JETZT/NOW

JETZT–NOW Hermann & Valentiny & Partners, Birkhäuser
Basel, Boston, Berlin

Editor : Lisbeth Wächter-Böhm


NOW

Firstly a hypothetical assertion: the basic pattern of development in the work of H‑&‑V reflects a strategy based on dynamic motion at a reduced speed. Their projects and buildings are a moment of repose in the calm process of the flow of thought. The breath of the individual object is loaded with energy to transform the spaces in which we live. The theme: electric charging, a crackle of sparks in the atmospheric uniformity of the context, oases of thought at the crossing points of everyday (functional) movements. Linked with the surroundings but compressed to form a place that is individual, uniquely its own. Flashback: the start was marked by the process of emerging from an architectural tradition, not quite the same process as that undergone by other contemporary architects, rather an emergence which only became such in the course of years, almost decades. And always an emergence with reservations, restraints. A first private snapshot: the Luxembourgeois and the Austrian – both trained as architects in Vienna – on the terrace in front of Café Landtmann in that city, their gaze fixed on the Ringstrasse, i.e. fixed on how the monumental buildings are strung along the Ring, on how hard paved areas and spacious parks form the main rhythmic theme of a symphonically composed artificial urban landscape. Inevitably their first conclusion was: nothing is possible any longer, their second thoughts: it can’t go on like this. The optimistic and also logical conclusion: a kind of alternative intellectual search for traces of traditional qualities that can be given material form using contemporary means. In other words, a cautious counter-movement to the architecture of the zeitgeist. H‑&‑V produce different things, in a different manner. Not the technological spatial shell which neutrally and anonymously encloses its living contents (and is in fact brought to life only by these), which suggests quickness, speedily adopts

a direction, is focussed on a kind of new world way of thinking (or to put it differently and perhaps better: the same old utopian architectural vision from the sixties that today seems almost sentimental).

This is not H‑&‑V’s thing. Their work is the result of a different approach. In focus: an architecture which, although itself still unsettled, refers to a safe, secured “pattern language” (Alexander) (but which, naturally, has nothing in common with cheap, commonplace and hackneyed solutions). The result: buildings and spaces in which the formal expression of their time is clearly inscribed but which, independent of this, emanate qualities that are “beyond time”, are archetypal and structural.

Second private snapshot: François Valentiny as a child in Remerschen, an intact village environment in which, much later, H‑&‑V’s first architect’s office was to be established. On the way to the next larger town there is a view of the Moselle and the riverbank opposite. There, on dry ground, stood a ship. It still stands there today: during the change of the seasons it is almost covered by vegetation and then becomes more clearly visible. Unchanged for decades. The dream of the artist-architect anchored itself there: a dream of one day placing a sculpture, an object in a sense without a function, in an intact landscape. From this dream there developed an architectural strategy which penetrates the external walls and façades of the buildings. A sally on all fronts into the surroundings. Art, it is said, comes from artificial. In contrast H‑&‑V’s architectural framework: luxuriant nature which is not only part of the team’s vocabulary but an essential element in all texts imagined and built by H‑&‑V. The coding is repeatedly multiple: a trellis on a housing block as a second (leafy) skin, a visual screen, a covering membrane, a sun-shade and a load-bearing frame for a layer placed outside the actual living layer, to provide that additional quality which distinguishes a good housing project from a poor one. A green framework for open spaces and dreams and for the architects’ concerns – not inevitably

the same as those of the client/builder. These concerns thus have vested rights and cannot be simply eliminated (not even for budgetary reasons). If the green frame carries more than nature, if it is justifiable in structural terms then, according to current building practice, everything is permissible. Strategical thinking as a basis and motor for architectural planning. Third private snapshot: on the Luxembourg side an old barn, on the Viennese side a pile of wood in Hubert Hermann’s garden.

A collision, an unarranged meeting, but also a gentle caress. Wood and grass, concrete, brick and, again, wood. “Material brute”, layers of time as the surface. Other layers, less ambiguous in terms of content: the minimalist hut, more a suggestion than a building, which Hubert Hermann brought back from Africa as a lasting impression. Nomadic architecture, the opposite to an architecture of long-lasting perfection. Fragments which cause the creative residue of one’s own architectural thought to ferment.

A swamp: endless, bottomless and extremely fruitful. A swamp full of buds from which ideas slowly and delicately sprout, in need of protection and development. A major, pompous, trendy gesture can never hastily grow from beginnings such as these. Today one can confirm for oneself in Germany, Luxembourg and Austria that robust plants capable of survival have developed from these seedlings, prototypes of an understanding of architecture that has on hand solutions suitable for general application.

There are standard themes: the choice of materials used in their buildings is one example. This has developed consistently over a period of two decades from plaster sections to expanded metal and finely structured concrete. Plaster was used initially and then abandoned for pragmatic reasons: because modern plaster no longer permits a system of plaster sections appropriate to the material. But also for other reasons: firstly the handcraft aspect of this technique is outdated (the imitation using polystyrene profiles inevitably has the decorative quality of a backdrop), secondly a structuring of the façade that is restricted to the surface is simply too flat. On the other hand: the materials were required to demonstrate an “opinion”: in an intellectual cosmos of this kind the technoid indifference of a glass skin can ever be the central theme. Hence, for example, the structured, specially shuttered concrete (or also pre-cast concrete elements in which the structure is integrated), hence too expanded metal as a perforated shell in which the ageing process is inscribed. This too is where their tendency towards “Material brute”, increasingly clearly articulated, is derived from. Architecture opposed to any wilfully determined point of absolute perfection. H‑&‑V think in terms of periods of time. Metal that discolours, concrete on which algae grow, plaster that develops cracks: a dignified ageing history that has character rather than an absolute architectural creation for which each change is equivalent to rape. 

Architecture for people for the time and rhythm of the world. Buildings like Sushi, cooked inside, raw outside. The image is appropriate: the interior spaces and volumes are located on the sure, proven, tried and tested side of architecture whereas the exterior reveals the spontaneity of something not transmitted, not prepared, the aesthetic of an objection lodged against a smooth world of materials that aims at remaining unchanged (and is consequently indifferent). There are also other standard themes: for example a strongly developed way of thinking in layers. A layer of expanded metal creates a unifying shell behind which something else, perhaps a building from the sixties or seventies, shimmers through. The use of a punched hole façade as an outer, structured layer in front of (as we already said) the indifferent glass skin of a building. The grid of timber battens as a linking element between the house’s own internal outdoor space and the external space ascribed to the house. There is also the roof as a unifying, upward-facing fifth façade, a protective layer beneath which any architectural situation, even an one-off case can be created. Another reoccurring item: the differentiated solution of the external skin. Layers applied as layers of time, often developed to form functional layers. The circulation layer in front of the apartment block façade is also found in the work of other architects, the punched hole façade placed in front of a glass skin is less common, but the deliberately planned architectural frame over an old (adopted) substance is even more rare. This calculated collision of opposites then forms a unity. Seen from the viewpoint of the user it is a pragmatic requirement but is, at the same time, an application of architectural responsibility in the major urban context. This way of thinking in layers also focuses on small-scale projects. The single-family house from the sixties, later transformed in an appalling way, is initially accepted as a rather questionable substance but undergoes a sudden, unexpected metamorphosis. Layers formulated as an intimate space for experience enrich the modest new building. In contemporary social housing architectural layers of this kind represent quality, the additional value that can result from their use generally means the decisive difference between a good apartment block and a poor one. A further standard theme is colour. It is pointless to refer to the white of classic modernism. 

H‑&‑V are more colourful and here, exceptionally, we make an absolute assertion: in this regard they are better. What would the roofs cape of the urban district centre in Halle be without its colours (or, of course, without its materials)?

The glass rooftop elements which have an “uncommitted” technical quality profit from the gleaming, multilingual quality of the shimmering, almost black engineering brick elements and the “injuries” painted melon yellow. All in all on this roof, where expanded metal and concrete are also used, an entire urban image is created and, if one imagines the cars removed, it is truly an image of a de Chirico town.

Colour: it can, of course, be black but in built architecture is black truly black? No, it is not. Black can play all colours depending on the surroundings and, above all, the light. Black has many qualities and is exciting, Bech-Kleinmacher remains an excellent illustration of this fact. Red too can have such qualities. H‑&‑V’s red is specially mixed and is time and time again an example of their approach. Depending on external influences it acquires unpredictable shades and (a further link to modernism) it is quite simply a better background for surroundings that have also developed naturally. A decisive point: H‑&‑V have arrived at a point where they can no longer imagine their buildings without appropriately designed surroundings. Unfortunately the emphasis here still lies on the word “imagine”. Even today clients do not see the necessity of composed surroundings in a desolate environment; as such surroundings have no immediate function. Today we all know more than enough about this mechanism. Nevertheless the thing is to make the attempt again and again. In this respect H‑&‑V demonstrate an almost obsessional consistency: the biotope in the housing project, the planted row of trees, water as an integrated element of the external design, greenery around the house. Valentiny has never forgotten his ship on the Moselle. In his own house in Vienna, Hermann has a terrace overgrown by an incredibly densely planted roof garden (vines). One hardly dares say it or write it nowadays but the architectural goal of H‑&‑V is harmony. This sounds curiously old-fashioned in a way and it has certain surreal if not sub-real qualities. Buildings by H‑&‑V are essentially characterised by an almost programmatic sculptural quality. They are formed volumes or modelled shapes. Here the artist in these two architects emerges. It is well-known that both these architects paint and make sculptures and objects. Ad hoc not a single example from their oeuvre occurs to me in which the “body” of the building is left uninjured, where it is not cut open, cut up, cut out, where they do not work into the volume producing an articulated, implicitly harmonious landscape of buildings. In the most extreme examples this cutting open, cutting up and cutting out, this creating of bulges and incorporation of the outside to produce fissures that is driven by the will to create transparency becomes an exchange. Landscape inside, landscape outside, barriers reduced to a minimum. Transition H‑&‑V as artists: also a reoccurring theme. From the very start they painted and made models, the remarkable thing is the way in which both use these media. Painted quickly, a sketch from the memory, an impression or idea, the images modelled in a quick-setting material (plaster, loam), used even for the very largest sculptures. Nevertheless at the front, on the ramp stands the architect who seeks his potentially inspirational material where he chooses. He records it in painted sketches. But it remains sketches. The conflict between architect and artist: if these sketches are reworked and made permanent as a “picture” then they are, in a way, dead. A failure? Seen from the narrow perspective of the art context this may well be the case.  A failure, the same cannot be easily maintained of the sculptures: they have a quality that holds its ground (also against any comparison on an unspecified level). Harmonious architecture, this is what H‑&‑V are about. Quite some time ago they arrived at a point as far distant as possible from current trends. Such a way of historicising ones own work is anything but easy. However, if one does not move blindly through this world, if one asks questions and looks for answers then the reflection on recent developments in architecture automatically come to a point. In architecture the issue is no longer band-wagons one jumps aboard in order to see ones work published in glossy periodicals. We all know this by now. In architecture the band-wagons move off rapidly, in many different directions. Within a few years, the worst possible collisions occur because at some time, unintentionally, all meet at the same point, at a point where the issue is reasonableness, usability, the question of acceptance – and then this is often no longer achievable. H‑&‑V take part in this debate, represent their own opinion, embody their own values. Something we will have to reflect on.