Valentiny that an architect is not an autonomous artist, but more of a craftsman, who within the shifting frame of what is possible has to save at least his most important ideas. He has become reconciled to it. Once visitors are back in the open air, the remaining two-thirds of their route is rather like a pleasant stroll. It can be assumed that Valentiny, a passionate flaneur, is quite at home where architecture and landscape merge one into the other. The way goes up over elongated, flat steps onto the surrounding wall, always accompanied by the dull sound of the hollow spaces under the steel panels. Once at the top, the passage opens out onto a small terrace with cherry plum trees in angular, stepped troughs, also made of steel, providing shade. Vegetation here is lush; the steel walls are equipped with densely planted boxes. The

forest part of the Chinese name for Luxembourg is portrayed more or less literally. But Valentiny has here taken up an established motif from earlier designs. Softening the hard, clear outlines of buildings was one of his practice’s concerns in Kirchsteigfeld and in Dessau. It merges with the effort to create a second outer skin and thereby devise multilayered buildings. It gives more room for the imagination, as Valentiny once said. A far-off greeting from the ship on the Moselle shore. The walk around the pavilion’s surrounding wall leads to a second terrace. Here the troughs are circular and surrounded by wooden benches. These small variations demonstrate the care with which this pavilion has been planned. More stairs finally lead gently down. Visitors are guided past circular islands in a bed of gravel into the light-flooded restaurant, through which they come out into the open again. Because of the intricate windings of the route through the pavilion, uninitiated visitors may not realize that they have not set foot in the tower house in the middle of the site. This is reserved for events. On the ground floor, there is an area for lectures and concerts, and above it is a room reserved primarily for so-called VIPs. The pine wood ceiling of the room is crossed, lightning-like, by small bands of windows. The structure of lines that results is taken up by the banisters of the gallery. The most remarkable attraction of this room is a triangular balcony, which can be folded out like a drawbridge together with its balustrade. Rounded and angular, soft and hard, light and dark, dry and wet, open and closed—for all his love of arranging contrasts in materials and shapes, Valentiny is not pointing to an aesthetic of contradictions or the irreconcilable. But neither need he accept the charge of trying too hard to please. The old-fashioned word harmony probably best describes his main concern. The choice of orange for lighting his pavilion in darkness is also evidence of this. The color further emphasizes the warm tone of the steel. In the colorful Expo world of images and lights, such restraint also promises the greatest distinction. The rightness of the forms cannot be derived from rules of proportion, at least not from generally known ones. It is proven only by the direct harmony in the eye of the beholder. Valentiny’s way of approaching a subject is not academic; his career as a university lecturer in Leipzig was correspondingly short. His ideas have always developed from sculptural work and drawing. He does not create his buildings on the computer, by using complicated formulas to develop supposedly essential forms. Instead he tries things out, he makes models. “Codes,” a showcase of work by the Hermann & Valentiny practice that appeared in 2008, shows sketches and cardboard models of the Expo pavilion, using the example of the tower-house to document the creative process. “Too wide” is written on the central section of the back wall, “ok” on a narrower version. The windows, with their mainly triangular and rectangular forms and irregular angles, were also created in this experimental, groping fashion. In contrast to the early days of the practice, the material is in the foreground of Hermann & Valentiny’s architecture, followed by scale and finally form. No reminders of their post-modern beginnings are left.

In those days, in the nineteen-eighties and early nineties, they relied on symmetrical buildings, often composed in a very complex and at the same time very strict manner from the basic geometrical forms of circle, rectangle, and triangle.

This process of change has seen a prophecy by Wilhelm Holzbauer, whose master class both architects attended together, fulfilled. A few years after the start of their career, he wrote that previous works allowed for possible developments in a great many directions. Holzbauer felt that the “eloquent receptiveness for what is current” that constituted postmodernism at that time, and which he viewed with skepticism, would remain a phase. He saw that the sketches could lead one

to expect a striking future architecture with a wealth of forms. Holzbauer has been proved right. Hermann & Valentiny have remained flexible and open to influences, though these are channeled by their own willed forms. Perhaps this is why both of them have repeatedly been able to document their work extensively. Obviously self-reassurance at regular intervals is important for them. Four monographs, in 1991, 1995, 2001, and 2008, are evidence of the architects’ capacity for change. Fifteen years ago, the architectural critic Amber Sayah was able to say, during an interview with Hermann and Valentiny, “Steel and glass seem to me to play hardly any part in your architecture, and nor does wood.” And now look: a pavilion made of steel and glass and wood and nothing else. And yet there a single thread running through all their work. Valentiny

described it thus in an interview with Ingeborg Flagge, “It’s as if I had archives full of ideas inside me, which I only need to unlock.”

He was able to use this store of ideas for the pavilion in Shanghai, too. Just leaf through the first showcase, dating from 1991. There you can see a drawing, obviously dating from the mid-eighties, showing an overhanging tower rising within a triangular surrounding wall—a kind of prefiguration of the Shanghai pavilion. A similar site is shown in the

“Painted Abstract of the Tutesall.” Hermann & Valentiny had designed a Luxembourg pavilion as early as 1990 for the Expo in Seville, though the project was not realized. Comparison with this model, twenty years younger, makes the development the architects have undergone very clear. Those days were the high point of their postmodernist phase. The compact building structure for Seville uses circular, triangular, and rectangular elements nesting in one another. It shows a very formalist approach, with symmetrical form placed above material. It was perhaps unavoidable that the two partners, Hermann and Valentiny, whose drawings in the early days even the knowledgeable were sometimes unable to ascribe clearly to one or the other, have grown a little apart on this long developmental path. This is due, for one thing, to their different locations. While Hermann lives and works in Vienna, Valentiny, his traveling years now finished, prefers the peace and quiet of provincial Luxembourg. By now, the designs are fairly openly ascribed to one or the other partner; the Luxembourg pavilion is Valentiny’s alone. François Valentiny is an architect with close connections to the protagonists of very different styles. He has a close artistic tie with his countryman Rob Krier, as both of them work together as sculptors.

But Valentiny is no less admiring when he speaks of Krier’s exact opposite, Wolf Prix, the founder of Coop Himmelb(l)au. This alone is a sure sign that he does not follow any particular dogma. For instance, the planned Beethoven Festspielhaus in Bonn, where a sequence of double wave crests is planned, has nothing to do with the pavilion in Shanghai or any other important design of his practice. You would never think of ascribing both buildings to the same architect. Those who know his work would however sooner classify the Shanghai pavilion as part of it than the concert hall. It is possible that the artist-architect Valentiny’s most personal building is in Shanghai.

“Nulla dies sine linea„