A look at different approaches of the architecture of participation in which the architect’s role changes to be perhaps more rewarding
Originally published in AR March 1987, this piece was republished online in August 2016
Here, Peter Blundell Jones contrasts three different approaches to participation by Lucien Kroll, Peter Sulzer and Peter Hubner. In each, the architect opens a dialogue between people and their environment, which, suggests Blundell Jones, can be more rewarding than the architect’s normal ‘egocentric pleasure ’ in design.
Any architect involved in kitchen extensions can claim that he is designing with participation, for he can scarcely avoid coming to terms with his client’s needs and wishes, and may be involved in lengthy discussions taking more time than tile job is worth. Even so, clients are frequently unsure of what they want; they may make unwarranted assumptions or overemphasise a trivial requirement at the expense of a vital one, and their prejudices about appearance are often superficial. So the architect may have to spend considerable time educating his client, helping him to understand the real implications of the choices he is asked to make. Alternatively, it is all too easy for the architect to bamboozle the client into accepting a design by claiming it to be technically or economically inevitable, for he has every advantage; but at least the two meet lace to lace and have every chance to co-operate.
The Landau Protestant Youth Choir outside the new hall and social centre which they have built with their own hands. Architect : Peter Sulzer.
If in small buildings owned by their occupants conditions have not changed very much, at the larger scale architecture has become more noticeably divorced from the conditions of place and society and therefore from tile possibilities of participation. Users of speculative office blocks and housing developments remain unknown, and the whole effort revolves around a saleable image which may not accord with happy habitation. In institutional buildings such as schools, hospitals or social housing, the user is generally remote.
‘The client is often a committee In a perpetual state of flux, so that by the time the project is completed, those who made the crucial first decisions are long gone’
The client is often a committee In a perpetual state of flux, so that by the time the project is completed, those who made the crucial first decisions are long gone. At the same time, ever-Increasing legislation seeks to define and regulate on the basis of measurable performance, and the politically centralised decision· making process tends to be reflected in preconceived building types imposed from afar. With no chance of responding to local social or physical conditions, the resulting architecture is as alienating to the user as it is unloved by its many producers.
Ceiling of the central assembly hall and ‘market place’ of the Morgenstern School, Reutlingen ; a partially self build project using second-hand components, including a series of conventional wooden trusses reassembled in a star-like folded structure which gives rise to the unorthodox form seen here. Architect: Peter Hubner.
The immense success of the international style in the post-war years was perhaps less due to the poetic image it was given by Mies and others, than the way it lent itself to this new kind of increasingly anonymous architectural process. It promised economies through repetition which were scarcely achieved in practice.
More crucially though, the ideology of universality and open-ended flexibility provided tile perfect alibi for those eschewing the particular in favour of the general, ever content to work with an empty brief.
Isometric of the new technical college at Belfort by Lucien Kroll, including the adjacent tower block which he intended to rescue.
Many modem institutional buildings are therefore bland, unwelcoming, and unrelated to context, not just because they were badly designed or in the wrong style, but because of the whole bureaucratic and political process which brought them about, which in turn they reflect. Certain building types, such as hospitals, have become so predestined by this process that architects seem almost powerless to mitigate the results. Less technically hidebound institutions, like schools, lend themselves more to reinterpretation, but any radical attempt at user participation tends to conflict with the social hierarchy, thus presenting a political threat. If we do not normally think of school architecture as invested with political implications, it is only because we take for granted both the nature of the institution and its conventional form.
‘Architecture is neither pure technology nor pure art, it is a dialogue with the place and the people.’
The first of three projects to be examined on subsequent pages, a technical college by Lucien Kroll, is a brave attempt to de-institutionalise a school by opening it up and connecting it with the neighbourhood, separating out the various departments and redistributing them along a series of public spaces. This was not achieved without strong political support and much argument with administrators, and as with earlier Kroll projects it has already proved controversial. Although the school itself is largely occupied and approaching completion (and is apparently much liked by stall and pupils incidentally), there is some doubt about the future of the housing intended to surround and enliven it. Kroll has already been dismissed as architect: his ideas were warmly received at first, but the reality proved too progressive. He finds himself constantly on the frontier, constantly probing architecture’s political dimension, and this is perhaps the primary significance of his work.
Residential buildings at the University of Louvain, Brussels, early ’70s, the participative project with which Kroll made his reputation.
Lucien Kroll operates as a normal architect, producing drawings from which professional contractors can work, so with him participation is necessarily limited to design. Peter Sulzer and Peter Hiibner in Stuttgart have been experimenting with participative construction, and this changes the whole nature of the building process: finance, timing, technology, responsibility, relations with bureaucracy, and much else. The starting point was a live teaching project within Stuttgart University, inspired by the example of Walter Segal. It consisted of a sell-build student hostel, where each of the 30 rooms is different, producing an exterior which is an anarchic cacophony of incoherent forms.
Despite its experimental nature and the poor design of some elements, (the work, after all, of first-year students), it remains an inspiring place much loved by its inhabitants, with richly varied interiors which are a pleasure to visit. Little gardens have sprung up around it and here and there alterations have been made. One rather dark room was given a new clerestory by its occupant, a girl studying not architecture but chemistry! Self-build is infectious. In its everyday life the lack of aesthetic consistency of this building seems not to matter, indeed the happy escape from the cold institutional forms and repetitive rooms of orthodox hostels outweighs all such considerations.
Self build student hostel at Stuttgart University, 1972-73, 30 different rooms in 30 styles designed and built by architectural students under the control of Peter Sulzer and Peter Hubner. The clerestory mid-left in 7 was recently added by a female chemistry student.
Peter Hubner went on to produce a couple of self-build youth clubs in the Stuttgart area which are similarly anarchic and have served as catalysts for a vigorous series of accretions: wild constructions, murals, reliefs, mosaics, sculptures-a new and vital form of folk-art. Architects may grumble that this is not really architecture, and in rather bad taste, but they are only retreating behind an implicit concept of professionalism which has always been deeply paternalistic, and which depends on preserving an arcane monopoly on ‘good taste’ for its survival. They are right to feel threatened; we may be able to dismiss these untidy youth clubs when we see them illustrated and to criticise obvious shortcomings in design, but all this pales into insignificance on a visit when one sees how far the club members have been able to take possession of their world. Even the best conventional architecture is imposed from without and cannot allow this to quite the same extent.
‘Participation in building can release hidden talents and open a dialogue between people and their environment’
Participation in building can release hidden talents and open a dialogue between people and their environment which is all too rare today, increasing both their perception and their control, so enriching their lives. An architect is still needed to conduct the process, and it may involve him in more work than a conventional design; certainly Hubner’s energy seems boundless. Having made the effort it is not really his building at the end, so what does he get out of it? Largely the fulfilment of playing a key role in a community enterprise and watching it grow. Such a relationship may prove more worthwhile than the egocentric pleasure of total possession, and might save one the painful discovery that one’s personal vision is out of step with the world, that-as Le Corbusier said on seeing the transformation of Pessac-‘life is right and the architect wrong’.
Cafe at youth club in Herrenberg, designed and built by youth club members under the guidance of Peter Hubner, who set the whole operation in motion with a closely controlled central structure (see AR June 1985 p81) but has since kept his interventions to a minimum.
The latest project by Peter Hubner is an anthroposophical school, and for this design he was obliged to come to terms with their special requirements and beliefs which he gladly did, seeing this as another kind of social context to be explored and expressed. Although the concrete core was built by a contractor, the whole roof and outer skin were done on a sell-build basis, mainly using second-hand components which played a strong role in determining the form. Unlike the youth clubs, it was designed almost entirely in drawings, though there have been slight variations in execution.
Internal and external developments at youth club in Stuttgart Wangen. The wall paintings, pond and dragon/pizza oven were designed and built by youth club members. Architect Hubner welcomes these free additions which his building was intended to catalyse.
Peter Sulzer’s latest project is at once the most modest looking and most socially radical of all tour. Essentially a performance and rehearsal hall for the Landau Protestant Youth Choir, it takes the form of a centralized building with social rooms surrounding the auditorium and dwellings at the back. This has been constructed almost entirely by the 80 or so choir members to a design controlled by Sulzer but involving close collaboration with the group, in a dialogue which persisted throughout the building process.
‘Architecture is neither pure technology nor pure art, it is a dialogue with the place and the people’
Despite predominantly amateur labour, the quality of workmanship is exemplary, and as with Segal’s Lewisham sell-build, the atmosphere on site is cordial with a sense of infectious enthusiasm. Not only has the choir created a remarkably cheap building for itself, but they have grown together as a community in the process, and the building stands as a vivid reminder of the strength of their communal effort. For Peter Sulzer it has meant a new kind of fulfilment. He contrasts this ruefully with his work of 20 years ago for a large contractor on system buildings where he never spoke to a user from one year to the next. Architecture is neither pure technology nor pure art, it is a dialogue with the place and the people.
Kroll’s open school
Technical college in Beljort: view from tower block marked A on master-plan below. The foreground splayed building is the first side of the intended square destined to link college and housing, and the presently one-sided street (left) leads to the incomplete main square beyond. It was necessary to start this mixed project by building the school elements at its core, but the whole concept will remain still· born i/the intended housing in/ill is not added.
Paysage is a crucial word in Lucien Kroll’s vocabulary, meaning more than just ‘landscape’, for it has implied connections with pays-home-country, and paysan-peasant/ inhabitant. So when Kroll talks about constructing a paysage, he does not mean landscaping-prettifying residual areas with a few trees and shrubs-rather he means building as part of a spatial and social continuum. This he contrasts with building as an autonomous and even autistic act. In his book The Architecture of Complexity he distinguishes further between three different attitudes to planning, which he calls centralist, objectivist and permeable.
Typical of the centralist attitude is Neo Classical planning which expresses the imposition of a single power, conquering its surroundings, and obliterating or dominating all that was there before. The objectivist attitude is a ‘parking mentality’ which merely imposes its objects in blind obedience to technical criteria, indifferent to the context. In contrast to both of these, Kroll proposes permeability: ‘When a designer sees his work as part of a continuous context with which it should interact; when he takes into account what went before and what might follow; and when his artistic and technical arsenal serves only to help bring about this product of immediate circumstances, it results more in a “subject” than an “object” in an organic architecture. ’
Master plan. Square B mediates between housing scheme and college. Main college buildings congregate around central square C, with glazed roof around its north side. Pedestrian streets D, E, F, G, link to surroundings and contain entrances to departments. The numerous small buildings completing the spatial network are private houses, only five or so being for college staff.
For years Kroll has been preaching this gospel, and he has made several serious proposals for reclaiming the arid architecture of the ‘60s (objectivist) by a process of conversion and infill. Known for such views he was invited to take part in a conference at Belfort by Christian Proust, a local socialist politician.
The theme of his paper was the question how a school should relate to its town, and Proust was impressed enough by Kroll’s concept of the ’open school’ to give him the commission for a technical college.
Projected in fill to enliven 60s’ housing and link it with the college.
First floor and ground plans of complex showing distribution of entrances along public realm. A, B, at opposite corners of the main square are pupils foyer or social centre and administrative offices respectively. C is light-engineering, D heavy engineering, E medical centre, F electronics, G general studies, H restaurant with kitchens, I dressmaking and fashion, J library, K information and registration, L gymnasium (by other architects).
An earlier college, the Cite Technique, was cold, grey and institutional, self-contained and homogeneous. Its designers had been particularly concerned with servicing, producing spaces adapted primarily to the unloading of articulated lorries.
Unloved by staff, students and politicians alike, this negative example paved the way for Kroll’s ideas in the opposite direction; colour, variety, continuity with the context, people rather than machines as focus, a mixed urban fabric rather than an object, a development finding its roots in the place and continuing to grow there: an enracinement.
Views of general studies department along the northward street, showing differentiated treatment of gable ends through cladding and fenestration.
The site lies on the edge of the town, with a secondary school and sportsfields to the north, a ’60s social housing development with tower blocks to the east, and open ground to south and west leading to a canal. Kroll sought first to relate his school to the housing, proposing to build in and around the tower blocks, giving them the continuity with context which is so painfully lacking.
Between housing and school he proposed creating a public square, obliquely placed to reconcile the geometry of the new development with that of the tower blocks. The west side of this square is occupied by the recreation department of the school, the south intended for private houses, while the other two sides could be social buildings connected with the housing infill. Thus the square is both entrance to the school and its connection with the housing.
South corner of the main square, with light engineering department and entrance to administration. Red steel cladding and round windows contrast with the shingled corner, right, entrance of the heavy engineering department.
From this transitional square on the edge of the site a pedestrian street runs southeastwards to the main square which forms the heart of the complex, for Kroll has composed his school like a village, all its departments separated, each in its own building with an independent entrance. Around the main square are the principal entrances to departments; engineering (west), general courses (north-west), dressmaking (east), and administration (south). At the dominant north corner is the pupils’ bar and common-room with disco beneath, emphasising that they are the real centre of the school, and from here stretch out two arms of glazed roof allowing a protected open-air connection to most departments, bridging across the two main streets where they meet the square.
The street between the two squares is animated on its north side by canteen and library, on the south by the intended dwellings. The master plan envisages groups of private houses to west, south and east, only a handful of which are staff houses connected with the school. This would make it a mixed development focusing on the central square, which is truly a public place devoid of territorial restrictions. Kroll got around the servicing requirements by suggesting the use of a fork-lift for unloading which could operate throughout the pedestrian zone.
First-floor laboratory in the general studies department. Kroll tends to exploit roof forms and structures internally, as well as celebrating gables with various window arrangements.
Following his philosophy of maximum differentiation, Kroll sought every excuse to express the particularity of one department as against another, but this takes place within an implicit discipline. For his is an architecture which accepts the technical conventions of modern construction, then exploits every opportunity for variety, first by running through the whole catalogue of available techniques (‘I use all possible materials’), then by indulging in all sorts of additions and erosions to make special places.
As usual with Kroll the layouts are largely orthogonal and based on a 30 cm grid for cheap and easy construction. Dull-looking and even awkward in plan, internal spaces are enlivened by manipulations of the section, local incident, and all kinds of windows and rooflights. The many entrances have been given close attention, celebrated in all kinds of ways, sometimes whimsical but at least memorable.
Even landings show Kroll’s love of complexity and clash of differing functional requirements.
Following Kroll’s belief that a mixed and layered construction is easier to achieve than a pure and simple one, the exteriors of the buildings are almost entirely covered with some kind of cladding or other, changed at will for any functional or expressive reason. Materials and colours are chosen as appropriate for particular territories. Thus heavy engineering has factory like sheds with steel structure and cool colours, while electronics laboratories and drawing studios of similar size have laminated timber structure and warmer colours.
Administration is more house like and red, the library a reposeful green, while the pupils’ foyer- their bar and meeting place at the corner of the square-is built in concrete with elaborately curved beams and topped with a precious copper roof.
Foyer of the heavy engineering department becomes one of the many elements ex pressed on the outside to make maximum use of incident.
Whether such things are readable in an intellectual sense is doubtful, but they are certainly felt as part of the atmosphere of the place. For Kroll, the variety is more important than the specificity, even variety per se, for he has long held that uniformity is repressive, while variety encourages participation.
To paint one’s door a different colour in a line of identical houses requires an act of courage, he claims; but if the doors are already different it is easy. Differentiation, variety, even disorder produce a context which allows growth and change without offending an initial consistency.
Maximum diversity is achieved by varying colour, cladding, roof pitch, fenestration.
There is an artificiality about Kroll’s approach which he would not seek to deny. The intention of rooting a new development in its social and physical paysage does not automatically result in its achievement, and much depends on whether it is absorbed by the place and community as intended. There was certainly more participation in the design process than is usual with such buildings, for the project was developed in discussion with the local administration, teachers, and the community association of the social housing, always with powerful backing from politician Proust.
The idea of an open school and mixed development was readily accepted except by the educational administrators, who considered it ‘very dangerous’, though it is to their credit that they accepted it even so.
Glazed foyer space in the heavy engineering department, to be completed with benches and planting. Kroll relieves the progression of more orthodox (and cheap) workshop sheds with special recreational spaces of this kind.
In execution there were difficulties and compromises, for Kroll was obliged to accept the kind of contract which left working drawings and supervision to others. Detailing is uneven, and though ingenious in places, lacks the kind of concentrated attention which distinguished Kroll’s Metro station in Brussels (AR October 1981).
Here and there errors have crept in: the colour scheme particularly has suffered, for Simone Kroll devised a family of colours both varied and connected by common themes, and some colours have been transferred, others changed quite wilfully, destroying the integrity of the system. These imperfections should not really matter if Kroll is right in his major intentions, and in his belief in the value of inconsistency.
Heavy engineering department: an industrial shed for lathes and milling machines enlivened by toplight from the wavy roof.
In operation the school seems popular. The staff particularly find it a great improvement on the Cite Technique where they worked before. Yet in Kroll’s view the most essential participation is yet to come: we will see it over the next 20 years through the interventions which the buildings are intended to catalyse. For in the end Kroll’s architecture must succeed or fail by the extent to which it generates a living continuum rather than remaining still-born.
Pupils’ canteen. The false ceiling, timber cladding and tiled floor make it more domestic in character, while the windows demonstrate in no uncertain terms that this architecture is framed and clad.
Perhaps the most significant legacy of Rudolf Steiner, founder of anthroposophy, is the international educational movement which began with the Waldorf schools in Germany. Steiner schools promote a type of education which contrasts with orthodoxy in many ways. Their primary concern is to help children come to terms with the world and find their place in it rather than to fill them with facts or push them through the examination system. They attempt to educate the body with the mind, hence the emphasis on drama, recitation and eurhythmy, on handicrafts as well as intellectual learning. They stress interconnections between subjects and try to avoid both the fragmentation which occurs with excessive specialization and the fatal divide between arts and sciences. They do not encourage competition; rather they try to help each child towards self-fulfilment according to his or her talents and inclinations.
Morgenstern school, view of main entrance.
From the beginning Steiner was concerned with the problems of backward and handicapped children, and this has remained an area in which the anthroposophical approach is particularly successful. The Morgenstern school in Reutlingen, founded 10 years ago and named after the famous German poet and anthroposophist Christian Morgenstern, carries on this tradition. Its 60 or so pupils are a mixture of handicapped and problem children.
The school aims not so much to increase their stock of information as to create a new relationship between thinking, feeling and doing, to regenerate self-respect and confidence eroded through years of being treated as failures. Remarkably after only a year, half the pupils who failed their exams are typically able to retake them successfully, and most of those lacking the ability to do this are at least set on a new course in life. For the most handicapped this can make the difference between rejoining normal life and being permanently institutionalised.
Back view: variations in the treatment of the flanking roofs anchor the building to its site.
In its first years, the school used a variety of rented rooms, not without difficulty. In early ‘85, the headmistress Frau Huttel approached Peter Hubner knowing his previous work on self-build projects. There was no adequate funding, no site, very limited time; and as Hubner well knew how taxing such work against the odds can be, he was reluctant to get involved. Frau Huttel was persistent, however, and persuaded him to visit the school in operation. Much impressed by the teachers’ commitment and convinced of the virtue of their cause, he agreed to become their architect. Soon a site in the suburb of Rommelsbach was found which had been earmarked for a parish centre but turned down by the church because it was right next to the main road and too isolated. Meanwhile Hubner heard that the Porsche factory wanted to get rid of two large prefabricated huts which they were prepared to give away provided that the recipient removed them : here was a source of cheap material, though disassembly and storage proved more difficult than anticipated. The school managed to borrow money against fees, teachers took out mortgages, and donations were sought; even so finance has been perilously tight. Of all educational philosophies, that of Rudolf Steiner is perhaps the most bound to architecture because of its wide-ranging intentions, its sensitivity to the relation between man and his surroundings, and its belief in the external expression of internal spiritual forces. Steiner gave a strong lead with his buildings for the Goetheanum at Dorrlach in Switzerland, still the headquarters of anthroposophy. These, he wrote about in the following terms:
’Anthroposophy … cannot endure the discrepancy of adopting just any architectural style. It is more than mere theory; it is life. And so spiritual science must furnish not only the kernel, but also the shell, carried out to the last detail. It must be created out of the same inner laws that generate the words spoken, the Mystery Drama produced or the art of eurhythmy performed here. Everything … must ring through the auditorium or assume visible shape in such a way that the very walls give their assent, the paintings in the dome add their approval, as a matter of course; that the eyes take it in as something in which they directly participate. Every column should speak in the same way that the mouth speaks when it gives voice to anthroposophically orientated spiritual science! And precisely because it is at one and the same time science, art and religion, an anthroposophically oriented spiritual science must develop its own conception of architecture, quite distinct from all other architectural styles.’
Site plan. Marooned between roads on two sides, and constrained by building lines, a free-standing compact building was inevitable. It covers most of the permitted site area.
Despite these inspiring intentions, anthroposophical architecture remains veiled in a cloak of mystic promise which makes it remarkably resistant to critical analysis. There is evident concern with functional expression, load and support, resonance with the landscape, metamorphosis, empathic protectiveness, and a good deal of geometric and anthropomorphic symbolism.
All this scarcely adds up to a coherent design approach however, and in the hands of many followers seems to have degenerated into a style of hooded roofs and slanted windows,4 rather than evolving towards the maturity which Steiner intended. After all, the second Goetheanum differed radically from the first.
First and ground floor plan.
The decision not to use an anthroposophical architect for the Morgenstern school may have been precipitated by the stringent circumstances for which Hubner was specially equipped; but it has resulted in a building which is a lively hybrid, reflecting influences both from inside and outside the movement.
Frau Huttel, the headmistress, happens to be an architect by training as well as a committed anthroposophist, so she proved a highly articulate client, able to steer the design in the right direction. On his side, Hubner had little experience of the movement and had never built for it before, but was prepared to pursue the task in a spirit of discovery.
Staircase next to main entrance.
In anthroposophical schools drama and eurhythmy take a high priority, requiring a theatre with defined stage area, and this soon became an obvious focus. If classrooms, offices and other elements surrounded it in a ring, it could also be the market-place, obviating the need for corridors. In addition, because of the nature of the site, caught between roads and restricted by building lines, a compact isolated building was inevitable, fitting within a quadrant-shaped area; the extent of the required accommodation further dictated the need for three floors.
Classrooms were required not to be rectangular, but if possible pentagonal. This was due partly to the symbolism of the pentagon which figures strongly in anthroposophy, partly to the wish for rooms which are freer, more embracing, less linear.
Exterior showing classroom windows and roof edge. The angled trusses produce the trough running towards a triangular clerestory, and the main roof beyond is almost flat. The complex geometry relieves the repetitive effect of the numerous identical second-hand windows.
A conflict soon developed ’between such requirements and the material from the relentlessly dull Porsche sheds; around 120 12 · 5 m trusses, 80 or so facade panels each with an identical single-light window, and numerous rectangular floor and wall panels, all of wood. Devised for a large-scale grid and single-span length, it promised to be a particularly unresponsive system; and Hubner, having begun his architectural career designing prefabricated elements, had no illusions.
Dining room. All perimeter rooms are irregular in keeping with the anthroposophists’ desire to avoid rectangles, and a sense of the radial nature of the whole is felt throughout.
Inspiration came through exploring new ways of combining the trusses to create a larger span for the central hall. Working with three-dimensional models, it proved possible to incline trusses and join them back-to-back in pairs, thus creating a folded structure of star-like form and considerable strength. This gave rise to a polygonal figure with 20 sides, reducible to 10 and further to five, the favoured pentagon. Thus a radial discipline was discovered which made sense of the components without compromising the programme.
There remained only the problem that the figure was too centralised, lacking the required longitudinal axis which should bind entrance and stage in a corporeal symmetry. Fortunately this could be achieved in internal planning by adjusting partition walls to shape the central hall, adding a strong proscenium, and creating perimeter rooms of varied shape according to use. The ring of trusses left a central rooflight which the anthroposophists were reluctant to accept, for they felt it to be like a hole in the skull ; they were happier with the clerestory lights which encircle the hall taking advantage of the folds of the roof, accepting these as being eye-like.
The exterior could have been rather forbidding as a simple drum, but it proved possible to change the geometry of the perimeter between floors without breaking away from the panel module, reducing the apparent repetitiveness of windows and scaling down the building. Each storey appears to grow out of the lower one in sympathy with Steiner’s concept of metamorphosis, and, at the bottom, a series of irregularities mitigate the purity of its geometric system, bringing it down to earth.
The basement is largely workshops, and the whole building stands on a reinforced concrete raft. Its compactness and polygonal form reduce surface area to a minimum, and with good insulation this allows a high energy efficiency, with heating costs only about double those of a private house.
Roof before cladding. Each pair of trusses is carried on a series of metal struts onto the concrete structure.
‘Total possession by the architect is not only unnecessary but undesirable. Society has suffered long enough from finished architecture’
Because of the limited time available, the tasks of building base, floors and internal concrete structure were carried out by contractors. All plumbing, electrical work and felt roofing were also carried out by specialist firms, and so was external painting, which must be done with skill to be quick and effective. The extensive carpentry, internal blockwork, plasterboard ceilings and most other tasks were undertaken by a group of unemployed on a work-creation programme, controlled by a building master who is a teacher in the school. Decisions about interior details and colours were left to Frau Huttel and her staff. Hubner says that the more he works on such projects, the more inclined he feels to hand over control early, when the building is only 80 or 90 per cent complete, so that it can begin to take on a personality of its own. Total possession by the architect is not only unnecessary but undesirable. Society has suffered long enough from finished architecture, he says: buildings must be allowed to grow and change, reflecting the changing life within them, and the sooner this process starts, the better.
Protestant youth choir building, Landau, view of south-side with dwelling. The raised central roof covers the hall, and the step which looks as though it should be a clerestory was necessitated by the acoustic volume required.
It is not unusual in Germany for clubs and associations to build themselves small clubhouses, but for laymen alone to build a substantial auditorium involving a complex range of building technologies, and to build it quickly and cheaply surmounting all bureaucratic obstacles is highly exceptional. Obviously someone with a professional knowledge of building techniques and bureaucratic procedures was needed to oversee the process, and also to co-ordinate the design.
Indeed the role of the architect in this case was considerably more demanding than usual, because so many normal decision-making procedures were overturned or reinterpreted. Without doubt the design is primarily Sulzer’s, but he had to work so closely with his client-builders that they entered into the decision-making process at every level, biasing it in ways with which he did not always agree. Thus it ended up a consensus building.
Site plan. The building replaced a disused railway station.
The Landau Protestant Youth Choir (Dekanatsjugendchor) is an independent association with charitable status and a membership of about 80. Although choral performances are the focus of its activities, it is also involved in charitable works and loosely connected with the ecology and peace movements. Members share a strong religious and political stance, and for many, social life revolves around the association. Most members have a middle-class background, including clergy, academics and professionals of all kinds. The choir grew out of the local student association of the teachers’ college in Landau, at first under the wing of the Protestant church, using church buildings for performance and practice.
It became independent after disagreements over its peace movement activities, and so needed a building of its own for performances, practices and meetings. Ever confident of being able to raise the finance, and counting amongst its membership a considerable range of skills, it decided to build. Peter Sulzer was appointed as architect on the strength of his work for the peace movement- a projected social centre opposite the gates of the American base at Mutlangen which is still held up in planning wrangles. Since the final cost of the building and the extent of his responsibility were uncertain he proposed working at an hourly rate.
Section. The central hall, lit by a single toplight, is surrounded by ancillary parts.
A disused railway station came onto the market which offered a sufficiently large site close enough to the centre which could accommodate the statutory parking provision, so the choir bought it. There was some pressure to preserve the old station, but it had been badly built, was in poor condition, and unsuitable in its accommodation. The choir dismantled it and reused nearly all the materials, even nails.
Ground-floor and basement plans.
Sulzer began work on the design with a small group, meeting them frequently to discuss sketches of possible arrangements and to refine a brief that was at first vague. Use of natural materials and low energy consumption were ideologically presumed from the start, and as one choir member was the son of a local saw-mill owner, there was good reason to use timber wherever possible . The primary space required was a hall with good acoustics for choir practice twice a week.
For public performances it should be possible to accommodate an audience of 200, and the space might also serve other events, such as theatre, lectures, film shows, dances, and perhaps the annual Umweltfest. There should be provision for food and drink, offices for the association, workshops, darkroom, music room, children’s room and necessary services. The addition of a couple of dwellings for members which take up one side of the finished building was not part of the original brief, but helped the overall funding by attracting a social housing grant.
South side of the building, with balcony to the dwelling.
In the early stages a number of arrangements were considered with groups of separate buildings, courtyards, and various uses of the site. These articulated layouts lent themselves to building ii-t several stages, which might have been wiser with an uncertain budget, and easier to organize. The choir preferred a concentric arrangement built in one go, however, with the performance space taking pride of place, surrounded by ancillaries. This has a number of advantages: the external surface is minimized and the side wings protect and insulate the hall, so that the heavy inner walls remain warm, act as a thermal store, and it needs only 7 kW heating. Furthermore, the wings reduce the apparent bulk of the hall when seen from outside, for it had to be high to establish the necessary reverberation time.
This reduces the scale of the building, allowing it to fit in better with the neighbouring houses. Third, by building compactly in the corner of the site, the remaining ground becomes a garden continuous with the small piece of parkland adjacent. It is possible to look out onto this garden from the auditorium on three sides. Finally, the side spaces can be connected with the main space in different ways to allow considerable flexibility of use, for the action can be orientated along either of the hall’s principal axes. Discussions began in the spring of ’84, and by late summer the choir opted for the octagonal strategy, building a l / 20th scale model to communicate to the membership and to the town. By the beginning of ’86 the roof was on, and at the end of the year the building was practically complete. Costs at this stage were estimated at around DM400 000 (£130 000); about half the normal contractual price for a building of this size.
The central hall, with choir sitting on the stage. The corner panels (unfinished) are of lightweight in/ill, as they were left open during construction to allow access, and also for the promise of future flexibility.
The choir members organized the building process themselves, subdividing the work according to their reserve of talent, and even taking over much of the bureaucratic negotiation. Members included a master electrician and a master metalworker, as well as a banker who handled the finance, and the son of a local contractor who obtained tools and equipment. Even so, they had no bricklayers and only amateur carpenters.
They proved highly adept at obtaining materials, persuading companies to give them special rates, obtaining reject glass panels made to wrong sizes, finding second-hand materials and exceptional offers. Typically, the sawmill owner had a glut of cheap larch due to a storm, and after a quick check of its properties the specification was switched to accommodate it; a normal contract cannot allow such opportunism.
Work on the roof. Almost all building tasks were carried out by choir members.
Knowing from the start that he was dealing with amateurs, and being, as a professor of construction, acutely conscious of building methodology, Sulzer attempted to arrange the sequence of work as a learning process. The first concrete work in the foundations could also be the roughest, followed by floor slabs which are more precise, culminating in the casting of the exposed frame where the greatest skill was needed. Similarly the small side roofs could be built first, developing the skills needed for the more demanding central roof. In most respects the skill of choir members exceeded Sulzer’s expectations.
Having hired a carpenter to help them with their first roof, for example, they were dissatisfied with the imprecise fit of his angled joints. A biologist member then calculated the angles precisely on a computer, and thereafter the amateur joints surpassed the professional. For brick facework in the hall a bricklayer was brought in, but members undertook the labouring and pointing. They also carried out all concreting, roofing, plumbing and electrical work.
Architect Peter Sulzer (holding pen) in discussion with his builder clients.
Although a hard core of 15 or so were the real activists and organisers, the entire membership worked on the building, which could mean as many as 50 people on site on Saturdays, the women as active as the men. Some unemployed members worked full-time, and so did students in their vacations. It was decided early on to mix all concrete on site; this was cheaper, but also allowed mastery over the timing of the work rather than having to fit in with ready-mix deliveries. With plenty of cheap and willing labour intermediate technology was often preferred to high.
After general excavation by machine for the basement, for example, foundations were completed by hand for precision. During the whole construction period only eight hours’ crane time were needed to erect the main beams of the central part of the roof.
Building together reinforces a sense of community as well as giving it physical form.
The architecture reflects the process more than is immediately apparent. The plan is based on a 250 mm grid for ease of co-ordination, and the roof pitch is one-in-three to allow easy cutting of bricks. The rigid geometries and double symmetries allow a task once learned to be repeated at opposite hand, and then twice more on the opposite axis. The building does not seem too hide-bound by these disciplines, however, because of the asymmetric variations, like the all-important basement stair next to the entrance, and the contrasting treatment of the spaces to either side of the hall.
The external and upper parts follow the relatively easier lightweight timber technology, but for the central hall and basement fire regulations necessitated concrete. A considerable degree of flexibility was demanded both in the design process-reflecting the group’s changing perception of needs and in construction to respond to changing market opportunities.
Bricklaying in progress. Choir members did all the labouring and pointing.
Since the client both obtained materials and put them together, the architect had no chance to keep the usual dominance over the specification, or to enforce his preferences with the usual pseudo-economic arguments. Sulzer originally envisaged an economical felt roof in keeping with the pragmatic nature of the project, for example, but the choir was set on having tiles; and whereas the facework in the hall was originally to have been large blocks, they chose the smaller terracotta bricks.
These changes Sulzer accepted with equanimity, but he found himself constantly struggling also against the widespread assumption that every surface should be clad, usually with a finish which is determined purely on its own local merits and denies the nature of the whole . This kind of wallpapering mentality he recognised as part of contemporary popular culture, visible also in the homes of some members, but it reflected not so much informed choice as blind presumption. Faced directly with real problems of building, these prejudices tended to weaken, the arguments for expressed construction becoming self-evident.
Preparing reinforcement. On this liberated site labour was not divided according to sex.
Perhaps the most difficult gap between the architect’s taste and that of his clients arose over the question of the display collection of floor and wall tiles donated by a builders’ merchant. With their sentimental images, mechanical patterns and vulgar colours, Sulzer thought these unusable, and suggested smashing them to create a Gaudiesque mosaic; but members liked them and were horrified at this idea, so the tiles have been used in lavatories in the conventional way.
With limited numbers of each type, however, some unusual and lively combinations arose which give this story a happy end. It was necessary to describe the social process behind this project in order to reveal the true nature of its architecture, for such projects lose much of their meaning if not understood on their own terms. It is a friendly building, gentle in its relationship with its surroundings, nicely scaled, with a strikingly simple central hall elegantly top-lit and with good acoustics. There are no concessions to architectural photography, and no self-conscious formal games, yet it has a strong presence, seeming to epitomise the immense self-confidence of the choir.
Carpentry work in progress. The outer roofs were built first, as practice for the most difficult central one.