Günter Behnisch, champion of socially responsive architecture and place-making, dies aged 88
With the death of Günter Behnisch on 12 July at the age of 88, Germany has lost its leading architect of the late 20th century. Behnisch was born in Lockwitz near Dresden in 1922, son of a schoolteacher, and grew up in Chemnitz. At the outbreak of war he was only 17 and joined the Navy as a submariner, rising to be a U-boat commander by 1945.
His interest in architecture was initiated by a fellow prisoner in a British prisoner of war camp, and when released, he studied the subject at Stuttgart. He worked briefly for Rolf Gutbrod, architect of the Stuttgart Liederhalle, then set up his own office in the Stuttgart suburb of Sillenbuch.
This he shared with various partners until he could cede it to his son Stefan, who leads it today. The firm’s early work was thorough and modest, and in the early 1960s it became a leading expert in prefabricated concrete, developing a system for schools with the firm Rostan.
’But Behnisch soon reacted against the soulless repetition of technical systems, becoming permanently suspicious of such compulsive rationality. He moved on instead to a place-making and responsive architecture, which he called ‘Situationsarchitektur’. The firm’s breakthrough was winning the competition for the Munich Olympics at the zenith of West Germany’s economic miracle in 1968.’
The design was dominated by cable roofs on which Frei Otto was engaged as consultant, but less visible was the reworked landscape underneath, which swallowed the technical necessities yet remained a delightful informal park for the people of Munich. It had to be ready for the Games of 1972, yet involved untried technologies, testing Behnisch’s courage and nerve as well as his leadership and negotiation skills.
Following the success at Munich the firm could have moved more quickly to a national level and gained commercial work, but it continued in its dedication to social buildings like schools and sports halls around Stuttgart, winning many competitions. Buildings of the 1970s such as the schools at Lorch and the seminary at Birkach gained international recognition as the work became more angular and playful.
’Behnisch readily acknowledged his debt to Scharoun and Häring, echoing their concern that buildings should show individuality. The firm gained several large and long-running projects, most famously the rebuilt German Parliament at Bonn (AR March 1993), which involved decades of design, and with its round egalitarian chamber and open view to the Rhine was more radical than Foster’s replacement in Berlin.’
Another nationally important work, the Post Museum in Frankfurt (AR June 1990), was an extraordinary essay in combining new and old and exploiting a difficult site. The last major project Behnisch himself worked on was the Akademie der Künste in Berlin (AR November 2005). After winning the competition he had to fight endless political battles to make an expansive glazed facade onto Pariser Platz: a style war against the capital’s conservatives.
But he did not do all the design himself. A great believer in teamwork, Behnisch was seldom seen with a pencil, and he once told me that if he started to draw the others would just stop and watch. But he had an extraordinary knack of controlling the office’s output by oral negotiation, and to deploy people according to their talents, including his partners.
The assistants were the lifeblood: for decades the firm was filled with young people fresh from architecture school, full of ideals and open-minded about technique. They account for the continuous inventiveness of the firm’s work and also for its variety, which conservative critics sometimes found bewildering, but they were steered and protected by Behnisch himself, allowed great freedom if also keenly criticised. These young architects would stay three or four years before moving on elsewhere or founding offices of their own, and several major German offices splintered off Behnisch.
Although most at home in his office and managing meetings with clients, Behnisch was also an intellectual architect. He wrote, lectured, took part in conferences, and was for decades a professor at Darmstadt. He was astute in judgement, could muster an impressive moral authority, and never ceased to believe in architecture as a social mission.