CODES

CODES Hermann & Valentiny & Partners, Birkhäuser, Basel, Boston, Berlin
Architecture is the real battleground of the spirit

Editor : Lisbeth Wächter-Böhm & Ingeborg Flagge

 

OPEN ARCHITECTURE

Since completing their studies in 1980 Hermann & Valentiny have had an office both in Luxembourg and Vienna. The period during which their teacher Wilhelm Holzbauer attributed to this pair a formal vocabulary that was marked by “a rich but also eloquent receptiveness to the spirit of the times” is long since past. Both have radically distanced themselves from their postmodern beginnings that catapulted them into the limelight at a very young age, and have developed further. In 1995 Amber Sayah attributed to them “a path of development from sculpturally modelled building volumes to a structural dissection, from a formerly closed architecture to an open one”.

To put it more simply: after their rapid start they travelled a long path to arrive at their current understanding of architecture. A lengthy phase of reflection, “in which we learnt to reflect and to work out our fundamental principles” (HH), put an end to quick reactions to the zeitgeist. They acquired technical competence and developed a feeling for materials and the quality of detailing. Writing about their work in 2001 Liesbeth Waechter-Böhm referred to “a strategy based on dynamic motion at a reduced speed”. The wealth of projects that HVP have produced up to the present day confirms that they are much sought-after architects, and that there are no building commissions that they are not regarded as capable of dealing with. They have developed their own signature, which is shaped more strongly by materials than by form; they have remained faithful to their rejection of a world without colour and excitement and use strong accents to counteract it. As a whole their architecture has an expressive strength and is full of fantasy, both radical and sensitive at one and the same time.

 

SPEAKING OBJECTS

Cataloguing their buildings according to formal architectural tendencies is simply not possible, and indeed is unimportant to both these architects. They are far more concerned about good architecture, idiosyncratic in the best sense of the word, that is to say the kind of building that is both sensitive and decisive, artistic and deliberate, ultimately an architecture that can transform adversities into virtues and difficulties into characteristics. Their buildings do not attempt to implement an already formulated concept; do not pursue an ideology but attempt to explore the circumstances of life and the place and to improve them.

Building this way creates identity. This, as we know, always arises where something is so characteristic that it has an individual quality of its own. Both architects are highly critical of the non-places produced everywhere by our society. Their goal in building is an old-fashioned one: harmony and beauty.

“Beauty is when things begin to speak, when a dialogue is created.” (FV) In her book about HVP architecture critic Amber Sayah puts this as follows: “Vienna remains formative. One notices this in the way their Viennese buildings blend naturally with their surroundings and, in contrast, how exotic they seem in Luxembourg.” In comparison to earlier days their buildings are now more reduced; they are still strongly sculpturally shaped volumes but are now sliced open, fragmented. The details have lost something of their emphatic quality and have become simpler. Outdoor spaces are, not infrequently, conceived as expanded interior spaces: Outside their buildings HVP also like to use materials generally employed indoors: trellises, screens and planting emphasise the layered quality of their façades. 


An architecture practice with a number of offices in different locations is nothing unusual, a practice with two so fundamentally different partners – one more rational, the other emotional who carry out different building commissions in two such very different places as Luxembourg and Vienna is, however, really something rare. In Vienna the focus is on large urban housing projects, the examination of historically formed sites and new urban development areas: in rural Luxembourg the commissions range from administration buildings to public swimming pools, from youth hostels to banks, from schools to old person’s homes and single-family houses. 

In Vienna the large solutions tend to blend more with the densely constructed city, they demand a more striking profile and a more pronounced identity than in Luxembourg where, due alone to their colour, symbolic quality or use of particular materials in a specific context, buildings by HVP stand out.

 

DESIGNERS

Two offices, locations, two partners, one design method. The preconditions for this were laid down during the architects ‘studies. Both of them are excellent draughtsmen and in earlier days communicated almost daily by means of drawings and regular drawing diaries. The drawing gave the answer to the architectural project, not in the shape of a hasty sketch but generally as a coloured image. Today both of them work in a more conceptual way, more individually and more independently, but each of them is always certain of the other.

Given the wealth of projects on which the practice works daily consultation is neither possible nor necessary. “We both work parallel, without discussion” (HH), and “communicate silently with each other like an elderly married couple”. (FV) The impatience of both is a guarantee that long-term collaboration remains a certainty without ever becoming a tedious routine. Ten years ago nobody was able to tell their drawings apart. This has changed: the differences – Hubert Hermann is more the urban, intellectual type, François Valentiny, moved rather by intuition, grew up in a rural area between vineyards and small villages – have, in fact, grown. Both their personalities have developed. Hubert Hermann has taken on a professorship in Leipzig, where he teaches architecture students, François Valentiny has designed his first stage sets and is so thrilled by the rapid and fantastical implementation of his drawings in built theatre spaces that he wants to pursue this challenge more often in the future. Both acknowledge their development: “In fact two new lives have developed parallel and in this way we have each gained a little freedom.” (FV) The question about how architects design is always exciting, the answers are always different. One can safely ascribe the stories often told about sketches on tablecloths and napkins that led to masterpieces to the realm of legend. HVP definitely do not approach their buildings as works of art. Nor do they feel and think in images or forms that then become built space by means of the drawing. Both confirm that they do not develop their ideas but that the ideas find them, as if one were to open “drawers out of which solutions seem to spill”. (FV) For both of them designing is a “quick, entirely natural act” (HH), and bringing together a certain function – whether it be a single family house or a bank – with the sketched or drawn idea is a simple matter. When François Valentiny designed the Rackey Gallery at the end of the 1990s while detailing of his drawings, by chance he came across sketches from the 1970s that resembled the new studies down to the smallest aspect. “It is as

if I have archives of ideas inside me that I only have to open.” In earlier times HVP found it important to first of all formulate the volumes in their drawings, while the materials to be used later were not yet identifiable. Today, now that the use of materials in their buildings has developed consistently and is “extremely important” to both of them, the drawings also provide information about the materials of which the building will be made – for example through massive thick areas or strokes of chalk that one can scratch away at or incise lines in – and about its intended effect. The drawings are by no means more general than the buildings that follow later; on the contrary, they frequently contain more details and more diverse formal starting points than the completed building.

Both architects are the designers in their office. Their respective teams work out their thoughts and images in the form of precise plans. And both agree that “designing is not a democratic process”. Many architects define themselves in terms of formal tendencies; this was initially the case with HVP also. Today their architecture reflects an approach that is the result of a long maturing process. Both these architects have grown distrustful of absolute judgements and preconceived ideas in architecture.

They adhere to no theories, tending more to follow Picasso’s approach that what counts is what one does.

The harmony of differences Quality is the sole criterion. First of all, there is no such thing as formal solutions that are, from the very outset, unsuitable for a certain building task or site. 

The issue is always the “how” of the proposed solution. In the course of their development both architects have discovered their goals: the necessity for corporeality in their buildings, for their layers, the materials, the relationship to the place and the development out of the given context, the importance of atmosphere. Where these factors are implemented in an optimal way, one can safely speak of the beauty of the result.

Beauty is more than the right scale and good proportions; beauty has nothing to do with perfection. When a building or a space is beautiful this does not mean something unequivocal, explicit, but the interaction of different elements and a harmony of differences. 

Beautiful refers not only to forms and design but also to a piece of experienced freedom of the person who speaks of the beautiful. Beauty in architecture and the quality of a space are not exclusively dependent on styles, techniques, materials, contents and functions but also on intellectual freedom and a wealth of perceptions. Hermann Hesse once described this as follows: “Everything alive is a becoming, not being. And so what we call culture is not something fixed or concluded that one can […] inherit or discard. Instead the amount of a culture that remains alive and continues to exert its effect is the amount that the generations can make their own and can fill with life.” HVP defined their goal in building as a structure that responds to its context. A good building always derives its shape from its surroundings and their proportions, forms, materials. It does not adapt itself so as to fit in but takes its appropriate place, even where this is understood in terms of creating a contrast. In architecture of this kind memories and experiences are condensed.

But just deriving stimuli from the existing fabric is not enough to create a good building. The aroma of the present and the confrontation with the world must be added. Peter Zumthor describes this process as follows: “I concentrate on a certain place for which I have been asked to provide a design, I try to sound its depths, to grasp its form, its history and its sensual characteristics. And then, within this process of analytical observation, images of other places start to intrude, places that I know, that at some time or other impressed me, places whose form I carry inside myself as the embodiment of certain moods. It is only when I look at something that exists in a particular way through something that exists differently, when I allow something similar or entirely different to flow into the concrete place, that this complex and individual view into its depths develops, which then exposes references, reveals lines of forces and establishes connections.” The wealth of new projects by HVP means that they regularly encounter their own buildings. In the metropolis Vienna, in the density of urban development, their buildings are inevitably exposed to a far greater pressure to assert themselves. In contrast, in the small country of Luxembourg one is faced at every turn with one’s own work. In these buildings one recognises one’s own development, like taking a look in a mirror. Karljosef Schattner, for many years head of the diocesan building office in Eichstätt, once described this to me as follows: “There is no better feeling. I see myself constantly being embraced by myself.”

François Valentiny expresses this somewhat differently: “Ten years ago this was still a problem. I regarded my buildings critically and attempted to overlook them. Today I accept them as my life. Where a new building is made it is for me like being in an expanded office. I have learned to accept mistakes, while a good building can fill me with delight, every day. I attempt to make my buildings in such a way that a mistake in the execution, or minor formal decisions, do not detract from the powerful structure.”

How we feel, whether well or poorly, cheerful or tense, architecture influences us in everything that we do. Although it cannot be directly planned this influence exists. As architecture is space for people to live and play, it is the architect’s task to design and to build for people’s measurable and immeasurable wishes and longings. The architect not only designs for functions such as living and working, but also creates spaces for play and for dreams.

We perceive architectural space with our senses. There are spaces that crush you, make you small and there are others that support you, make you proud, and allow you to grow. The demand that good architecture should be sensuous therefore seems an obvious one. In their buildings HVP look for visual and haptic antitheses. Their materials alternate between soft and hard, cool and warm, shiny and dull, smooth and rough; bright is often confronted with dark. They confront people with sensual experiences.


MATERIELS

The most important aspect of buildings that we experience as sensual are the materials they are built of. One of the characteristics that enable you to recognise many HVP buildings is the concrete, which is roughened after the formwork has been removed. The rough-sawn boards of the formwork create irregular concrete beads that are used as horizontal or vertical articulation, internally and externally, as a plinth, or as bands. The roughly made quality of this unusual material takes from every building the sense of newness or smoothness. 

The irregular protrusions cast shadows and the coarse-grained material reflects the sun. Together with light brown okumé panels – another distinguishing mark of buildings by HVP and often continued from inside to outside – a very special material effect is created. And when the surface of the concrete is additionally coloured black then the effect is earthy and fascinating. HVP chose this kind of black concrete structure for the first time in 1993–95 for the local council building in Bech-Kleinmacher, where an antithesis and “foreignness” to the existing buildings were deliberately accentuated by means of the unusual colour and coarse surface. 

How differently these materials can be used is shown by the almost elliptically curved transparent frame wall that the architects placed in the courtyard of the former Brotfabrik in Vienna. It consists of black, cast concrete elements with coarse-grained horizontal fluting and has the effect of a second, permeable courtyard façade –a solution that is as intelligent as it is simple.

A classic white building or the glass and steel buildings currently so popular have difficulties with ageing. Indeed the question of ageing gracefully in an era dominated by a mania for youth and staying young, in which buildings are expected to look new and fresh for as long as possible, is a difficult one.

But being able to age is a quality of good architecture and certainly not a defect. The buildings by HVP are intended to acquire a patina, to reflect life and time, and in this sense their skin should change like the wrinkles that develop in a person’s face. The architects are not afraid of such traces of time or of the effects of weathering; in fact they even look for them. When the metal of their roofs changes colour, when plaster shows cracks, when smears develop, when concrete turns dark, in their view this is no reason to call for repair work to be carried out. Even when grass and plants colonise a roof or a façade they are regarded with friendly interest rather than torn out by the roots. “What is imperfect is real and therefore loveable.” (FV)


COLOUR

The white of modernism stands for a new beginning, for purity, for abstraction in architecture. HVP allow their buildings to glow with colour, in rich black that is never just black but appears in various shades of grey, in brilliant red, which combines particularly well with the pale grey of concrete. Whether in the interior of the Congress Hall in Saarbrücken or in the primary school in Lallange – HVP are courageous lovers and providers of colour. They prefer clear, unbroken shades that they contrast with each other or combine with a light touch. Colours are also used to articulate the different volumes on the site of the former Kabelwerk in Vienna and help to organise this impressive new development district in a clearer way. Housing is perhaps the architect’s most important task. A dwelling is a place to withdraw to and a home. But where people are looking for a sense of home grand design gestures are inappropriate. Good living spaces are characterised by appropriateness, naturalness and serenity, by painstaking care and variety. They allow the soul to breathe and people to feel well. This is easier to achieve in the numerous single-family houses that HVP have built than in rented apartments. Where the client is a person with a face and a name who expresses his or her wishes personally one can agree on unusual constructions such as in the Marxen pair of houses or the Hirtt single-family house. In the large housing projects in Vienna the future users are anonymous. Generally speaking, here the architects do not supervise the construction; the exact implementation of the design down to the last detail demands a great deal of (unpaid) commitment from the architect. “Preserving and carrying out original good ideas that threaten to get lost demands one hundred per cent involvement.” (HH) As extravagant forms rarely have a chance in rented housing construction, materials, colour and atmosphere become all the more important. “In building housing you have to be extremely flexible. Good ideas are difficult to implement, at times one really has to barter, to give in at one point so that somewhere else, where it is really important, you can remain firm.” (HH) The Vienna office of HVP grew to its present format through housing construction projects.

 

LIGHT

Every aesthetic experience is dependent on understanding an object by looking at it. Aesthetic experience is a form of external experience in which the attention is directed at the sensual forms of appearance. One of these is light, an insubstantial and transient building material. HVP are in the process of discovering building with light, using light as an integrative element of architecture. Their interest is not in rapid and harsh lighting solutions that remain superficial and are tiring. They are more interested in the optimum synthesis of space and light. Spatial layers, lattices, and screens that are typical of many of HVP’s buildings filter daylight and slow down the way it penetrates the interior of a building. In 2003 the intimate lighting of the

Rackey Gallery in Bad Honnef was awarded the light and architecture prize set up by the Deutsches Architektur Museum and the Messe Frankfurt. 

The elegant Commerzbank on the Kirchberg offers a good example of the sophisticated use of natural and artificial lighting, illustrated in the way both are reflected by and shine on the beautiful materials of the atrium and foyer. Carefully considered night time lighting gives the façade a rhythmical depth and eliminates the boundaries between inside and outside.

 

CONTRAST

An entire new chapter that is gaining increasing importance in the work of HVP is new buildings in old surroundings. Building in a context that has grown up historically or in close proximity to old building fabric is always a special task, it demands consideration, sensitivity and fantasy. The best new building in an old setting is certainly not the one that has been politely adapted or fitted in. In some cases there is need for a true confrontation between the old and contemporary architecture to make an ensemble truly attractive, to learn how to re-evaluate both – old and new – and to reveal the quality of each. HVP belong to those who seek contrast, but at the same time accept and treat the existing old fabric with respect. Standing in front of the old Brotfabrik in Vienna you see an old building in excellent condition. Inside, however, the former large bakery has given way to a modern office building that profit atmospherically from the original spaces. 

 

The former room height was used for office units of different sizes and heights, an exemplary, the confrontation between the Baroque ensemble and the sharp-edged but lively new buildings of black concrete with rough protrusions, each of which produces a shadow line, is courageous. In terms of quality the powerful new ensemble is a step towards a new dimension of building. HVP are on an exciting, individual path. The Direction could be described by using a phrase borrowed from Mies van der Rohe: “Architecture has nothing to do with the invention of form. Architecture is the real battleground of the spirit”.