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2007 March: 'To understand new architecture fully' by Peter Cook

To understand new architecture fully, nothing lives up to the experience of an actual visit.

It seems almost churlish to zap straight into the jaws of your patron, or organ, or raison d’etre, or whatever my relationship is with this excellent magazine, but I came back last week from Germany puzzled and hallowed by realizing again the need to buzz around in frost and fog- if one wants to do more than comment on the propositions and shapes of architecture alone. You simply have to go, see and experience it.

Nifty detours made sure that I recently spent some hours in both Stuttgart and Frankfurt. Cities in which I had spread my wings in the 1980s and ’90s, cities with distinct personalities and significant histories in the pursuit of Modernism. Stuttgart’s Weissenhof Siedlung remains a built catalogue of key names from the 1920s. But its harbouring of later experiment (Frei Otto’s institute, and then the battleground of James Stirling’s naughty art museum and the elder Behnisch’s generous field of young architects, creating built versions of the Portsmouth Sinfonia) sets up certain expectations.

By contrast, Frankfurt was always a tougher cookie. The 1920s and ’30s Siedlungen, designed or encouraged by Ernst May, were extensive swathes of housing, some very good and the rest pretty OK. Later, there was no hotbed of experiment, but a hit-and-miss programme of patronage that led to a clutch of museums and kindergartens in the ’80s and ’90s.

With the reinstatement of Berlin as capital and the need to re-finance the East, both cities calmed down. There is still some construction work, occasional culture buildings, more commercialised housing but no visible experiment - or so I thought before I was taken to two strange buildings.

UN Studio’s Mercedes Benz Museum sits alongside the factory plant on the edge of Stuttgart. Photographs don’t get it. Lavish magazine coverages don’t get it. It is much larger, much more relaxed, much more theatrical than you expect. A version of the Manhattan Guggenheim gyratory system is just a starter, since you can peel off into the ‘stages’ that surround a much more ‘shaft-like’ centre. You quickly discover that you can also, via dainty trickles of edge staircases, play a more diverse circulatory game. So don’t be deceived by the photogenic swoops of window - this is a far more Gothic experience than the set-piece pictures have suggested. Meeting him the next day, I managed to wheedle out of Ben van Berkel an admission that of course he enjoys style - and who could doubt it, when confronting the cutest lift capsule and the most joyful orange staircase in the business?

By then, we were on a tiny island in the River Main at Frankfurt, looking over the new Portikus gallery, where I had shown (in its earlier location) and where he will soon himself exhibit. Despite our combined Mannerist credentials, I don’t think either of us was quite able to handle the churchy overtones of Christoph Meckel’s exterior, especially since it has inherited a determinedly avant-garde reputation as a gallery. By contrast, I can’t help thinking Richard Meier’s museum, just upstream, will be recognised again as a copybook example of urbane pavilion - and town-making - without the new coyness - and not just because it’s white.

Meanwhile I had been whisked out of town, to Gelnhausen, to see the dream-child of my former colleague and student, Götz Stöckmann. In this case, I knew it from his lectures as well as from magazines as a weird proposition: to deconstruct an old steeply roofed cottage and replace it by an art-piece house. With Gabriela Seifert, co-founder of their practice Formalhaut, their work has carved out a certain territory of art-architecture, here involving a number of close artist friends to install contributory fragments. Seen at night, it might just pass as indigenous (except for the chessboard of windows), but by day you realise that this little old Hessische cottage is actually made of metal; with good timing, you might notice that the lower part of the bedroom slides out into the street, like a giant drawer.

The proposition is argued as a series of statements. Yet lectures, pictures and diagrams miss an essential experiential fact: that within, the place is really cosy. Gentle and full of neatly tucked-in devices, the materials are warm and bright - in the manner of the 1950s almost. Götz and his wife obviously live in it and brush their teeth, fry omelettes, even perhaps indulge in a bit of late summer breeze as they nap on the bed that lies on the mechanised tray. By acquiring some more cottages, I suggest that they even might do for Gelnhausen what Eric Moss did for Culver City.

So if you poke around the surroundings of heroic architecture towns, you occasionally find experiments - but you have actually to be there. I know that there’s a weird little hotel in a boring village near Stuttgart that has rooms modelled by two of the world’s most prominent icon-architects … it all went rather wrong and I’m sworn to secrecy. I know a little patch of Suffolk shingle where the first mobile plastic panels were used on a house … I’ve heard … Have you seen? … Where’s that?

You must go. And when you do, be prepared to reverse all those quick responses you’d made as you flipped the pages of last month’s …

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